Michael Beale’s return to Rangers brought with it a degree of familiarity.

Domestically, a clear identity was formed once again on the pitch as some of the key principles utilised under Steven Gerrard returned. In equal measure, Beale has placed a clear focus on tactical innovation, now the main man as opposed to the manager’s right-hand man.

Presumably after summer, we’ll start to see a greater differentiation between ‘Gerrard’s Rangers’ and ‘Beale’s Rangers’. Even if such distinctions have already been apparent.

As the Rangers Review covered in great detail recently, the manager has evolved the shape and function of Rangers’ front three. Moving from a deep-lying forward with two free No.10s to instead operate with two wide strikers and one free No.10 breaking from deep.

The “new ideas and variation” he referenced back in November have not been exclusive to the front three. Beale’s also consistently used a back three in possession and played with three centre-backs at points.

Your instant reaction to this may be ‘Why do Rangers need to play with an extra centre-back’?

Surely, facing low block after low block, they should instead be focusing on cramming extra attackers into the line-up? Not according to Beale, here are the three reasons why…

Winning small-sided games 

“We have moved to a back three a lot since I have returned, sometimes fully and other times in our build-up play,” the manager said before the end of the season.

The difference between moving "fully" or in "build-up"? The former is when Beale’s team have played three centre-backs, defending and attacking with that shape…

…The latter is when Beale’s side have operated with two centre-backs and a midfielder, normally John Lundstram, dropping to create a back three in the build-up.

The reason Rangers have played with a back three “in most games” in build-up play? Beale wants to create overloads in all areas of the pitch. Meaning if the opposition press with two forwards, a midfielder will normally drop down a line to create a numerical advantage, stretch the pitch and progress forwards.

Rarely in domestic matches will opponents match the numbers Rangers commit to building play deep in the pitch. This is one reason why Beale’s football feels far more conducive to controlling matches and accessing the opposition half cleanly, as opposed to Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s style.

It’s part of the manager’s belief that football is one big game full of “positional small-sided games” happening all over the pitch.

“When you really, really break it down, tactics is much more about the positional small-sided games than 11 vs 11. 11 vs 11 is when you walk out the tunnel when the game starts in that 20 yards around the ball, it’s about those small positional games,” he explained talking on the MPFC Youth Development Podcast podcast.

This also helps explain why Beale normally opts for two holding midfielders, with Ryan Jack or Lundstram partnering Nico Raskin or Glen Kamara last season. The manager wants his teams to strike the right balance behind the ball to facilitate the attacking talent at the top end. Something last season’s Treble winners Man City epitomised by starting four centre-backs and a holding midfielder regularly.

Firstly, opting for a back three facilitates the shapes Beale wants to create deeper in the pitch and the control his football seeks to exert, by winning these positional small-sided games.

Playing to profiles 

You also have to consider the profile of players Beale had available last season as after all, tactics is surely about putting players in environments that best suit their skillset. Beale inherited a squad without a real progressive passer in the No.6 position, or a player capable of controlling the game’s tempo. Therefore, it made practical sense to use a wider back three in possession.

On the left, using a left-footed defender in Davies allowed Beale’s side to attack defences vertically with line-breaking passes or chipped diagonals. His successful passes into the final third last season are attached below.

On the right, Goldson also has a well-renowned diagonal ability while John Souttar is comfortable stepping into midfield and breaking lines by carrying possession, as well as passing.

READ MORE: How Beale's evolving Rangers front three tactical approach 

It makes more sense to create a shape that gets the gets the best out of ball-playing defenders, rather than opting for an in-possession shape that gives a controlling No.6 license to create as he sees fit. That's a role that Steven Davis fulfilled under Gerrard, for example. 

Secondly, opting for a back three is a practical choice. It allows Beale’s centre-backs to play vertically and utilise their stronger progressive qualities, compared to the limits of the No.6 position.

Playing with a back one 

What about when teams don’t play two up top and apply little to no pressure? Surely then, extra attackers are necessary? A back three can also be useful in this scenario, as Beale explained following a 2-0 win over Dundee United earlier this year.

“Sometimes teams don’t play anyone up front or they play one. So we want to play man-for-man with that one – that’s the only person we want there. It’s not three, it’s a matter of playing one-on-one on the halfway line.

“When teams are not playing anyone there, it’s better angles to play two slightly wider, rather than two more narrowly, we’ve been doing it from a back four anyway.”

Again, the suggestion that “we’ve been doing it from a back four anyway” shows that playing with a back three isn’t really all that different. Beale wants his players to problem-solve in-game, winning those “small-sided possession games” we referenced earlier.

Sometimes the requirement is for a midfielder to drop down a line, as demonstrated by Lundstram earlier, but at others, it’s about defenders knowing when to step up.

In that meeting with Dundee United, Lundstram dropped into the centre of Goldson and Davies, allowing both of the centre-backs to push up and play angled passes down the side against the visitor’s sole striker up top. As Beale explained: “When teams are not playing anyone there, it’s better angles to play two slightly wider.”

Here’s a perfect example before Malik Tillman’s opening goal on that day. Notice with Borna Barisic on the ball, the depth of United’s block and the positioning of Davies - acting as something of a very wide auxiliary defensive midfielder.

As Kent gets the ball, Connor Goldson steps up from the second right centre-back slot, with both ahead of United’s only attacker Steven Fletcher.

How is that possible? Because Lundstram, circled, has dropped in, allowing Rangers to defend in a "back one".

It enables Rangers to play vertically and clearly, the unopposed nature of Goldson’s pass shows that the visitors were not prepared to defend this shape. A back three has turned into a back one and created better attacking opportunities. 

This goal sums up all the themes discussed in the piece. Rangers have numerical control in the first line, centre-backs moving wide to exploit better angles and a defensive midfielder in Lundstram dropping to enable the positioning of Davies and Goldson.

If you’d suggested before this match that Rangers would use a back three in possession, you may have been told it was a negative move. However, a strong base is imperative to stretch and strain the stubborn defences faced domestically. It can create a better environment for the attack.

Thirdly, a back three offers different issues for teams who don’t apply pressure and, at times, can allow Rangers to defend with a back one.

To be successful next season Rangers must become a far more potent attacking force than last season, which is an issue the transfer window will seek to resolve.

That attack will be enabled, not hindered, by the inclusion of three or four defensive-minded players in every starting line-up - providing the strong base necessary for success.