Posted on September 20, 2010


Rangers surprised Manchester United (and the whole world) with an ultra-defensive 5 man defense in their Champion’s League opener. This is a formation that is tailor-made to neutralize a 442, which is what Manchester United insisted on playing even when it was clearly not working.  The two shapes are shown below.

How Rangers Neutralized Man united


Rangers played with 3 center backs who stayed central and patrolled the penalty box. Two of the center-backs picked up Hernandez and Rooney while the spare man swept up anything that slipped through. The Rangers defenders would normally be at a disadvantage against two quick, skillful strikers but they were never exposed to one-on-one situations so could easily cope. Rangers defended deep and narrow, conceding the wide areas to the United fullbacks who saw plenty of the ball. This was not a problem because although Hernandez and Rooney are good in the air, they are still at a major disadvantage against the likes of Wier and Bougherra. Most of United’s crosses were easily dealt with and their strikers were failing to find space in the box. It was the perfect example of why 3 men defenses used to be so popular against two striker systems.

The constant 3 versus 2 in the penalty box


As the game went on Rooney started to drop into midfield looking to see more of the ball. He had played brilliantly in this role for England in the Euro qualifiers, being more of a creator than a finisher. Rangers were prepared for this however because whenever Rooney dropped into the hole, Edu was there to meet him and deny him any space. Fabio Capello has said he is reluctant to play Rooney in this role if the opposition is playing a holding midfielder and the brilliance of Edu showed the logic behind this decision. Rooney being neutralized forced United to play through the wings, where they were less of a threat because of Rangers’ dominance in the air.


One of the strengths of Manchester United is their counter attack. Rangers dealt with this threat by getting 9 men behind the ball the instant they lost possession. This created a blue wall that killed any hope of a counter attack. The deep defensive line meant that there was no space for through-balls to be played into. The Rangers fullbacks also played deep so the United wingers could not get to the byline and deliver crosses. Valencia and Park are not great dribblers and even though they are very good at what they do, their game is somewhat predictable. When faced with a mass defense like this these wingers become much less effective. Since they had no passing targets the Man United central midfielders were reduced to trying shots from distance, with Gibson being the team’s best hope for a goal. Miller did a good job of leading the line and relieving pressure when needed. This kept the United defense honest and they could not just pour forward.

Rangers defending deep and in numbers


Rangers were able to neutralize Manchester United’s two striker system by always having an extra man in the box to prevent one-on-one situations. By defending deep, in numbers and using Edu to track Rooney when he dropped deep, Rangers took away all the advantages of the 442. Manchester United were reduced to a few long range shots and harmless crosses. United failed come up with a Plan B but Rangers did a brilliant job of dealing with Plan A.

A defensive master class.