How Rangers can overcome the Bayer Leverkusen challenge - Can Steven Gerrard mastermind a miracle?
BRAGA, PORTUGAL - FEBRUARY 26: Steven Gerrard, Manager of Rangers FC looks on prior to the UEFA Europa League round of 32 second leg match between Sporting Braga and Rangers FC at Estadio Municipal de Braga on February 26, 2020 in Braga, Portugal. (Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images)

“The Germans are too good” read many online Rangers media and fan outlets when Bayer Leverkusen stomped the Scottish outfit 3-1 in their first leg Europa League Round of 16 encounter back in March. It was an impressive but not a shocking result as the Bundesliga giants were heading into that game on the back of a run that saw them win eight of their last nine competitive fixtures.

Essentially, that was the high point of Peter Bosz’s reign at Leverkusen as they registered an unassailable 3-1 result and that too at the Ibrox, meaning Rangers now have a mountain to climb if they are to turn things around when the two sides meet once again at the BayArena in the second leg on Thursday.

Fortunately for the Gers, there are certain elements heading into this game that could favour them. It is also worth noting that the club have historically fared well in European competitions. And although a 2-0 victory at the BayArena won’t be enough, it is unreasonable to think that Rangers won’t have any chance of overcoming this 2-0 away goal deficit against Leverkusen on Thursday.

In this article, we will be taking a deep dive into Peter Bosz’s tactics and how Rangers can overcome the Bayer Leverkusen challenge on Thursday.

Bayer Leverkusen: Scout Report

A major factor heading into this game is that Leverkusen have lost their early 2020 momentum that made them a favourite to finish inside top four in the Bundesliga. Instead, Die Werkself endured a rather disappointing restart period, notably winning just three of their last seven league games. They ultimately finished fifth in the league table while losing the DFB Pokal final to Bayern Munich.

That, however, shouldn’t deter Bosz from playing their natural game that revolves around possession (and lots of it). In fact, only Bayern have kept more possession than Leverkusen in the recently concluded 2019/20 Bundesliga campaign. They even retained 60% of the ball in the first leg, and we can pretty much expect a similar scenario at BayArena next week.

In order to get a more detailed grip, it is important to understand individual roles, especially the ones pertaining to the central midfielders. The double-pivot consisting of Charles Aranguiz and Kerem Demirbay/Nadiem Amiri/Julian Baumgartlinger has provided additional coverage in the middle of the park, one that has definitely helped Leverkusen become more solid.

In a typical 4-2-3-1 formation professed by Bosz, Aranguiz’s all-round qualities have allowed the Mexican international to operate in the number six role. He can drop deep and instigate the build-up, although that is not the case every time, especially when Baumgartlinger is in the side.

In attack, Bayer Leverkusen have primarily used their star players Kai Havertz this year, in the false nine role due to the injury of Kevin Volland, who is available now. We can expect the former to retain that role this weekend, ahead of both Volland and Lucas Alario.

Deploying Havertz in the false nine role has served quite well for Bosz, with the playmaker emerging as the highest-scoring German player in the Bundesliga in this calendar year. The player, however, does not necessarily enjoy roaming in that position although his characteristics make him an ideal operator and it has been backed by his performances as well.

Leverkusens
Leverkusen’s usual game-plan. (Courtesy: Bundesliga Bulletin)

Unfortunately for Rangers, the Bundesliga giants don’t have any fresh injuries to deal with as Paulinho is the only player out of contention heading into this game. It means Bosz will have the privilege of choosing from an array of options in the final third including Volland, Karim Bellarabi and Alario.

Bayer Leverkusen employed a 3-4-3 formation in the first-leg against Rangers. But given their two away goal advantage, Bosz doesn’t have much reason to stick with that setup, meaning the Dutchman may revert to his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 setup. It is, however, a fluid formation with the fullback moving out wide and Aranguiz or Baumgartlinger dropping in, thus making it a pendulating back-four.

The three-man backline is mostly reserved for teams of higher quality, which is why Bosz started out with the same, in the games against Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. It gives them better defensive balance and more assurance in the possession play. Not to mention, the presence of wing-backs often comes in handy during counter-attacks. But this is not one of those fixtures.

Rangers, on the other hand, are most likely to stick to their 4-3-3 formation, which is fascinating as it could give them a numerical advantage in both attack and midfield. It is, however, fair to point out that the Gers did shift to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the last game against Aberdeen, with Ryan Kent drifting in and operating in a more central role and Joe Aribo moving out wide to the left.

