Last season, Rangers conceded from corners against Hearts, Sparta Prague, Motherwell and Brondby. Against Aberdeen, they lost the first contact from one which led to a penalty that cost them two points. In David McCallum’s one game as caretaker manager, they conceded from a corner in losing to Hibernian in the League Cup semi-finals.
It was clear Rangers had a problem defending set plays and, despite the new manager making changes to the defensive setup at corners, which The Athletic highlighted in February, the two goals conceded to PSV Eindhoven this week have underlined that issues remain.
It has now got to a stage where the opposition merely winning a corner is a thing.
Rangers’ defensive frailties at them have created a sense of unease and it is going to be under the microscope even more ahead of Wednesday’s second leg in Eindhoven with a place in the Champions League group phase on the line.
West Ham’s goal in pre-season and the chaos Tottenham caused with their corner deliveries should have come as a warning but there have been many narrow escapes on top of those moments and Ruud van Nistelrooy’s PSV side took full advantage of the flaws in the setup to claim a 2-2 draw at Ibrox.
“The delivery was good and they attacked the spaces we set them before the game. They executed it well,” said former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Netherlands striker Van Nistelrooy after the game.
Van Bronckhorst feels Rangers were unlucky on the first PSV goal, and he is right to an extent. The ball ricocheted off Connor Goldson, who couldn’t react to it missing everyone at the front post, but there was more than misfortune to what the Dutch visitors did to create such a problem in the first place.
Centre-back Armando Obispo was the primary target for PSV on both their goals, with the front post area, guarded by Malik Tillman, the area he was attacking.
Here’s the first goal.
As Obispo tries to lose marker James Tavernier, Luuk de Jong turns to see where the Rangers captain is and attempts to block him off.
In the six-yard box, Andre Ramalho has turned to watch Obispo’s run so he can time his movement to get in front of Tillman…
…while Jordan Teze leans into John Lundstram by the near post to stop him moving.
These three subtle movements allow Obispo to get away from Tavenier, draw Tillman forward so Obispo can get a run on him and stop Lundstram from attacking the ball.
Obispo doesn’t make contact but directly behind him, Goldson can’t react to clear the ball. As he crouches down, it hits his head and falls to Ibrahim Sangare…
…who slots home.
The second goal, with 12 minutes of normal time remaining to pull PSV level after Rangers had scored twice to take the lead, was a lot cleaner and precise.
There are three parts to this failing: the lack of blockers to interrupt Obispo’s run, the ease with which PSV created a gap in Rangers’ zonal system for them to attack and the timing of Tavernier’s recovery run to cover the far post.
First, Obispo is one of four PSV players making runs from deep, while Rangers only have Antonio Colak and Tom Lawrence picking up.
Obispo begins to move towards the middle of the goal, which Goldson sees.
As this happens, though, Teze has distracted Glen Kamara by occupying him just in front of Obispo.
It means Kamara isn’t paying attention to the centre-back, who sharply turns to his left to attack the space in between him and Goldson…
Goldson is left trying to jump from a standing start and Obispo is already in the air. Even a Goldson elbow to try to throw him off balance isn’t enough…
The debate as to whether teams should have a player on the post(s) has gone on for years.
Rangers ask Tavernier and Borna Barisic to perform a hybrid role of defending the front and back post spaces and, if the ball goes to the opposite end of the goal, dropping onto the post.
Tavernier begins to move back just as the corner enters the 18-yard box…
…but it has been whipped in at such a pace he is still two yards off the goal line when Obispo heads it towards goal…
…and that means his momentum is going the wrong way as he desperately tries to backtrack and keep the ball out of the net.
He did time it well to keep the game alive in the final minute of the first leg in the previous round against Royal Union Saint-Gilloise, when he cleared off the line from a corner, but a week later the Belgians nearly scored an identical goal to go 3-0 up on aggregate in the tie.
It encapsulates the problem that arises when a team leave themselves outnumbered against those attacking the space. Union Saint-Gilloise had four players up against just Tillman with the rest defending spaces, the posts or the sole player in the six-yard box…
There was nothing sophisticated about this move, it is simply Dante Vanzeir moving forward at the front post to pull Lundstram from his station…
…which allows Siebe Van der Heyden to come from Goldson’s blindside and get in front of him. Fortunately for Rangers, he doesn’t score and they rouse themselves to win 3-0 on the night and go through to meet PSV.
Let’s look at what Rangers were doing when defending set plays in Van Bronckhorst’s first six months compared to what they are doing now.
Previously, the Dutchman employed only two players to zonally defend the six-yard box. One player protected the area in line with the near post and another, usually striker Alfredo Morelos, was placed in the centre of the penalty area. The rest picked up a man.
Europa League last-16 opponents Red Star showed the vulnerabilities of this approach by changing the angle of delivery with a short corner…
…which attracts Joe Aribo and Morelos to the ball ever so slightly.
Two runners attack the centre of the goal while Mirko Ivanic drops back from the six-yard box.
Morelos, not for the first time last season, gets caught under the ball as he tried to win the header, which allows Ivanic to score.
The goal West Ham scored last month illustrates perfectly how Rangers’ setup has changed.
James Sands, Lundstram and Goldson are positioned across the width of the goal on the six-yard line with the two full-backs on the posts and two of their attacking colleagues picking up West Ham players further out.
Here, it’s Fashion Sakala marking Michail Antonio and Rabbi Matondo on Tomas Soucek. Those are mismatches and, despite Rangers having nine men in the frame above, West Ham have three spare men with no blue shirt defending out at the edge of the penalty area either.
Soucek arcs his run towards the back post and Antonio begins to move forward in the centre…
…coming from behind Lundstram and elevating himself above the Rangers midfielder by slightly leaning.
Meanwhile, Matondo stops following Soucek once he enters the zone where Rangers’ strongest headers of the ball are…
…which leaves him free to poke home the ball.
Van Bronckhorst has stressed the importance of getting the first contact on set-piece deliveries but his players are finding it difficult to do that with so many opponents having the run on them.
Goldson is the one who often cops the criticism as he is usually in closest proximity (which is often unfair) but here, against Braga in the Europa League quarter-final’s second leg, he is picking up David Carmo rather than defending a zone.
Kemar Roofe and Aribo are the two defending the main areas and Carmo seeks, like players on many teams facing Rangers, to run into the gap between them.
Aribo shuffles backwards to try to judge the flight of the ball while Roofe moves forward to attack it…
…but even though they both bend their knees before the Braga defender does…
…Carmo, coming from five yards away, is able to meet it head-on.
Van Bronckhorst vowed to improve this area of his team’s play after the draw with PSV but teams will no doubt be seeing it as the main Rangers weakness they can exploit.
Players cannot be in the frame of mind that they fear the worst whenever a corner is conceded but whether it’s switching to man-marking, going less zonal or changing the personnel, a new scheme needs to be devised quickly.
(Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)