A Date with Destiny

Following on from Rangers heroic victory over Club Brugge at Ibrox on Matchday 4, they faced a trip to Parkhead to take on Liam Brady’s Celtic in the final Old Firm match of the season. This would prove to be one big match too many in this week for Rangers, as they fell 2-1 to a Celtic side playing with the freedom usually afforded to a team not competing for honors. This was Rangers first defeat in any competition since the League loss to Dundee back in August, but it was also their first loss to Celtic in almost exactly one year.

Rangers kicked back into gear for the next two matches, hammering Dundee 3-0 at Ibrox with goals from McCall, McCoist and Ferguson, the latter two who had returned to the starting line up after a spell out injured. The following midweek Aberdeen made the journey south to Ibrox and were soundly beaten 2-0 after goals from Ally McCoist and Ian Ferguson secured maximum points.

Rangers final game before facing off against Marseille was the small matter of a Scottish Cup Semi Final against Hearts, not at the national stadium which had been closed due to renovations of the main stand, but instead was taking place at Parkhead. Alan Preston would give Hearts the lead at the start of the second half, however a late fightback from McPherson and McCoist would see Rangers secure their place in the final with a 2-1 victory.

With 6 games remaining Rangers title was certainly in touching distance, but as they continued to compete on so many fronts it required a laser like focus in the final few furlongs of the season.

As Marseille welcomed Rangers to the Stade Velodrome on Matchday 5 of the Champions League, the French champions found themselves embroiled in a genuine title race. At the turn of the year only 3 points separated the top 6 in Ligue 1, with Arsene Wenger’s Monaco sat at the top of the pile after 20 matches. Form after the winter break didn’t appear to be causing much separation between the sides, however Marseille would continue to slowly build momentum as they rose up from 5th place to 2nd as they closed out the month of March.

Marseille’s final league game before meeting with Rangers saw them travel to the Geoffroy Guichard stadium to face Saint Etienne, where two late goals from Voller and Desailly would hand Marseille a vital 2-0 victory, a scoreline that was further compounded by Monaco losing 3-0 to Strasbourg and therefore handing Marseille top spot with 8 matches remaining.

Confidence was clearly peaking at the right time for Marseille, fuelled by a domestic resurgence that if all else fails brought about European football next year. Furthermore as they entered this winner takes all encounter with Rangers they had the assurance of a side that had never lost at the Stade Velodrome in European competition while Bernard Tapie had owned the club, a record that Walter Smith and his men would surely be looking to break.

Starting Line Ups

Marseille Starting Line Up:

Eric Di Meco returns to the Marseille line up having missed the weekend’s Ligue 1 match with Saint Etienne through suspension. The only difference from the side that faced Rangers at Ibrox on Matchday 1 is the omission of sweeper Casoni, with Head Coach Goethals favoring Angloma in the back line and Eydelie coming into the right wing back role. This is a very aggressive 3-4-3 shape that rotates and morphs into a 2-5-3 in attack. Angloma’s positioning is intriguing, defending on the back line like a center back but pushing forward into midfield like a deep lying play maker in attack. Alen Boksic role in the side is equally interesting, as he has the physique of a target man but the nimble dexterity of a tricky winger. It’s hard to call the Croatian a right winger in this formation given the frequency of central attacks, however his ability to torment Rangers left back will no doubt be evident from the first whistle. 

Rangers Starting Line Up:

Rangers only enforced change is Mark Hateley missing out due to suspension. Ian Durrant and Pieter Huistra were rested during Rangers’ weekend Semi Final with Hearts, both of whom return to the line up to form crucial attacking roles in support of lone striker Ally McCoist.

First Half Tactical Analysis

Marseille Attack Play

Head Coach Raymond Goethals had clearly sighted Richard Gough’s missed header during the move that led to the opening goal at Ibrox as a weakness in the Rangers backline, so would encourage Barthez to rain kick after kick into the Rangers defensive third in the opening stages of the match. In between these moments of forceful long balls Marseille would display little glimmers of their quality, quietly establishing a control of possession through fluid rotations and quick ball movements to pin Rangers into place. The juxtaposition of each of these clips helps illustrate that Marseille don’t operate within a “philosophy” or “dogma”, instead they live by whatever means necessary to get the job done.

Marseille Counter Pressure

At Ibrox we had witnessed Marseille’s use of counter pressure to swarm Rangers’ back line and midfield during moments of transition, not only preventing them from building play forward but using the confusion after a turnover to exploit vacant spaces with skillful dribbling and forward runs. On the 18th minute we saw another example of this skill set at work, which started with Fabien Barthez launching a kick down field. The initial long ball was not contested by Rudi Voller, instead Marseille attacked John Brown’s headed clearance with Sauzee heading toward a front 3 that had now converged into a central trident. While Marseille’s attempts to counter press and attack on goal would be thwarted in the first instance, they would get another opportunity moments later when an attack had failed to be cleared by David Robertson. Sauzee pounced on the miskick by feeding a first-time pass into Rudi Voller who turned to dribble forward and drew pressure from central midfielder Stuart McCall. As Voller reached the top of the box he cut across the ball to deliver a low cross on a right angle, one that found the forward movement of Sauzee with expert precision. Sauzee struck the ball first time toward the bottom right corner, a strike that Andy Goram could only get a slight touch on as it whistled into the net. This would be Marseille’s first shot of the match, yet in less than 20 minutes they found themselves 1-0 ahead.

