HELL hath no fury like a woman scorned, goes the old saying.

In modern football parlance, managers who openly walk out of a club can often be subject to some extreme supporter ire.

As Rangers sealed their place in the Europa League final later this month with an emotionally-charged 3-2 aggregate win over RB Leipzig, a penny for the thoughts of Steven Gerrard.

The former Gers boss had transformed the club into a force to be reckoned with in Europe, but his best-ever European finish over the last three seasons, consecutive last 16 appearances in the competition, had been quickly superseded by his successor.

The Rangers Review analyses whether this season’s European success would have been possible with Gerrard at the helm.

Greater flexibility out of possession

The cornerstone of Rangers’ run to the final in Seville later this month has been built on van Bronckhorst’s system flexibility.

Whereas Gerrard was rigid in his use of a four-man defensive structure, van Bronckhorst has shown his willingness to adapt to the tactical nuances posed by the opposition.

Most striking has been the Dutchman’s liberal use of in-game formational switches. Borussia Dortmund, for instance, had Rangers on the ropes in the first half at Ibrox in the second leg of their last 32 clash. Leading 2-1, a third goal for the Bundesliga outfit would have levelled the tie on aggregate.

Having started with a four-man defence to seemingly facilitate greater defensive pressure higher up the pitch, van Bronckhorst switched to a three-man defence to reduce Dortmund’s success at finding runners from midfielders.

The xG timeline from the game shows how Rangers re-established defensive control with the half-time switch from the Dutchman.

Rangers Review:

Similarly, Red Star Belgrade had the ball in the Rangers net twice inside 12 minutes in the last 16 first leg at Ibrox, with only marginal offside calls sparing the Gers that evening.

Aleksandar Katai’s late runs from his advanced midfield position were helping Red Star Belgrade overload Rangers’ four-man backline in central areas.

Rangers Review:

Rangers Review:

Rangers Review:

van Bronckhorst then dropped John Lundstram from his midfield position into the backline to form a three-man defence after a disjointed 25 minutes. Again, the xG timeline from the 3-0 victory vindicated van Bronckhorst’s change of system.

Rangers Review:

As the Dutchman has gotten to grips with the group of players he inherited from Gerrard, he has increasingly shown a willingness to adopt a man-orientated defensive structure.

In doing so, Rangers are able to recover possession higher up the pitch, with the simplicity of the approach proving a welcome deviation from Gerrard’s expertly coded defensive set-up. 

Whereas Gerrard’s trademark 4-3-3 mid-block required constant dialogue among the players about when to fill spaces and which angles to block, van Bronckhorst’s man-orientated approach has leveraged the physicality of his side in one-on-one battles across the pitch.

READ MORE: Rangers reach Seville on merit after overpowering lacklustre Leipzig - Joshua Barrie

With Gerrard prioritising central occupation, his teams became increasingly hostage to sides who could successfully exploit the space on the flanks.

The opening goal from Slavia Prague in the first leg of Rangers’ eventual Europa League last 16 exit last season succinctly underlined the growing limitations of Gerrard’s defensive approach.

With Rangers trying to recover their shape, the Czech side pick up the ball in midfield.

Rangers Review:

Kamara is narrowed infield, which opens up a 2v1 overload on Rangers’ right flank against Nathan Patterson.

Rangers Review:

The ball is then worked inside, where Nicolae Stanciu scores from the edge of the penalty area.

Rangers Review:

It was lost amid the backlash to the despicable racist abuse Glen Kamara suffered in the second leg defeat that Gerrard identified that his side sorely lacked physicality against comparable European opposition.

Indeed, it prompted the addition of Lundstram on a free transfer in the summer, with Gerrard emphasising the point that the former Sheffield United midfielder would “add steel and presence to our midfield along with his quality which makes our squad much stronger.”

Likewise, Fashion Sakala Jr. arrived to inject pace into a forward line which had proven completely absent of it.

Gerrard approached his summer recruitment hamstrung by Rangers’ inability to sign off on lavish fees, yet the players who arrived hinted at a more physically-robust approach to European games.

It never materialised in a lacklustre Europa League group stage campaign from the Gers – with victory over Sparta Prague on van Bronckhorst’s debut on the touchline securing qualification in an admittedly weak group – and the prevailing sense is that Gerrard was too married to his customary European approach to fully explore the physical potential of his side.

Simplifying Rangers’ possession approach

While van Bronckhorst has successfully simplified Rangers’ approach out of possession, he has done likewise with how Rangers act with the ball.

What immediately jumps out from the Ibrox side’s pass map in the 3-1 win over RB Leipzig is the clarity in how they progressed the ball forward.

Rangers Review:

There was a heavy emphasis on ball circulation between the central defenders, while there is clear instruction on the outside centre-backs to find teammates advanced on the flanks.

READ MORE: Why the Europa League final shootout will be the richest game in Rangers' history

The consistent spacing – against a side who similarly deployed a variation of the 3-4-3 – also aided Rangers’ ability to recover possession quickly given there was very little space for RB Leipzig to immediately exploit in transition.

Indeed, the increased verticality under van Bronckhorst in Europe is highlighted by the share of Rangers’ long pass % increasing. Through the entirety of last season’s European campaign under Gerrard, Rangers played long on average 9% of the time, while under the Dutchman that share has increased to 12% in the eight Europa League knockout stage clashes this season.

Similarly, the PPDA – passes per defensive action - of the Gers’ opponents has shrunk to 9.58 in the knockout rounds this term from 15.8 last season. This underlines how Rangers are more prepared to play direct into contested areas rather than patiently move possession between players.

The pass map from Rangers’ 2-0 victory over Brondby in the group stages before Gerrard’s departure shows how the Gers patiently targeted a specific weakness in the opponent’s left-hand side.

Rangers Review:

The upside is that, although Rangers’ underlying attacking numbers with van Bronckhorst at the helm have remained consistent with those under Gerrard, they tend to give themselves a greater margin in matches. The 3-1 win over RB Leipzig was already the fifth time under the Dutchman that Rangers have won by a 2+ goal margin in the Europa League, just one fewer than Gerrard’s tally across three-and-a-bit seasons.

Under Gerrard, Steven Davis would often look to drop into the backline during build-up in deep areas to form a three-man backline. Yet the process of a No.6 splitting the central defenders is usually a trigger for opponents to press higher.

With van Bronckhorst starting games with a three-man defence, all of whom are facing play, it allows Rangers to target to full width of the pitch in much the same way that Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool succeed.

There is no disputing that Gerrard laid the foundations for Rangers’ run to the Europa League final. Every player on the pitch on Thursday, with the exception of captain James Tavernier and Ryan Jack, was signed by the now Aston Villa boss.

Gerrard constructed Rangers’ heigh ceiling in Europe, but it is more than fair to contend that his side were banging their heads off of it before his departure.

European football is becoming increasingly more athletic and, within Gerrard’s summer recruitment, the former Rangers boss seemed to realise as much.

However, he failed to put it into practice before his departure in November, with van Bronckhorst inheriting a side who, while boasting the fundamentals of how to thrive in European competition, were ready to be moulded into a more physical outfit.

The Ibrox side’s league campaign may not have disintegrated so rapidly under the former Liverpool captain, but his loss has undoubtedly been van Bronckhorst’s gain in the Europa League.