Scottish Premiership 2020/21: Livingston vs Rangers – tactical analysis
Rangers arrived in West Lothian with the aim of reclaiming the top spot in the Scottish Premiership and could go two points ahead of Hibernian whilst keeping their 100% record with a win. The hosts Livingston have not started in the same vein as they lost their first two games before grabbing their first point to leave them third from the bottom facing Steven Gerrard’s in form Rangers who have amassed seven goals and haven’t conceded a goal in their first three games, so a tough ask for Gary Holt’s men was expected.
In reality, Livingston performed valiantly on the day making it difficult for Rangers to conjure many clear goal-scoring opportunities even with The Gers having 79% possession. Rangers’ best chance to grab a goal was not from open play but as a result of a well-struck free-kick deep into the second half from Borna Barišić but his effort was well saved from the debutant Livingston keeper Max Stryjek. Livingston’s resilience nature ensured they grabbed a well-earned point as the game ended 0-0 in the Tony Macaroni Arena.
This tactical analysis will provide a breakdown of this game focusing on the tactics of both teams and explain how Livingston set up in a well organised defensive structure which frustrated Gerrard’s side. This analysis will also look at some strategies that Rangers tried to penetrate this rigid defensive shape.
Gary Holt erred on the side caution when hosting The Gers as he set up his team in a 4-5-1 formation. The Livingston boss made a host of changes making five in total from the side that drew 2-2 with Motherwell at Fir Park last week. Robby McCrorie dropped out of the side as he was not able to play against his parent club and so made way for Max Stryjek who made his first start for his club in goal.
Nicky Devlin and Jack McMillian came into the backline replacing Ciaron Brown and Aaron Taylor- Sinclair. Jason Holt made his debut for Livingston facing his former club Rangers as Scott Robinson made way for the midfielder. The last change was a big exclusion with Lyndon Dykes not even making the squad as he looks set to join QPR in the EFL as Jack Hamilton started up front in his absence.
Steven Gerrard set his side up in a 4-3-3 formation. The former Liverpool player made two changes to his team that beat St. Johnstone 3-0 at Ibrox. Both changes were enforced as Leon Balogun only played 46 minutes against the side from Perth and was replaced by Filip Helander who kept his place at left centre-back for this game. Gerrard’s other change saw Scott Arfield come in to replace Joe Aribo who picked up a knock in the preparations into this game and so was not risked by the Rangers boss.
Livingston’s rigid defensive tactics
Holt was weary of Rangers and rightly so based on the two teams contrastingly different starts to the new season with Livingston playing like a shell of the team that competed so well last season. A big contributing factor to their success was making the Tony Macaroni Arena a fortress with Livi having one of the best home forms in the league. If the West Lothian side were to have any chance of getting a result in this game they needed to regain this form and be very difficult to beat.
They certainly came out like the side of last season as Holt set them up in a well organised 4-5-1 defensive block out of possession. In this shape, Livingston looked to curb the influence of Rangers’ main attacking threats by employing tight man-marking defensive tactics to cut off the supply of chances. We can see Livingston employing these tactics below, as both the right & left midfielders funnelled back to mark Rangers full-backs who are tasked with providing the width for The Gers.
This made a back six at times which enabled Livingston’s full-backs to follow and aggressively man-mark Rangers inverted wingers as we can see below with the Livingston defenders moving out of their positions to limit the space and shut off the passing options to Ianis Hagi and Ryan Kent.
Jason Holt and Marvin Bartley were instructed to engage Ryan Jack and Glen Kamara (who is currently in possession) applying enough pressure to either rush their passes forward or ensure they are forced back or lateral when in possession. Craig Sibbald the other Livingston midfielder man-marked the more advanced Arfield and thus Livingston were able to congest the middle of the pitch and also shut off the passing options to Rangers creative players.
