written by our newest contributor – Jordan Campbell (reposted with permission)
Building up to the opening game of the season against Hibs on Tuesday, many fans were predicting that Ally McCoist would revert back to his usual unimaginative 4-5-1 set-up, emulating the system previously employed under the stewardship of Walter Smith – somewhat more successfully may I add. Hibs represented the similar type of opposition which has previously incited the preference for a more defensive minded structure so when I was scanned the team news an hour before kick off I was pleasantly surprised to find that Kris Boyd & Kenny Miller were lining up together. “It must be 4-4-2,″ I announced to my granda.
I read it again. ‘McCulloch, McGregor, Zaliukas.’ Three centre halves? Surely not. He can’t possibly be so frightened by the array of attacking options that Hibs have at their disposal that he feels we need to have a back five to contain them? Against a side who couldn’t put a goal past East Fife just six days earlier? As I began to fear this was the case I scrambled for alternative explanations.
The first thought that came to mind was that Richard Foster must not have recovered from injury in time so Darren McGregor has had to shuffle over to the right full-back berth due to Sebastien Faure also being absent. Not ideal as it would mean another player being out of position. Then I realised Foster was present too so that couldn’t be the case.
Possibly worse than when McCulloch is charged with leading the defensive line, is the thought of Jig anchoring the midfield alongside Ian Black against a young side just relegated from the top flight. Allowing this hypothetical thought to enter my head for just a matter of seconds, panic consumed me. Could this be the worse shoe-horning of Lee McCulloch we have seen to date?
Well… no because after realising we had no natural wingers included in the starting line-up it became apparent that Ally had adopted the 5-3-2 (or 3-5-2 when going forward) set up – which has become a trend in the last few months – in order to accommodate up the ultimate utility man that is Jig.
I did however look at the positives of this somewhat shocking tactical ploy from Ally. Our most talented forward thinking player in Lewis MacLeod would be allowed to play centrally where he thrives; Lee Wallace would be allowed to rampage down the left channel with a bit more freedom than usual; while Boyd and Miller would reunite on the Ibrox turf in hope of recapturing their formidable partnership of 2008.
A bright start gave me some cause for optimism as the aforementioned MacLeod slotted home early to settle any nerves. Boyd & Miller’s movement and interchanging was causing the Hibs centre back pair problems along with their constant harassing which endeared them to the Ibrox faithful – if that was not already the case. Their passion and work ethic was a delight to see compared to the lethargic and sluggish Jon Daly of last season. This was a huge upgrade.
However, after fading out of the game midway throughout the first half it became clear that defensively we were no where near comfortable with the new system. Having only practiced the formation briefly against Ventura County and in a couple of closed doors friendlies against Fulham and Partick Thistle, the shape of the team was beginning to unravel. On numerous occasions a simple slide-rule pass cut open our back three as gaping holes in our defence appeared. The half time whistle came just in time as the mounting pressure was beginning to become unrepentant.
The World Cup saw an increase in the number of teams using the formation – most notably Costa Rica and Louis Van Gaal’s Dutch side. The difference is that these managers selected 3-5-2 to suit their players’ individual and collective strengths. When Roberto Mancini (at Manchester City at the time) tried to suddenly switch to a back three during the course of the 2012/2013 season, he received widespread criticism from both inside and outside his camp as it was felt they hadn’t prepared rigorously enough to cope with the change.
This is why I was excited at the prospect of our manager – who has a growing reputation for being rigid and conservative in terms of his outlook on football – appearing to have studied the football on show in Brazil over the summer and attempting to apply these lessons learned to our predominantly stale football of the last two years. I did still harbour some concerns though; the main query being how the personnel selected would adapt to the sudden implementation of a formation which is widely regarded as being extremely difficult to become accustomed to in a short space of time.
The lackluster second half showing only enforced my initial worries.
Seemingly leaving any ounce of aggression or passion in the changing room at the interval, Hibs continued to dominate, exploiting the deficiencies in our system. Due to the team looking so disjointed I felt it was easier to analyse each area of the team separately to highlight the flaws on show.
Centre half trio
For starters, how Lee McCulloch continues to remain an integral part of our starting eleven, never mind a mainstay at the heart of our defence is beyond me. It was clear to see last season that even against part time teams who saw little in the way of possession, he still looked shaky and vulnerable in a position which continues to look alien to him.
To play with three at the back it required the centre halves to be comfortable in possession and to possess the ability of bringing the ball out of defence (If only we could still call on Bougherra and Cuellar). As mentioned above, Van Gaal’s philosophy with the Netherlands squad has been transferred over to Manchester United. They have Smalling, Jones and Evans as their centre back trio. Not world class individuals but all players who have a decent range of passing and are relatively assured on the ball. On the other hand, on Tuesday, Rangers had the negative McGregor, the immobile McCulloch and the lumbering Lithuanian, Zaliukas.
McGregor, playing on the right hand side of the three often found himself with acres of space to drive into but seemed hesitant to do so. This hindered our ability to play out from the back as our pedestrian build up play allowed a Hibs to get men behind the ball and on countless occasions forced us to to retreat back to Cammy Bell, who it has to be said, leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to distribution. Defensively he looked nervous and notably less assured than what we saw of him in pre-season, often diving unnecessarily. He was put out of his misery when he was sacrificed for David Templeton who gave us an added attacking impetus.
