RANGERS return to European action on Thursday when they face Borussia Dortmund in the last 32 of the Europa League.

Although it appears likely Erling Haaland will miss the first leg through injury, tomorrow’s hosts still boast a squad of Champions League quality.

Dortmund are heavy favourites for the tie and there’s no escaping that on the basis of quality they should win over two legs. Despite their performance ceiling, they have shown vulnerabilities and weaknesses throughout the season – it was only last month that second-string German outfit St Pauli, the current club of ex Hibs and Ross County man Jackson Irvine, knocked a Dortmund side containing Haaland, Marco Reus, Jude Bellingham and Julian Brandt out of the DFB Pokal Cup.

A well-executed game plan could ensure the reverse leg at Ibrox is played with progression still a possibility.

Dortmund’s season so far

Marco Rose arrived at the Signal Iduna Park this summer after a successful spell in charge of Borussia Monchengladbach. On the surface, his first season at the club has been reasonably successful with league leaders Bayern Munich only six points ahead at the summit. Equally, defensive problems have proved detrimental throughout the campaign and a disappointing exit from Europe’s premier competition featured the club’s heaviest ever defeat on the elite stage, a 4-0 humbling in Ajax. Reflecting on the result, The Athetic’s Raphael Honigstien lamented the “mediocracy” littered throughout the squad.

Multiple formations have been trialled, whether that be a 4-4-2 diamond, 4-3-1-2, 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1; all of which have featured poor defensive showings. They’ve conceded 36 in 22 league games, only six teams in the entire league have let in more.

As shown below, their average stats per 90 leave plenty to be desired.

Writing for the Rangers Review in December, German football writer Stefan Bienkowski commented: “Unquestionably, Dortmund’s biggest weakness is their defence.

“Rose still hasn’t managed to find a way to stop this team from shooting itself in the foot along the way.”

How can Rangers target the back line?

As highlighted, Rose has trialled numerous systems this season. Without Haaland and given his side will dominate possession, the 4-2-3-1 used in a 3-0 win against Union Berlin this weekend will likely be the system used to field Reus centrally, unless the coach reverts to a 4-3-3 with two advanced No.8s.

Rangers Review: Dortmund's 4-2-3-1 against Union Berlin.Dortmund's 4-2-3-1 against Union Berlin.

If he instead opts for a 4-3-3, Rangers will have an extra attacker to counter but could be granted more space when possession turns over.

In order to hurt their opponents when attacking, van Bronckhorst’s men must target playing past the first line of Dortmund pressure quickly when they counterpress, to not lose the ball in dangerous areas and attack a vulnerable opposing defence.

Counterpressing, or gegenpressing, is to press the opponent right after losing the ball. To stop counterattacks and regain possession as the opposition transitions to attack, in doing so leaving gaps that wouldn’t appear if they were defending a spell of possession.

Speaking recently, experienced Dortmund defender Mats Hummels highlighted his side's struggles when they lose the ball in high areas.

"When I watched us against Bayer Leverkusen, I didn't see too many players who were interested in defending,” he said of the recent 5-2 defeat.

"It's clear we didn't listen to what our manager had told us before the Leverkusen game. If you are serious about challenging, you can't play that way.

READ MORE: How have teams tried to stop Giovanni van Bronckhorst's Rangers and what can we learn from their failures?

In Rose’s first interview with Borussia Dortmund’s club channel he was asked if he’d prefer to win 1-0 or 4-3. “4-0 would be great,” he laughed before adding, “of course it’s also about a bit of spectacle, but in the end, above all, we should always have scored one goal more than the opponents. That is the bottom line.”

The citing of Ralf Rangnick and Jurgen Klopp later in the same interview gives an idea as to how the manager wants his team to play. In an interview with the Guardian he described his philosophy: “A Marco Rose team is always active in a game, against the ball and with the ball. It tries to win balls in a high position on the pitch. If we have the chance to score quickly we should use it. Moving the ball fast, moving the opponents; winning it back in the shortest possible time if we lose it.”

