Scottish Premiership 2020/21: Hibernian vs Rangers -tactical analysis
With Celtic beating Livingston on Saturday it put more pressure on Rangers to keep the gap to three points against their rivals at the top of the Scottish Premiership as they made the trip to Easter Road to face high-flying Hibernian who sat in third spot coming into this game. This set up an intriguing battle in the capital with both teams being heralded for their tight-knit defences, Rangers have not conceded a league goal while Hibernian have not conceded a goal in open play this season.
However, there was a feeling that this would not be a low scoring game and it certainly lived up to that billing with both teams going for it from the off making it an open contest. The deadlock was broken in the 21st minute as Martin Boyle from the right wing provided cut back to Drey Wright who had drifted to the edge of the box to slot it to the net. Rangers responded just before the half time whistle through a brilliant close-range finish from Alfredo Morelos.
Rangers took the lead just 10 minutes into the second half as Arfield finished off a good move from the Gers and looked like they would push on but Hibernian upped their game and responded well as Boyle again was the provider for Christian Doidge whose header nestled in the net. An exciting game which ended 2-2 as the shares were spoiled.
This tactical analysis will provide a breakdown of this game focusing on the tactics of both teams and will explain how Rangers took control of the game but lacked the final ball to breach the deadlock. This was in part to the Hibernian back three who did well to absorb the pressure from Rangers before Jack Ross’s side found joy by going more direct in attack. This analysis will also look at how Rangers exploited a weakness in the Hibs defence and changed the point in which they attacked to ensure they got back in the game.
Jack Ross decided to change his team shape as he moved from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 formation in order to curb the influence of Rangers’ full-backs. Although he altered the team shape he elected to keep continuity in the side as he made just one change to the side that beat St.Mirren 3-0 away last week. This change was forced upon Ross as Jamie Murphy made way as he was ineligible to play against his parent club, Rangers, so Drey Wright came into the starting lineup and played as part of the central three in midfield for Hibs.
Steven Gerrard set up his side in a 4-3-3 formation. The Rangers manager and former Liverpool captain made a host of changes making five in total to his side that won 5-0 midweek in Gibraltar against Lincoln Red Imps in the Europa League qualifying game. Jon McLaughlin was re-established to his goalkeeping position replacing Allan McGregor, Filip Helander came back to create his stellar partnership with Conor Goldson as George Edmundson made way.
Steven Davis who has impressed took up his position at the base in midfield. Scott Arfield replaced Kemar Roofe who went down injured midweek. The last two changes came in the forward line as Ryan Kent replaced Greg Stewart on the left wing and Alfredo Morelos started upfront after bagging a brace in Gibraltar, as Cedric Itten dropped to the bench.
Rangers dominate early on but fail to convert this pressure
With both teams looking to gain an edge at the top of the table, this game started as you would expect, with both teams looking to attack one another to establish a quick start and get an early goal. As a result, the game was quite an open affair in the first five to 10 minutes before both teams settled and the gameplay started to take shape. It was Rangers who began to establish control of the game as they played the ball with ease through the lines, progressing the ball out from their back line up to the final third.
Rangers have the quality in their side to dominate teams but Hibs certainly aided this in the way that Jack Ross set his side up. Hibs in their 3-5-2 formation looked like they would match up well with Rangers as the Hibs wing-backs man-marked Rangers influential full-backs and would sit in and block the space centrally with their two blocks of three (centre-backs and central midfielders) curbing the influence of the inverted wingers and Rangers central midfielders who always look to get on the ball.
However, this was not the case Hibs played in a mid-block and were quite passive out of possession which enabled the Rangers players to play the ball around them with ease. Hibs shape was not that compact and their spacing between each line of pressure was quite big, which meant the likes of Davis and Kamara could receive the ball in space behind Hibs first line of pressure, turn and subsequently find the likes of Ianis Hagi, Arfield, Ryan Kent and Morelos. They could receive the ball in between the lines in a more advanced and threatening position attacking Hibs defensive line which we can see below.
Rangers are able to play the ball out with ease from the back as there is little to pressure applied on the ball. Hagi drops deep into the massive space in front of Hibs central midfield three. He has so much time and space that he can turn on the ball and lift his head to play a pass forward.
The Hibs midfield line is caught in between as they are either applying any pressure on the ball and not covering the space in behind them for the Rangers’ forwards to receive the ball into feet. Also, note that Hibs backline has stayed quite deep and have no intention of closing in this space behind. Hagi however elects not to play the ball into the options ahead of him in space but try a ball over the top to try and find his left-back instead and the move breaks down as a result.
We can see again Hibs’ passive approach made it easy for Rangers to play the ball up to dangerous areas of the pitch as Hibs spacing in between the lines and lack of pressure to go with that was a huge problem as shown below. Conor Goldson this time is able to progress forward with ease as he drives forward unopposed into the huge space.
When eventually he meets a Hibs player he is able to bypass him as the space afforded by Hibs in their own half is so large it gives him a number of options. Goldson elects to play the pass that poses the most threat to Morelos who was constantly dropping from high to low to receive it in front of the backline. However, like most of these moves Rangers could not find that killer ball to open the scoring early on.
