Modern football is a constant battle for space. Especially for a team like Rangers, routinely faced with breaking down the low block.

They have to provide a mixture of provocation and penetration - opening gaps and exploiting them before a defence can react. Facing Hearts at home last week saw this squad struggle with a game state that’s tripped them up too often. Despite some good chances before half time, familiar patterns played out too readily; crosses into a penalty box flooded with centre-backs and a lack of threatening width.

Speaking before Sunday’s subsequent meeting in the Viaplay Cup Semi-Final with Hearts, Philippe Clement said: "For Hearts, the scenario was perfect last week scoring after five minutes and being able to park the bus. I hope we can make it another game and score first so they have to [come out] also."

The Belgian's wish was granted. His side ran out comfortable 3-1 winners after, crucially, scoring first to set up a final with Aberdeen next month. And while the first half saw Rangers in total control, this game felt descriptive of where they’re at under their new manager. Time on the training pitch and recruitment are both required to pose deep defences with more issues out wide, for a team that's been built to flood the centre.

This game demonstrated why, as Clement works solutions with this squad against five-man defences, brief sightings of space must be fully exploited. As the second half showed...

Clement stationed Sam Lammers closer to the left than usual in Sunday's line-up, likely in a bid to present his left-back with a wider array of passing options. If possession was moved quickly enough, Borna Barisic could target Abdallah Sima's runs in behind. However, the manager demonstrated frustration at the left-back turning backwards in possession early on. If there was no space for Barisic to hit behind, too often he crossed into a box heavily populated by centre-backs in Maroon.

Take this example, Barisic does well to regain possession after Zander Clark throws the ball forward and Rangers have a six-vs-four in transition. Instead of picking a pass, a lofted cross is opted for and cleared away.

Or here, with Barisic lofting the ball to the back post despite four defenders facing the ball and three Rangers men open the edge of the box. Tavernier often remained outside the area to guard against counterattacks, leaving any back post aerial threat limited.

On the right, possession proved more fluid. Danilo and Cantwell linked cleverly on occasion, with the Brazilian forward demonstrating, as he had done in midweek, recognition of when to drop down a line and offer a passing option.

However, without a left-footer on the right, too often when the play slowed Hearts were able to force Tavernier, Cantwell or Ryan Jack backwards. Naturally, you sense that Cantwell wants to move centrally as a player and for all of Tavernier’s qualities, he’s not a one-on-one winger. 

Rangers attempted 21 crosses in the first half and just nine in the second. So what changed after the break?

Scott Wright replaced Cantwell at half time. In theory, he's a player more suited to the right of midfield. Wright's impact was immediate, scoring a driven shot reminiscent of that Scottish Cup Final goal against the same opposition in 2021 and winning a free-kick that Tavernier would score a third from.

But it wasn’t ‘natural width’ that changed this game. Look at the passes Wright received (right) compared to the man he replaced, Cantwell (left). Often, the substitute was situated even closer to Lammers.

What did change the game? Rangers were able to exploit space with transitions and aggressive pressing when they lost possession, capitalising on the small pockets of space provided. Lacking answers when Hearts fell deep into their shape, this improvement was vital.

Clement has spoken frequently about the need for structure to “stop transitions” but simultaneously, possessing a defensive mind even when attacking also creates opportunities, ensuring you can quickly exploit gaps regaining possession after losing it as opposition defenders move forward and spaces open up. As teams all around world football will testify, when you’re breaking down a defence moments of transition and set-pieces can prove key.

Take the first goal as an example. Rangers had the ball wide on the right after a switch from Sima, but Tavernier’s floated delivery was overhit and Toby Sibbick cleared to the feet of Lawrence Shankland.

READ MORE: Analysing Danilo's dominant Rangers performance in 5-0 Dundee win

Below, Shankland’s lay-off to Beni Baningime at the base of midfield is slightly underhit, allowing Lammers and Wright to crowd the Hearts No.6 before Shankland plays another misplaced pass, this time allowing Danilo to run onto the ball. It was very common to see Wright join Lammers in pressuring the No.6 after the interval.

After driving forward, Lammers sees a shooting opportunity blocked before the ball is deflected wide, Barisic attempts a deep cross which deflects off him for a Hearts throw.


Rangers Review:

But the chance is not over. From the following throw, Rangers win first, second and third contact and, as Kye Rowles tries to head the ball back to Zander Clark, Danilo is alive again to win the spot-kick. From Hearts’ opportunity to get forwards, Rangers opened the scoring. 

The second goal featured similar themes. 

Below, Clark looks to kick the ball long to the Hearts right but Barisic wins the header. The Croatian was guilty of over-crossing but played an important role in negating the physical superiority enjoyed by Sibbick and Shankland on that side last week. As the ball reaches Baningime, Lammers regains possession again with the help of Wright. Rangers have the opportunity to attack into space that they failed to exploit in the first half.

Sima’s first touch is heavy but Jack is following the play while the left side of the Hearts defence has not reacted, presuming that they’ll clear the ball, presenting Danilo with a free pass to pick out Wright to score. Notice, Rangers’ structure after losing possession has created a goal.

Although Wright didn’t do much different compared to Cantwell positionally, this goal was a perfect example of a right-sided player thriving in their natural position. Especially when you compare it to a shooting chance Cantwell passed up at Ibrox last week from a similar position.

That’s not to knock Cantwell’s quality, he’s a strong claim as this team’s highest-quality player. Rather, Wright’s place in the team afforded Rangers something they’d lacked prior to Clement’s arrival - pace and direct ball-carrying.

The third goal? You know the pattern by now. After Lundstram has won the ball but misplaced a forward pass, Baningime again seeks out Shankland below who’s closely followed by Barisic and gets a foot in, with Lammers on hand to pick up the second ball again and find Wright. Threatening to drive into the box, he's pulled back to win a free-kick Tavernier would convert exceptionally.

It was telling that no goals derived from the aftermath of floated crosses which allowed the Hearts defence time to crowd the box and get numbers behind the ball. Instead, it was fast vertical movement that made the difference

Each goal featured similar themes. Hearts couldn't make the ball stick as they had done last week down their right and Shankland gave up possession, Rangers pressed Hearts' No.6 aggressively to regain possession with Lammers and Wright and quickly exploited their upper hand.

As Clement's men continue to work on the specifics that will carve open five-man defences, Sunday showed that transitions are key.