Rangers’ gameplan in Holland last week was exactly what we expected: five men at the back, four in midfield, and a lone striker upfront receiving little support. The goalless draw was hardly a surprise either, thanks to a combination of cautious football from the away side, and wasteful finishing from PSV.
The defensive organisation Rangers showed was impressive throughout the 90 minutes. The three centre-backs dealt with Marcus Berg, the wing-backs kept Jeremain Lens and Balazs Dzsudzsak relatively quiet, and deep-lying forward Ola Toivonen was nullified by Rangers keeping the lines of midfield and defence very close together, denying him time on the ball.
Toivonen did create one good opportunity for Berg shortly before half time with a delicate touch, but that was his only sniff all night. The fact he felt the need to play the ball first time indicates how aware he was of his lack of time.
Such a defensive-minded performance can be difficult to sustain for 90 minutes, but Rangers looked comfortable. Concentration levels can drop when physical fitness drops, but Rangers only tried to pressure PSV in the final 30 yards of the pitch, so it wasn’t an overwhelmingly difficult game physically.
The slow tempo PSV played at also helped, moving the ball slowly from side to side, allowing Rangers to shift across the pitch gradually.
PSV were disappointing in open play. Their best chances came from set-pieces, with centre-back Marcelo missing two good opportunities. In the first half he should have converted Dzsudzsak's free-kick, and in the second half the same combination nearly broke the deadlock, this time from an inswinging cross.
Smith will be slightly worried that Rangers looked so vulnerable at set-plays. One of the advantages of having an additional centre-back is that, in theory, you should be stronger in the air at the back. But then it could be argued that we’re only talking about those chances because Rangers were so good defensively in every other aspect of their play. Besides, Kyle Bartley also had a good chance from a corner, but Andreas Isaksson saved well.
From open play, Rangers didn’t commit too many men forward. Steven Davis, Maurice Edu and Kyle Lafferty all had the license to move into attack, with Kyle Hutton the anchorman in midfield. But more often than not El-Hadji Diouf was forced to fend for himself, with little success.
Smith was happy, however. “Yes, we’re very pleased with the result”, he said. “Obviously we expected the kind of game that we got there, where we would have to defend very well.”
The second leg
It will be interesting to see how Rangers adapt to playing the second leg at home. Smith admitted that they’re used to the situation being the other way around. “The away goal’s a big thing”, he said. “For them (PSV) 0-0’s not the worst result.
“We’ve had that situation many times over the last couple of seasons where we’ve drawn 0-0 at home, and if you go away and get a goal, it’s a huge advantage for you.”
After the game in Holland, Smith was quizzed about how he’d approach the second leg. “We have to open up a little bit”, Smith conceded. “So the home match will be every bit as dangerous as this one might have been.
“I do stress that when the game opens up at Rangers, when both teams have to go for it, PSV are a dangerous team to play against. We will have to do more attacking in the second game, if the game opens up.”
Caution remains a key part of Smith’s strategy. “We have to approach the game with the same care, the same concentration”, he said. “It's about finding the right balance between attacking and defending and that will be difficult, but we will have to attack if we want to make progress.”
Despite the odd mention that Rangers will have to push forward and try and get a goal, Smith’s comments suggest that he will take the safety-first approach into the second leg. PSV’s pacy players might enjoy playing on the break, rather than taking the game to the opposition from the first whistle, and so it is with good reason that Smith thinks of the second leg as ‘dangerous’.
The main tactical question regards what formation Smith will play. Against Sporting in the previous round, he played a 4-4-1-1 system with Diouf just behind Lafferty at Ibrox, but it wouldn’t be surprise to see him stick with the 5-4-1 for the second leg here.
That would ensure a steady start to the game, and would enable Rangers to switch to a more attacking system later on. Smith qualifies his attacking intent with the ‘if the game opens up’ phrase, suggesting he will keep it tight early on, and then gamble in the second half.
As always with Rangers in Europe, it’s difficult to predict team selection but there’s no reason why Smith will make sweeping changes from the side that contested the first leg. The one caveat is that he might want more pace and natural attacking threat from the wings. With Sasa Papac back at left-back, Steven Whittaker may revert to the right of midfield, with Steven Davis moving into the centre.
PSV are also unlikely to make many alterations to their XI. Fred Rutten has a decision to make about his striker, however, after Berg’s poor performance in the first leg, and an awful run of form recently, he gave a debut to young Genero Zeekfuik in the weekend draw with NEC.
Zeekfuik struggled with the physical aspect of the game, however, and was replaced by Berg in the second half. It would be a surprise if Zeekfuik was thrown into a European away game. Toivonen may also play a deeper role, more as a midfielder than a deep forward, to get more time on the ball, but expect some familiar battles across the pitch at Ibrox.