Go all the way? Rangers v Benfica is very winnable for Philippe Clement

Go all the way? Rangers v Benfica is very winnable for Philippe Clement
Benfica's Argentinian forward #11 Angel Di Maria reacts after Rangers's team scored during the UEFA Europa League last 16 first leg football match between SL Benfica and Glasgow Rangers at the Luz stadium in Lisbon on March 7, 2024. (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP) (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images)

OK, OK I was joking when I praised Goldson for scoring a screamer the first time we played Benfica back in the day? But OMG was that a goal! Goldson, that was a screamer, and I for one want to see more like that. Just at the other end.

So, last week, why did I say Benficta’s tactics are poor. Well, in attack they bring almost everyone forward, but their interesting tactic is the two centre midfielders are then told to go very wide, and they then bring in João Neves (who should in their normal set-up be playing further forward as their Defensive-Attacking central midfielder) and he is used as basically their entire damage control/central defender/sweeper.

With Neves’ fantastic reading of other player’s balance, he had an almost uncanny ability to dispose any attacker of the ball this crazy tactic just about works for Benfica, and with João Neves given the freedom to defend the back, this allows Benfica to push their full-backs forward to be full-forwards, operating on the left and right midfield, and as wingers.

As you can imagine, with so many of their team playing the high press (they are effectively set up as a 3-4-3) their game is aggressive, and this tactic can overwhelm weaker teams, but the problem Benfica has is on the counter. Think Celtic under Ange with his two inverted full backs, and everyone rushing forward at 100 mph. In the first 30 minutes they are everywhere, but then after that they are exhausted, 30 minute of non-stop running kills most teams, they begin to create gaps. The better teams, they just soak up the pressure and hit on the counter; and that surprisingly is where Rangers in Europe has been amongst the strongest.

In our run to Seville, our defenders were miles ahead of our opponents in shots saved, dispossessions, interceptions and tackles, and if you didn’t think Benfica has noticed how dangerous Rangers are on the counter, one major “difference” I did see, is they often took corners with only 7 players up around the penalty box. In the games where they have absolutely no respect for their opponents, they sometimes have up to nine players waiting for the ball.

Last week Benfica’s high respect for Rangers was shown by the fact they had set themselves up with the exact same formation they used against Inter. This was the tactic that was so effective Benfica were three up in just 36 minutes and coasting. However, in the second half they tired, they always do, and the match ended in a 3-3 draw.

So, Benfica are giving Rangers a lot of respect. Schmidt knows how good Rangers is in the counter from our run to the final in Seville, and then there is this. Schmidt also decided to rest João Neves, Rafa Silva and Di María for their Sunday’s win against Estoril. These players are never rested. Not together. So, Benfica are taking Rangers very, very seriously, and this is a team that is truly Champions League Level.

But games are decided by two teams. So, what do we offer? Well for one thing we will not take the Daily Record’s advice which is to throw the match in order to concentrate on Scottish silverware.

What we did noticed last week is Clement’s decision to keep Sterling far up the pitch with Dessers forced up to three Benfica players to remain in a defensive line during their high press. In addition, Sterling’s positioning often forced their defensive line to move wide, which created gaps on the other side of the pitch.

Unfortunately, we did not take advantage of this. Fabio was a little slow in most of his attacks. Often he would often take just one too many touches during the counter, and our attacks would break down too easily.

The other problem in last week’s match was our first touch for some reason was extremely poor, and with just a second lost, in which our team were regaining control of the ball, the layout of the two teams was changing, and it then became difficult for our players to quickly decide on the best pass. In contrast Benfica’s player (especially João Neves) all have phenomenal ball control, and with their extra half second they could usually find a pass.

That said, Benfica are not maestros. Rangers’ opening goal was actually very well thought out, and well worked.

In the seventh minute one of their players had the ball out on the right, and with Rangers doing our own high press the neighbouring Benfica player was telling him to recycle the ball out left by passing it quickly to the goal keeper, but Dessers had quickly moved to cut off that route, and because Benfica were confident that their movement and knew their passing was superior to Rangers then Benfica decided to pass long. However Souttar read it beautifully. He sneaks in to intercept the long pass, the we play a nice series of short quick passes, and with a pinpoint cross to Lawrence it was Benfica down in the first 8 minutes.

Our second goal was also a beauty (with a cute little nutmeg thrown in), and it also showed that as the game progresses the Benfica players do become tired.

However, where we are weak is perhaps most critical. Benfica’s shot on goal in the 13th minute is worth talking about here. In last week’s very high-level review, I did warn that Benfica will often drag most of their team over to one side of the pitch, and then they will quickly switch play over to the other side, if their opponents are stupid enough to follow them. Well, that is exactly what we did.

This tactic is not high-level. It’s playground level, but we fell for it, and because we do not often play the defensive game in Scotland, I was worried we would fall for this basic trick; and as it turned out Tavernier was especially slow in reading what was happening, and he didn’t have Sterling there to support him, because (thankfully) Clement is smarter than I am, and decided to put him further up the park…

For Thursday’s game we need to also counter Benfica’s heavy overload in the middle of the park, and we can easily do that with short sharp passing.

Often Benfica’s tactics is to bring David Neres (who plays as their Right Winger) into central midfield. This being the single key move that usually drags less tactically aware teams to the centre, which then creates gaps on the Tavernier’s side.

However, this is a double-edged sword, because as soon as the ball is turned over, if we are ready, we can then quickly move into the space Benfica has kindly created, and hit them on the counter. That is what I meant when I said last week that we should use Benfica’s tactics against them.

The other strength that we have is however perhaps the most important. Rangers are often unpredictable (thanks to Beale), and amongst the top teams in Europe that ability to be unpredictable is I think unique.

At this level, everything is usually well planned. In may cases games are dry and boring. What Rangers brings to the Europa League is controlled raw football, where we do not do what is expected, and we throw our opponents off balance. Mistakes by opponents are usually punished, and we need to take advantage of their mistakes (unlike last week where we were the ones making the mistakes).

There is no doubt that this match is going to be tough, and again it will all come down to which side makes the most mistakes, and who can take the advantage.

I think Clement is aware of where Benfica is weak. He knows the game and is a genuine chess-player. It is now up to us, the fans, to get to the match early, we know it is asking a lot for some, but we need to create the Ibrox cauldron, and help our team.

Win this and we could honestly go the entire way…

It’s time to dream again….game on.

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