“We keep shooting ourselves in the foot by conceding silly, silly goals and we forgot the real good, strong basics of defending.”
Rangers manager Steven Gerrard uttered those words after Sunday’s 2-2 draw with St Johnstone. Fast-forward three days and his side comfortably kept a clean sheet against the Europa League’s top scorers, Sporting Braga, to reach the last 16.
Rangers’ defence continues to be immense in European competition, despite recent domestic toils, and BBC Scotland takes a look at the numbers behind that, how they toppled Braga and why they might be struggling to emulate the same displays at the back domestically.
- ‘This is no fluke’ – Gerrard
- Rangers stun Braga to reach last 16
- Podcast: ‘We should be proud of that’
Rangers’ defence in numbers
In last season’s Europa League, when they failed to reach the knockout stage after losing their final group game, Rangers conceded just 11 goals in 10 games – four of them in defeat away to Spartak Moscow.
That theme has continued this term as the Ibrox side have conceded an average of 0.68 goals per game on their way to the last 16.
They let in just three in eight qualifiers, which is all very well against the likes of St Joseph’s and Progres Niederkorn, and their solidity continued into the group stage, where they conceded just six in six games against Champions League contenders Porto, Feyenoord and Young Boys.
And, after a rocky hour in the first leg against Braga during which they were lucky to be only 2-0 down, they recovered their defensive discipline to shut out the Portuguese on their own patch to progress.
How did they stun Braga?
It is worth emphasising just how impressive it was for Rangers to keep this Braga team at bay. The Portuguese topped a group involving Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers and had scored in every home match since mid-December on a run of nine wins and one draw domestically in 2020.
So how did they do it? Gerrard was clear about the game-plan before the match and reiterated it afterwards. “The idea was to soak a little bit up and suffer at times but carry a threat,” he said. “We knew how they were going to play. The idea was to let their back five have the ball because they were the least dangerous players. I thought they were faultless, certainly out of possession.”
BBC Sportsound pundit and former Rangers winger Neil McCann said the cautious, compact tactics employed by Gerrard were carried out expertly by his players.
“You can clearly see there’s been work done on the training pitch,” he said. “More often than not, the full-backs have been encouraged to get high and wide and I think last week [in the first leg] the full-backs were encouraged to open up and it was a different type of gameplan at Ibrox, but with that you leave yourself open to counter-attacks.
“Tonight, they stayed at home, they asked the ball to go wide and defended crosses – and the chances Braga created were all from crosses. They seemed to be happy with that. Same set-up in the 4-3-3 but different tactics all together.”
A big part of the success was the introduction of George Edmundson to partner Connor Goldson in the centre of defence.
It was a bold call by Gerrard to start the 22-year-old – even with Nikola Katic’s poor recent form – given he had made just 10 first-team appearances and has played most of his football in English League One.
Afterwards, the Englishman described the win as the “best night of his life” and it was certainly the finest of his short career.
“I thought they [Rangers’ back-four] were outstanding, none more so than Edmundson,” McCann said. “I thought he was really good, old-fashioned type defender, headed it, kicked it, stayed solid with his other centre-back.”
So why have they struggled domestically?
While all is sound in Europe, Rangers have dropped 10 points in the league in 2020 and have slipped 12 points behind Celtic in the race for the Scottish Premiership title.
Two defensive errors led to a 2-2 draw with St Johnstone on Sunday and an inability to defend a straight ball also meant they slipped to a 2-1 defeat away to Kilmarnock.
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So why are they more generous in defence against mainly inferior opponents? McCann believes playing on the counter-attack suits Rangers.
“Domestically, Rangers are expected to dictate the play all the time, which means they are open, and they’re asked to go and break teams down in the final third,” the former Rangers player said.
“Whereas in Europe, they’re prepared to give up the lions’ share of possession, they’re prepared to give up territory and hit on the counter-attack themselves, so it becomes a different animal.
“That’s a different question that Rangers have been asked of late, especially since the break, and they’ve not come up with the answers enough. But maybe this will give them a shot.”
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