How Rangers can exploit Leverkusen in the second leg

Rangers’ main objective in this fixture will be to change their usual style of play and adopt a more one-dimensional approach of playing long balls, right into the heart of the B04 defence.

Most Bundesliga clubs have seemed to employ such tactic against Bosz, due to his side’s high line of press, which often leaves acres of space in behind. Also, Die Werkself lack the services of a proper all-round centre-back aside from the highly talented Edmond Tapsoba.

How Rangers can overcome the Bayer Leverkusen challenge - Tapsoba could be a challenge.
MOENCHENGLADBACH, GERMANY – MAY 23: Sven Bender of Bayer 04 Leverkusen celebrates with Edmond Tapsoba after scoring his team’s third goal during the Bundesliga match between Borussia Moenchengladbach and Bayer 04 Leverkusen at Borussia-Park on May 23, 2020 in Moenchengladbach, Germany. (Photo by Ina Fassbender/Pool via Getty Images)

Sven Bender is extremely slow to catch up and cover for the lost ground while Jonathan Tah’s lack of consistency has seen him getting demoted to the bench this year. The German international is not even expected to start this game.

Other options include Aleksandar Dragovic, but the Austrian simply lacks the quality to make any impact. Even Tapsoba tends to struggle in terms of aerial balls, which could be good news for Rangers, who boast the services of Alfredo Morelos.

Indeed, the Colombian is by far the most important asset for the visitors heading into this clash given his physical and aerial prowess. The striker is also capable of linking up with teammates and create opportunities that could help Rangers pose a threat going forward.

Interestingly, Steven Gerrard’s troops relied on more long balls than usual, in the recent win over Aberdeen, with Leon Balogun and Connor Goldson looking to provide long, forward passes. They can do the same against Leverkusen, with Morelos operating as a target man and both these defenders looking to provide diagonal balls from the back. Even the holding midfielder Ryan Jack could come in handy with his brilliant range of passing.

Another key area where Rangers must focus is the wide play. Both the fullbacks in James Tavernier and Borna Barisic are quite good when it comes to making overlapping runs and whipping in crosses from the byline. Additionally, they have the likes of Ianis Hagi and Kent, and the duo are more than capable of doing the same.

The crossing game needs to be improved due to multiple reasons, one of which is Leverkusen’s incapability of dealing with aerial balls. Their goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky, who has had an excellent season, is also very fragile and indecisive when coming out of his line and grasping the ball. This is where Rangers could dominate, with their abundance of physically astute players.

Another key issue is the lack of defensive prowess from the Leverkusen fullbacks. Bosz has usually juggled between Wendell and Daley Sinkgraven on the left flank, but things are pretty fragile on the opposite end, where Mitchell Weiser is simply not good enough. Unfortunately for Gerrard, Leverkusen does have Lars Bender fit, and the German could provide the much-needed solidity at right-back. But, it is a weakness nonetheless for B04.

In midfield, dropping in a dribbler against someone like Baumgartlinger is always a good idea. Kent, in that regard, could be a perfect player to disrupt Leverkusen’s flow with his dynamic movements as well as the ability to squeeze through tight spaces. However, they need to be careful of Aranguiz, who is more than capable of making crucial turnovers and initiating deadly counter-attacks.

And finally, in the attack, stopping Havertz should be Rangers’ main priority. The German international quickly tends to get frustrated if he fails to get enough of the ball, meaning cutting off supplies could be important, and that is where Gerrard’s men could look exploit the weaknesses of other attackers like Leon Bailey, Moussa Diaby and Bellarabi.

Diaby, in particular, has been the main figure in the attack. But the Frenchman can be easily pressed into a turnover whenever he tries to drop deep and pick up the ball. Bailey, on the other hand, is far too inconsistent, although the Jamaican is capable of making a difference, meaning Rangers need to tighten up when dealing with him.

This is not going to be an easy task for Rangers. They must come up with the right game plan and cannot afford to be outplayed as they did in the first-leg. The key will be to employ a cautious approach while trying to maximise on the certain weaknesses of the Leverkusen side that hasn’t enjoyed a good restart period.

One thing is for certain, though – Rangers does have the quality to make the impossible happen. It just remains to be seen whether or not Gerrard can influence his men into making the effort to pull out yet another famous performance in a European competition.

Jack O’Brien

A 22 y/o football nerd seeking my way into football writing. I love Irish football and also the Premier League. A huge Arsenal fan! Aside from writing, I like to spend my time fishing and drinking beer.