After a humiliating European exit at the hands of Luxembourg minnows Progres Neiderkorn, Rangers looked like a team devoid of identity and creative freedom.
The high turnover of players and the tight time window in which to import Mexican and Portuguese players meant that Pedro Caixinha was forced to use last season’s toothless forwards, leaving Niko Kranjcar to play the role of orchestrator with an absent choir.
Just a month later though, and with momentum appearing to build after three impressive pre-season performances, Pedro Caixinha’s team look to have settled on a system which plays to the strengths of his new recruits. One that would ironically have suited playing in Europe.
The burgeoning partnerships of Fabio Cardoso and Bruno Alves at centre-half, Ryan Jack and Graham Dorrans in the engine room, and James Tavernier and Daniel Candeias on the right flank have provided Rangers fans with optimism that the Portuguese manager’s recruitment will forge an efficient team.
There is the basis of a spine building, but the one player who hasn’t received much of the praise is Eduardo Herrera, which is the area of the park Rangers have been most starved of quality in.
The nature of the games versus Marseille and Sheffield Wednesday mean that it is difficult to extrapolate exactly how Caixinha plans to use him in terms of breaking deep-lying defences down, as both teams averaged more possession than the majority of Scottish Premiership sides will.
He has been isolated at times during the two games, however, in the spells of comfortable possession Rangers did have, it is clear that Herrera has been brought in to fulfil a specific role markedly different to seen previously.
Playing style & strengths
At 6’3” he is not going to run away from defences, but that is not what Caixinha wants from him. Herrera hasn’t been brought as a lethal goal scorer either – I’d be surprised if he surpassed ten league goals for the season – which may sound strange considering he cost just over £1m, but it is his presence as a focal point in attack which Caixinha believes will induce the best qualities from his supporting cast.
Caixinha told Rangers TV: “He’s the type of player that can be a target player. He’s very good with headers, retaining the ball and playing with the second wave of arrival from the midfielders.”
Alfredo Morelos is a goal threat, but looks sluggish, which leaves Eduardo Herrera as the most likely to lead the line. His primary strength is his ability to hold up the ball and bring others into play.
He will be the focal point that Joe Garner was unable to be. The Ipswich forward’s unbelievable leap gave him one outstanding attribute, but it made him so one-dimensional that his rash finishing and absence of imagination when linking up made Rangers predictable. When the only option is to cross, it is unlikely to be successful – only 1 in every 92 crosses are scored on average – when he is the only person is the box most of the time.
In his barren spell at Veracruz last year he was the lone striker in a team which played on the counter attack, but his form at Pumas which saw him win his nine Mexico caps was a result of quality crosses, numbers supporting him in the box and midfielders making penetrative runs beyond him.
The silver bullet usually offered to teams struggling to break down deep-lying defences is that they need to switch the ball from one flank to the other at a quicker pace in order to destabilise the compact shape of the opposition. This, in theory, should open up spaces where teams can find a numerical advantage out wide to penetrate.
Rangers’ midfield has been too deliberate up until now, and have been almost dead against using the centre-forward as a bounce pass when holes appear like this.
It is something that Diego Costa mastered at Chelsea, with Hazard often zipping the ball into Costa’s feet at the edge of the box who has pinned himself against the defender with his back to goal. It is a movement that Herrera is fond of as he will pull away from the play until the wide man receives the ball, which is the trigger for him to make a blind-side movement from the furthest centre-half into the channel between the nearest centre-half and full-back.
Subtlety with his feet is not his game but he is intelligent in reading the sharp changes of direction of the nimbler players feeding off his hold-up play.
It is a different story when the ball is with a player he knows has a quality delivery. His desire to get into the box is clear, as he will neglect getting involved in the build-up play and make diagonal runs to isolate the deepest centre-half. His presence in the box led to Kenny Miller’s goal against Sheffield Wednesday.
Herrera is a willing runner who works the channel too. Caixinha has positioned him and Miller to block balls into the feet of opposition centre-halves. Luis Gustavo managed to navigate that trap occasionally for Marseille but Rangers may actually encourage teams to play from the back in Scotland in order to win the ball back in more dangerous areas.
If one thing is clear it is that he functions better with a partner as the proximity of someone near him allows him to lay-off first time.
Fitting into the system
After analysing Caixinha’s past tactical preferences at Santos Laguna, as well as assessing the skill sets of his recruits, it is evident that he has acquired players with niche strengths to compliment his overall gameplan rather than purchasing individual ability.
The Portuguese boss is a man who prefers to create a team greater than the sum of its parts, which after all makes sense, considering Rangers need to focus on beating the ten teams outside Celtic on a consistent basis before they can set their sights on challenging.
Rangers captain, Lee Wallace, attested to it this week when he admitted that Rangers “don’t yet have someone who can win matches on their own”.
Nine of the starting eleven are automatic picks when fully fit, leaving two places up for grabs: the left wing berth and the other striking position.
Caixinha has settled, rather by trial and error than design, on an asymmetrical version of the traditional 4-4-2 formation.
Jack and Dorrans provide a stable base defensively as both are intelligent readers of the game, while their natural inclination to play through the lines when possible marries well with Caixinha’s fondness of direct passing.
Dorrans has dropped deeper in the last couple of seasons from his time as an attacking midfielder at West Brom but his vision and ability to disguise when playing into the striker’s feet means he averages 10.74 passes into the final third, while Jack produces just over eight and a half on average.
