A tactical analysis of Scottish Premiership match between the “Old Firm” of Celtic and Rangers, this was the third meeting of these clubs this season. Previously, it was a one-nil victory to the home side. This time it was back to Celtic Park. As a manager, Neil Lennon’s record against Rangers is eight wins, five draws, and five losses. Gerrard was looking to become the first Rangers manager to win back-to-back Premiership derbies since Walter Smith in October 2009.
With Neil Lennon stating that he wanted his Celtic side to be more physical than the last derby, he brought in Johnny Hayes on the left side of midfield. This was possibly to protect Kieran Tierney and to counter Daniel Candeias and James Tavernier on the Rangers’ right. Oliver Ntcham also came into partner Scott Brown in the central defensive midfield role.
Gerard’s response to the one-all draw with Kilmarnock was to completely change his central midfield. Ross McCrorie, Scott Arfield and Ryan Jack replaced Steven Davis, Glen Kamara and Lassana Coulibaly. Andy Halliday also kept his place as Borna Barisic is still on the injured list. He also brought back Joe Worrall into his defence to give him the team that had beaten Celtic in December. This was the first time this side had started a game since that previous game.
Celtic set up in a tried, tested and successful shape of 4-2-3-1. However, unlike the previous contest, Neil Lennon started Kristoffer Ajer. His ability to dribble out and make progressive runs while keeping possession under pressure would be an asset, as Rangers were likely to try to replicate the high press that was so successful previously.
Out of possession Celtic would go into a 4-1-4-1 with Brown protecting the back four. Since the departure of Brendan Rodgers, Celtic have tended to go slightly longer and slightly earlier.
Rangers set up in a 4-3-3 with their attack central. Morelos pressing and splitting Celtic’s centre-backs, Scott Arfield covering Scott Brown, Daniel Candeias and Ryan Kent in the half space to threaten full backs, block forward penetrating passes and break quickly on the counter.
Rangers’ shape change
On 31 minutes, Rangers went into familiar territory as Alfredo Morelos was sent off for lashing out at Scott Brown. With the ball 30 yards away, the incident was spotted by the assistant referee.
Initially, Kent moved forward to keep the overload situation in the Celtic’s defensive third of the pitch, as the centre backs favour a two versus one defensive set up. So that the extra player is in Celtic’s defence and as far as possible from their own goal.
At half time Gerrard tweaked his shape and pushed Candeias up alongside Kent. This meant at the very least Celtic had to bring a full back to keep the overload in their favour.
So that the overload situation was again as far away as possible.
The placement of Kent and Candeias was also interesting. They moved into the half spaces between each full back and central defender. This allowed them to threaten the full backs and at times pin the full back four.
Rangers also compacted the central channels forcing Celtic to go wide, they allowed them to cross and opted to deal with the cross. A successful tactic as Tierney only found a teammate twice out of six crosses and Lustig once out of four. If Celtic’s wide men came to combine with the full back Rangers midfield three would shift over to support.
Why are Rangers so susceptible to the counter? In recent matches, Hibernian, Aberdeen, Kilmarnock and now Celtic have countered and scored against Rangers. A quick transition and entry into the final third cause the centre backs problems.
The top priority of most teams in possession is to get the ball in behind the opposing centre backs. If not, can they get the ball into the space behind the full backs?
Rangers are vulnerable in both these areas. With their full back, Tavernier, getting forward and providing width going forward, the game model must incorporate how to fill these spaces on the first touch of the opposition’s attacking transition. If the opposition’s top priority is to get the ball in behind the centre backs, this can be done with the first touch.
This situation is tailor-made for Edouard. Rangers have a free kick on the halfway line. They set up an overload on the right-hand side. But Worrall plays a long straight central to Morelos who is being picked up by Boyata. After both sides failing to gain control, a slack pass by Candeias goes to Forrest. Forrest plays an excellent first-time pass splitting the centre backs and in behind Goldson. Edouard is quicker, and after a decisive run and dribble with the ball finishes with his left foot.
Pressing for the all-important second, Celtic left themselves exposed in defensive transitions. With Candeias and Kent staying up, they could take advantage, with Kent scoring the equalising goal. A pass from McGregor quick combination between Tavernier and Candeias before playing to Kent. Kent surrounded by five defenders kept his composure to score. The momentum switched, Rangers in the ascendency, pushing to get a winner. Tierney and Boyata suffered injuries, forcing Celtic to play with ten men. Perhaps sensing as it was ten versus ten Rangers thought they could progressive. Jack missed a gilt-edged opportunity to put Rangers 2-1 up.
Then a tired Tavernier pass went to Callum McGregor, quickly played to Edouard who picked out Forrest. Forrest’s 85th-minute winner continued Celtic’s habit for winning games late on, and of Rangers losing late goals.
Although the possession was 60/40 in favour of Celtic, this was in some ways an evenly contested match which was perhaps overshadowed by indiscipline. Both teams had long spells of domination. After a bright few minutes for Rangers at the start of the first half Celtic then dominated the rest of the half. Rangers gradually settled after the dismissal of Morelos and were more effective with the ten men.
The quality player of each side was Edouard for Celtic and Kent for Rangers. Edouard has four goals and two assists in five Glasgow derbies. While Kent was the catalyst for the Rangers upturn in form. He scored and almost created an injury-time equaliser
Morelos continues to let his teammates down with his indiscipline.
Neil Lennon made a big call in going with Hayes over Sinclair and despite his relatively poor quality on the ball, the balance of the team first half looked good, Allan McGregor kept Rangers in it until half-time. He should be considering himself a fortunate man to get the win given how the game turned against his team.
Gerrard changed the shape of his team at half time to counter the Morelos’ red card and he settled on a system that he used previously against Aberdeen. Effectively nullifying the Celtic threat, Rangers were playing without a central striker and Celtic kept the back four intact. However, he continues to delay substitutions, ten men playing against the Champions in their arena, is hard work. Perhaps he could have made earlier changes to maintain momentum and defend.
Rangers are slowly closing the gap.
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