“From the first minute onwards I was unhappy with the team today,” an exasperated Michael Beale mused to kick off his post-match press conference on Sunday afternoon.

A 1-0 win over Motherwell was positive in terms of points alone. When a manager concedes his own team “got away with one”, it tells you everything about the nature of the performance in their own terms. Beale, normally a calm and observant figure on the touchline, wore frustration on his face increasingly as the game wore on and could not stick up for what he saw in a variety of post-match media duties.

“The unforced errors with the ball were unacceptable for players playing here. They [Motherwell] executed their plan better than us because we constantly turned the ball over and left ourselves vulnerable,” he added.

Ahead of a League Cup meeting with Livingston tonight where, for Beale, a performance feels as necessary as a result, the Rangers Review rewatched Sunday’s encounter. In an attempt to ascertain more clearly what went wrong on a day when the current mood around Ibrox appeared to dip further south.

No platform in possession

Rangers created a meagre 0.97xG, ended the game in a deep 5-3-2 and were visibly hanging on in the final moments against Motherwell at the weekend. James Tavernier was forced into two pieces of emergency defending, to clear Blair Spittal’s shot off the line and react quickest to head away a Jack Butland save that could’ve been converted at a second attempt earlier in the half. And yet, Beale didn’t talk about chance creation or even, as perhaps would’ve been expected, his team’s discipline off the ball when prompted post-match. Instead, all of his ire seemed to be directed towards Rangers’ own possession of the ball. 

Instinctively, the number of turnovers and loose passes could be blamed upon a poor defensive structure behind the ball, better known as ‘rest defence’. That is, the structure a team takes when on the ball to ensure that if they lose possession, they’re able to quickly regain it thus preventing counterattacks, retaining pressure and, perhaps, even capitalising on some gaps in the opposition’s defence. Steven Davis was a master of this art under Steven Gerrard, able to read the game effectively and stay a step ahead of the opposition.

Rangers’ struggles on Sunday were not owing to too many players in the box after a period of pressure leading to unprotected space, however. This really was a game that lacked basics in possession, moments normally considered so safe that the prospect of possession turning over isn’t even considered. This lack of control on the ball ensured territorial control was never really achieved before the break and allowed Motherwell to build attacks in the second.

Here, the hosts have a wide back three stretched across the pitch enabling their full-backs to occupy the last line, but as John Souttar bursts infield he misplaces a simple pass behind John Lundstram to lose possession while the hosts are "vulnerable".

Or here, Rangers have plenty of bodies in the box until Lundstram contrives to lose possession, Cifuentes is slow to react and the visitors escape unscathed.

There wasn’t the necessary platform for sustained pressure in the final third and too often crosses were flung in from deep. When Borna Barisic curled a right-footed effort over from range late on Beale reacted angrily at the lack of patience displayed. Rangers are averaging just two passes in the penalty box per 90, and only St Johnstone (0.5) and Livingston (1.17) have recorded a lower number. Motherwell over the course of the game completed more passes into the penalty box, seven, than the hosts’ six.

Why the move to a back three?

Bringing on a centre-back for a winger in a domestic home match inside the opening half-hour isn’t the most conventional of substitutions ever made by a Rangers manager. So, did the back three really offer the “stability and balance behind the ball” that Beale suggested after the match?

Bringing on Souttar made sense by some measures. Ben Davies and Souttar can, by way of line-splitting passes or strong ball-carrying, arguably pose a stronger, direct on-ball threat to low blocks than midfielders like Lundstram or Ryan Jack. Moving to a back three, a common theme last season explored previously in greater detail and although it perhaps would’ve made more sense for Lundstram to drop in and another attacker replace Matondo, it’s likely Beale wanted to keep him in midfield where legs were required. Abdallah Sima and Kemar Roofe were being rested with niggles and Jack’s introduction would’ve arguably offered less of an attacking threat. Options were limited given an array of recent injuries.

