Rangers 0-1 Manchester United: Rangers’ five-man defence works…up to a point

November 25, 2010

The starting line-ups

A late Wayne Rooney penalty meant United eventually found a way past Rangers’ back five.

Walter Smith’s tactics had worked well so far in the competition, but he was without two key members of his usual five – Madjid Bougherra and Sasa Papac. He was also dealt an injury blow when Kyle Lafferty broke a bone in his hand the day before the game, so Vladimir Weiss played on the left.

United were without both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, whilst Patrice Evra also didn’t start. Fabio, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling came in, whilst Rooney returned as a centre-forward. Ryan Giggs started on the left.

This is not the most defensive performance you’ll ever see in football, but it will quite possibly be the most defensive performance you’ll see from a side who needed to win to stay in the competition. Valencia’s win against Bursaspor was pretty much guaranteed – the Turkish champions went into the game with no points and no goals from their previous four fixtures. It finished 6-1. Nothing less than three points would do for Rangers.

Rangers sit back

In fairness, there is little ‘analysis’ to be had here. Rangers formed two solid banks deep inside their own half – a line of five, and a line of four. United played with a 4-4-2 and dominated possession, but struggled to play their way through nine players.

Fans of attacking football will not sympathise with Smith’s approach, but it was probably the right way to go about things, even considering that (whereas a 0-0 at Old Trafford was a good result), Rangers needed to score. Whilst shutting United out quite effectively, they also threatened sporadically when attacking – set-pieces were an opportunity to get plenty of men forward (and three centre-backs came in handy here) whilst Kenny Miller ran the channels well and had a decent chance towards the end of the first half.

Forward shift?

Although the 5-4-1 looks incredibly defensive on paper, it can shift very easily into a 3-4-3 with the natural runs forward of wing-backs and wide midfielders. This was broadly the system Rangers used – there was little attacking threat from the two central midfielders. The criticism of Rangers would be that they didn’t shift into the more attacking phase of the system enough – the wing-backs, in particular, were too reserved, and could have taken the opportunity to get into the opposition half more – Ryan Giggs and Nani would have been forced back briefly, and if not, it would given Rangers a 2 v 1 situation on the flanks (a benefit of playing with a 5-4-1 rather than a 5-3-2).

Much of what happened on the pitch was covered before the game in Jonathan Wilson’s piece about the effectiveness of the five-man defence in relation to Rangers, partly based upon the performances of UruguayAlgeria, New Zealand and North Korea at the World Cup – the first three kept clean sheets against France, England and Italy, whilst North Korea held out well against Brazil.

It was notable that Rangers' interceptions all took place in the centre - and surprisingly high up the pitch

How to penetrate the five?

There was further confusion in this game because United didn’t really need to win it, and so were hardly going gung ho in their search for goals (unlike, say, in Inter’s notorious performance at the Nou Camp, although that is a point of reference in terms of mentality, rather than formation, since Inter used a back four). It would have been interesting to see Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactics had a win been a must, for his decisions about selection and tactics here were influenced as much by who he wanted to give some playing time to – Fabio, Rooney, Smalling – rather than how to break down Rangers.

It is likely, however, that the fairly rigid 4-4-2 he used is probably the worst way to play against a side setting out as Rangers did. For a start, he used two strikers that rarely looked to move into midfield and instead stayed high up against the three centre-backs. This simply meant that the job of each Rangers player was quite obvious – wide midfielders picked up full-backs, central midfielders picked up central midfielders, full-backs tracked wingers and two centre-backs had a man each, with a spare man at the back.

It would probably have caused Rangers more problems if United had a man permanently stationed between the lines, forcing one of the centre-backs out, or perhaps if they’d played with a 4-1-4-1, with the intention of getting midfield runners breaking late into the penalty area. A formation like this would have meant United could have created triangles on the edge of the box around the Rangers midfielders – not that keeping possession was a problem, but passing in order to create chances for midfielders making runs was probably the order of the day.

Indeed, United’s best chance in open play came when Michael Carrick moved forward to get himself in the box, and the late run confused Rangers’ defence. Carrick shot straight at Alan McGregor. Carrick actually did well when getting himself forward – he set up Nani for a decent chance with a simple one-two in the first half, which showed that United could have done with an attacking central midfielder. They didn’t need Paul Scholes and Carrick doing broadly the same job in the centre of midfield, and could have done with one of them stationed further forward.

In the end, it was a dart forward from full-back that lured Rangers into giving away the crucial penalty, and Rooney converted from the spot.


In theory this was an interesting tactical clash, but there were certain factors that could have made it more intriguing. If United had really needed the win, their change in approach would have offered some interest, whilst it also would have been fascinating if Steven Davis had been punished for a trip in the penalty box in the opening minutes of the game. If United had gone 1-0 up early on, how would Rangers have reshaped, if at all?

Overall, the game gives weight to the growing feeling that five-man defences can be useful at stifling stronger opponents. It is interesting that it was a full-back who eventually got the breakthrough, as this is similar to the North Korea v Brazil game, where Maicon opened the scoring. In the Uruguay v France game it was also France’s full-backs who were the most dangerous players – Uruguay were unique in those four aforementioned matches in playing a 5-3-2 rather than 5-4-1, so the opposition full-backs were free. That said, considering the two sides’ eventual progress in that competition, it’s unfair to consider Uruguay the ‘weaker’ side of the two, and that game means less in hindsight than it did at the time for a five-man defence.

Still, the common theme of the New Zealand, Algeria and Rangers success stories (United taking 177 minutes to get past Rangers can be considered as a success in relation to Smith’s intentions, regardless of what you think about his mentality) has been that they’ve been playing against 4-4-2s. Two strikers plays into the hands of three- or five-man defences, and using plenty of midfield runners is probably more likely to open up such a side.

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