While this season looks to have come to a standstill on the domestic front due to recent faltering against Hearts, St Johnstone and Hamilton the Europa League appears to be an unlikely haven for Steven Gerrard and his team.
Rangers face Bayer Leverkusen in what could easily be classed as their toughest test to date. The German outfit currently sits 4th (8 points behind Bayern Munch in 1st) in the ultra-competitive Bundesliga. This game has substantial financial implications for Rangers. With Celtic’s shock knockout to Copenhagen; Rangers will now receive Scotland’s full share of TV rights for the last 16 of the Europa League, equating to a minimum additional £718,750 on top of the approximate £7.25 Million they have received in TV and Prize money.
To help contextualise just how difficult a task this is for Rangers, The probability of qualification provided by infogol – demonstrates only LASK of Austria face a more difficult challenge over two legs.
The coaching staff at Rangers have had their share of critics but when it comes to their European exploits there are more positives than negatives, including being unbeaten in 17 home games winning 12 of those games, and only Braga have scored more than one goal in those 17 games. It is also worth noting Rangers are the only club to have reached this season’s round of 16 after beginning their UEFA Europa League journey in the first qualifying round.
The “Christmas Tree” or 4321 that has been constructed under the guidance of Michael Beale has undoubtedly been more effective in European football partly due to those in the free roles for the two advanced players behind the striker having more ability to find space against teams that will attack and press Rangers higher up the park. This might be why they have had more success as well as being able to ride their luck at times, as they actually finished 3rd in the xG difference table (-0.6 xG difference) behind Porto(5.2xG) & Young Boys (+0.2xG) for their group. You can also see this when looking at the xG over the two legs against Braga as the shot maps provided by Infogol indicate that luck was perhaps favouring Glasgow’s red, white and blue.
My predicted line up does not provide many surprises for most supporters. With injuries lingering over Arfield, Helander and the most recent knock to Tavernier, it would be a surprise to see Gerrard move away from the players he “trusts.”
The patterns of play will be valuable in how Rangers look to create overloads down the flanks with the ever-willing runs of Barišić and Tavernier who look to provide width and opportunities for the joint top scorer in the Europa League Alfredo Morelos looking to rediscover his form.
That said the most crucial part of play would be how they press Bayer Leverkusen. The Germans are a team who like to dominate possession; averaging 59.9% of the ball which is second only behind Bayern Munich and attempting the 3rd highest amount of passes per game in the Bundesliga with only Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich having more completed passes per 90 minutes.
A key component in this press will be Rangers ability to be flexible in their approach when attempting to win the ball back against “Die Werkself”. Against Braga there was a balance between a controlled & structured press maintaining the shape in the defensive transition. The backline and midfield three were compact, and the forwards were to press when the Braga CB’s were in advanced areas. We also saw an aggressive high press where forwards (Kamberi, Kent, Hagi) and midfielders (Jack, Arfield) pushed onto Braga backline predominantly to stop them from playing out from the goalkeeper where possible to force an error or turnover higher up the pitch. This dual approach to winning the ball back caused confusion for Braga and forced them into the wider areas and limited the possibility of playing through the middle.
What to expect from Bayer Leverkusen
Peter Bosz, the former Ajax and Borussia Dortmund manager, tends to flex between a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-3. Interestingly six of the last seven games Leverkusen have played the 3-4-3 up until this weekend against Frankfurt in the Bundesliga where they reverted to the 4-2-3-1 ( This resulted in a 4-0 win ) .
Is this a byproduct of the performance against Braga? Only Peter Bosz will know. A quick note looking through Rangers European results the last team that played the 4-2-3-1 was Villareal, and as per FBREF.com, the underlying xG measure would suggest that these were maybe fortuitous results as per below.
Keeper Lukáš Hrádecký predominantly plays the ball out to Jonathan Tah or Sven Bender (who left the game over the weekend against Frankfurt with an injury to his knee and will now be a doubt to start on Thursday). So going back to Rangers press they will need to ensure that they are active and press collectively or in their structured format to stop Leverkusen progressing through the lines. The positioning and roles of Ryan Kent and Ianis Hagi will be pivotal out of possession.
Leverkusen will also look to create one v one situations by pulling the play over to one side and quickly switching to the opposite flank where space is for any of the danger men, It is worth noting there is a lot of pace in the wide area’s with Diaby but especially on the side of Karim Bellarabi and Mitchell Weiser, so Kamara and Barišić will need to be positionally aware of the dangers in transition of phases.
When building play, Leverkusen tends to have players drop towards the ball and look to find the half-spaces available, and in Kai Havertz they have a player who is exceptional at exploiting any mistakes that teams make. Havertz has an outstanding range of passing and is more than capable of hitting the target from a distance. It will be a surprise to most if this seven-times capped German international is not playing at the highest level for one of the elite clubs soon. For now Steven Gerrard and Michael Beale will need to decide on whether to trust their structure or apply a man-marking approach to limit Havertz time and space on the ball. Games against Hoffenheim Havertz struggled when he had a shadow he struggled to make an impact and this could be tempting to have Davis or Kamara follow this exciting prospect for 90 minutes.
So how can Rangers get a result?
As good as Bayer Leverkusen can be in the attacking phase there are opportunities to exploit. There can be huge gaps on the right side. Mitchell Weiser has some similarities to James Tavernier in that he is an offensive-minded full-back and there can be gaps visible as Ballarabi rarely looks to cover for his teammate and does not seem to be positionally focused when it comes to pressing. Rangers could ask Morelos to pull to the right side, and this could allow for Ryan Kent to find himself in one v one situation against Jonathan Tah who will have to step up into the space if they can regain possession quickly which could create huge gaps to attack. A goal similar to what was scored against Braga, is how I would imagine Rangers might create opportunities against Leverkusen as they do have some similarities in terms of their high defensive line, turning the ball over and transitioning quickly should allow for some clear chances.
There is also a significant drop off between Sven Bender and Jonathan Tah in terms of aerial duels won ( 118 to 71 ), so if Bender is unable to make the game, then you might see more success from set-pieces. Alfredo Morelos who we have barely mentioned is someone will have an opportunity to redeem himself as I expect Barišić to have the space to get some dangerous deliveries and he might add to his xA which is currently sitting at 0.17xA per 90 in the Europa League.
Finalising the preview of this game, I am expecting Leverkusen to dominate the ball for large periods of the 90 and to have a number of attempts on goal, Rangers will have to be structurally at their best to stop the German juggernaut but will also have to make the most of their chances. Exploit the space down the right flank with Barisic and Kent, and there might be an opportunity to take another big European scalp.