Not so long ago, possession was king.

Barcelona and Spain ruled European football at club and international level respectively, and pundits were in awe of their passing statistics. But that era is finished. Over the last half-decade, thanks to the title wins of Atletico Madrid, Leicester City, Portugal and France, the football world has remembered what it had collectively forgotten: having the ball doesn’t guarantee success.

This point has been underlined repeatedly throughout Rangers’ domestic campaign in 2018/19. While in Europe their aggression without the ball and speed on the counter got them further than most predicted, they have been consistently spoiled on the home front by resolute defensive opposition. Given Kilmarnock are perhaps the most resolute of the bunch, it was no major surprise that they were able to earn yet another point against Steven Gerrard’s side with a 1-1 draw on Saturday afternoon, despite having a mere 27 per cent of possession.

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Steve Clarke lined his side up in a 4-1-4-1 shape, with the only eyebrow-raising decision being the omission of winger Jordan Jones. The Northern Irishman, who is set to join Rangers this summer, has been one of Kilmarnock’s key men this term, and his pace and dribbling skill is usually integral to their counter-attacking threat. However, on this occasion Clarke favoured Rory McKenzie on the left of his midfield five, explaining afterwards that, “I picked the team with a certain way of playing in mind.”

Some might scoff at such a suggestion, but Clarke’s tactical reasoning was made clear early on. Kilmarnock normally defend zonally, with their wingers staying in position on the midfield line rather than dropping to the outside of the back four, though here they had McKenzie track back defensively to form a temporary 5-4-1 and cover the forward movement of James Tavernier. The right-back’s forward raids and rotations with Daniel Candeias are important components in Rangers’ attacking game, but going man-to-man against the pair prevented either of them from getting free down the flank or in the inside channel.

HeraldScotland: Rory McKenzie moves up the left wingRory McKenzie moves up the left wing

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Returning to Clarke’s selection, it’s fair to question, given his attacking tendencies, whether Jones would have performed this man-to-man covering role as effectively as McKenzie. The blunt answer is probably not.

Kilmarnock see merit in not having the ball. This term they have averaged 46 per cent possession – only five Premiership teams have averaged less. At Ibrox, however, they took the art of non-possession to another level, achieving their lowest amount of the season. So uninterested were they in the ball, it seemed as if they were giving it up on purpose. They went long at almost every attempt, despite having no real target man to aim for. This was likely a deliberate tactical ploy.

By going long from back to front instantly, Kilmarnock could stay in their defensive pose and avoid being counter-attacked. After all, it was in these very moments that the home side looked at their most potent. Whenever they could attack a disorganised defence in transition, Rangers threatened with the pace and skill of Candeias, Ryan Kent and Alfredo Morelos exploiting the space available. But these occasions were all too infrequent, precisely because Kilmarnock rarely had organised possession to give away in the first place.

The challenge for Rangers, then, was to penetrate a solid low block. Kilmarnock sat deep and only applied pressure on the ball in their own half, focusing on congesting the space between the lines. Their lone striker – Conor McAleny, who replaced the injured Eamonn Brophy early on – tended to position himself near Glen Kamara and looked primarily to cut passing lanes rather than close down Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic.

HeraldScotland: Kilmarnock's defensive lineKilmarnock's defensive line

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Rangers’ centre-back duo thus often had comfortable possession, but they alone were unable to break through the visitors’ defensive shape. They needed movement ahead of them, and it came from the central midfielders and wingers. Unfortunately, not all movement is good movement.

Without Scott Arfield and Ryan Jack, Gerrard was missing two of his favourite midfielders. Steven Davis and Lassana Coulibaly took their places in the line-up, though there appeared confusion as to where they should position themselves. While Kamara usually stayed at the base, Davis and Coulibaly moved freely between the thirds. Sometimes this freedom led to a poor structure, with all three central midfielders sitting in front of the Kilmarnock defensive block. As a consequence of this, Rangers struggled to progress possession efficiently through midfield.

HeraldScotland: Rangers' men in the middleRangers' men in the middle

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Candeias and Kent performed their usual movements, drifting into more central areas to try and create overloads and enable forward passes and combination play, but Kilmarnock’s organisation, along with the sheer numbers they had in their own defensive third, meant Rangers couldn’t get their wide men on the ball in time or space between the lines or in the channels.

All things considered, Kamara was their best bet for penetrating the away team’s defensive lines. The former Dundee man showed remarkable control, footwork and a desire to take risks in order to go through the opposition, rather than around or over.

Kilmarnock’s deep defensive compactness made it difficult for Rangers to get clean shots off, explaining why the hosts recorded an xG (Expected Goals) tally of 0.55 on the day. On the few occasions Morelos and Co. did work shooting positions, there were multiple defenders surrounding them or directly blocking their path to goal. The compactness preached by Clarke had other benefits, too.

When Killie regained possession within their own half, they didn’t do what most other sides would: panic and thump aimless long balls into opposition territory, only for it to come back at them instantaneously. Rather, they used their numbers around the ball to play short passes and combine with one another. From here they could play out of pressure and move up the pitch more gradually as a unit, without completely losing their shape.

HeraldScotland: Kilmarnock's counter attackKilmarnock's counter attack

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Their goal didn’t come via counter-attack, but through a bizarre piece of defensive decision-making. The Rangers centre-backs took up positions on different lines – Goldson moved up, while Katic stayed back – allowing McAleny to stay onside while latching onto a ball over the top from the irrepressible Gary Dicker. From there a wild rush out from Allan McGregor left the striker with an empty net to finish into, giving Kilmarnock the lead just before the half-hour mark.

Gerrard made personnel changes at half-time, replacing Candeias with Eros Grezda and swapping Andrew Halliday for the more attack-minded Borna Barisic. While the latter switch gave Rangers more threat down the left-hand side, it wasn’t until a tactical modification that they got their equaliser.

Jermain Defoe was introduced for Coulibaly on 64 minutes, as the 4-3-3 Gerrard started with became a 4-4-2. Defoe joined Morelos up front, while the wingers held higher and wider positions. The change opened up new possibilities, one of which was that the Kilmarnock full-backs now had to move wider in order to close down the Rangers wingers, as they had done throughout the match. This opened up the channels between the full-backs and the centre-backs, which Rangers exploited immediately.

Grezda drew out Killie left-back Greg Taylor, and Tavernier played a ball in the channel for Morelos, who was now, finally, 1v1 against Stuart Findlay. The Colombian rolled his man, as he so often does in these situations, before firing home from close range.

HeraldScotland: Rangers' Plan BRangers' Plan B

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Tactical tinkerer that he is, Clarke wasn’t about to accept the change in approach from Rangers without responding with an alteration of his own. Recognising that the home side were focusing on circulating the ball from one wing to the other at speed in order to get 2v2s featuring their wingers and full-backs, he brought on Liam Millar for Alan Power. On paper, this was an attacking substitution. In reality, the intention behind it was mainly defensive.

By pairing McAleny with Millar, Clarke now had a front two that could get more pressure on the Rangers central midfield duo. As a result, Davis and Kamara had less time and space on the ball and were not so able to receive and pass out to the wings. Rangers’ build-up play stuttered slightly, while Millar also offered a fresher, more direct counter-attacking threat through his speed.

The final scoreline of 1-1 didn’t flatter Kilmarnock. More than that, it furthered the notion that possession statistics, in isolation, are almost entirely irrelevant. Rangers dominated the ball, but they couldn’t turn that dominance into three points. It’s the story of their league season, and it could cost them the title.