Finals aren’t always the most exciting of occasions when it comes to a footballing spectacle.
It’s understandable of course, in a final: if you open up too much you won’t win the trophy, and you can’t simply try again next week like you can in a league season. Plus they nearly always come at the end of the season, where players are generally more tired. Finals are not conducive to being a thrilling or fascinating affair. The recent FA Cup final between Liverpool and Chelsea is a perfect example of this.
But this Europa League final? This could be really special.
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It might not be the final that many had wanted (hello Barcelona, Sevilla and West Ham fans amongst others) but for the neutral this could well be the best possible line-up.
Neither Eintracht Frankfurt nor Rangers are necessarily gung-ho, but there is an infectious, almost uncontrollable passion in their playing style, that is fed by the respective raucous fan bases.
And what really stands out as a hallmark of both Oliver Glasner and Giovanni van Bronckhorst is the way they lean into that, for better or for worse. Other managers might try and control that fire, resulting in a duller, more controlled team. But both bosses lean into the chaos, and that should make for a great match.
Ahead of the game we take a look at three tactical/personnel battles that could end up defining the tie, and will be fascinating to see how the teams try to solve them.
Battle of the back fives?
So the reason there is a question mark in the headline there is that we don’t actually know whether or not it will be a battle of the back fives. So far under in his Rangers tenure Van Bronckhorst has preferred to use a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3. However in order to give his team an edge against RB Leipzig in the semi-finals Van Bronckhorst sprung a surprise, going to a 5-3-2 and 5-4-1 across the two legs to try match the system used by Leipzig boss Domenico Tedesco.
Scott Wright, Joe Aribo and Ryan Kent all spent some time up front with no clear focal point given Alfredo Morales is out injured. It worked, particularly in the second leg, as Rangers found gaps in the Leipzig back three on a regular occasion.
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At the other end, Van Bronckhorst’s faith in Calvin Bassey, John Lundstram and Connor Goldson paid off, the trio won their individual duels and defended brilliantly man-to-man.
So what does the Dutchman do against a Frankfurt team that use the same back five system as Leipzig? Well, similar, Frankfurt prefer to have one striker and two behind rather than Leipzig’s tendency to have one player behind two strikers.
Eintracht Frankfurt bejubelt den Einzug ins Europa-League-Finale
Image credit: Getty Images
While Leipzig like to rush the middle and create overloads in that part of the pitch Frankfurt prefer to look for the double teams out wide. Whilst Leipzig’s midfield playmakers are their strength the wing-backs are Frankfurt’s superstars and they play accordingly.
On the face of it the 5-4-1 could be the perfect option. You can use Aribo as the team’s outlet, try and control the midfield with Glenn Kamara and Ryan Jack and then use the wingers in front of wing-backs to nullify the Frankfurt threat.
Tavernier v Kostic
The width discussion brings us to what is probably going to be the most important individual battle on the pitch. Both James Tavernier and Filip Kostic are the heartbeats of their team, tactically, technically and emotionally. The fact that they will directly go up against each other is the cherry on top of the cake for viewers.
As we discussed above, playing Wright deeper will give Tavernier extra support when dealing with the threat of Kostic, who will be helped by Kamada drifting out to support. By having Wright help out it gives the right-sided centre-back the option of either coming out to make a three on two situation, or isolating Borre in the middle.
On the other side whilst Kostic is a very hard worker he can leave gaps when he goes bombing forward. Evan Ndicka is a fantastic central defensive prospect (he’s being linked to a host of top European clubs) and between him and Seb Rode in midfield Frankfurt are normally able to cover. But nevertheless this remains one of the best areas for Rangers to target if they want to try and exploit their opponents.
This will ultimately become a battle of chicken as all great wing match-ups are. Tavernier and Kostic will have to use their smarts to balance how much they push forward versus giving their opponent too much room to run into. The timings of the counter-attacks will be crucial, if the releasing pass can come at the right time it could be devastating.
We asked Marc Hlusiak from Eurosport Germany whether he thinks Frankfurt would adjust their approach if Rangers took Kostic out of the game.
"I think Frankfurt's first option will still be getting it over to Kostic, no matter who the opponents are," he says.
"It wouldn't be the first time that the opponent tactically adjusted to Kostic, because he is Eintracht's best offensive player. With the addition of Knauff, however, Frankfurt has become more versatile and a little more difficult to calculate.
"However, the game going through Kostic has brought success to Frankfurt in the past, so they will continue to try to prioritize him."
Lundstram the king maker
If you’ve watched Rangers in Europe this season you’ll have heard the Ibrox faithful belting out a bit of Belinda Carlisle as they serenade John Lundstram with “Heaven is a place on Earth”.
Lundstram’s rise in the second half of the season has been nothing short of remarkable. Initially recruited by former manager Steven Gerrard, it took time for Van Bronckhorst, and the Rangers crowd for what it’s worth, to warm up to the midfielder. Yet over the last few months you could argue that no-one has been as important as the former Sheffield United man.
The 28-year-old was key in the switch to five at the back, slotting in on the right side to offer support when Tavernier pushes forward or help out Jack and Kamara if needed.
Lundstram feels like the key for Rangers when it comes to stopping Frankfurt going forward. If he plays well, it’s easy to imagine a game where Rangers nullify their opponents and lift the trophy. If he struggles for whatever reason, you can see the opposite outcome.
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