Lee McCulloch may be captain and lead vocally on the pitch but that should be the limit to his leadership duties. He doesn’t possess the tactical knowledge or the initiative required to successfully dictate the defensive line in terms of when it’s the right time to push out, drop off or to just cover across. There were times when he got completely drawn to the ball and oblivious to his knowledge let a man run in behind him. If it was a higher calibre of team we were up against we could easily have been four or five goals down in the second half.
Van Gaal referenced how important it was that his defenders were prepared to defend in areas that typically centre halves aren’t comfortable doing so. This is in order to pinch the ball of the striker – known as defending on the front foot. McCulloch’s biggest problem on Tuesday was exactly this as he didn’t know when to follow their number 9 into the ‘hole’ behind the midfield or whether to pass his man on, sometimes culminating in the said player being spare in a dangerous area. That is what happens when the manager persists on playing a player who isn’t naturally a commanding centre back.
Zaliukas – a more reserved character than Bilel Mohsni who was banned for the tie – like McGregor, didn’t have the best of competitive debuts either. His distribution was poor throughout the night which wasn’t helped due to being on the left hand side of the three and being naturally right footed. He looked slow and unsure throughout (a new version of Dorin Goian) and was second best to a number of loose balls.
The goal we conceded summed up the performance of the three as a lack of communication and a panicked sliced clearance from McGregor gifted Danny Handling the ball to equalise form close range.
Foster has never and will never be known for his marauding runs down the wing but there weren’t many other candidates who could fulfill the role. Demanding a tireless, high intensity performance, Foster and Wallace perhaps would have appreciated their more traditional full back roles after recovering from injuries just in time for the game. It had to be said he was probably one of our better defenders on the night as he looked relatively solid on the back foot but offered little going forward.
I suspected Wallace would have more freedom to gallop down the touch line like he usually does but he happened to have one of his poorest games in a light blue shirt that I can remember. Whether that was due to fitness issues or if it was a direct impact of the new formation, he looked out of sorts nonetheless. The problem was that when he got on the ball, he was far too deep. As a left we back it is his duty to stay high and wide and make it a 3-5-2 when we are attacking but instead it looked like a flat back five. When he did get on the ball there was no width in front of him, only options inside.
Wallace relies on having a player in front of him who he can link up with as he doesn’t have the skill to beat a man or the blistering pace to run away from a man in a standing start. This is why I felt that McCoist scored an own goal in that he nullified our biggest asset of the last two years due to limiting his ability to overlap the wide man. We were too narrow which meant Wallace had to face up against two Hibs players throughout and was often dispossessed near the half way line.
On the defensive side of things, he struggled to recover after losing the ball high up the pitch which left a huge void on the left side of the park. Outnumbered when defending crosses for much of the match, he was given the thankless task of competing against two wide men as the midfield failed to shuffle across quickly enough. He had the tendency to over compensate when covering behind Zaliukas too allowing the diagonal switch to be played but his performance was a result of the formation not suiting him.
The positive of this formation is that it allows MacLeod to play centrally alongside Nicky Law who is given license to supports the two strikers unlike at the tail end of last season when he was playing far too deep. At times in the first half there was some nice play between the two but as has been previously aimed at Law in particular, he didn’t go on to dominate and control the game. I personally would put the majority of the blame on Ian Black though, who tried to force the issue far too much and needlessly gave away possession. As the more defensive minded of the three, he should also be more vigilant when patrolling the spaces in behind him as far too often the three midfielders vacated the centre of the park which allowed the likes of Liam Craig to dart through and cause us problems. On the whole Law and MacLeod performed as well as could be expected as they were starved of he ball as the game progressed. On the contrary, Black’s attitude became more volatile and his nasty tendency to leave his foot in or go over the top of the ball in 50/50 tackles reared its ugly head as usual.
Linking up well in the opening stages, the experienced duo of Boyd and Miller looked hungry in what is their second and third spells respectively. However, as Hibs dominated the ball they had to feed on scraps and apart from the odd half chance that Boyd was preserved with they never had enough service to cause any major problems. Once again, a frustration that I had was with our defence who insisted on launching long, hopeful punts in the direction of Boyd – who isn’t even the best in the air – and our wing backs who repeatedly flighted the ball into the box from far too deep with little pace, allowing the Hibs keeper to come out and gather.
The game changed when Ally finally used his initiative and reverted back to his trusted 4-4-2 with Templeton out wide. T he former Hearts winger was more direct than anything we had offered during the first hour of the match and he made the difference in the end. In the last half an hour when Hibs went down to ten men after goalscorer Handling was shown a straight red, Templeton was able to exploit the gaps and tired legs which were on the park. A positive to take from the game – apart from the fact we scraped through – is that both our attacking midfielders got on the score sheet, an aspect of their game McCoist wants them to improve on.
The biggest lesson learned though is that if we are to continue with this formation we will need different personnel to carry out the roles. However, a more pressing issue no matter what formation is selected is that we will have to be better drilled in terms of our organisation and defensive structure if we are to beat Hearts on Sunday.
I hope that Ally doesn’t think we can use the same tactics as on Tuesday in the hope of grinding out another win as Hearts will probably be an ever tougher test than their Edinburgh rivals. He may have to bite the bullet and drop McCulloch if it means putting the best side out. We are no longer in a league where we can afford passengers or an old pals act, his job is on the line.