Steven Gerrard is just nine games into his managerial career, but those nine games have…
This week Rangers fans will spend much of their time positively buzzing from behind a work desk or on their group chat of choice as Steven Gerrard’s team prepare to travel to Spain in their first Europa League group stage clash against Villarreal.
While the Ibrox side have already faced some considerable challenges this season, a European run against clubs like el Submarino Amarillo will, for many fans, be a harp back to when things were a little rosier and enjoyable in Govan. And provide an ample opportunity for Gerrard and his players to once again prove their worth.
So do Rangers face a truly daunting task or is this seemingly impossible clash in Spain far more realistic than some may be suggesting? Let’s take a look.
To gauge what kind of team Villarreal are we must first acknowledge that Rangers’ coming opponents are currently in a notable transition period. While caretaker manager Javier Calleja has now been at the club for just under a year, the Spanish club underwent a furiously busy summer transfer window in which four key players departed and £75 million was spent on bringing in new recruits.
Fortunately for Rangers, this team hasn’t exactly clicked yet. In their first four games in the Spanish Primera Division Villarreal have picked up just four points – and that tally is largely based off of beating bottom-placed Leganes 1-0 on Sunday.
Indeed, the club spent at least £37 million on three new strikers – Gerard Moreno, Karl Toko Ekambi and Roger Martinez – as well as signing last season’s on-loan forward, Carlos Becca, on a permanent deal for £6 million and so far all four of them have scored a grand total of two goals between them.
Naturally, trying to fit four strikers in to the one team is going to cause all sorts of issues that reverberate throughout the side. And that is perhaps most notable through the manner in which last season’s star player, Pablo Fornals, has seen his form flat line so far in this current campaign.
Last season Fornals was second only to Lionel Messi for total assists in the Spanish top flight and was also twelfth in the division for deep completion passes (passes in to the opposing six-yard box) among his La Liga piers. Not bad at all, considering Villarreal’s goalscoring record averaged out at only 1.43 goals per game.
Without Fornals on form and Calleja’s struggle to find a working front line, Villarreal’s average goals per game has fallen to a drastic 0.47. And Rangers should take confidence from the fact that their comings opponents haven’t kicked a single ball in European football so far this season. The Spanish side are going in to Thursday’s game completely blind and with very little to suggest they’re ready for it.
This also suits Gerrard’s system perfectly. As we all now know, Rangers’ 4-3-3 not only allows the team to attack well, but also offers a tight-knit back four and defensive trio that play a high line and limit the manner in which opposing teams can counter attack or play through the midfield and defence.
Although Villarreal will undoubtedly be a step above the teams Rangers have faced in Europe so far this season, fans should take comfort from the manner in which Gerrard and his backroom team have ensured every away game to date has been based around a sober, defensive performance that allowed Rangers to keep some form of control on the game. The Govan side have conceded just one goal in four European ties on the road so far this season and they should be looking to keep that record going in Thursday’s game.
Of course, Rangers’ domestic record on the road contrastingly paints a different picture. In just three games Gerrard’s side have shipped five goals. But, despite the result on the day, Rangers’ defensive system did largely do what was expected of it in the 1-1 draw with Aberdeen and the 1-0 loss to Celtic at Parkhead. And they were, undoubtedly, two of the toughest away games Gerrard’s side will face in Scotland this season.
Against a struggling side, Rangers should look to do exactly what Gerrard and this new coaching team have trained them to do this season: keep things exceptionally tight at the back, control the midfield as much as possible and then look to two or three key, attacking players to take their chances. Many may look at the trip to Villarreal as an impossible task, but there’s certainly scope for Rangers to pick up points.