Rangers secured their place in the UEFA Europa League group stage with a 1-0 victory over Legia Warsaw. Last week’s first leg in Warsaw finished 0-0 and the tie looked set to enter extra-time until Rangers’ late winner.
Steven Gerrard’s men dominated a tense affair at Ibrox, with Alfredo Morelos scoring a 91st-minute winner. This tactical analysis will examine the tactics deployed that secured Rangers’ victory on the night.
Steven Gerrard made one change to the team he played in the reverse fixture. Borna Barišić came in at left-back after recent improved performances. Rangers opted to line up in their usual 4-3-2-1, with Arfield and Ojo either side of Morelos. Out of possession Rangers dropped to a 4-4-2 to mirror Legia, with Arfield supporting Morelos and Ojo dropping left.
Legia lined up in a 4-4-1-1 formation, with forward Kulenović supported by Gvilia who played just behind him. The visitor’s game plan was to contain Rangers and counter-attack, but they struggled to create chances.
This was a game largely dominated by Rangers. Analysis of the match statistics shows the home side had 63% of possession to Legia’s 37% and attempted 519 passes to Legia’s 268.
Rangers press limits Legia’s distribution
Both teams began the opening exchanges in a medium block, seemingly happy for the opposition centre-backs to have the ball. As the half progressed however the normally high-intensity pressing of Legia became less evident as they sat deep and allowed Rangers possession in the wide areas, confident in their ability to defend crosses. More on that later. Rangers’ press was effective and limited Legia’s ability to distribute the ball.
The below image shows that Rangers often try and win the ball back in the half-space and force a turnover of possession. It’s a similar press to the one utilised by Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool, who believes that this is the most dangerous position to win the ball and launch a counter-attack. If the ball isn’t won here, the opposition is either forced to play the ball long or play it backwards.
Rangers’ press was normally triggered by one of Legia’s full-backs gaining possession. Then, one of the Rangers’ inside forwards (in the example above Arfield) would shuffle over to block the square ball. In the below image Lewczuk has the ball and quickly sees his options limited. Barišić has tracked his man, whilst Ojo, Arfield and Morelos are blocking off the other options.
The ball is played to full-back Stolarski and Rangers block off any potential forward pass and press the ball. Either Legia are forced to play a long ball or turn and play to the goalkeeper. They do the latter, keeping the ball but not hurting Rangers in the process.
This press restricted Legia’s ability to play out from the back and meant they were often forced to pass backwards or play the long ball. 14.55% of their passes were played long in comparison to Rangers 8.48%. However, Nicola Katić was dominant in the air meaning Legia struggled to transition the ball up the pitch. The Croatian won 12 of his 13 ariel duels.
The above mentioned Scott Arfield is a key member of the Rangers team for many reasons, one being his ability to trigger the press as shown above. Playing as one of Rangers’ inside forwards he drifts close to the Rangers centre forward instead of tracking the opposition full-back and normally remains high.
Arfield’s positioning won the ball several times in the opening exchanges. In the image below he is not marking the full-back as a winger traditionally would and his diagonal run allows him to intercept a poor pass from Jędrzejczyk. An interception such as this as shown below allows Rangers to immediately counter-press whilst the Legia left-back Rocha (highlighted) is out of position.
Rangers offer an attacking threat from both flanks
When Jon Flanagan plays at left-back Rangers are slightly restricted offensively and are set up to overload on the right. This was evident in Rangers’ previous clash with Midtjylland in the UEFA Europa League, two of the three goals from open play were created down the right flank.
Flanagan has other strengths and allowing the more accomplished creator James Tavernier to roam forward is often one, due to his defensive discipline. Here is an example of Flanagan retreating when Tavernier advances with the ball. Tavernier’s freedom to go forward here created a Rangers goal.
This can benefit Rangers and means they are less likely to be vulnerable on the counterattack. But in a home game when you dominate possession, two attacking full-backs can provide a significant advantage and allow you strength on both flanks. Borna Barišić was chosen to start on Thursday and offers a much greater threat going forward. A recent upturn in performance meant he was rewarded with a start and he repaid Gerrard’s trust with an assured performance, until he was substituted due to a concussion concern. Barišić was positive in possession and linked well with Ojo and left-sided central midfielder Aribo.
There was still an obvious emphasis on Rangers utilising their right flank. In the below image we can see that Ryan Jack drops into the right-back position so to allow James Tavernier to isolate himself one on one with Legia left-back Rocha. They manage this in the frames below. Barišić brings the ball out of defence well and plays the ball to Morelos. The striker’s pass was wayward, but the space offered to Tavernier due to the positioning of Jack and creativity of Barišić is evident.
Further proof of Rangers’ emphasis on getting Tavernier (2) forward is seen in the average positioning map below. Tavernier’s average position is almost as high as Alfredo Morelos (20). Ryan Jack’s (8) positioning is also noticeably more reserved than Joe Aribo (11).
Rangers eventually profit from a cross
A noticeable theme throughout the game was the number of crosses Rangers were able to provide. Normally one of the key strengths of this side, Legia’s centre backs were evidently confident in their ability to defend from balls into the box.
Rangers attempted 37 crosses, of which only 15 were successful. Teams often feel that the easiest way to defend deep is to allow space for the opposition full-backs to cross from deep, see Unia Emery’s game plan against Liverpool as an example. Legia certainly believed this was the best way to thwart Rangers. They won 67% of their 93 attempted defensive duels and made 38 clearances. A sign of Rangers’ dominance is the comparative 62 defensive duels and 9 clearances they made, the ball spent much more time in the Legia final third, but Legia, for the most part, defended astutely.
However, after defending so effectively from crosses throughout the match Legia eventually went behind from one. It was a moment of quality from Jordan Jones to assist Morelos for the winning goal. Pinging an inch-perfect cross to the Columbian. Often, Rangers’ crosses had struggled to beat the first man, shown by the fact that only 40.5% of their crosses were accurate. The all-important cross was not, but as good as the delivery was Morelos’ movement was the key element.
Not dissimilar from a chance in the first half, his sudden dash in between the Legia centre back pairing allowed him the space to nod home.
To conclude, Legia Warsaw came to Ibrox to defend deep and frustrate Rangers. The Polish side rarely troubled ‘keeper McGregor but were resolute defensively right up until the Morelos winner. Rangers will be pleased that eventually, their quality shone through after dominating an entertaining and passionate fixture. The UEFA Europa League group stage is next for Steven Gerrard’s side.
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