In six games in which they have had a man sent off Rangers are yet to lose. Joel Sked looks at why that’s the case.
Steven Gerrard made quite the statement early in his Rangers managerial career.
“It seems like the world is against us today,” he said after the opening day 1-1 draw with Aberdeen. “But we’ll make sure we get better for that because it looks like some more decisions will go against us as the season goes on. We need to try and use it to our advantage. It’s not just today, I believe it’s been happening for seasons. That’s just my opinion.”
The team had just conceded late-on having played for nearly 80 minutes with ten men following Alfredo Morelos’ sending off, while they led from the half hour mark.
The “I believe it’s been happening for seasons” comment fed into a narrative built up by some among the Rangers support, while prompting incredulity among the rest of Scottish football.
However, the “we’ll make sure we get better for that because it looks like some more decisions will go against us as the season goes on” comment has turned out to be prescient. The Morelos sending off was the first of seven so far this campaign for the Ibrox side.
Some have been correct, some controversial, others have been nonsensical.
Yet, of the six games Rangers have played with a man (or two) disadvantage they are yet to lose - drawing three and winning three.
It is testament to the work done by Gerrard and his coaches, namely Gary McAllister, Tom Culshaw and Michael Beale. The latter has been a shrewd addition to the management team at Rangers. In an interview with the Daily Mail he was referred to as the “brains of the operation” at Ibrox and labelled himself as a “mad scientist”.
As recently as last year he wrote a blog post on how teams can play with ten men.
He said: “If you are very brave, you can keep two forwards upfield as the opponents will nearly always instruct a full back to cover or a midfielder to stay back and keep the 3v2 balance when attacking. So again the overload situation is a long way from your goal and danger.
“The placement of these two forwards is also interesting. If you place them in the spaces between each full back and central defender, you may find that the opponents full backs are blocked in and stay back – so two forwards can easily “pin” the opponents back four into place.
“Now, by forcing the play to stay with the opponents central defenders, you are nullifying the opponents danger and also controlling the space on the field and creating a “numbers up” situation behind the ball for your team.
“Therefore, understanding space, how to use it, and which opponents to prioritise are key areas to educate your players in.”
Against Aberdeen, without a recognised striker, they did just that. In the matches with Villarreal and Hearts, Morelos was still on the pitch so Glenn Middleton and Daniel Candeias respectively were moved to join the Colombian - the front duo worked these spaces excellently.
Many managers would simply drop a striker, keeping four in midfield. With Gerrard’s strategy Rangers cede the wings but have numbers in the centre of the pitch while maintaining a two-pronged attacking threat. It is brave but it has worked and he should be praised for taking such a stance.
In addition, the players have fully bought into the methods of the coaching team, something which has not fully been the case under previous managers.
Beale referenced the games against Aberdeen and FC Ufa being team building exercises. The players had to dig in, work and support each other, while keeping the ultimate concentration.
The celebrations at full-time at Tynecastle showcased the team’s drive, willingness and togetherness which has been developed.
Tactically the team are well-drilled and know what is expected of them positionally when they are reduced to ten men. But just as important, Gerrard and the coaching staff have made the squad mentally stronger to deal with setbacks and to dig in.
In previous seasons they have been a soft touch and would have folded when in certain situations. Think back to when Rangers were in the ascendancy against Celtic last season at Ibrox and Jozo Simunovic had been sent off. Brendan Rodgers reacted, Graeme Murty froze. That would unlikely happen with his coaching team.
Gerrard will hope that from now on the team will keep 11 men on the park but this ability to go a man down and not have to revert to backs-against-the-wall is a very useful qualify to possess within a team.