Hibs find joy in the direct approach
Although Hibernian gave Rangers so much space by not being compact. Hibs setup may have been by design, of course, Ross would have probably not been happy with the level of pressure on the ball but by his back three by remaining deep and not following the Rangers out in between the lines, they kept an organised shape blocking and defending their box and absorbed Rangers attacking efforts very well.
At the opposite end of the Hibernian team Ross was bold with his decision to keep his front two quite high which made Hibs become so stretched, but a risk he was willing to take. As Hibs stopped Rangers attacks and managed to win the ball back they elected to use their high front two and instead of playing it through the lines looked to go from back to front as quickly as possible exploiting the 1v1 matchups that both Hibs forwards found themselves in with the Rangers centre-backs.
Both Hibs centre forwards Christian Doidge and new signing Kevin Nisbet are both physical, strong, and good in the air and so playing direct over Rangers midfield block into these players was a very smart move and with a limited amount of possession found joy with this attacking strategy.
Nisbet seemed to be the target for these long direct balls and he caused the Rangers defenders some trouble as we can see below. As Hibs win a throw, Drey Wright receives the ball and instead of trying to play it through the Rangers midfield block, he spots in a higher more advanced position a 1v1 between Nisbet and Goldson.
Wright delivers a direct ball over into Nisbet who takes a brilliant touch and gets a shot on goal, McLaughlin does well to save the effort. Also note how Doidge’s movement out isolates and creates a more favourable 1v1 for his strike partner, such clever movement. This was to be the warning sign for Rangers that Hibs were again going to benefit from this long direct ball up to the front two who stayed high up the pitch.
Jack Ross’s bold strategy worked just three minutes later as again Hibs stopped the Rangers attack and the ball was played to Paul Hanlon who hit a long diagonal ball over bypassing the Rangers midfield up to Nisbet who peeled off onto left-back Borna Barišić as we can see in the move below.
Nisbet wins his header and cleverly flicks the ball out to the right wing to Martin Boyle who had been marked by the left-back, now free he is able to progress down the right and find Wright at the edge of the box to finish neatly to the net, scoring the first goal Rangers conceded in the league this season. The bold tactic was very risky from Ross but it had paid off for the former Sunderland manager as they lead having only had 28% possession in the game at that point.
Rangers find a weakness to get themselves back in the game
Rangers needed a response but their efforts attacking down the central areas were not effective at producing the clear chances as Hibs deep well-organised central three defenders did well to stop the Gers attempts in their tracks. Gerrard’s side started to change the area in which they attacked moving the ball out to the flanks trying to get their main creative sparks in the form of their full-backs into the game.
Boyle did well to stop Barišić’s influence, but on the opposite side James Tavernier grew into the game and started to get the better of the young full-back, Josh Doig. Rangers noticing this weakness started to attack more down his flank as Tavernier was able to beat the left-back before whipping in dangerous crosses into the box.
With Tavernier now dribbling by the Hibs defender, this caused the left centre-back to push out to close down the Rangers captain and as a result, disorganised the Hibs backline which created space in the box for the Rangers forwards. The source of Rangers equaliser was a result of attacking down the right flank and exposing this weakness as we can see below. Kent drifts over to the right wing to receive the ball he links up with Davis and they play a nice one-two around Doig.
Kent gets away from the young full-back who is trying to recover back desperately, this causes Hibs left centre-back to drift out slightly to cover which causes the backline to shuttle across to cover the space however this leaves Morelos free at the back post to finish past the Hibs keeper.
Rangers found an effective way to pull Hibs’ back three out of position and they continued to use this attacking strategy after the break as Doig really struggled to contain the Gers right-back. Tavernier was able to now glide by the left-back and produce dangerous crosses into the box. Eventually, this pressure down the right began to take its toll on the Hibs defence and led to Rangers taking the lead.
Tavernier progressed the ball down the right and skipped past Doig and put in a cross into the box which was headed away, but the ball made its way straight back out Tavernier who crossed the ball again, Hibs for the second time headed this away. Below we see that the clearance from Hibs failed to release the pressure as the ball makes its way to Tavernier once more, Doig (highlighted with the yellow circle) rushes out to close down the right-back.
His action causes Hanlon (highlighted with the black circle) to have to cover the space created as a result. The rest of the back three does not shuttle across in time creating a huge hole which Tavernier recognises and plays a ball into and this move ends with Rangers scoring and taking the lead. Rangers eventually found a way to create disorganisation in the Hibs backline but this was short lived as Doig was replaced by the more experienced Lewis Stevenson who secured the left side of the defence.
Rangers dominated and controlled possession mainly down to Hibs passive shape as they enjoyed over 70% possession in the first half. However Gerrard’s side found it difficult to convert this large share of the ball into any meaningful attempts on goal. Jack Ross’s bold tactic leaving his two strikers high up the pitch really troubled Rangers anytime Hibs got the ball and played direct launching an attack as they took the lead.
Rangers responded well and found a way to unlock Hibs as they drew level before taking the lead. It looked like Gerrard’s side would take all three points from Easter Road but Hibs fought back well and pressed Rangers into coughing up a chance which they did as Doidge got the equaliser to end a very intriguing match-up. Hibernian stay in third and stay in the hunt of the top two as Rangers move ahead of Celtic by a point to stay top but Neil Lennon’s men have a game in hand.