Rangers against Aberdeen for the seventh time this season, this time it is the Scottish Premiership. Consequently, the tie has thrown up some interesting statistics. Aberdeen has won three, drawn two and lost one. On the other hand, Rangers have had 60% possession, 76 shots to 52, 49 smart passes to 21. Aberdeen has 21 yellow cards to Rangers 13, but Rangers have three red cards to Aberdeen’s two.
At the start of the season, Aberdeen were looking at least for their fifth consecutive second-place finish in the Scottish Premiership. On the other hand, Rangers would look on anything less than second place a total failure. Aberdeen have the best defensive record in the league and are the only team to win a league match at Ibrox this season.
This tactical analysis will analyse some of the key trends in this Scottish Premiership game.


Rangers (4-3-3)
Starting XI: McGregor – Tavernier, Goldson, Katić, Flanagan – Jack, Davis, Kamara – Arfield, Defoe, Kent
Bench: Foderingham (GK), Worrall, Wallace 87′, Halliday, McCrorie 84′, Candeias 84′, Middleton
Coach: Steven Gerard
Aberdeen (4-2-3-1)
Starting XI: Lewis – Ball, Considine, McKenna, Lowe – Ferguson, Gleeson – Wilson, May, McLennan – Cosgrove
Bench: Cerny, Stewart 76′, Halford, Devlin 14′, Campbell 61′, Ross, Virtanen
Coach: Derek McInnes
angers vs Aberdeen Tactical Analysis Statistics
Line-ups (Credit Wyscout)

Aberdeen setup

Derek McInnes was not without injury worries, although this is perhaps his strongest squad in his Aberdeen tenure. His selection was restricted because Shinnie, MacKay-Stevens, McGinn and Logan were all unavailable. Although he is a manager who will change or adapt to certain circumstances, it is not his first thought.
Nonetheless, Aberdeen’s strategic approach is a simple one. At their best, they will try to spend as much time in their opponent’s half as they can, putting them under pressure through a stream of balls played into the box and shots on goal. In contrast, against Rangers, they adapted to a low block with the emphasis on counter attacks.
Rangers - Aberdeen - Scottish Premiership - Tactical Analysis - Analysis
Aberdeen formations versus Rangers (Credit: Wyscout)

Rangers’ setup

Steven Gerrard made one change but kept the shape that has been successful recently. With Ryan Kent free from suspension, he returned and Daniel Candeias was dropped to the bench for this Scottish Premiership match.

A front three of Kent, Defoe and Arfield in a tight triangle. The midfield triangle of Jack, Davis and Kamara. A back four of Tavernier, Goldson, Katić and Flanagan in front of Alan McGregor in goal.

There was also space for a cameo appearance by former captain of the club, Lee Wallace.


Rangers - Aberdeen - Scottish Premiership - Tactical Analysis - Analysis
Rangers formations versus Aberdeen (Credit: Wyscout)

Have Rangers found the key to unlock Aberdeen?

Aberdeen’s success this season against Rangers is, in part, due to Rangers’ poorly coordinated positional possession game against low block defences. Rangers’ inability to take advantage of spaces left open by the man-marking, plus the physical attributes Aberdeen have in 1v1 “battles” make it difficult for them to overcome the tight marking individually.

Nevertheless, Rangers are better equipped to expose a man for man system with their recent variant of the 4–3–3. Key to this is the midfield personnel. Kamara and Davis are orchestrating movement in midfield with Davis adopting a quarterback role with his range of passing. This is a change from earlier in the season when this role was more of an “enforcer”.

Rangers - Aberdeen - Scottish Premiership - Tactical Analysis - Analysis
An example of Davis’ range of passing

In the example below, Davis and Kamara open the central channel to allow Katić to penetrate. Kent drops in between the Aberdeen defensive lines, Arfield goes beyond the back four and Defoe is playing off the shoulder.

Rangers - Aberdeen - Scottish Premiership - Tactical Analysis - Analysis
Davis and Kamara open space for Katić to progress from the back

In this instance, it was unsuccessful, as Jack, in his eagerness to interchange with Katić, brings his marker Gleeson to the central channel where he steps across to pressure Katić.

Rangers - Aberdeen - Scottish Premiership - Tactical Analysis - Analysis
Jack bringing Gleeson into the central channel.

