On a sunny evening in Luxembourg, Rangers’ European hopes were extinguished a mere 4 days after they had begun. This article will look at the tactics of both sides with a bit of statistical analysis as well. Hopefully it can highlight the areas in which Rangers struggled, as well as potential advice for teams who come up against a side with Progres Niederkorn’s tactics.
Rangers set up in a nominal 4-2-3-1 shape. Wing backs Wallace and Tavernier pushed high, while the double pivot of Ryan Jack and Jordan Rossiter rarely strayed more than 10 yards in front of their centre backs. Kranjcar, Miller and Morelos all seemed to get in each other’s way in the centre of the park.
The Luxemburgers goal was to congest the midfield. They stayed narrow and compact, with Francoise perhaps pushing into a second striker role on occasion.
Gaps in the structure
As mentioned before, the Rangers midfield double pivot of Ryan Jack and Jordan Rossiter rarely ventured forward. Given that Niederkorn were playing with a 5 man midfield, this left Rangers seriously short of numbers in the middle of the park. The following clip highlights the huge gap that this created between the defensive and attacking units.
In addition to leaving Rangers short of passing options further up the pitch, this conservative approach meant that Rangers could not effectively press the opposition in their half. Coaches often speak of the “second ball”, winning the ball after an initial tackle while it’s still loose.
This ineffective positioning structure from Rangers meant that they were often far too slow to the second ball, and therefore struggled to win the ball back in effective areas.
Morelos was particularly isolated. The Colombian striker only had 15 touches throughout the 90 minutes, and managed to win the ball back for his side just once. Here’s an example of his isolation:
With such a terrible pressing structure, Rangers failed to win the ball in dangerous areas. When playing against teams happy to sit deep, it is absolutely vital to set your team up for these quick transitions. It’s a rare moment where space is free around the box, and it only takes two or three well executed passes to create a quality chance.
However, with such a gap between the offensive and defensive players (as well as the offensive players having an average age of 30), such pressing was unachievable. This meant that they couldn’t attack Niederkorn in the transition, while the Luxemburgers were reverting back to their defensive structure. Instead they allowed their opponents time to regroup.
Therefore, while they entered the Niederkorn final third 103 times throughout the game, they only managed three shots on target out of nineteen.
While the centre was underloaded and split, the only width in the team came from wingbacks Lee Wallace and James Tavernier. Unfortunately, neither Miller nor Candeias, nominal wingers, offered support. Lee Wallace is a player renowned for his combination play out wide. However, Miller was rarely in the right position for a one-two and the Rangers captain suffered as a consequence. The two exchanged just nineteen passes all night.
Similarly, while Tavernier loves bombing up the right hand side of the pitch, there was a total lack of fluency with the central players. Combining with Candeias was virtually non-existent, with just sixteen passes between the par throughout the match. Therefore, while the English right back had more than double the number of touches of any Niederkorn player, seldom did it result in quality opportunities.
However, leaving these two players to control the flanks by themselves meant Niederkorn could play an out ball in behind them. Such instances were the genesis of most of Niederkorn’s attacking play, where mistakes from isolated defenders ultimately led to giving away set piece opportunities and two goals:
Crossing in a football game is generally a bad idea. This only worsens the higher the cross and the further from goal you cross it. Headers are difficult to control, defenders have time to react, and unless the cross has the perfect position and the perfect speed, then it’s very difficult to get pace on the header.
Since he came back to Rangers, only 3 of Kenny Miller’s 30 goals have been from headers. At 5’10”, neither Alfredo Morelos nor Daniel Candeias have much aerial threat either. Indeed, in the entire Rangers outfield team, only Niko Kranjcar and Lee Wallace stood above 6ft. Neither have scored a header in their careers.
Remember that the Niederkorn centre backs were both above 6ft and seemed very comfortable in the air in the first leg.
Lofting high balls into the box was therefore obviously not the way to go about scoring goals in this game.
And yet, that’s exactly what Rangers did.
28 crosses were churned into the box over the 90 minutes, of which 19 were lofted in. Just nine found a Rangers head, and only one required a save from the goalkeeper (straight at him).
It should have been fairly obvious that this was a terrible idea. Pressing structures can maybe be difficult to implement, and the positioning of a team can take time. However, continually crossing into the box when you face a team to which you are technically superior but aerially inferior is just lazy.
Rangers were structurally poor. The huge gap between the attack and defence left Rangers struggling to create meaningful possession, while there was a huge width imbalance which left the team exposed.
Niederkorn are not a particularly good team, and their tactic of sitting low and attacking on the counter could have been forecast the second the draw was made. Nevertheless, they faced a side who were so ill prepared tactically that they could only muster the most basic of attack- the long ball into the box.
Niederkorn mopped this up easily given their clear aerial advantage, and were able to take advantage of defensive disorganization to create good attacking opportunities. Progres thoroughly deserved to progress.