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Zonal Marking's tactical preview of Rangers v Sporting

Rangers' 5-4-1 formation has served them well in Europe but Michael Cox, of tactics blog Zonal Marking, outlines why they may come out of their shells against their Portuguese opposition.

Simon Vukcevic gave Sasa Papac a hard time three years ago and could prove a danger in Thursday night's tie.
©SNS Group

Rangers’ European adventure so far this season has been fascinating from a tactical point of view. Walter Smith’s use of a 5-4-1 formation for all six Champions League games prompted much debate, both in terms of the system’s effectiveness, as well as its entertainment value.

The fact that Smith persevered with the formation throughout the entirety of the group stage proves that he was happy with the way it worked. It caused all three opponents problems – Rangers beat Bursaspor, were leading against Valencia, and Manchester United took 177 minutes to get past Alan McGregor. Only away in Spain were they beaten heavily – 3-0 – and even in that game, Rangers had their chances.

Of course, when playing a 5-4-1, the ‘1’ is all-important. Kenny Miller may have only scored one goal in the six games, but he played that lone striker role extremely well, tirelessly running the channels and providing a threat on the break. Bursaspor were so impressed with his performances that they promptly went out and bought him, and now Rangers find themselves without the man their European formation has been based around.

Smith’s first decision will be whether to stick with the five-man defence that he’s favoured in Europe, or the four-man backline that have started all this season’s SPL matches. This is surely the time to revert to a four and not show the opposition too much respect. Sporting Lisbon may be a great name, but they are not a great side. A lack of faith in manager Paulo Sergio is undermining the side’s confidence, and they will probably come to Ibrox and look for a 0-0, as they successfully did on their last visit in April 2008.

How the two teams are likely to line up at Ibrox, if Walter Smith deviates from a five-man defence.

Sporting lack firepower

Sporting’s likely defensiveness stems from the fact they, like Rangers, have lost their main striker midway through the season. Brazilian Liedson scored 173 goals in his seven years in Portugal, but recently rejoined his previous club, Corinthians. His loss means Sporting are unlikely to provide a consistent goal threat, with former Tottenham man Helder Postiga set to be their lone forward.

Postiga is something of a stereotypical Portuguese striker, with good movement and link-up play, but hardly the most prolific. He did score two at the weekend and may thrive without being in Liedson’s shadow, but for Rangers to field a back five against such a limited attacking threat would be a rather defeatist attitude at home.

Besides, Rangers’ recent defensive record is excellent. They have recorded five clean sheets in the last six games, compared to just three in 17 before that. It would be a shame to tamper with a unit that is suddenly working well together.

Smith is better off trying to compete in midfield, for this is where Sporting will look to dominate the game. They no longer have their two golden boys, Miguel Veloso and Joao Moutinho, but they do have experience in the form of another former Spurs man, Pedro Mendes, and his fellow Champions League winner Maniche, whilst André Santos provides younger legs and more energy.

Their exact formation remains uncertain. Coach Paulo Sergio changes things around frequently, but he will probably go for a 4-3-3 here, and ask his two wingers to play relatively defensive roles.

Those two, Jaime Valdes and Simon Vukcevic, are the dangermen. Neither are conventional wingers, both look to come inside into the middle of the pitch and become central playmakers, and so with Valdes being very right-footed and Vukcevic very left-footed, don’t be surprised if they start on the ‘wrong’ side of the pitch, and cut in onto their stronger foot to provide a goal threat.

Sporting's likely shape, with Vales and Vukcevic likely to come inside or swap positions.

Potential weaknesses

How can Rangers hurt Sporting? It might sound basic, but the key is energy, movement and plenty of running. Maniche and Mendes don’t have the fitness levels they once did, whilst Valdes and Vukcevic aren’t the most energetic when it comes to tracking back. Some storming runs from full-back might unlock Sporting surprisingly easily.

At the back, Sporting work reasonably well as a unit, but they have conceded five goals in their last two league games. Centre-back Anderson Polga, a former Brazilian international, is another lacking pace, whilst 22-year-old captain Daniel Carrico is highly-rated but had a nightmare at the weekend against Olhanense, rounding off a poor display with a crazy own goal. He has no obvious weakness, but skippering a club in turmoil at such a young age has had an impact upon his confidence.

In the absence of Nikica Jelavic, El-Hadji Diouf could start in a lone striker role, supported by Naismith and Weiss.

Rangers’ hopes

Rangers’ 4-2-3-1 shape at the weekend worked very well, with new signing El-Hadji Diouf playing in a deep role, just off Nikica Jelavic, who grabbed a hat-trick. Whether Smith continues to use this system is uncertain but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him use Diouf upfront alone, roaming in the ‘Miller role’. With Jelavic ineligible, Kyle Lafferty and new signing David Healy provide further options up front if Smith does go with more than one forward.

Getting midfield runners up in support of the lone striker is Rangers’ best hope of a goal. Vladimir Weiss combined well with Diouf at the weekend and should start on the left, with Steven Naismith coming in from a right-sided position.

Young Arsenal loanee Kyle Bartley was used in the centre of midfield against Motherwell on Saturday, despite his natural position being centre-back. That versatility could come in handy if Smith wanted to shift between a 4-5-1 and a 5-4-1 during the game, though he might consider Bartley too inexperienced for a game of his magnitude.

Another youngster, Jamie Ness, might turn out to be the key man alongside the more established names of Steven Davis and Maurice Edu. Newly crowned the SPL’s young player of the month, his patient, calm passing from the centre of the pitch is exactly what is needed in a two-legged European tie. Sporting’s midfield will probably play deep and stand off Ness, and if he finds the room to play, he can inspire Rangers to an important first leg victory.

Michael Cox, as well as writing on Rangers' tactics for their game against Sporting for STV, runs the ever-popular tactics blog Zonal Marking.

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