When it works, this approach can suffocate opponents, retain pressure and win the ball in opportune moments. If, as Hummels suggests, a team does not follow instructions and perhaps lacks reverse gears, this aggressive, counterpressing approach can expose the defence.

Here as Marco Reus misplaces a pass after Brandt intercepts a pass in the 5-2 defeat against Leverkusen, the midfield springs up to counterpress.

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Leverkusen escape and have plenty of room to exploit in the midfield.

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In this example, Dortmund weren’t punished but in the same half the numbers they committed to the attack was ruthlessly exposed by Leverkusen following a high turnover.

After the interception, two swift passes have taken out Dortmund’s highlighted second line of pressure and left their defence with a three against four.

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Miscommunication leads to Florian Wirtz being played onside by Dan-Axel Zagadou as Thomas Menuir looks to step up and block the cutback whilst Manuel Ajanki seems to try and hold his line.

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Hirtz can ghost in and score. A ruthlessly executed transition no doubt, but this goal was full of errors.

It should be noted that Dortmund’s pressure in transitions has led to many goals in their favour; this piece is focused on the weaknesses of said tactic, however.

Leverkusen’s fifth of the day must be caveated with the fact that the game was 4-1 and tie all but over. Still, it shows the space that may be available if Dortmund choose to press on the turnover but execute their plan half-heartedly.

Brandt’s lack of intention allows the ball to break through the midfield and find the gap in front of the defence. Such are the demands of this system if one man doesn’t do his job the entire structure can unravel.

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The defence is outnumbered and former Celtic man Jeremie Frimpong crosses for Moussa Diaby to score.

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Examples of opponents breaking the first line of pressure and then punishing defensive errors have been a constant theme for Dortmund this season. Here, the full-backs have inverted to stop Hertha from progressing through the centre of the pitch, but a completely disjointed backline as possession turns over gives the home side a clear area to attack.

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Ishak Belfodil can hold off Witsel and score from a simple lofted ball.

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Stuttgart’s equaliser at the Signal Iduna is strikingly similar.

Akanji loses possession in the midfield leaving his side a player short at the back. Again disorganisation is evident, as Hummels is left at the base of a defensive diamond without any cover alongside him.

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Admittedly, Raphael Guerriero slips but the gap Roberto Massimo runs into was created first by poor defending.

READ MORE: Rangers' midfield 'open triangle 'and why it's causing problems in playing out from the back

Hummels is dragged to his right by Soumaila Coulibaly, giving Massimo freedom to run through and score.

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St Pauli’s second goal in their cup win is a final example of how cheaply the German side have gifted opponents access to valuable attacking areas. Javok Medic intercepts Bellingham’s pass and given Dortmund don’t react with five players ahead of the ball, it takes a one-two in midfield for the second-tier outfit to run at the flat defence.

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This gives Finn Ole Becker time to curve his run and deliver a cross that Witsel diverts into his own net.

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How will van Bronckhorst approach the tie?

One of Steven Gerrard’s defining qualities at Ibrox was his European success, built on a well-drilled system that provided his team with the platform to earn results in Porto, Benfica, Braga, Feyenoord amongst others.

The system van Bronckhorst is developing remains in its infancy but the off-ball approach away from home in the Scottish Premiership has been overly passive and led to dropped points. At times, territorial control has been granted far too easily, however in a 1-1 draw against Lyon recently the team looked more solid without the ball.

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A similar horizontal compactness is needed in Germany, if the visitor's approach without the ball is not carried out sufficiently the tie could quickly be over.

To have any hope of victory Rangers must play over or through the counterpressure they face quickly, take advantage of the lack of solidity Dortmund possess in midfield and their defence which has conceded chances with great consistency.

For progression to be obtained the performance over two legs would need to be perfect, even if the highlighted examples show, and by Hummels' own admission, a side with deep defensive issues.

Over two legs Rangers will have their moments, they must be clinical, compact and opportune to make this tie competitive.