Rangers entered the 12th league game of the season on the back of a brilliant but busy week: a 2-0 Old Firm victory away from home last weekend followed up with another 2-0 away win in the Europa League on Thursday, this time against Standard Liege who had been unbeaten at home in European competition for the previous 6 years.
Earlier results meant Rangers had the opportunity to open a 6 point lead at the top of the table against Livingston, one of only two sides to hold Rangers to a single point in the first round of fixtures.
On the back of the European trip, Steven Gerrard opted for a number of changes. Alfredo Morelos, Scott Arfield, Glen Kamara, Borna Barisic and Leon Balogun replaced by Jermain Defoe, Joe Aribo, Steven Davis, Calvin Bassey and Filip Helander.
The manager said before kickoff that he anticipated a typical Livingston game: a well organised, tough to break down low block along with physicality and an aerial threat. Unlike the first game, he was looking for Rangers to play more aggressively.
In order to do that Rangers switched from the 4-3-3 formation of the last few games back to the 4-2-3-1 with Jack and Davis controlling the middle of the park, allowing the more advanced trio of Kent, Hagi and Aribo to interchange and impact the game in forward areas.
The surprise was Livingston changing their typical set-up, instead of the usual deep 4-5-1 they opted for a higher 3-4-3 which would drop back to a 4-5-1 when they lost possession: the problem was Rangers quick play and aggressive early passing was able to catch them between formations.
Within 15 minutes Rangers had caught Livingston too high several times, both with early passes in behind and pressing to force turnovers of possession. They made it count twice to take an early 2-0 lead.
For the opening goal, with the Livingston back 3 in possession, both wingbacks moved into advanced positions which triggered the Rangers front 4 to spring into a quick press with a numbers advantage. Defoe and Aribo took the passing options to the other CB’s away while Hagi screened the midfield, this left Ambrose with no simple passing option and Ryan Kent baring down on him, unsurprisingly Ambrose tried to go past Kent but lost the ball, presenting Rangers with a 4 on 3 opportunity.
The ball fell to the perfect player in Ianis Hagi, the Romanian leads all of Scottish football by a wide margin in key passes leading to scoring chances at .85 per game. It was no surprise to see him skip past Ambrose and thread a lovely ball through for a Jermain Defoe one-on-one, a good save from the keeper prevented a goal first time around, but Hagi followed the rebound to drill the ball across goal for a Joe Aribo tap in.
Aribo found himself in acres of space left exposed by the aforementioned wingbacks who were caught high up the pitch.
Four minutes later Livingston were fired a warning shot, another early ball over the top from James Tavernier found Connor Goldson in yards of space in the box, only a poor first touch preventing a scoring opportunity.
Livingston didn’t heed the warning, just 90 seconds later they again lost possession with 5 players in advanced areas. 3 passes and 12 seconds later, it was 2-0 Rangers.
It was James Tavernier once again with an early ball in behind catching the Livingston back 3 too high and the wingbacks not yet back in defensive position. The captains pinpoint pass landed right at the feet of Jermain Defoe who timed his run perfectly to split the CB’s before producing an incredible one touch finish to mark his 300th goal in club football.
At that point, Rangers were happy just to control possession and cruise through the game. With 13 clean sheets in 16 games this season, it was no surprise to see the team do that very comfortably.
A halftime switch back to the standard 4-5-1 from Livingston saw the game become more congested, but with Rangers having no need to chase goals they just saw the game out professionally.
Helander and Goldson worked brilliantly yet again, nullifying any threat in central areas. The only real moment of concern was a lapse on the right side which saw Livingston get an overload that led to a deflected cross that came off the post.
Otherwise, it was another very controlled performance and a third 2-0 victory in just over a week.
With the likes of Kamara, Barisic, Morelos, Roofe, Arfield, Itten and Balogun not involved, plus the imminent arrival of Bongani Zungu, the squad is looking extremely strong. It’s pleasing to see Rangers able to rotate the squad and still pick up routine victories on the back of European games.