Most presumed that Malik Tillman was certain to play in Michael Beale’s front three after a change in the Ibrox dugout late last year.

But right from the off, Beale made it clear he wasn’t part of that particular thinktank. In early press conferences, it became evident that the manager intended to harness the 20-year-old’s talents as the midfield’s attacking outlet, functioning within the heart of the action.

The theory was, and remains, sound. Tillman is a dependable ball-winner, contrary to some early season rhetoric, an impressive ball carrier and an obvious goal threat. Operating in the midfield would see him heavily involved in every aspect of the game, taking more touches and enjoying a greater influence over proceedings.

It wasn’t only what was brought to the midfield directly, but also indirectly. By including Tillman’s attacking presence deeper in the pitch another forward could slot into the front three and provide important final third numbers, especially away from home.

“I see Malik as a goalscorer, so rather than picking between him and Fashion Sakala we pick both,” Beale said following a 2-0 win against Dundee United in January.

Of course, positions are flexible in this team. Sakala’s played from the right and left, while the shape of the front three has gradually evolved over time. But the roles within this system, to have two midfield controllers, two connectors or creators and two goalscorers, has been recognisable in each line-up. It’s a template that’s earned 13 from 14 league wins to date.

With all that said, does this weekend show that Beale’s initial plan is set to change?

Before the transfer window closed, Tillman was the only real candidate to occupy the advanced midfield role but now, Todd Cantwell is playing and performing to a level that doesn’t merit dropping.

As the Rangers Review covered last week, both players have to be in the starting 11 going forwards. The question before Saturday’s 4-2 win over Motherwell was how Beale worked a solution to facilitate that and based on the evidence, it could result in Tillman playing closer to the top end of the pitch.

“We took off two strikers and bring on Alfredo and play Malik with him, which is a slight change and something we have been working on. They came on and contributed well,” the manager said speaking after the game.

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We know that Beale wants to line up with two holding midfielders to alleviate advanced full-backs and provide balance in the team.

When Tillman, Cantwell, Kent, Fashion Sakala and Alfredo Morelos all played against Ross County in February, the manager conceded that some balance was lost, saying: “It’s now for me to pick a team that’s balanced because we’ve got a lot of good football players, they’re going to have to fight it out.”

It was telling that in place of the injured Nico Raskin, Cantwell and Tillman did not start either side of Ryan Jack. Instead, the Bayern Munich loanee came off the bench to partner Morelos up top.

READ MORE: Rangers' win over Motherwell showed 'the new things' Michael Beale's been trying

Playing Tillman in that front three and Cantwell in the midfield three makes more sense on the surface than the opposite option for two key reasons.

Cantwell has shown himself to be equally capable off the ball and it doesn’t look like Rangers will lose out by pushing Tillman out of the midfield. The January arrival’s off-ball pressure numbers are only marginally lower than Tillman's (22.34 to 25.17) alongside his tackles and interceptions (5.94 to 6.07).


Secondly, alongside a greater goal threat, Tillman boasts a profile that can thrive higher up the pitch in this system.

Let’s take a look at the numbers. Despite scoring eight league goals in 19.2 minutes from midfield, Tillman hasn’t actually averaged that many shots. In fact, Kent (2.07) has pulled the trigger more often than the youngster in the league this season (1.98).

Take a look at his shot map and notice the refined selection. Tillman doesn’t pull the trigger from range but prioritises quality over quantity, having also overperformed his expected goals number by more than two.

What’s more, his shot touch, the percentage of touches that are shots, corroborates this point. It’s much lower at two per cent than Morelos and Sakala (six) and Antonio Colak (nine). 

Logic suggests that if the US international was to be afforded more scope in the penalty area, more shots and subsequently, more goals would follow given the quality of finish he possesses. His goal on Saturday was indicative of a player who spent much of his youth career at No.9.

Stylistically, moving Tillman up a line would also make sense. Able to hold the ball in, twist and turn and operate in tight spaces, he can find solutions to unlock packed defences, while Cantwell fulfils a similar task from deeper in the midfield.

When Beale initially spoke about Tillman's position, he said: “If he is going to fulfil his potential which I think is very, very high, he needs to tick the box as a running No.8.”

Having shown an ability to play that role, perhaps the goalposts have moved. 

Do Rangers now have the means to move a prized attacking asset closer to goal without losing much in return from the midfield? It looks as though we might be about to find out.