“It would take me 15/20 years to become as good as Michael Beale as an on-pitch coach, delivering sessions on a daily basis. So I let Mick be Mick Beale because he’s the expert.”

Steven Gerrard’s assessment of the talent his then first-team coach possesses and the value he placed on his opinion during their time together tells of how highly Beale is regarded in the football world.

It also indicates the overarching influence the new Rangers manager had on the team that Gerrard built during three-and-a-half years north of the border.

Beale, 42, earned quite the reputation during his stint at Ibrox, which eventually led to him getting the QPR role. Under Gerrard he was given responsibility on the training pitch to help formulate the Liverpudlian’s ideas, turning them into a side who were dogged and disciplined against the ball yet fluid and entertaining on it.

In the summer of 2021, he explained his tactical philosophy at length during a Coaches Voice webinar.

Beale delved into the methodology, buzzwords and beliefs that he carries into training each day. Offering a clear picture of how his team should look in and out of possession and the reasons behind these key, guiding principles. 

What is the vision?

Speaking about his footballing vision, Beale outlines two key influences. Firstly, the fundamental lessons learned from spells with Liverpool, Sao Paulo and Chelsea. Secondly, the 12 years spent in youth development, which he attributes as the foundation for much of his performance philosophy.

A development coaching role, as opposed to the performance role in a first-team environment, does what it says on the tin. The focus is on a player’s evolution and progress, something that’s often missed in a results-driven industry.

Beale wants to play high-energy, attacking football that is exciting to participate in and subsequently entertaining to watch. He emphasises that a coach must always work attuned to the context and environment they inherit, regardless of their footballing ideals.

“You arrive at a club with a history and you arrive in a moment. Unless you’re very fortunate, you’re likely to arrive at a club that’s not being doing so well,” he says, with a remarkable lens into the situation he’d inherit returning to Ibrox just over a year later.

Continuing, the English coach describes four pillars that underpin every one of his training sessions, and each tweak and decision on the sidelines: “Own the pitch, own the ball, ‘win’ in both penalty boxes and possess a desirable mentality and character.”

Out of possession: 'Own the pitch'

“If you’re more organised you’ll run less, you’ll play with less stress and be ready to attack,” Beale tells of the way he aims to structure his team out of possession.

In the last decade or so, pressing has come to dominate football tactics, but in that time it has also evolved. Jurgen Klopp’s current Liverpool side is far less ‘heavy metal’ than the Borussia Dortmund team that usurped Bayern Munich a decade ago.

Increasingly, teams will play in a mid-block, falling back into shape and allowing the opposition defence possession before pressing to ‘triggers’. Attempting to force the opposition to play in areas where it’s easier or more advantageous to regain the ball.

That could be a pass to the full-back or a ball played backwards.  For example, it’s easier to press a player when he receives with his back to play and therefore has limited options. Or box a full-back in when he gets possession by the touchline, which acts as an extra defender and limits the player’s options. This approach allows for less energy excursion in the defensive phase and more in the attack.

Playing in a mid-block has many advantages. It concedes possession to the opposition in areas of the pitch that aren’t immediately dangerous and protects the most vulnerable aspect of the pitch, the centre.

Beale explains: “It makes sense to block the middle of the pitch because your goal is in the middle, it makes sense to keep the play in front and outside of you and then to press from in to out.”

‘Owning the pitch’ may resonate as more of an in-possession phrase, but it speaks to the intentional and structured way that the new manager wants his side to play when they don’t have the ball. He says his team should defend with a vision of how they want to attack.

The manager also places real emphasis on the height of his defensive line. As seen in the below screengrab taken from a 1-0 win over Braga, Rangers are protecting a lead but the height of their defensive line is keeping the opposition away from dangerous areas. And, minimising space in the ‘midfield zone’, limiting the areas in which the opposition can play.

Rangers Review:

He references the space behind the defence as the “red zone”. While it is always tempting for a team defending, especially when protecting a lead, to sit deeper, this can invite pressure and concede chances. 

It permits the opposition yards they should be forced to earn and allows them to begin their attacking phase closer to the goal.

Crucially, playing in what he calls the “mid-zone” also means that his team are in a better position and a better height to attack when they regain the ball. The depth of Rangers' defensive line supports their transition into attack as they don’t have to carry the ball up the entire pitch.

Rangers Review:

When working with Gerrard at Ibrox, the side played in a distinctive 4-3-3 and similar foundations were laid by Beale at QPR this summer. Attackers were not tasked with tracking back to support full-backs. Rather the compact shape, which moved where the ball was instead of man-marking allowed them to remain high in what Beale brands “interesting areas”.

Beale calls this a game of “cat and mouse”. He wants his sides to often gamble that the benefit of keeping two or three players in attacking areas outweighs the risk of being overloaded in defence. It’s evident that whenever Beale speaks about defence, the prospect of attack is influencing him.