Not only did Holt’s side shut off the middle of the pitch with this defensive strategy they also negated Rangers’ other attacking focal point, the use of their full-backs out wide who deliver dangerous crosses and cutbacks. Livingston really struggled to defend crosses and cutbacks in their previous games, most notably against Hibernian, but against Gerrard’s men, their defensive setup to thwart these attempts in these channels had improved as we can see on the right as Hagi has the ball and is fronted up by Alan Forrest.
Livingston midfielder Jason Holt decides to leave Jack and support his teammates on the right tracking back creating numerical superiority down the ball side wing while also doubling up with McMillian on Alfredo Morelos who has come across to try to receive the ball off Hagi. Sibbald who was marking Morelos smartly passes the Colombian on to his full-back as he anticipates the underlapping run from the Gers right-back James Tavernier. Hagi has only one real forward passing option and it is to try to find this underlapping run, Sibbald is there to intercept and stop Rangers crossing efforts.
Due to Livingston’s good organised tactics Rangers were forced to commit more players in these wide areas to engineer a cross which meant that Gerrard’s side were then understocked in the box to get on the end of the cross so Livingston could head the delivery away. Overall Livingston created a rigid defensive unit in which Rangers struggled to break down and frustrated the light blues.
Space left in behind as Livingston attack but they are not punished
Holt’s side kept a compact well organised deep defensive unit which limited any space for Rangers to operate in as mentioned above but to achieve this Livingston basically sacrificed any sort of attacking play as a result. When Livingston regained or won possession back they did not look to retain the ball instead they resorted to just playing long hopeful balls up the pitch and Jack Hamilton had the thankless job of running/chasing after these direct long balls and with the forward being outnumbered and isolated, Rangers could easily win the ball and move inside Livingston’s half once again.
In an attempt to release this pressure of defending relentlessly some of Livingston’s midfielders looked to try support Hamilton and broke forward to chase and put pressure on Rangers centre-backs as the hoofed the ball forward. The attempted press wasn’t well organised as Livingston did not all press up as a team with the backline line staying deep, this created large spaces in between and behind the midfielders breaking out to press Rangers. Livingston’s disjointed pressed resulted in Rangers easily playing around as these midfielders who are now out of position in terms of their rigid defensive shape, as we can see below.
Livingston plays an aimless ball forward for Hamilton to chase and Alan Forrest and central midfielder Bartley spring out to try press Rangers but are not backed up by their teammates pushing up behind them. Helander plays the ball back to Jon McLaughlin in goal and Hamilton tries to press him but the goalkeeper has a number of passing options so decides to play it centrally to Jack who is able to turn because Forrest and Bartley have sprung out but can’t close the space in time to affect/ pressure Jack but from their action have left space for Rangers players to receive in behind them, as we see below as Jack plays a pass into Morelos who has made a good high to low movement into space.
With the space in the middle of the pitch now so large and the Livingston defensive line being so deep Hagi has dropped also into this space alongside Morelos and is free as he receives a first-time pass from the Columbian. Rangers try an up, back, and through passing move as Hagi tries to find the run of Kent in the space that Morelos’ movement deep has created but his pass is poorly executed and the opportunity is lost.
There was a couple of similar opportunities were Livingston in committing players to a poorly constructed attack with the team not pushing up as a unit left them exposed with huge spaces in behind to exploit, we see below where Holt’s side over commit with five players getting caught high up the pitch and are out of their compact defensive unit with opposition players in space in behind.
Livingston are on the attack and a couple of players push up to create a chance without any player providing any protection behind covering the space and so when Rangers win the ball back Hagi is free in behind. The pass to the Romanian takes out of half of the Livingston team who have been caught too far up the pitch. Hagi is then able to turn and play a ball forward to Morelos who has moved from his central position out to right half-space to make the pass easier into him, as we can see below.
Morelos is now in a 1v1 against the last defender an ideal position for a forward. However, the Rangers striker does not try to go by him instead he wastes the chance to capitalise on the opportunity and decides to take a speculative effort from way outside the box that doesn’t trouble Stryjek as the shot flies wide of his post.
