Against Eindhoven, Rangers weren’t channeling the obsessive urgency they played while chasing those previous prodigies against Braga, Leipzig and Royal Union Saint-Gilloise. Nor have they mustered that irresistible tsunami of energy that drove every team to visit Ibrox in the Europa League knockout stage last season and concede at least once in the span of 24 minutes en route to Seville.
They were trying to find a mature balance, resisting the temptation of every movement to have the adrenaline rushing and opting instead for a more cerebral approach. But without being overjoyed, Tuesday’s better team was in the first leg of the Champions League group stage and was able to play through the Dutch side far more than they succeeded in return.
Playing from behind was a weak point last season as teams found it possible to starve Rangers of options and force them to keep going. Giovanni van Bronckhorst last week cited one of the areas he has identified as a target for improvement with incoming first-team coach Siri Pauli, who has joined from City Football Group.
There has been a huge improvement in that this season, and in the face of a major opponent in Eindhoven who wanted to press the match, they adapted well and showed that working on the training ground helped provide them with structure and options to disrupt the game. Form visitors and play around or through their pressure.
“I thought it was a game of two halves, really,” PSV coach Ruud van Nistelrooy said after last night’s 2-2 draw.
“We had a tough time in the first half. They played really well from the back to the midfield and the strikers with a lot of passing and movement.
“Rangers had a slightly different approach to the game than we thought, so we had to prepare in the first half and get solutions. The way Rangers set themselves up in the first half, we had some problems with that.”
The PSV coach gave an honest analysis of the game, but what exactly did Rangers do tactically that made it hard to pin down?
The main trick used is seen early in the game.
Here, Ryan Kent drops deep on the left flank to search for the ball to toe, and Malik Tillman, who plays as the No. 10, drifts down that side looking to stay as high as possible.
He had the effect of pinning quarterback Jordan Tees deeply, as he couldn’t put pressure on Kent for fear of leaving a gap for Tillman to run into. Then Ibrahim Sanjari also has to turn back to help cover the inside pass to the USA international midfielder.
PSV struggled to work out how to deal with this movement pattern.
Turning the ball to the left, Tillmann was surrounded by three players, but when winger Ismael Saibari goes to press Borna Parisic and the full-back rushes to close in on Kent, it leaves Sancar with plenty of ground to make up.
Due to the space vacated by Tees, he was slipped outside by Kent.
This has two effects on PSV and leads to Rangers becoming the dominant side. They got confused in this aspect because Sybari didn’t want to leave Kent isolated with Tees, given that he started the game well and went over to his man’s side a few times early on.
Teze is pinned here again by Tillman as he stays tight and leaves Sybari to face Kent, which is not a normal part of the Moroccan’s game. Kent defeats him, dragging Tees, and the ball in the back for Tillman again.
It also made Saipari fearful of pressure when PSV Eindhoven’s attacking players, Luc de Jong and Joey Fermann, put pressure.
Here, he looks behind to see if it is safe to leave the place but decides not to. Saibari ends up in no man’s land as the ball heads too far to Kent and once again Tillman is free to run into space behind where Sangare can’t form Earth.
The PSV Eindhoven strikers started to get frustrated when they turned to see that not all of their team-mates had rushed over to their side.
When this happens in games, players can start making emotional decisions and Firman Saibari ordered to be aggressive in pressing Parisic, while Tese decided to move towards Kent early in anticipation of the pass…
…but it leaves Tillmann in enough space to receive the ball from Barisic.
Eindhoven poised at 4-4-2 in the first half defensively, but were so wary of Tillman and Tom Lawrence occupying central areas that they stopped off to tackle Stephen Davis and John Lundstram, allowing the duo to gain a foothold. The game and receiving passes in space, as described below.
The amount of work their peers had to do was unsustainable and the Rangers started moving the ball from side to side quickly before finding Lawrence on the right and Tillman on the left.
The equalizer for Rangers came from a move down on the right, which became the focal point of attacks as the half progressed. Lawrence was falling deeply on the shoulder of midfielder Eric Gutierrez and dragging his left back Philip Max with him.
This allows Davis to pass through James Tavernier, who nested in that space.
After overcoming the setback of lagging, Rangers finished the first half with real momentum as PSV Eindhoven struggled to deal with the numbers they were facing in midfield. First, Davis found Lawrence in the pocket…
…then Lundstram shows awareness when the ball is passed again by passing it blindly around the corner to Tillman.
So what did Van Nistelrooy do to change this halfway?
“The second half, we managed it better,” he said. “During the first half we were talking with the players on the touchline to change some things and in the second half we did a really good job. If you want to put pressure on the opponent, you need to coordinate it well.
“We were looking for our line of defense to go into midfield as there was an additional midfielder from Rangers.”
The main problem was that the PSV Eindhoven midfielders were finding it impossible to divide themselves between the different threats, but since the start of the second half they have become more focused on men in their preparation.
Here, Sangara and Gutierrez press Davis and Lundstram. When the ball goes to Barisic, Saibari immediately presses him and Teze heads straight to Kent. Instead of worrying about Tillman’s place between the lines, Andre Ramalho comes out of the center of defense to pin him down.
It was a bolder approach and meant the stakes were higher. He left PSV Eindhoven weak to diagonal James Sands and then a simple move that cut them through the middle, but this was the only time Rangers actually did so in the second half.
PSV pressed in a 4-2-4 manner and by closing the ball in the middle, they forced Rangers to play crosswise and that was the trigger for the pressure.
Conor Goldson doesn’t like when a striker cuts his eye line and tends to rush in for a long ball in these situations, even if there is a lack of options to play on his feet now that PSV Eindhoven have advanced ahead of Lawrence and Tillman.
Instead of receiving the ball with the feet and having space to run in defence, PSV’s attack meant that Kent cut his heels and had to take the ball with his back to goal, which is not his forte.
The home crowd began to worry about an hour later as Sibari could have scored a hat-trick in five minutes, and Barisic started to lock up the ball on the lead.
PSV Eindhoven could smell that they had turned the momentum around and that they had forced the Rangers to make mistakes by engaging higher and hedging their bets that they had enough to deal with them if they went more straight.
Both managers saw the draw as a fair result but the way the two goals were scored, both from corner kicks, would annoy Van Bronckhorst.
It could have been better and it could have been worse, but the tie is still alive and if Rangers play with the same poise next Wednesday in Eindhoven as they did in the first half of last night, they have a chance of locking in for the long haul. The expected return to the group stage.