written by – Jordan Campbell
The early stages of Rangers’ new era under Mark Warburton has given rise to a fresh optimism that a holistic approach to management can breed success throughout the club, but his home debut saw the Gers get off to a losing start as Burnley emerged narrow 1-0 winners. But as first impressions go, Warburton will have given a lot of hope to fans as there were a lot of positives that they can take ahead of Saturday’s Petrofac Cup grudge match against Hibs.
It wasn’t only Warburton and David Weir who were introducing themselves to the supporters though as no fewer than seven new signings were included in the starting line-up. Most of them showed up well and when you consider that for a team who are still gelling and implementing a very demanding style of play, it was a very accomplished performance against a quality side.
Burnley, who were narrowly relegated from the Premier League last year, have maintained the large majority of their squad since dropping down a division. Only Danny Ings and Kieran Trippier have departed but they have been replaced by like-for-like players in Matt Lowton and Jelle Vossen so it was always going to be a tough ask to compete with a team renowned for being such an efficient and well drilled side.
Lining up in Warburton’s favoured 4-3-3 formation, the personnel selected made it clear what our intentions were: to get the ball down and play. The team set up as follows:
From the outset, Rangers dominated possession which was a feat on its own considering the calibre of player Sean Dyche’s side boasts. Within the first few minutes there were several distinctive aspects of Warburton’s philosophy which the players had evidently been instructed to adhere to in the strictest of terms.
When Wes Foderingham had the ball at his feet, he looked comfortable unlike Cammy Bell whose distribution was frustratingly slow and often lackadaisical. There was a clear emphasis on playing out from the back as Danny Wilson and Rob Kiernan split and dropped deep to come and collect the ball at the side of the penalty area. In the second half though as Burnley made the conscious decision to press higher up the pith, the keeper played us into danger a few times and was slack with his throwing. But this will improve with time as the team get used to playing with each other and communication improves. However, it is one of the things that supporters will have to accept comes with the territory of playing out from the back: there will be errors at times – we just need to minimise them.
Another detail which I was happy to see had changed was the increased tempo of our passing. Last year it was a common sight to see whichever combination of Lee McCulloch, Darren McGregor, Marius Zaliukas and Bilel Mohsni stood ten yards apart passing the ball back and forth with no real purpose and the ball trickling across the grass at a pace which would send you to sleep.
It was completely different with Kiernan and Wilson though – partly because they are relatively comfortable with the ball at their feet for centre halves. There was a real urgency in what they were doing. Their first thought was always to look forward or see if they could drive forward with the ball themselves. However if there were no options available they didn’t forfeit possession by resorting to punting the ball hopelessly up the field. Instead, they remained patient and looked to move Burnley out of shape by squaring it across to their defensive partner until they could penetrate their midfield line. This may seem basic, and it is, but the distance between the pair and the pace of the pass made a huge difference compared to last year. At times they was a good thirty yards gap between them which, while can be dangerous if the move breaks down, forces the opposition to shift across the park quickly to compensate which resulted in pockets of spaces appearing for our creative players to get on the ball in.
In saying that though, Kiernan in particular wasn’t afraid to ping a diagonal ball to the feet of our wingers as he expertly displayed on numerous occasions – with both feet it should be added. It has to be said that it was rather shabby defending which gifted the opening goal. As Matt Gilks punted the ball, Wilson dropped off hoping to let the striker flick it onto no one allowing him to weep up. As this was happening, Kiernan got caught ball watching and din’t spot Scott Arfield’s sharp burst across him. Lukas Jutkiewicz’s header squeezed by Wilson who was slow in turning and Arfield picked up the ball in between the two centre-halves before knocking the ball round Kiernan onto his left foot and slotting home past the helpless Foderingham.
James Tavernier had a great start to his Rangers career as he put in a very promising display at right-back. Replacing fans favourite Ricky Foster was never going to be an easy task but I think he done just about enough to convince those watching that he has what it takes to fill those inevitably big boots!
Athletically built, he has pace and strength in abundance and didn’t waste any time in showing it as he continuously bombed up the right flank in support of Barrie McKay during the first half. His recovery runs were to be admired as was his desire to win the ball back as quickly as possible, but it was his delivery which was the most encouraging sign. He whipped the ball in with a target in mind rather than the flighted balls into a general area which most of the time came to nothing. This could be seen when his fizzed cross deflected off Ben Mee but Gilks was equal to it.
