WHEN Rangers visited St. Mirren in the Scottish Premiership on April 10th, the mood around the club certainly wasn’t at its most buoyant.

Seven days previously, the Gers had effectively relinquished their title with a 2-1 home defeat to Celtic, while the midweek preceding the trip to Paisley seen Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men fall to a 1-0 defeat in Braga in the Europa League quarter-final first leg.

However, an early injury to John Lundstram prompted the Dutchman to turn to Steven Davis, making only his second league appearance since December. Rangers cruised to a 4-0 win that afternoon, producing one of their most controlled domestic performances under van Bronckhorst.

The return of the Northern Irishman to the side seen Rangers ‘control’ the remainder of the campaign, winning five out of their last six games in the league and lifting the Scottish Cup to boot.

Of course, judging a side by their end of season performances can be misleading, but the return of Davis provided van Bronckhorst with the missing ingredient domestically. The Northern Irishman allows Rangers to pass the ball more, and by extension, provides his side with a better platform to perform well.

It was immediate from the outset of van Bronckhorst’s appointment last season that the Dutchman was keen to inject more directness into Rangers’ play. But what does this slightly loose term mean? Directness can be defined as moving the ball forward with as few passes as possible, with the likes of Connor Goldson and John Lundstram proving adept at helping van Bronckhorst realise those aims.

The style was especially effective en route to the Europa League final, with the manager simplifying Rangers’ possession approach against high-pressing sides by instructing his team to go over the opposition’s defensive block as opposed to through it.

However, there were undoubted hiccups in a domestic sense with foes in Scotland less likely to cede space behind their defensive line.

The available passing data last season does not allow for a filter to separate the period under Gerrard and van Bronckhorst respectively, but the numbers are revealing nonetheless. Rangers, for instance, averaged 590.26 passes per 90 minutes during the title-winning league campaign in 2020/21, while that figure dipped to 552.89 passes per 90 minutes last term.

Similarly, the side’s average passes per possession decreased last season compared to the Invincible 2020/21 campaign, shrinking from 7.17 to 6.14.

Those numbers are manifested in the repurposed role of Connor Goldson in possession under van Bronckhorst. The Englishman has retained his trademark right-to-left diagonal pass out of defence, but there has been an added emphasis on the defender finding the right-hand channel with his long passing.

Indeed, Rangers’ long pass percentage – the percentage of passes attemped which go long – has risen to 8.32 this season from 7.51 per 90 minutes. Goldson’s diagonal passes are less of a curveball as they were under Gerrard and now more of an established route of progression upfield for Rangers.

When Goldson moves the ball across to Filip Helander in the example below, he signals downfield for Fashion Sakala to move high and wide in anticipation of a long pass.

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Goldson then gets the ball back, immediately launching a pass in search of the Zambian on the right-hand side.

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However, the diagonal is underhit, catching four Rangers players ahead of the ball (Aaron Ramsey is out of picture) as St. Mirren look to transition forward quickly after the turnover.

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Given they are more difficult to execute, long passes inherently carry more risk than shorter passes. It also requires the team in possession to stretch the pitch both vertically and horizontally to increase the passing distances between players, leaving the side in a vulnerable defensive state if the ball is turned over.

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Pep Guardiola encapsulated the risks associated with longer passes back in 2018. “I like short passes more than long passes,” the Man City boss said. “Long passes are risky. When you play short passes, your [defensive] transition is easier when you lose the ball.”

Van Bronckhorst also facilitates the directness in Rangers’ play by asking his midfielders to frequently split the central defenders and drop into the defensive line. In doing so, it provides the player in possession with complete vision downfield, as well as opening the passing angles out to both flanks.

However, it can often lead to a dynamic where Rangers have too many men behind the ball and not enough players looking to disrupt the opposition’s defensive lines.

It helps explain the 5-1-4 shape that the Gers resembled in the Europa League final prior to Davis’ introduction, with van Bronckhorst’s side looking to completely bypass the midfield as to avoid turnovers in dangerous areas.

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A player such as Davis, for example, is adept at operating behind the first line of pressure from the opposition, creating triangles with the central defence to help provoke further pressure and create pockets of space for Rangers to attack from.

In the below example, Davis deliberately invites pressure from the St. Mirren midfielder by taking a first touch before moving the ball back to central defence.

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The ball is then moved wide to Goldson, who resists the urge to play directly down the right-hand side given he has the safety blanket of Davis centrally.

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Davis pops the ball around the corner into Scott Wright, who can attack through St. Mirren’s midfield line and advance Rangers into the final third.

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By retaining a constant central presence behind the first line of opposition pressure, Davis opens up greater short passing options for Rangers.

The Rangers Review highlighted the side’s tempo problem when assessing last season’s underperformance in the Scottish Premiership, especially in contrast to title rivals Celtic.

When comparing the two team’s trendline, it is noticeable that Ange Postecoglou’s side tend to peak in terms of chance creation at the half-hour mark. Rangers, in contrast, exert the most pressure on the opposition around the 80th minute.

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This suggests that the Gers are forced to chase games into the latter stages, while Celtic tend to blitz teams inside the first half. It is certainly consistent with the pattern of the games away to Dundee and Dundee United in the second portion of last season.

Rangers, in short, aren’t quick enough in unsettling their opponents from the outset. The increase in longer passes – and decrease in overall passes – allows the opposition to settle into a defensive rhythm.

At the other end of the spectrum in matches, Rangers were often guilty of allowing leads to slip away by failing to sufficiently control possession.

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The second half collapse against Motherwell at Ibrox in February – following Celtic’s goalless draw with Hibernian earlier in the day – proved particularly costly, with the visitors halving the deficit with a goal virtually of Rangers’ making.

As Lundstram strides out with possession, he attempts to thread a pass into Calvin Bassey.

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However, the Nigerian is pinned to the touchline and covered well defensively by Motherwell’s winger.

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Lundstram’s pass is not severely under hit but, coupled with the positioning of Kaiyne Woolery (circled), it allows the Motherwell winger to step in and intercept the pass…

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 …Before striding forward and delivering the ball across goal for Jordan Roberts to pull a goal back.

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It is a pass that Lundstram forced which, considering Rangers weren’t required to chase the game in search of a goal, makes little sense. The Englishman ought to have checked his run forward and moved the ball across to Goldson as to minimise the risk of a high turnover.

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It goes back to a quote from Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta after a narrow 3-2 win over Watford when he was quizzed on his side’s habit of allowing teams back into matches. “At 3-1, we had to make 300,000 passes in the opposition half and, when they have the right moment to come at us, then we can attack them.”

Ultimately, however, the issue circles back to the profile of the Rangers squad.

It has been well-established that van Bronckhorst is a pragmatic manager by nature and, after some initial teething problems, his football ultimately reflects the qualities of the current squad.

Rangers have an abundance of players comfortable at raking longer passes to breach opposition defences, yet they lack players capable of making probing passes over shorter distances. It perhaps explains why the club wasted little time in securing Davis for another year at the end of last season.

And yet relying on a midfielder who turns 38 midway through the next league campaign is less than ideal. Finding a player of a similar ilk to the Northern Irishman will be key to any success next season.

Unlocking more passes will help Rangers wrestle the title back.