Rangers have won seven of their last eight matches against Hearts in all competitions, scoring at least twice on each occasion. More importantly, they have won the three previous Scottish Premiership matches. Hearts have only managed two goals in their three previous encounters this season and conceded eight. In terms of prizes, Rangers’ season is over, on the other hand, Hearts have the Scottish Cup Final in four weeks. With Peter Haring struggling with an injury, will Craig Levein be tempted to wrap his players in cotton wool until the big day? What will a tactical analysis show?
Steven Gerrard is starting his plans for next season early. One of his targets in the summer is allegedly John Souttar so it will be interesting to see if the Hearts centre-back is out to impress as the Scottish Cup finalists entertain the side second in the table at Tynecastle. The Jam Tarts have lost three of their last four in the Scottish Premiership, so they are hardly in the best of form.
By contrast, the Gers only defeat since January was in last month’s fiery Old Firm derby and since then they have won both matches since by the same 3-0 scoreline. Scott Arfield has scored four goals in those games and veteran Jermaine Defoe has also stepped up to the plate in the absence of the suspended Alfredo Morelos. Morelos and Ryan Kent are both suspended for the trip to Hearts. But Rangers seem to have come up with an effective game model without them.
Starting XI: Zlámal – Smith, Souttar, Berra, Burns – Djoum, Bozanić – Wighton, Lee, Mulraney – Ikpeazu
Bench: McLean, Cochrane, Dikamona, Doyle (GK), Shaughnessy, Edwards, Brandon
Coach: Craig Levein
Starting XI: McGregor – Tavernier, Goldson, Katić, Flanagan – Jack, Davis, Kamara – Candeias, Defoe, Arfield
Bench: Middleton, Lafferty, Polster, Foderingham (GK), Worrall, Halliday, McCrorie
Coach: Steven Gerard
Craig Levein is a manager of many formations, never afraid to change or adapt. In the last three games, against Inverness in the Scottish Cup semi-final it was 4–4–2, the Edinburgh derby versus Hibernian 4–4–1–1, and the recent encounter against Rangers it was 5–3–2. This time he opted for a 4–2–3–1, perhaps a more expansive style at their home venue. Or they could easily revert to a 4–5–1 if needed.
Ikpeazu was chosen as the man up front with Wighton, Lee and Mulraney as the attacking midfielders going forward to support. Djoum and Bozanić as the defensive midfielders providing protection to a back four of Smith, Souttar, Berra and Burns, with Zlámal continuing in goal. With the introduction of McLean and Cochrane, they reverted to a 4–4–2.
A few weeks ago, the idea of both Alfredo Morelos and Ryan Kent being left out of the Rangers side would have been unthinkable. But after Steven Gerrard’s hand was forced due to red cards in the Old Firm derby last month, he has settled on an effective system without them. He named the same side for the second successive Scottish Premiership match.
Again, a front three of Candeias, Defoe and Arfield in a tight triangle. The midfield triangle of Jack, Davis and Kamara. Katić retaining his place in the back four of Tavernier, Goldson, Katić and Flanagan in front of Alan McGregor in goal.
Hearts’ defensive uncertainty
In the recent Ibrox encounter, Hearts had three big centre-backs and attempted to channel Rangers down the flanks without much effect. However, this time with a back four, Jermain Defoe, the man leading the Rangers line, was the man causing them problems.
As he drops short and links the play, Scott Arfield and Daniel Candeias make runs inside and behind the defenders causing uncertainty for Souttar and Berra.
If Berra stepped forward to close down Defoe, he leaves a big gap behind for Arfield and Candeias to attack. This can be seen above as Berra steps out; Burns is caught on the wrong side of Candeias and Souttar is occupied by Arfield. In a 4–2–3–1 Levein would have wanted Berra to stay in place and for Djoum or Bozanić picking up any players getting between Hearts defensive lines.
In the knowledge that Rangers are likely to operate with a tight triangular front three, it is no surprise that Levein opts for the double six option preventing Rangers attacking centrally and forcing them to the flanks. However, Bozanić became, at times, Kamara orientated. Kamara reacted like a Matador teasing the bull to charge out of position to take advantage. The Matador was gored a couple of times and lost possession, but he was mostly in control.
Rangers’ style continues to develop
Rangers have developed a slightly asymmetric staggering on the flanks with Tavernier acting high and wide on the right, and Flanagan in the left half space deeper and narrower. The rotations and interchanges of Arfield, Kamara and Candeias on the left provide the width on the left flank.
A prime issue for Rangers for most of the season was their, at times, extremely ineffective positional structure during possession. They looked devoid of a game model. The opposition was happy to sit back and let Rangers have the ball and create their own issues for long periods of the 90 minutes. Now their 4-3-3 with a double triangle allows for free players to attract and move opponents in the first phase. They create 3v2s 4v3s with quick combinations to break the lines.
Davis is starting to show his excellent positional intelligence in his No.6 role from which he supports and controls the midfield triangle. Structured with connections and triangles. Often moving towards the touchline, he is vital in the stability of possession and in the defensive transitions.
Analysis of Hearts going forward
In the first half, their build-up play seemingly caught between two stools. With the effective Ikpeazu as a target, there is a temptation to “go long”. Without any real emphasis on building possession or breaking through with dribbles. Instead, the focus is on long balls and simple combinations. The issue is that the team is set up for possessional build-up play. As a result, when the long ball is unsuccessful, they are unprepared. The players are not adjusting their positions from the typically wide-reaching spacing needed for their build play. Therefore, an unsupported long ball to an often-isolated Ikpeazu results in a loss of possession, and the ball coming straight back.
With a set up for possessional build-up, when the ball went long, Hearts were not able to get beyond Ikpeazu.
In the build-up to Rangers opener, Hearts have good possession. Defoe blocks off a pass to Berra, Souttar plays long to Wighton. Berra and Souttar do not react to a possible transition.
This leaves space exposed between them and also isolates them against a Rangers counter-press.
As the possession and transition phases are directly connected and are key to success. A correctly staggered and reactive rest-defence provides stability. Which reduces the risks in transition and enables pressuring the opponent for prolonged spells. This lack of rest-defence was one of the main reasons for the loss of the second goal. A move started by pressure from Jack, an assist from Candeias and finished by Jack.
Hearts’ medical staff will be working hard to ensure Peter Haring is fit for the Scottish Cup final. He is a ready-made solution to Hearts defensive issues. Although he is not the quickest he is intelligent and he understands defensive transitions. Also, he is a strong runner and physically he helps in that midfield area because he doesn’t often get bounced around or bullied.
On the other hand, Rangers may feel that the season is finishing too early as they continue to show improvement. They will be hoping that this can be continued into next season. However, this greatly depends on their summer recruitment and retention of players.
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