In the diagram below, the red No.3 and No.11 are in Beale’s words “not in the game” due to the way Rangers are set up defensively. The only way these players can get involved is through a switch of play, which will also allow Rangers the time to shuttle over and enact the same scenario on the other side of the pitch.

This equation means it is feasible for Rangers to leave No.9 and No.7 high while No.11 shuttles over to block the pass into the centre, but still remain high up the pitch, and allow the left central midfielder No.10 to pressurise the ball.

Rangers Review:

Rangers Review:

By keeping their forwards high and central, Beale thinks his team's best mode of defence is suited to their attack.

The incumbent boss also places a huge emphasis on counterpressing, trying to regain the ball quickly when it has been lost, either to pin opponents in and keep the pressure on or attack an unorganised defence.

He wants his side to be highly structured without the ball, manipulating where the opposition can play. Everything is in his words condition towards the attack. The organisation, hard work and discipline provide a necessary framework.

In possession: 'Own the ball’

Beale defines the intention behind all possessional situations, whether that be spells with the ball, counterattacks or turnovers, as discovering where the space is to base a team’s attack.

This space can be exploited by either going around, through or over opponents.

He feels a coach must be “obsessed with overloading and upsetting the opposition defensive line".

He continues: “In my early days as a coach I was very caught up with playing out from the back and playing through. That’s important but the final outcome is ‘how much disruption are you creating in that backline?’”

By his own admission, Beale knows the final outcome is not performance but results. Not how many times you can play through an opposing team, but how many times you can make a meaningful offensive impact. And this is achieved through flexibility, needed in his words: “due to the amount of analysis staff the other clubs will have in terms of watching your team".

This flexibility evolved throughout his last spell at Ibrox. Beale alludes to the ability of Rangers’ full-backs to both go high, or stay deep and supplement build-up play. The capacity of the No.6 (Steven Davis) to drop between the centre-backs to build and Glen Kamara's proclivity to rotate into the space vacated by a forward Tavernier run. Alfredo Morelos could drop and create overloads or carry his team up the pitch through a progressive run, while Ryan Kent was granted freedom.

The system Rangers played evolved from the wide 4-3-3 used against Aberdeen on the opening day of 18/19 to a 4-3-2-1.

It should be said in reply that teams did start to work out Rangers by the time Gerrard, Beale and co departed in November 2021. Gerrard spoke in pre-season about the need for variation but that wasn’t evident before he joined Aston Villa. However, Beale did say in a recent interview with BT Sport that the side was ‘subtly evolving’. Now, he will have an opportunity to showcase some of those ideas during a second stint at Ibrox.

He also reaffirms the importance of width when attacking. While the offside rule allows the opposition to “dictate the length of the pitch”, it’s “very important that they can never change the width”. In other words, it is vital to maximise the space your team can play in.

Beale's vision of positional play also derives from the Dutch 'Total Football' model created by Cruyff and Rinus Michels. It stipulates that players should have the fluidity and intelligence to move in and out of different zones. So that all areas of the pitch are always occupied and teams can be fluid in attack. 

“Utopia for me is finding a group of players that have freedom to rotate in the final third,” Beale continues.

He goes on to add that if you’re occupying key areas of the pitch it doesn’t matter what formation you’re playing. He prefers to think of his team playing in an overall system rather than binary line-ups, but acknowledged recently during a QPR press conference the need to introduce different formations to his repertoire in order to remain "unpredictable".

"I want us to be on the front foot, to take the handbrake off and for us to go for it every single week. I think that's what makes this crowd get excited," he said following his unveiling yesterday.

"The fans come to see their team win, but they also come to be entertained. It's important that we both of those things. 

"But the ideas have changed a little bit, they've grown. There's more variety."

Variation and timing 

Beale ends by talking about the importance of playing relationships that will flourish when needed on the pitch.

“Are we playing together or just at the same time” is another rhetorical question posed in his presentation. Emphasising that his role is not necessarily teaching players how to play, but how to play together with shared vision and understanding.

Beale's coaching credentials have never been in doubt and his admission of the need for variation is a positive sign. It was badly needed towards the end of his last stint at Ibrox and a return to the same patterns, principles and players of that era is not the route forward.

Clearly, he has the ability to improve Rangers' product on the pitch and he has done so before. The task now is to make a success of it out on his own.

This piece was originally published in July 2021, when Michael Beale was Steven Gerrard’s first-team coach at Rangers.

It has been rewritten in light of his appointment as Rangers manager, nearly a year and a half later. The 42-year-old will succeed Giovanni van Bronckhorst just months after he was appointed QPR manager.

You can access more coverage of the managerial change on our website.