In contrast to their defensive shape when Livingston looked to release the pressure and try attack it was complete chaos and was very disjointed as some players went all gung ho trying to press and the defensive line stayed deep with no cover in the middle of the pitch. Livingston were exposed but Rangers did not capitalise on these small windows of opportunities in the first half when Livingston did leave their well-structured defensive setup.
What tactics Rangers used to try to open up the deep defensive block
As mentioned in the first point of this analysis Livingston employed a defensive system based on their player’s man-marking and following players who they were assigned to mark from Rangers’ meaning at times could be pulled out of position. Rangers could take advantage of this by employing some positional rotations pulling Livingston players out of positions creating space and quickly changing positions with their teammates to attack this space(s) to create opportunities. Rangers did have moments in the first half where they used some great positional rotations as we can see below as Jack has the ball with Arfield dropping deep whilst getting some separation from his marker to receive the ball in the middle of the pitch.
Jack then plays the ball into Arfield who finds Hagi with a first time ball out on this near side and with no real forward options (because of Livingston’s compact defensive shape closing off the space ahead for players to operate in) Hagi is forced to then play the ball back to Jack who started the move. Once Jack receives the ball we see the positional rotation below as Hagi moves into Arfield’s position and Arfield moves into the vacated space left by Hagi in his starting position as their movements crossover it creates separation between Arfield and his man-marker who tries to follow him out to this position.
In the same move, Morelos drops deep to receive the ball off Jack creating space in behind him as the Columbian’s man-marker follows him out to this position. Arfield now free from his man ghosts into the space that Morelos creates from his high to low movement and rotates positions with the forward.
Jack then sees Arfield’s run in behind and plays the ball over the top but he overhits this pass and the Livingston keeper is easily able to collect the ball. The Rangers forward players showed they have a good understanding between them to execute this kind of positional rotation to open a man-marking defensive system that Holt’s team employs against them but for some reason, they give up on this avenue to penetrate Livingston’s defensive unit and after the move above they did not utilise this again which seemed quite odd.
In the second half, Livingston as a unit started to push up at times when they cleared the ball forward with their defensive unit also coming up in tandem with their midfielders and forward line to close the space in between the lines. Gerrard instructed his wingers to push wide instead of inverting as much and look to stretch Livingston vertically by making runs in behind when Livingston’s backline pushed out on these occasions as aforementioned, we can see Rangers stretching Livingston vertically below.
Livingston cleared the ball forward and pushed forward as a result, Rangers regain the ball and both Hagi and on this near side, Ryan Kent looked to stretch Livingston vertically. Morelos drops deep to receive the ball and his movement creates more space for Kent as Livingston’s right-back gets drawn out from the Columbian’s deep run as the ball is played over the top for Kent to run onto with the move ending in him taking on Bartley cutting in before registering Rangers’ first shot on target in the game.
These opportunities to run in behind were scarce Kent did well to try and take on his man has it started to roam free popping up on either wing in attempt to commit Livingston players and open up pockets of space in Holt’s side compact deep defensive block but bar this one half-chance it did not really work. Rangers did not really create any clear cut chances in open play and Livingston frustrated Gerrard’s side as they seemed to run out of ideas.
Gary Holt got his team back to what they did so well last season in being difficult to beat in the Tony Macaroni Arena. His side has struggled at the start of this new season but they got the basics right in terms of defending their box extremely well in such a compact defensive block for the majority of the game. Holt will be delighted and hope it will lift his team and give them momentum moving forward. Although this game showed they missed the presence of Dykes upfront to retain the ball and will have to work on ways to build their side’s attack without the big Australian who looks set to be departing West Lothian.
Gerrard will be frustrated that with his side dominating the game but they were not able to turn that possession into valuable chances and goal-scoring opportunities having only four shots on target. Gerrard’s side will have to be better at dealing with teams sitting in against them as dropping points against these teams could be the difference between the sides as was the case last year. Overall Rangers showed glimpses of being able to open Livingston up but not often enough as large spells of the game their movement was quite static and played in front of Livingston without much penetration in the final third.