IN the summer of 2018, Steven Gerrard arrived at Ibrox to relaunch Rangers.

The club was under new leadership following tumultuous lower league years, but had lacked a figurehead and invested poorly as they sought to regain top spot in Scotland. A failed Pedro Caixinha experiment and ill-advised second Graeme Murty stint left them in no stronger a position than two years prior when Mark Warburton earned promotion from the Championship.

Four summers on from 2018, and following Gerrard's departure, they were penalty kicks away from becoming Europa League champions.

Using pass networks made by our data partners StatsBomb, we can chart the evolution of a playing style through the past four years that earned a coveted 55th league title and so nearly brought home a European trophy.

If you're new to pass networks, here's how they work: The player’s position is the average starting location of their passes, stronger lines translate to a greater number of passes, the larger the circle the more passes a player has made and the darker the circle the greater their involvement in goalscoring opportunities.

The first sightings of structure

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In the months prior to Gerrard’s arrival, Rangers had faced numerous Old Firm humiliations and conceded five goals against Hibs on the final day of 17/18. While a higher quality of player was required to move the team forward, the security of a well-governed structure was in equal demand.

Gerrard and Michael Beale developed a system that was hard to beat, compact and covered all areas of the pitch. The first version of their 4-3-3 can be seen above.

Jon Flanagan, a right-footer playing at left-back, was less adventurous than James Tavernier on the opposite flank while Lassana Coulibaly enjoyed a superb start to the season acting as a midfield enforcer.

It provided a strong base for European progression, although problems domestically would surface.

The need for evolution

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A home tie with Aberdeen in December 2018 underpinned the need for change. It wasn’t until later that season that a move from the 4-3-3 to 4-3-2-1 would occur. With Alfredo Morelos suspended, Gerrard’s hand was forced in a bid to accommodate Jermain Defoe. He did his best work in the penalty box and couldn’t dominate defenders or progress play outside of the penalty area like Morelos. Bringing wingers infield meant that the veteran forward wasn't isolated in possession. 

In the above pass network, every player is a pale blue, showing a low xG (expected goals) tally, aside from Ryan Jack. Despite the match ending 0.9 to 0.36xG in Rangers’ favour, Derek McInnes’ side left Glasgow as 1-0 victors.

READ MORE: Where do Rangers need to improve in next season's Old Firm?

Morelos is incredibly isolated and players on the right and left are receiving on the same line. Valuable, central locations on the pitch are left unexplored given the lack of staggered pitch positions. 

Discovering a resolution

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A match against the same opponent just over four months later shows the evolved approach, catalysed by Morelos’ absence from the team. At a glance the pitch positions appear far more coherent, chance creation more potent and connections in key areas more established.

Width is held by the full-backs with Ryan Kent and Scott Arfield playing as ‘Two No.10s’, filling the pockets of space next to the striker that proved vacant in the previous example.

Steven Davis is now at the base of midfield and acts as a deep-lying playmaker rather than a midfield destroyer.

Nearly but not yet

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Kilmarnock 1-2 Rangers on the opening day of the 19/20 season was a painful watch. Possession was slightly safe and only a late Connor Goldson header saved points being dropped.

With the ball, the shape resembled a 2-5-3. As seen by the size of the midfield’s circles, passes were played in front of the Kilmarnock defence with the front three largely uninvolved. Without Kent, who would sign later in the window, that left-sided pocket was blatantly unoccupied.

Joe Aribo appeared somewhat restricted within the limitations of Gerrard’s midfield structure and the shape was in a word, flat.

Finding the blueprint  

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When Kent returned, Morelos burst into form and the midfield structure settled, it looked like Rangers had discovered the template to finally end Celtic’s domestic dominance.

The midfield three is far more threatening in its positioning in this example, the formation is not lopsided and wide triangles are clearly visible.

The most notable performances of this season arrived in the Europa League and at Celtic Park, although a title bid would unravel after Christmas due to squad depth and an evident fragility. Work was still required to turn this team into champions.

A template for sustained success

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Although this starting 11 is missing a few key individuals, it’s descriptive of the aggressive and attacking unit that proved the cornerstone for an unbeaten season.

Incredibly high full-backs facilitated overloads in the centre, Kemar Roofe added 14 goals from the right-sided forward position and Kent enjoyed his best individual campaign numerically thanks to the positional freedom he was granted.

READ MORE: Inside Allan McGregor's Rangers future amid coaching role and contract speculation

Aribo was provided the license to attack in the left half-space with one No.6, normally Steven Davis, dictating play in the centre.

In more competitive fixtures Davis and Kamara lined up as a double pivot, freeing the third component of the midfield to start higher up the pitch.

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A lack of variation?

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On the surface, this pass map early into last season doesn’t look all that bad. It’s symmetrical, suggesting a varied threat, and occupies all the important zones. Anyone who watched Rangers 2-2 Aberdeen will tell you this was a game that lacked pace and saw the hosts’ attack in a predictable manner.

The visitors were comfortable packing the centre and leaving the wide areas free, defending crosses at will, while the hosts' front line had no pace to attack space behind the defence. Change was needed, and would come through a new man in the dugout.

A sign of what’s to come?

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It’s hard to define Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s footballing philosophy beyond the term ‘flexible’ to this point.

Broadly, we know he favours high and wide wingers, a focal point rather than deep-lying forward and one ball-playing number No.6, as demonstrated above.

We’ve seen him adapt to play with just one winger and an auxiliary option on the right, a false No.9 through necessity and a double pivot to bolster a midfield that was brutally exposed in the first Old Firm of 2022.

In Europe his flexibility and variation allowed Rangers to possess an air of unpredictability, adapt to opponents and win matches with differing tactics on their way to Seville. Controlled chaos enabled famous wins over Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig

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The Dutchman's challenge for the upcoming season is to retain the benefits of his variability, while also developing the team's on-ball style to dominate domestically.