As we enter the UEFA Europa League round of 16, Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard’s Rangers had just returned from a 1-0 away win against Ross County, and now welcomed Bayer 04 Leverkusen, who themselves had just had a convincing 4-0 home win against Eintracht Frankfurt.
Rangers of late have been fairly inconsistent, with their last four games ending 1-0, two of which ended in their favour. Leverkusen on the other hand, were unbeaten in nine games, amounting to 24 goals, and were sitting in 5th place, with momentum very much on their side and bidding to guarantee a UEFA Champions League place in the Bundesliga, looked set to continue their stellar run of form.
Rangers lined up in 4-3-3, making two changes from the 1-0 win over Ross County, with James Tavernier and Scott Arfield coming in for Ianis Hagi and Matt Polster.
Leverkusen lined up in 3-4-3, making three changes from their impressive 4-0 win against Eintracht Frankfurt last weekend. Opting to bring in Jonathan Tah, Aleksandar Dragović, and Kerem Demirbay instead of Paulinho, Sven Bender, and Julian Baumgartlinger. These changes meant a change in the system, having lined up in a 4-2-3-1 at the weekend, instead opting for 3-4-3, this gives them more defensive stability, adding the extra centre-back and provides overloads on the wings, with wing-backs pushing forward to support the attacks and the current wingers creating angles in which to create space.
Leverkusen in the first half had almost unchallenged control of the game. Leverkusen kept the ball really well, moving the ball from side to side, waiting for opportunities that were hard to find as a result of Rangers setting up a deep block, not allowing any spaces for Leverkusen to attack in the central areas. Leverkusen in response to this never forced the issue, but instead remained patient – resulting in nothing short of the perfect first half. As you can see below, Bayer 04 Leverkusen had 75% possession in the first half with a passing accuracy of 90%.
Leverkusen achieved this by pushing their wing-backs further up the field and letting the centre-backs bring the ball out from the back and control the tempo, by doing this, Rangers had no option but to engage with the defenders and close them down, which in return would allow more room though their creative attacking players, as well as their wing-backs. This was a common theme in the game – so much so that Jonathan Tah, Aleksandar Dragović, Edmond Tapsoba had actually completed the most passes.
As you can see, everything came through the three centre-backs. At the final whistle, Tah completed 89% of his 107 attempted passes. Dragović had completed 97% of his 86 attempted passes and Tapsoba completed 94% of his 103 attempted passes.
The above image displays perfectly how Bayer 04 Leverkusen kept control. As you can see, the three centre-backs are split, providing width to which they create space for their more creative players. The wingers in the side, Karim Bellarabi, and Moussa Diaby would drift inwards, which in turn would mean the wing-backs of Leverkusen would push forward. The above image shows the left wing-back, Wendell, pushing forward into an attacking role, this exact phase of play was repeated on either side and continuously during the whole game. It really leaves the Rangers full-backs with a decision to make – do they follow the winger inside, or do they track the wing-backs?
Rangers in the first half really adopted an approach to sit behind the ball and stifle Leverkusen. As you can see from the above image, in the first half, Rangers averaged 33.1 for Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA), Leverkusen were given so much time on the ball to create, fashions chances and take a comfortable 1-0 lead into the half time break.
Improved but not enough
After the break, Rangers definitely improved, and rather than sitting back and waiting for Leverkusen to make an error, they chased the game and tried to apply more pressure to a very technical Leverkusen side.
The above image displays the change in approach for Rangers. As you can see, they are pushing more men forward, closing down areas in which Leverkusen had in the first half, in this instance, Rangers won the ball back after suffocating Bayer 04 Leverkusen. This worked to a degree, forcing Bayer 04 Leverkusen to play faster, rushing and causing errors which just didn’t happen in the first half.
The possession dropped from 75% in the first half to 56% in the second half in favour of Leverkusen, although they are still in control of the ball, the effort and improvement from rangers were clear to see. Leverkusen completed 90% of their passes in the first half, this dropped 7% to 83%. The change in emphasis was at least making things harder for Leverkusen to control the way they did in the first half.
The above image shows the increase in output from Rangers in 2nd half. They created 0.15 xG in the first half, compared to the 2nd half where they created almost four times more with 0.56 xG. Below you will see how the game played out in terms of xG.
Leverkusen came out on top on xG and deservedly so, as Rangers only managed three shots on Leverkusen’s goal. On the other hand, Leverkusen managed seven shots on target.
The above image really shows the quality of chances generated, Rangers only managing two shots on target inside the box, compared to Leverkusen having five inside the box.
In conclusion, Leverkusen deserved to take a 3-1 win back to BayArena for the 2nd leg, in what is expected to spring no surprises and have Leverkusen moving on to the quarter-finals. Leverkusen really controlled the game and showed their technical ability on the ball, ending the game with 67% possession and a passing accuracy of 88%.
As a result of league postponements due to the outbreak of the Corona Virus, who knows when these two sides will go back to domestic games.
One thing is for sure, Leverkusen has put themselves in a great position to qualify for the next round of the Europa League with this dominant and deserved victory.