For the last three years we have had to endure Ian Black as our ‘playmaker’, and while Andy Murdoch replaced him towards the end of the season to become one of our best players, he doesn’t seem to be in Warburton’s plans at the moment as he travelled to Northern Ireland with the U20s alongside Robbie Crawford and Calum Gallagher instead of being included in the matchday squad for this game.
Taking up the mantle was new boy Andy Halliday who put in an outstanding performance at the heart of the midfield. Constantly making an option for his team-mates, he was instrumental in Rangers’ dominance in the opening half an hour. Picking the ball up off of either the full backs or centre backs, he was the anchor who dictated the pace of play from deep and sprayed the ball from one wing to the other – almost Barry Ferguson-esque.
But there is another side to his game rather than just what he can do with his elegant left-foot. He gave our midfield the bit of steel it has been missing since the under-appreciated Mo Edu left, and although he may go into challenges fully committed he isn’t reckless with his tackles. Like Murdoch, he used his ability to read the game well to intercept on a number of occasions and was always putting himself in a position where he could press if it was needed. Many have said we need a midfield ‘enforcer’, but Warburton will need his number 6 to be able to orchestrate build-up play too. In Halliday we could have the perfect balance where he breaks up play and initiates attacks.
Nicky Law, who has come in for heavy criticism for his apparent invisible displays, looked like he could flourish in Warburton’s system. Playing with freedom and an emphasis on keeping the ball moving at a quick pace will suit the former Motherwell man as there is no doubt he is a technically gifted player. At times last season the game passed him by and he looked like he was going through the motions, which is understandable to a certain extent when you consider the tactics employed and the lack of quality around him.
However, he looked rejuvenated on Tuesday and was involved in most of our good link-up play. While he was content with staying goalside of play and playing the safe option last year in order to avoid mistakes, here he was surging forward with pace and looking to make late runs beyond Martyn Waghorn as the second striker. He also put to bed the exaggerated but widespread belief that he is defensively lazy as, like Halliday, he too was flying into challenges. Between the two I reckon they covered every blade of grass on the pitch.
Jason Holt, playing hours after it became public knowledge that Rangers had agreed a development fee with Hearts for him, started just in front of Law and Halliday in the number 10 role. At just 5ft 5in, he is a player who relies on his technical proficiency to counter his lack of physical attributes, but he failed to properly impose himself on the game – a criticism leveled at him from many Sheffield United during his loan spell there last season.
He had a good few touches which showcased his talent but due to Burnley’s well organised midfield he failed to pop up in between the lines where he is most dangerous. He has a knack of popping up in the right places even if he is not involved in the play a lot, and this was apparent when he skewed a great shot wide of the post after a great cut back from Lee Wallace. It should be said that while Wallace didn’t play particularly well, he looked a lot more focused on his defensive duties and when he got into the final third he was looking to reach the bye-line in the way he did when he first singed.
Out wide, forgotten man Barrie McKay was drafted in from the cold to start on the right wing while David Templeton lined up on the opposite flank looking to stake a claim for a starting berth on Saturday. Sadly, both of them underwhelmed as they both drifted in and out the game throughout. Their decision making when in the final third let them down while Templeton tended to give the ball away far too cheaply when trying to cut inside several times up against the resolute Lowton.
An interesting tactic I picked up on was that when Burnley had a throw-in inside the Rangers half on their left flank, Warburton was instructing Templeton to stay high and wide to occupy the fullback as opposed to the more traditional idea of tucking into the middle of the park. What this did was it prevented Lowton from bombing on as he was cautious of leaving himself exposed against a tricky winger and when we won back possession it meant Templeton was isolated with the fullback rather than being stuck in the over-congested middle of the park.
Up top, Waghorn cut an isolated figure at times as our midfield struggled to get up in time to support him. He did show what he was capable in flashes though as he used his broad physique to hold off the defender with his back to goal before bringing in the widemen with a couple of deft touches. Living up to his reputation as not an out and out goalscorer though, he squandered a couple of good chances in the first half. Firstly, he did well to get onto the end of a cross which flashed across the six-yard box but he couldn’t direct his header goalwards due to Lowton’s pressure. Moments later, a deflected cross flew to him in the centre of the goal but his well guided left-foot volley was straight at the goalkeeper who parried away. His joint attempts with Holt to score the rebound were denied after he was blatantly bundled to the ground but Steven McLean waved away the appeals.
You can follow Jordan Campbell on Twitter @JordanC1107