Rangers Set Piece Threat

The omission of the suspended Mark Hateley significantly blunted Rangers attacking potency against the strength of Marcel Desailly and Basil Boli during open play. Ian Durrant and Ally McCoist worked extremely hard in the opening exchanges to maintain some element of territory in attack, however it would be during set pieces that Rangers posed the biggest threat. On numerous occasions in the first half Rangers loaded the box with all of their aerially proficient attackers, in an attempt to expose any vulnerability that may exist in the Marseille back line.

First Half Battle

Despite this match promising to be one for the ages, it instead degenerated into forty-five minutes of very small glimpses of quality sandwiched between almost continual screeches of Mario Van der Ende’s whistle. While both sides are more than capable of playing quality football, they are also both well up for a fight and more than happy to engage in a physical contest should the match require it. The opening half was more akin to an early round jostle between two heavyweights, even though Marseille had landed a striking blow Ranger appeared content to hold back and bide their time for later in the game to open up.

Second Half Tactical Analysis

As play resumed for the second half both sides picked up where they left off, with Marseille taking the initiative in attack and Rangers doing what they could to attack on the counter. With neither side affording their opponent an inch, the opening 10 minutes of the second half would become characterized by the outcome of two set pieces.

A lofted pass from Basil Boli landed at the edge of the Rangers 18-yard box with Rudi Voller and Richard Gough coming together to challenge for the ball. Referee Mario Van der Ende awarded Marseille a free kick citing that Gough had pulled on Voller’s jersey, much to the delight of dead ball specialist Franck Sauzee. The Frenchman curled a shot from the resulting free kick that left Andy Goram motionless, however the trajectory of the shot couldn’t quite dip below the frame as it crashed off the crossbar and back out to the top of the box. A mix up between Pele and Sauzee as they looked to create a secondary attack would allow Rangers to make a clearance, doing so with a huge sigh of relief that Marseille hadn’t doubled their advantage.

Rangers followed this up with a counterattack over the Marseille defense for Ian Durrant to run onto. His attempted cut back found its way to Ian Ferguson at the top of the box, who’s strike on goal was deflected wide by a block tackle from Jocelyn Angloma. Trevor Steven’s whipped corner was met by the head of Jocelyn Angloma at the front post area, but his connection wasn’t clean enough to negate the danger and the ball looped to the far corner of the 18 yard box. Positioned at the edge of the area Ian Durrant read the flight of the ball and was waiting on hand to attack the ball. The Rangers midfielder strode forward and connected with a half volley hit so sweet that the ball flew off his boot like a jet-propelled rocket toward the Marseille goal. The trajectory of the ball had that beautiful cross fade arc like a golf stroke, with the ball eventually firing into the bottom corner of Fabien Barthez’s net. Rangers now found themselves back in the contest at 1-1 with 40 minutes remaining, leading to questions of which side would open up first in search of a winner.

Marseille Tactical Switch

With Marseille being the home side they would have felt a natural inclination to play for the victory, however in Goethals they have a wise and experienced coach who knows only too well what Rangers are capable of should his side gift them another opportunity.

Moments after Rangers goal Goethals altered his side’s shape into a more defensively solid 3-5-2, moving Boksic into a central position next to Voller and Pele into a more traditional number 10 position. By adjusting to a narrower midfield line out of possession Marseille now not only negated any forward passes into McCoist, but it gave them more players in which to combine with the strikers in transition while Eydelie and Di Meco stretched the width on the flanks. Marseille managed to maintain the balance of attacking threat with defensive solidity, suffocating Rangers attempts to gain any momentum in the process.

Rangers Tactical Changes

Walter Smith’s first substitution came on 53 minutes when David Robertson had to leave the field due to injury. Utility player Neil Murray once again showed his versatility by coming into right back, with Dave McPherson now at center back next to Richard Gough and John Brown taking up the left back berth.

On 80 minutes Smith would go for broke, bringing on striker Gary McSwegan to replace the Dutch winger Pieter Huistra. With Rangers now switching to a 4-4-2 formation it provided a further target to use while building counter attacks, as well as providing another striker inside the box to attack cross balls.

Try as they might Rangers simply couldn’t find any rhythm in attack, with Basil Boli and Marcel Desailly looking more impenetrable with every attempt on the Marseille defensive third.

While there was certainly an upswing in performance levels and general rhythm in the second half, the final whistle engendered an almost anti-climactic feeling inside of me. This was a game that promised so much and unfortunately delivered very little in an attacking sense, but what it did do was underline the ruthless pragmatism that pervades each coach and the teams built in their image. It seems rather fitting that both sides qualification wasn’t concluded this evening, instead their titanic tussle extends into Matchday 6 where both sides still require a result that betters their opponents.