Tactical analysis of Aberdeen’s defensive system

The zonal man-marking that Aberdeen operate is a central aspect of their identity. From their rest defence shape, almost every player will man-mark their closest opponent tightly, looking to prevent them from getting on the ball. For the central midfielders, this is quite flexible. As they will follow their man away from the middle of the pitch. But they will only do so until someone else is available to switch with them before returning to the centre.
Rangers - Aberdeen - Scottish Premiership - Tactical Analysis - Analysis
Aberdeen picking up man for man
The fullbacks have a similar role in the defensive system and are forced at times to the extreme. With the defensive system designed to eliminate overloads, and to prevent opponents from receiving the ball and turning to attack the goal, Aberdeen’s success in this area depends on picking up free players and winning your one versus one. Should a wide player move back or infield to try to get on the ball, a fullback would normally look to pass them on to one of the midfielders, allowing him to stay in shape.
As Aberdeen’s midfielders are likely to be matched with an opponent, there can be no one to whom the fullback can pass. This leads to situations where Dominic Ball can be moved by Ryan Kent from his right-back berth, over to the left side of central midfield. This leaves space for full-back Flanagan to exploit.
Rangers - Aberdeen - Scottish Premiership - Tactical Analysis - Analysis
Dominic Ball following Kent to the opposite side

Aberdeen one dimensional?

It is in these situations that Aberdeen can have problems against better-organised opposition. Celtic are a prime example, with their organisation and game intelligence they find man-man marking easy to manipulate. They control the opening and closing of space. The team which controls the space is more likely to dominate the match and go on to win the game. In games against Celtic, Aberdeen rarely has control in or out of possession. Therefore they have only managed one victory out of the last 15, a game in which Celtic had already won the title.

Against weaker opposition, they are often able to get down the flank on their first attempt, with their long balls, athletic runners, and simple wing combinations. They are also able to physically dominate and bully certain teams in the Scottish Premiership.

Rangers, is this progress?

Rangers dominated possession, with 73% to 27% in their favour. However, the possession split was almost exactly the same in the Scottish Cup tie at Ibrox when Aberdeen won by two nil. What is the difference?

In the cup, tie Rangers started in a 4-1-4-1 with Candeias and Kent providing the width. Later as they tried to get back into the game the width was provided by Morelos and Defoe with Lafferty as a target. The game model was to get the ball wide and deliver from there. They delivered 32 crosses with 34.4% accuracy, this suited Aberdeen with McKenna and Considine in central defence. Aberdeen then bolstered this by bringing on Devlin to form five at the back and let Rangers have possession in front of them.

Rangers - Aberdeen - Scottish Premiership - Tactical Analysis - Analysis
Rangers formations versus Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup replay

With this variant of 4 – 3 – 3 Rangers have brought in the wide frontmen about 10 yards and into the half channel. The game model now is to move the opposition and to attack centrally. Therefore the width is provided by the full backs and by midfield rotations where Kamara will go wide left and Jack wide right.

Rangers - Aberdeen - Scottish Premiership - Tactical Analysis - Analysis
Rangers pass map giving an approximate shape
Rangers - Aberdeen - Scottish Premiership - Tactical Analysis - Analysis
Rangers shape


Rangers are finishing in second, at the moment, 11 points ahead of Aberdeen. As opposed to three points behind as they did last season. This is an improvement. Also, it is undeniable that there is an improvement in their European performance. Certainly, the management/coaching team seem to recognise and identify issues and look for solutions.

Although, a victory at home against Aberdeen, the team with the best away record in the Scottish Premiership could be seen as an improvement. However, it is worth noting that both goals were from set pieces.

Perhaps Aberdeen, as someone once famously said, is at the end of a cycle. After four consecutive runners-up places, Aberdeen will need to step up a level to stand still. With early evidence of improvement from Rangers and Hibernian, both of whom were missing from Aberdeen’s first two second places.

More importantly, the adjustments necessary for Aberdeen to move towards the next level in the Scottish Premiership and perhaps in their European campaigns are by no means extreme. Even a simple, compact low defensive block focused on defending the centre channel would serve them considerably better both in Europe and against Celtic and perhaps Rangers than their current system.