In a pre-match news conference lacking much talk of the opposition, there was one question that stood out in that regard ahead of Rangers’ Europa League final clash with Eintracht Frankfurt.
Gers captain James Tavernier was pointedly asked for his opinion on Eintracht wing-back Filip Kostic, given the pair are likely to see a lot of each other on the flank they’ll share.
“Obviously I respect how he’s been playing, he’s a top player,” Tavernier said. “But, I’ve just got to bring the best version of myself when the game starts and try to cause him all the problems, try to make him deal with me for the majority of the game. That’s all I can really do.”
Tavernier’s response didn’t offer any particularly great insight, but his mentality of wanting to cause Kostic as many problems was at least another identifier of how their duel could be such a key battle.
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Tavernier, a right-back, remarkably heads into Wednesday’s game as the Europa League’s top scorer on seven goals, and realistically – or, unrealistically – only a hat-trick from Eintracht’s Daichi Kamada can prevent the Englishman from at least ending the season with a share of the competition’s golden boot.
Further to that, he netted 19 times over the course of the 2020-21 season and could yet match that figure this term – he also has an impressive assists haul of 16.
If it needs reiterating, he’s a huge contributor for Rangers in the final third.
So, given he’s technically a right-back, there’s obviously an element of Tavernier needing to be solid defensively on Wednesday, but some might suggest it’s even more essential he’s as sharp as ever going forward as that would not only give Rangers a credible threat on the right, but it would potentially keep Kostic occupied in a deeper position.
Granted, Eintracht’s set-up with a back three should always ensure they have an extra man to cover for Kostic’s runs forward, while the two attacking midfielders supporting Rafael Borre up top often occupy narrow, deeper berths in order to maximise the space out wide for their biggest threat.
Yet there’s always the possibility of an overload in behind Kostic if the conditions are right, such is his attacking influence.
After all, the frequency at which Kostic delivers into the box is frankly astonishing. This season, he has been the executor of 519 crosses and corners, 140 more than any other player in the top five leagues – Trent Alexander-Arnold is second with 379.
Kostic’s 78 successful crosses from open play is also a season-high. Of course, you would expect him to lead the way given he’s attempted so many more than anyone else, but his 26.8 per cent accuracy (crosses/corners) is right in line with the average (among players with at least 100 attempted). That in itself is impressive given his greater frequency.
Another way of looking at it is, he is producing one accurate open-play cross every 45.4 minutes. While that may not sound incredible on the face of it, his 12.4 expected assists (xA) is the 10th highest among players in the top five leagues, highlighting just how much of a weapon he is in terms of his creative quality.
So, while he may be classed as a wing-back in terms of his position on a team line-up graphic, the Serbian is there for his attacking tendencies.
A cursory glance at his map of open-play chances created proves that point.
But Rangers must also be aware of the danger posed on the opposite flank.
Ansgar Knauff has been one of the stars of Eintracht’s journey to the final, with the 20-year-old becoming something of a revelation in the past few months.
As recently as mid-January he was turning out for Borussia Dortmund’s second team in the third tier. Then he joined Eintracht on loan and has since scored important Europa League goals against Barcelona and West Ham.
His impact on the road to Seville has been significant, with his brilliant athleticism, bravery and confidence on the ball making him a real asset on the right-hand side.
Before Knauff’s arrival, Eintracht were rather lopsided, with their other options on the right far from convincing. Sure, Kostic remains their main outlet, but Knauff’s emergence has provided them with another – albeit stylistically different – threat on the other side, giving them greater balance.
Across all competitions since his Eintracht debut in early February, only Kostic (5.6) and Jesper Lindstrom (2.6) have amassed better xA records than Knauff, who is also fifth to those two, Borre and Kamada in terms of xA and xG (expected goals) combined.
He may not be their deadliest weapon, but he’s proven he can offer them a lot, and his team-high 61 dribble attempts in that period proves he’s happy to make his markers work for their money.
Oliver Glasner’s team is full of neat, technical players and is also blessed with fine work ethic, as it would need to be to play their high-pressing football.
But their width and desire to attack from the flanks is fundamental to how they play – while it may be easier said than done, limiting their effectiveness out wide would go a long way to ending Rangers’ 50-year European trophy drought.
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