Data Report   

Value of Chances

xG Timeline:

With each side recording only 4 shots each in the opening forty-five it underlines how fragmented the play head become due to the continual stoppages in play. The second half timeline doesn’t fully do Rangers willingness to attack justice given how frequently they broke forward on the Marseille goal, with that said their ability to only record two attacks also speaks to how solid Marseille are as a defensive unit. Marseille rather uncharacteristically reduced their intensity after their early first half goal, only re-applying the pressure once Rangers had scored the equalizer.

Chance Quality:

Given Rangers low number of overall attacks it’s perhaps easier to take positives from the frequency of higher probability chances, like wise Marseille could extract from their timeline a decent attacking performance if they tried hard enough. With that said what underlines both of these opinions as conjecture is the insanely low amount of shots that actually ended up on target.

Type of Chances Created

In looking at Marseille’s key pass location (dots sized in accordance with the value of probability) we can see that while there were fewer attacks converted from wide areas, Eydelie and Di Meco did create chances of quality from the flanks. Centrally we can also see that Marseille’s attacking trident of Pele, Voller and Boksic worked extremely well with Sauzee and Deschamps to create the majority of the shots on goal.

Despite Marseille dominating much of the possession I found it interesting that only 50% of their attacks were created during open play. What’s more perplexing is that for a side that appear so strong when they attack set pieces that they can appear so fragile when defending them.

All three of Rangers key passes occurred during set plays, one of which coming from a throw in, which speaks to the differing number of players in attack during dead balls versus that in attack during open play.  

Where Chances are Created

Considering the amount of quality both sides have in attack it makes this collective performance all the more bewildering.

Even if it took Marseille almost twenty minutes to record their first shot on goal, the fact it resulted in a goal from Sauzee must have led spectators to believe it was the start of a more free flowing performance, such had been the goalfest against CSKA in the last match. Instead, what ensued was a total of four more shots from inside the box that the Rangers back line either blocked or saved.

Sauzee’s second half free kick was the only set piece that really troubled the Rangers goal, which is still recorded as a miss even though it struck the bar. Despite set play attacks carrying a far lower probability Marseille managed to divide their xG 50/50 across set plays and open play attacks, a result that illustrates how many speculative efforts from distance Marseille struck that failed to test Andy Goram. Of their 1.47 xG only 21% of this total was derived from their two shots on target.

From Rangers relatively small sample size of attacks they can be proud of the amount that took place inside the golden zone (central portion of the 18 yard box), but ultimately it was their inability to trouble Fabien Barthez outwith Durrant’s goal that significantly reduced their chances of winning. In what was always going to be a smash and grab victory, should it have occurred, Rangers xG of 0.70 is further undermined by only 5% of this total coming from their solitary shot on target.

The fact there were any goals in this match at all probably illustrates the quality of player on show, as this match was the very definition of two teams cancelling each other out.

Match Simulator

We fired up the RFA Match Simulator to replay the match 1000 times, and in doing so calculating the accumulative win percentage based on the probability of each shot. Here are the results:

Elsewhere in Group A

In Group A’s other Matchday 5 encounter the Olympiastadion in Berlin, Germany would play host to CSKA Moscow’s final “home” match of the competition against Club Brugge. The Belgian champions chances of progression to the final had been dealt a huge blow on Matchday 4, which perhaps explains why only 2000 fans would make the trip to North West Germany.

On 18 minutes CSKA striker Oleg Sergeyev would open the scoring, picking up the ball inside the box he would leave Rudy Cossey for dead with a slick touch and turn, followed up with a neat left foot finish past Danny Verlinden in the Club Brugge goal.

Gert Verheyen was presented with a remarkable opportunity inside the six yard box moments later, after a failed clearance from Malyukov saw the ball trickle into the path of the Belgian attacker. His effort hit the post and was subsequently cleared from danger by CSKA defender Denis Mashkarin.

Right on the stroke of half time another poor defensive mistake from CSKA would see a headed clearance fall to Club Brugge midfielder Marc Schaessens, who’s right foot strike kissed off the post and into the back of the net to bring the score to 1-1.

After a closely fought second half it would be Club Brugge who were to take maximum points back to Belgium. A blocked free kick from the edge of the 18 was chipped back into the box from Van der Elst, with Schaessens connecting again to cross the ball into the center of the goal. Verheyen was on hand again to provide a finish inside the six yard box, however this time he wouldn’t miss and applied a headed finish to win the game and retain Club Brugge’s chances of making the final.

The results at the end of Matchday 5 leave Group A finely poised and with everything all to play for as we enter the final round of games. Rangers have the slightly easier task of a home match against winless CSKA on Matchday 6, however Marseille are a side that will always offer a threat no matter where or whom they face.

About the Author

Picture of Alistair Bain

Alistair Bain

Alistair is a native of Hamilton, Scotland, and an A License qualified coach with vast experience in the football industry. Currently residing in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alistair's resume includes a variety of roles within football clubs in Scotland, England, and the United States.

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