The combination of Lundstram and three centre-backs was seen in the League Cup against Morton but on that day, Rangers started in an asymmetrical shape with a winger attached to one flank. Matondo attempted 15 dribbles, totalled nine touches in the penalty box and five successful passes into the penalty area. He’s a player who’s going to naturally force the defence backwards and sit on the last line whenever possible. Meaning not only was there a ball-progression route on the left flank, but a threat on the last line. The occupant of the left flank was an attacker, not a defender, enabling moves like this even with three centre-backs and a No.6 in Lundstram on the pitch…

This is not how the back three transpired against Motherwell. Instead, it very much became a back five. Compare the team’s average positions before and after half time, with substitutes included, and look at how deep the hosts' played following the interval.

Rangers effectively lost a player in their press higher up the pitch and instead of defending Motherwell’s front three with four defenders, did so with five. Tavernier and Barisic didn’t play on the last line and given Sam Lammers’ inclination to move towards the ball and Cyriel Dessers’ lack of pace on the last line, everything looked off. They lost a player between the lines and gained an extra defender instead.

Too often Motherwell were able to commit more players to their attack, and to their own press, while playing out easily at the other end.

Scott Wright and the team selection

Scott Wright’s inclusion provoked the raising of eyebrows pre-match. Overall he had a decent enough performance, winning plenty of fouls and receiving between the lines. He started because of injuries to Tom Lawrence, Nico Raskin and Todd Cantwell and yet the optics of it, given only months ago he was jetting off to Turkey and speaking to Sky Sports News, didn’t help the mood.

That said, the goal scored was an isolated moment in which Wright did well. The attacker is likely more comfortable as a ball carrier from deep, when the task is driving centrally and receiving on the half turn, as opposed to isolating himself on the wing given he’s more reliant on bursts of pace than pure one-v-one dribbling. Wright is a more natural back-to-goal option than Matondo, who has the pace to threaten behind the defence, and could become the extra man overloading from left to right. 

The only goal featured some of the key themes absent from the rest of the game; central superiorities between the lines, overloading the right-hand side and well-timed off-ball movement from Dessers to open a passing lane into Matondo after Wright’s pass inverting from the left into Lammers between the lines.

Quantity over Quality 

Sam Lammers had the most shots of any player in the game, seven, but those efforts only amassed an xG of 0.3 - the Dutchman was often shooting from narrow positions, with too many blockers ahead of him or when one final pass would’ve proved a better option. His shot selection was flagged up in our summer scouting report as a potential red flag and Sunday’s game was indicative of moments he needs to improve.

Often pulling the trigger with too many blockers ahead of him or low xG positions…

Or, failing to make what would’ve been a more valuable final pass down the right side of the defence…

Much like Rangers’ shooting overall this season it was a case of quantity over quality. Lammers’ efforts conveyed the look of a man who is still trying to unlock the scoring form of his early career.

The summer arrival should’ve used the ball better on a few occasions in the final third but he still showed up better than most teammates. Able to provide a link between the lines, move intelligently to disrupt defences and pivot onto either side given his ability to use both feet. Although Lammers’ goal record is held against him presently and he’s missed big chances against Celtic and Servette, it’s important to remember he’s operating as a No.10 and not a No.9 with far more onus and responsibility to link play than the likes of Dessers and Danilo. His profile should, theoretically, offer a nice balance of providing outlets through pressure, making an extra ‘striker’s run’ into the box and overloading the right. 

Rangers' xG/Shot of 0.06 was the joint-lowest total in the division over the weekend, xG/Shot translates to the average threat of each shot. Over the course of the season so far, Rangers' 0.09xG/Shot total is indicative of their quantity but not quality in the final third.

For the mood to revert and the narrative to shift, Beale knows that he requires a more convincing performance tonight against Livingston. As he conceded this weekend there was "no comfort" to be taken from the victory earned at Ibrox, and only more comfortable margins in the scorline and underlying trends will change that.