Philippe Clement cut a satisfied figure following Rangers’ 2-1 win over Sparta Prague in the Europa League last night.

While he caveated the statement of this being the best 45 minutes of his reign with a disclaimer that 90-minute performances remain the desired standard, the Belgian and his team could reflect on a job well done. By half time, despite the manager's desire for a third goal to “kill the belief” of the visitors, enough had been done to win the match and take a big step towards Europa League football after Christmas.

On the basis of xG the second half was an even affair (0.4 to 0.48xG). But the first half was a different story (0.81 to 0.21xG).

Speaking to RangersTV before the match, Clement commented: “Sparta are an aggressive pressing team, they make it difficult to play good football. We need to find the right spaces as we did in the second half in Prague, I want to see that from the start today. We don’t want to concede transitions.”

“I think our game plan was perfect in the way we were going to press them,” Todd Cantwell commented in the mixed zone after the match.

This was the story of this game - Rangers were able to use Sparta’s aggression to their benefit when they had possession, accessing the “right spaces” directly to cause the Czech visitors constant problems. And for the majority of the first half when they spent time without the ball, their “press was perfect”.

It was a moment of pressure that earned the first goal, while the hosts used Sparta’s aggression to access the “right spaces” in the lead-up to their second.

Let’s start with Danilo’s strike, just after the 10-minute mark. Playing against a back five, Clement had an interesting tactical dilemma to solve. He chose to rely on his centre-forward leading the press with aggression and intelligence often against two or three opponents. That would ensure that all other passing options for the visitors, who wanted to play through the pitch, were cut off. He then required the rest of his team to 'jump up' at the right moments, normally when the ball went backwards and especially when it was worked to Gomez at left centre-back.

Take this early example. Sparta have three men against one, Danilo, in the first line of their build-up as Vitik drives forward, but he has no forward passing options because they're all marked up. Notice the deep positioning of Cantwell and Sima.

As Vitik is forced backwards, notice the posture of the whole Rangers front six. They're moving in unison and pushing forward whenever they can.

As Vitik receives the ball again, this time Sima jumps up to press him, given Rangers are closer to goal and on the front foot. Sima curves his run to prevent the centre-back from simply passing beyond him to an unmarked wing-back.

Reading Vitik's body position and the pressing triggers, Sima knows he can force the issue and the defender is forced to carry infield where Rangers could win the ball. Although the right wing-back Preciado is free, Vitik can't find him given he's right-footed and the angles are against him.

On this occasion, Sparta manage to retain possession, but by the time it reaches Preciado, Barisic has had time to jump up from left-back and press his opposing wing-back backwards. 

The pattern repeats, Rangers are able to push Sparta backwards to the right where they force a long ball Tavernier can contest in the air.

All throughout the first half Rangers moved as a team. When either winger jumped up next to Danilo, they made sure to block off a pass to that wing-back in return.

It was this pressing scheme that caused the opener.

READ MORE: The two key positions where Rangers have found answers to a long-posed problem

Look at the below image to show the home side's set-up. On the Sparta left, with Cantwell moving onto the left wing-back Zeleny, Tavernier (out of shot) on Birmancevic and Lundstram marking the midfield option, Gomez has no options after receiving from his goalkeeper.

But why not go to the left? On that side both Ryan Jack and Barisic are splitting their time between three men, so surely that’s a more sensible route? This is where Danilo comes in, because of the pace of his pressing and Gomez’s right-footed preference, that angle is cut off.

Clement quoted the work of his analysts after the game and, if you look at how early Danilo is on his heels to try and intercept Gomez’s backpass, this certainly looks deliberate. He got enough on the pass to intercept and open the scoring.

What about in possession? It was here that Rangers used a pragmatic approach. As Clement said, Sparta’s aggressive pressing can make it difficult to play “good football” against but also creates opportunities, on this occasion enabling the home side to attract the press and play over it. 

Look at the home side’s pass network, which charts the average position from where they played their passes. Clement’s team resembled a 4-2-4 on the ball with full-backs staying deep. This guarded against Sparta having too much success in transition and invited their front three and, at times, wing-backs to press forwards.

On the left, Barisic could look to pick out Sima, whether by playing the ball behind or if Sparta’s right wing-back Preciado sprung forward, by isolating the pacey attacker up against the right centre-back Vitik. On the right, Tavernier or Lundtsram normally played diagonally to the runs of Sima and Danilo but could also go down the right in the correct moments, with Gomez enduring a tricky game.

It was Cantwell’s goal that best demonstrated these themes. Below, as Lundstram drops into the defence before playing a long diagonal, notice that the Sparta front three have been lured forward.

With the ball airborne we can see their left wing-back has moved up to press Tavernier while Jack and Sam Lammers have both been followed into midfield. Meaning, there's space and opportunity for the Rangers front four.

Why does this matter? Rangers generally had no intent of playing through these central areas so the numbers Sparta committed to press were often futile. Instead, it enabled the home side to create constant attacks into space, with their front four primed for such moments.

As Sima takes the ball down, occupying two defenders thanks to his presence, and Danilo drops to receive the ball there’s the opportunity for a four-vs-four attack into space. There’s a big difference between playing aimless long balls to a congested defence and intentional long diagonals into space.

Danilo remained close to Sima whenever these diagonals arrive from the right and in this example, recognises the runs being made on the right. Not only are Lammers and Cantwell quicker to turn and run after Lundstram’s long pass has been played than their direct markers, suggesting they knew exactly what was coming, but the No.14 appears to make a pre-planned decoy run as well.

It was the timing and speed of Rangers’ actions that separated their success in going over the press compared to Sparta. 

Clement mused in his press conference the following day that no group has reacted better to his methods than the current Rangers squad.

While fitness levels must improve to sustain performance over 90 minutes, the first 45 minutes against Sparta Prague was a plan carried out to perfection.