Sunday, 31 July 2011

St. Johnstone 0 Rangers 2

Derek McInnes made two changes from the opening day draw with Aberdeen, leaving out Chris Millar and Liam Craig in favour of Kevin Moon and Marcus Haber.  Moon began on the right of midfield with David Robertson on the left.  Haber formed a striking partnership with Cillian Sheridan.

Ally McCoist was without the injured Davie Weir so Dorin Goian was handed his debut.  Other than that it was the same personnel but in a different system for the SPL champions.  The three at the back set up was ditched from the mid-week Malmo tie, with Sasa Papc deployed in an unfamiliar left-midfield role.  Maurice Edu was used on the right, meaning that Steven Davis could take up his favoured central-midfield position..

Similar systems with subtle differences

Both sides lined up with narrow midfields in 4-4-2 formations.  When 4-4-2 meets 4-4-2 it is the full-backs who tend to find themselves with the most space to exploit, especially when the wide midfielders in front of them don’t play very high up the pitch, as was evident yesterday.

The image above shows that each player on the pitch found themself with a direct opponent to pick up: the centre-backs of each side pick up the centre-forwards and the four midfield players of each side find themselves in direct competition with each other, leaving the full-backs of each side with space in front of them.  This was accentuated by the narrow nature of each midfield.  The match, and first half especially, was notable for the amount of times each full-back got forward although each had varying degrees of success.

The only real difference between each sides’ set up was the makeup of their strikers.  Whereas Sheridan played on the shoulder of the last defender with Haber moving around just behind him, Nikica Jelavic and Steven Naismith would take turns to drop off and link play or to work the channels.  The movement of the Rangers front pair was excellent throughout and both capped their performances with a goal.

The other difference between the sides lay in their respective strategies.  St. Johnstone began with a patient approach, putting together some neat passing moves in order to create openings.  Rangers, on the other hand, were slightly more direct and looked to use the Lee Wallace on the overlap as much as possible.

The first twenty minutes was pretty even.  Each side moved the ball around well and both carved out a couple of decent opportunities.  However, it was Rangers who made the breakthrough on thirty minutes when Naismith headed in an inswinging Wallace free kick.

Goian had an impressive debut.  The Romanian international began as the left-sided centre-back, was sound defensively and would go against the grain in terms of his team’s overall strategy.  With the ball at his feet he would cut inside and look to find one of his teammates – more often than not Naismith – with a low direct pass through the centre of the pitch.  He offers an interesting contrast to the overlapping one-twos of his partner Madjid Bougherra.


The selection of Papac as a left-sided midfielder was a strange one, especially with both Juan Manuel Ortiz and Gregg Wylde on the bench.  With only eleven minutes played he gave the ball away just outside his own half, handing the home side an opportunity that they perhaps should have done better with.

Later on in the half Davis became visibly frustrated with the Bosnian’s inability to latch on to a cross-field pass.  Whereas a more natural left-sided midfielder’s instinct would have been to run into the space on the wing, Papac stood almost stationary expecting a pass into feet.

There were a few positives to Papac’s performance.  Firstly, he sent in a few decent crosses from deep positions, one of which was met by Jelavic and forced Peter Enckelman into a smart save.  And secondly, due to his reluctance to make runs into wide areas, either with or without the ball, Rangers were able to utilise Wallace effectively.  Wallace was afforded space in order to overlap, however, the same effect can be attained when using an inverted winger – for example Ortiz – who cuts inside.  The added advantage of this alternative is that the side then has an extra attacking dimension, something Rangers lacked for periods of the match.

Second Half

The match was over as a contest five minutes into the second half when Jelavic finished off a quick Rangers counter attack.  Robertson lost the ball at the edge of the Rangers penalty area; Davis collected and drove at the St. Johnstone defence before finding Naismith in space between the St. Johnstone midfield and defence.  Naismith then slipped the ball inside Callum Davidson and into the path of Jelavic who knocked it beyond the on-rushing Enckelman.

Rangers then became increasingly counter-attacking as the match progressed.  After a bright start to the match, St. Johnstone lost their way towards the end of the first half and struggled to keep the ball in advanced areas for any significant amount of time.  Once Rangers increased their lead they sat off the home side and allowed them as much possession as they wanted, knowing they lacked any bite in attack.

Even a double substitution from McInnes on the hour did very little to change things.

Rangers’ substitutions served to add to their increasing counter-attacking nature.  They changed to a 4-1-4-1 shape when Ortiz was introduced for Lee McCulloch and Wylde’s appearance added more pace and directness.


McCoist’s first win as Rangers manager certainly lifted the pressure that was beginning to mount on his side.  Rangers as a whole were certainly not at their best but distinguished performances from the likes of Goian, Wallace, Davis and the front two ensured the win.

The deployment of Papac as a left-midfielder seemed to return more negatives than positives and suggests that McCoist doesn’t quite have full faith in Ortiz yet.  It also suggests that he sees Wylde as an impact player: someone to introduce when the opposition full-backs are tiring and things aren’t going according to plan.

Two games and no goals is a familiar story for St. Johnstone, although most of their forwards are still to achieve full fitness or else not yet match-sharp.  Sheridan didn’t play many matches for CSKA Sofia last season; Haber spent the majority of last season injured, as did Sam Parkin and latest recruit Francisco Sandaza who are both yet to feature.

There was enough in St. Johnstone’s overall play to suggest they will come good at some point this season.  Their next match, a home tie against Dunfermline in a fortnight’s time, will be the perfect opportunity to quell any suggestion the may embark on a goalless run akin to that of last season.