Compare that to last season’s midfielders where Jason Holt averaged 5.04, Hyndman 5.78, Toral 6.34 and Halliday 7.82. The first-half against Sheffield Wednesday was an exhibition in dictating the midfield battle and spreading the play with one pass when last season it would have taken three.
Candeias provides the width on the right hand side of midfield, while the lack of natural left-footed players in the team has created a flexible role on the opposite flank. Kranjcar’s ability to switch play can be utilised in this position and reduces the burden his lack of mobility has on Rangers’ compact shape defensively, but it doesn’t help Wallace going forward as he relies on someone to maintain width in order to overlap, while his temperamental crossing is highlighted as the onus is on him.
Josh Windass, often made the scapegoat for Rangers’ woes – somewhat his own doing due to his perceived arrogant streak – looks to be the best fit currently. Barrie McKay, whilst a supremely talented player with the ball at his feet, doesn’t have the athleticism required from wide players at the top of the game.
Windass, on the other hand, is powerfully built and is more comfortable when receiving the ball in space, where he can see the whole picture as opposed to playing deeper and receiving it with his back to goal, which is why his early promise waned last season.
The mental side of the game is the aspect he needs to work on, something Caixinha highlighted last week. At Accrington he had confidence oozing out of his pores as he knew he was the talisman and a few cuts above the standard of League Two.
The early promise he showed most notably in the 5-1 defeat at Celtic Park when he drew praise from Brendan Rodgers faltered due to a succession of injuries and a strange attempt to transform him into a number eight.
If he rediscovers why it was Rangers signed him: his electric turn of pace over five yards, his ability to transition defence into attack within seconds and his knack of always being involved in key chances, he has all the tools to flourish in his more natural wide left position. The added structure of Caixinha’s shape may actually help him too as, with less instructions, he can play with more freedom coming inside from the flank.
If Windass does make that position his own it opens up the possibility of Jamie Walker operating as the second striker, should he sign from Hearts.
Kenny Miller currently occupies that role but unless he is playing as the most advanced forward, his preference to drop deep into midfield is too often a hindrance. Miller had the highest involvement in the build-up play of any striker in the league last term and, whilst he occasionally injected some much needed urgency into Rangers’ build-up play, his perpetually inconsistent first touch and lack of awareness gifted possession away far too cheaply too commonly.
That is not to say that his game intelligence isn’t an asset to Rangers, it certainly is, it’s just that Herrera needs someone with a different skill set to partner him if he is to show his potential.
The lack of pace would be a debilitating factor on the counter-attack, whereas Walker and Windass would be capable of interchanging.
Support in numbers
Rangers have sorely lacked goals from midfield. Caixinha looks like he is going to operate without a stereotypical number ten. Carlos Pena plays as the most advanced midfield in a three but he is someone who is more at home arriving late in the box than he is producing slide-rule passes in congested areas.
He’s not the typical silky South American technician. He looks to have lost some of his fitness over the last couple of years, which can make him look one-paced and clumsy, but if Caixinha and Craig Flannagan manage to get him in peak condition he could be a vital addition.
The difficulty is finding a place for him in this new system. He thrives on receiving the ball on the half-turn and driving into space, using his broad physique to shrug players off.
Playing as the second striker in a possession-heavy team would ask him to take more responsibility in carving out opportunities for Herrera, so it seems either a case of playing him when Rangers want more cover in central midfield by sacrificing a forward for him, or reverting to a diamond to accommodate their priciest signing.
Delivery from the wide areas is going to be key for Rangers if they are to induce the optimum performance level from Herrera. Tavernier may be prone to overcooking his crosses but he is also capable of whipping killer balls into the box. It is Candeias though who will be charged with producing the goods.
Caixinha prefers his wingers to be aggressive in 1v1 situations rather than dribbling inwards. Niall McGinn was by far the best crosser of the ball in the league up until his move to China. Candeias’ ambidexterity and desire to cross whenever possible is stylistically very similar, and offers Rangers that consistency. He averaged 6.13 crosses in the Turkish Premier League last season, while the closest regular for Rangers was McKay with 3.61.
The main Achilles heel for Rangers though is that they can go entire games playing in front of the opposition defence. There is often never third-man runs or centre-forwards looking to dart in behind. It is common consensus that teams in the Scottish Premiership sit extremely deep when playing Rangers, but often they played a pressing game that targeted Rangers’ holding midfielder as they knew Halliday and Toral’s weakness was receiving the ball with their back to goal.
There are going to be games against Celtic, Aberdeen, Hibs and Hearts where Rangers are going to need players running in behind the back four. Not only does it offer the chance to play through on goal, it asks questions of defenders and can have the psychological effect of making the team drop off by ten yards.
Holt was really the only player who threatened to make unselfish runs off the ball when deployed as the most advanced midfielder.
Jamie Walker and Steven Naismith are the two inside forwards linked with Rangers who could change that. They possess the direct running and goal threat that Caixinha is looking for in his inside forwards.
Walker has the potential to be an international player such is the dynamism and two-footed ability he possesses. His game is relatively complete for a young Scottish player. Walker does his best work in central areas, and is an eliminator when on the counter. He has the traits Caixinha is looking for, while he has the creativity and innate off-the-ball movement that could easily see him score ten or more from open play.
Walker manages to get 3.76 shots per 90 and Naismith averages 3.4 touches inside the opposition box, considerably than any other wide player or attacking midfielder last season.