All around world football, managers are opting to play with variations of a box midfield and at Ibrox, that trend is no different.

Why? The most valuable attacking area on the football pitch is the centre.

For most possession-dominant teams, whether they use touchline-hugging wingers or not, attacks are designed to access these areas close to goal in the final third, by moving and manipulating the opposition's defence. 

Michael Beale hinted at new ideas with increased variety after returning to Rangers late last year and these themes have been dotted throughout his opening number of months in the job.

Under Steven Gerrard, Rangers were synonymous with a 4-3-3. While that evolved somewhat during his three and a half years in Glasgow, Beale's return is developing some tactical themes and introducing increased variety. 

As previously written by the Rangers Review we can, broadly speaking, split the manager's system into four different categories.

  • The defence, with full-backs generally providing width.
  • Two controlling midfielders, who will drop in and form a back three at points and cover the forward movement of either full-back.
  • Two creative midfielders, handed free roles at the tip of midfield.
  • Two goalscorers, in the side to play on the last line and offer a necessary goal threat.

There’s variation dependent on personnel but generally, any given line-up will feature two controllers, two creators and two goalscorers.

We know Beale wants his attackers to play close together with and without the ball, rather than attacking in isolation. And, as Gerrard learned, playing with more than one goalscorer is a must domestically.

Both of these facts lend themselves to fielding a box midfield. 

Four defenders, four midfielders and two attackers might make up a 4-4-2 on paper. But normally, only two of the outfield 10 will occupy wide zones of the pitch, trying to stretch the opposition, unlike the classic winger and full-back combination of old.

Crucially, a box midfield, throughout different variations, should allow a team to outnumber their opponent in the middle of the park, especially when they sit back and therefore don't mark up man-for-man in defence.

To take Saturday's game, unless Joe Shaughnessy steps up away from his centre-back berth, Rangers have an extra player in the centre. If he does, as will be elaborated upon, the space he vacates in the backline can be attacked. 

Pass networks, which chart the average position from which a player makes their passes, can help us to visualise the narrow, four-man shape Rangers are taking up in possession.

First, let’s take a recent 3-1 win over Kilmarnock. Antonio Colak and Fashion Sakala operated as wide split strikers on the last line against a back three, ahead of a four-man box midfield. With width provided by Borna Barisic on one side and James Tavernier on the other.

Raskin's ahead of Cantwell in this example which offers a rough template of the shape assumed. 

Sakala and Colak played down the side of the opposition back three, another developing tactic at Ibrox, in an attempt to attack the space between Kilmarnock’s wing-backs and centre-backs and move the defence in the process. 

Similar themes were evident in a recent 2-0 win over Dundee United. On that day, Malik Tillman played higher just off of Alfredo Morelos, ahead of a Lundstram, Jack, Kent and Cantwell midfield. 


Both goals in the 2-0 win derived from central overloads, finding Tillman as the third man between the lines.

Some of the best examples can be found in Saturday’s 5-2 win over St Mirren. Rangers’ shape was very distinctively a 4-4-2 box midfield with some interesting alterations.

Firstly, John Lundstram dropped to form a back three throughout. Meaning his team had a superiority with and without the ball against the visitor's two-man attack.

Secondly, Morelos and Sakala played right down the sides of the back three they faced. Notice the free centre-back centrally.

Successful final third passes into the front pair, shown below, generally occurred in wide areas and not the centre of the pitch.

In contrast, Tillman and Cantwell were less likely to get on the ball in wide areas. Why? This tactic is all about the manipulation of space. Trying to pull the opposition defence out with Sakala and Morelos and then attack the space that vacates with the midfield. 


All of these themes combined for a couple of moments in the first-half, one of which resulted in the opening goal.

Notice, Rangers' off-ball movement, vertical runs and intention to find the third man.

Here, you can see a box midfield with Cantwell and Tillman playing just behind Morelos and Sakala.

As the ball is worked right, Cantwell and Tillman move with it in order to create space for James Tavernier to find the feet of Morelos, pulling Shaughnessy away from the central zone.

With the runs of Tillman and Cantwell having dragged the St Mirren midfield wide, Raskin is the free man. He takes the ball off of Morelos and slides it into the path of Cantwell, bursting beyond into the gap.

Only a last-gap tackle and slightly under-hit pass denies the midfielder a free shot. 

Notice the shape of Rangers' midfield here as Tillman exchanges a one-two with Morelos. The central proximity of their attackers means that to deny a free man in midfield, St Mirren's centre-backs again must jump up, creating space for the midfield to subsequently attack.

As Tillman receives the ball back from Morelos, Sakala makes a diagonal run into the space Morelos' run has opened up. Rangers have been able to pull the back three apart with their forwards and now, the midfield is ready to capitalise. 

Sakala lays the ball into the feet of Tavernier who can find Cantwell, making an untracked run from midfield.

Both of these moves allow us to visualise why Cantwell and Tillman were picking up the ball in narrower positions than Sakala and Morelos. 

By moving the visiting back three, Cantwell was able to attack central space just as Tillman could in the previous home game against Dundee United.

And because of a box midfield, the home side always had a free man in the centre. When St Mirren stepped up to negate that, it resulted in their defensive shape being pulled apart.

All of the themes throughout are the by-product of a box midfield. Designed to occupy and move the opposition's defence in the last line, outnumber them in midfield and get attackers playing together close to goal. It's a system custom-made for Beale's ideas.