It is Harry’s preferred set up as he strives to tighten things up, to make the team more resilient, more difficult to beat. The results are there for all to see, only one goal conceded in the four league games in January against esteemed reknown attacking sides, Chelsea, West Ham, Tottenham and Man City.
Many managers dismiss the notion of a system and it’s effectiveness, suggesting that it is down to the players’ attitude on the pitch but it is no coincidence that a well organised system, with players all being aware of their roles and responsibilities, is crucial to a struggling team’s success.
Rangers have clearly worked hard on this formation on the training ground and each player is putting in a shift, individually and collectively defending as though their lives depend upon it. It has been heartening to see and the crowd have responded to the players’ efforts. The roars greeting the two most recent home draws has been testament to that.
The lone striker role is always a tough one and Taarabt, unfamiliar to it, played it very effectively against Chelsea and Spurs, where he showed his natural strength and exceptional close control to act as a target man. Since his arrival Remy has taken on the role himself and he seems to be a player who likes to play on the last shoulder, always looking to exploit his natural pace and get in behind the defenders, as he did so well in scoring his debut goal at West Ham.
This system has certainly been effective and it is hard to criticise, especially when considering the ease with which Liverpool tore Rangers apart in that disastrous first half in late December. This new approach became an absolute necessity if there was going to be any hope of survival.
So the goals ‘against’ column has been addressed for the moment yet it is the goals ‘for’ column that also needs some attention. Two goals scored in the last five games reflects this cautious, defensively minded approach and Harry is all too aware that his team are going to need to score some goals if they are going to survive. Is four five one the answer to this conundrum?
What is quite clear that with all attention focussed on defending, when the ball is won back, there are very few options available. There seems to be a feeling of relief amongst the players that after all the chasing around defending, winning the ball offers a chance to take in a few breaths before the defensive routine recommences. The players do not seem to have the energy to push on into more advanced forward positions. Indeed, they may be under specific instructions not to venture forward for fear of being exposed at the back if too many men are committed upfield.
The system relies on a rigid defensive structure allied to the hope that in any match there will always be a couple of chances to score, and if those chances are taken, as SWP did so clinically at Chelsea, then victories can be possible.
Yet the question remains as to whether four five one remains the best system to be employed against the so-called lesser teams or whether Harry will move to a more attacking four four two formation. The intimation in his transfer dealings in trying to sign Crouch and Odemwingie would suggest that he was keen to try and play two up front on occasions. It will also be interesting to see what happens when Zamora returns to full fitness. In the meantime, Taarabt could be pushed forward into a more advanced central role, playing off or with Remy which will at least provide more attacking options.
The current system also relies on the wider midfield players or fullbacks pushing forward to provide extra support to the sole striker and this aspect of the team’s approach has been lacking. Of the full backs, Traore does have attacking intent and makes occasional darts forward, to a much greater extent than Onuoha and Fabio; of the midfielders, Mackie battles to the best of his ability and does find occasional success through sheer persistence yet SWP still looks nervous and lacking in conviction to really take on and beat his man, get to the byline and put over a decent cross. As a general observation, players are not expending that extra effort to get into these dangerous positions and the final pass has been poor. This aspect of the team’s play does need to be worked on to at least try and get more players in advanced positions to create opportunities. The signing of Andros Townsend’s arrival will hopefully help in this regard too.
Furthermore, more needs to be made of the setpiece and Rangers have been consistently poor in this department all season. With generally few attacking opportunities, the set piece does need to be capitalised upon and far better organised. Against Man City, in the second half, by way of example, two free kicks were awarded to Rangers in reasonably attacking positions yet were completely wasted, one through an incredibly hopeful ball towards an accelerating Clint Hill in the inside left channel and a second through a high hopeful crossfield pass towards Fabio, who unsurprisingly was comprehensively outjumped. Neither of these two options would have featured highly on Harry’s free kick strategy. This side of the game needs to be looked at and some ideas put in place to ensure that free kicks and corners are properly planned. The execution is another matter yet there is no excuse for corners continually failing to pass over the first defender.
So the ship has been steadied and this good run of results is clear proof that the four five one system is working. It now needs to be tweaked and adapted to ensure that more emphasis is placed on going forward when the opportunity allows and more players are committed to getting in advanced positions to help the sole front man. This is especially true in the games against the lower placed teams where victories are going to be vital and goals must be scored. As the battle hots up and the drama unfolds, it will be ‘all systems go’ from here on in…