The pictures I contemplate painting would constitute a halfway state, and an attempt to point out the direction of the future, without arriving there completely. – Jackson Pollack
There’s been much talk on the internet recently about Rangers identity; in the boardroom, in the stands, and increasingly, on the pitch. Some supporters aren’t happy with the team’s performances, line-ups, formations, quality of passing, the long ball…so far, so Rangers support. But in recent weeks I’ve seen more and more the claim that our time in the third division has so far been a missed opportunity for the club to develop its own footballing style, ethos, philosophy, with the strong implication that we don’t currently have one. Not the way Barcelona, Ajax or Swansea do. Conversely, I think we do. I just don’t think it’s one that would be widely accepted by the support.
I would like to assume an air of culture and claim that I’m a devoted acolyte of Jackson Pollock, but in reality, I cribbed the above quote from the liner notes of my favourite album. And as far as football goes, I’m as cultured as I am with the arts. I’m not much of a tactician, and I’ve never taken any coaching courses. My appreciation of matches technically tends to be non-existent. If a match demands my attention, I have a habit of not paying attention to the ebb and flow of the team’s tactics. However, I have read Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson, and I used to play Football Manager quite a bit, both of which make me an expert on football strategies and qualified to comment on Rangers’ play this season.
Let’s look at the much talked-about formation first. Many teeth have been ground and hairs bristled at the thought Rangers are fetching up against part-time opponents in the third division and only playing one striker. I would contend that isn’t strictly accurate. I think the truth is more complicated than that, with a hybrid formation being favoured by Ally McCoist’s team. While in a defensive mode, the side will probably adopt a 4-5-1; when going forward, it modulates into a 4-3-3 or even a 3-4-3. Only two players don’t moving position noticeably, the holding midfielder and the centre-forward. It’s true that McCoist has gone with one central striker, and that has tended to be one of McCulloch, Kevin Kyle or Fran Sandaza, and to my uneducated eye, the team’s main tactic has been to propel the ball to this point man, who will attempt to hold the ball up before bringing into play the wingers or a midfielder (chiefly Lewis MacLeod in recent matches). This is a somewhat asymmetrical arrangement, with David Templeton moving inside from left-wing, allowing Lee Wallace into the space left behind. On the right hand side, Andy Little ploughs a less elaborate furrow, but more on that later.
What’s more, I think there’s evidence to suggest this is a reasonably long-term club philosophy. Certain archetypes keep reoccurring in the players that have been signed or brought through the youth team in the last five years; the fast or tricky winger, who is comfortable cutting in from the left (Weiss, Templeton, McKay), the midfielder who is comfortable in possession and happy to make simple passes (Davis [arguably], Ness, Hutton, MacLeod, Black), and the strong striker that can play on his own, and yet link well with others (Cousin, Jelavic, Kyle, Sandaza). Many fans lament that McCoist tends to field Andy Little on the right-wing, as the Irishman has scored 13 goals in 15 league starts and ostensibly doesn’t have the skill to be a winger. That’s probably true. But like Steven Naismith before him, Little is expected to help out in defence, and make incisive runs in behind the opponents’ defence when the team has switched to attacking mode, in a similar vein to Dani Alves.
Overall, the game plan appears to involve allowing the opponent to enjoy position, with minimum levels of pressing, in the defensive mode, before launching counter attacks. This isn’t entirely without risk, and appears to put the support ill at ease. Overall, I think this is Rangers’ system, as simple or as over-complicated as it is. I could possibly be giving Ally McCoist and his coaching staff far too much credit, but that’s what they appear to be doing, to me at least. Will such a set up allow for ongoing development of the now crucial young players coming through the ranks? It seems unlikely that a two striker formation will come into footballing fashion at any time in the next three years, so to adopt such a style may be foolish. I don’t think think that players are being shoe-horned into positions either; instead the youth system and transfer policy appear to target players that can function in particular positions, in particular ways. A more fluid approach to formation may well prove to be a better proving ground for both our youngsters and the team.
That’s not to say that the strategy we appear to have adapted will please everyone. In fact, many people will say we don’t have a cohesive, far reaching strategy. There are also questions of aesthetics, of tempo, of what happens at training, at what the players eat, have the coaching staff done enough to adopt new methods of thinking, such as performance analysis? I can’t answer those questions, but I’m still not convinced that the player’s average day consists of laughing at Ally’s jokes before going home at noon for Nando’s/XBox/cocaine. I think there are flaws in the way the team has been set up, particularly the long ball element of the attacking phase (which I wrote about as an appealing tactic to coaches previously), and the passing isn’t snappy enough. To my mind, any player taking more than two or three touches in possession is exasperating.
I suspect if you asked many Rangers fans how they would like to see their team play, they would reference the goal in the video above, a goal scored by a team that cost tens of millions of pounds to assemble. However, the spending around the turn of the last century very nearly contributed to the ruin of the club. I agree that any future transfer policy should compliment the team structure, and the salary structure. But as for a footballing philosophy? I don’t think the question is ‘do we need one?’, I think the question should be ‘how effective is the one we have’?
Addendum. It’s difficult for Rangers managers to introduce radically new ideas; as famously noted, the club is only ever three defeats from a crisis, but is one misplaced pass away from grumbling. Despite claims to the contrary, winning trophies remains the prime objective of the majority of the support, in my opinion. I don’t deny that I’d like to see shorter, more direct passing, as I think the long ball is a misguided tactic, but in the manager’s defence I would observe that we have played some nice football at times this season, only to be let down by an indecisive final ball. I don’t know if that’s unavoidable given our current situation, and the callowness of our team.