By Stephen Russell (@SJRussell23)
In the first cup final seeing Celtic and Rangers meet since 2011, both sides missed big players. Edouard was only just fit enough for the Celtic bench, Morgan starting up front instead. Frimpong also started, his first taste of the Glasgow derby, and Hayes filled in for Bolingoli at left back. Davis’ absence from the squad left Rangers with a midfield 3 of Kamara, Jack and Arfield. Barisic’s return saw Flanagan lose his place from the last meeting of the two sides and Helander took Katic’s spot.
Style of play
With Celtic missing Edouard, their style of play was heavily disrupted. On many attempts, starting early in the game, the ball was played long for Morgan to either chase or try and win. With his limited physical presence, the Rangers defenders had no issue winning the ball back which took this outlet away from Celtic. Celtic’s only positive plays came from quick switches and exposing the flank opposite to where play was congested and lacking decent hold up play made these situations few and far between.
Morgan’s less effective pressing as a centre forward also saw Rangers move the ball freely between the defensive and middle third which kept Christie pinned back, who is normally critical to Celtic’s pressing system. This allowed Rangers to take a more dominant position in the game, higher up the field. Celtic usually win the ball fairly high up the field and this change saw them struggle with transitioning into attack after being pinned back. While this could be to do with Celtic preferring to be much less compact in possession and having to take time to move into these positions, Rangers’ press also deserves credit. Rangers pressed in a compact fashion, congesting the area of play in a space-oriented fashion. This increases the pressure on Celtic with mistakes able to be capitalised on more quickly and provided more low risk passing options should Rangers win the ball. The workaround for this was Celtic switching the play quickly to exploit the unattended flank and, as mentioned before, they struggled to do this which resulted in them being boxed in.
As the game went on, Celtic began to try shorter build ups from the back with Frimpong and Hayes pushed higher and wider. Rangers’ defence sat narrow leaving the wingers to track the overlap. With Barisic sat off Forrest, he was limited in effectiveness and Frimpong had to invert his runs. Without physical support from the centre, he often found himself running into traps – although he did well to navigate these. Hayes was successful at exploiting the space behind Tavernier but Goldson and Helander dealt with his crosses easily and Morgan barely challenged for them. Elyounoussi was also kept quiet by a more disciplined defensive line as his style involves cutting across the edge of the box and giving the defenders a problem to consider. With the fullbacks tucked in and not committing and play compact, he wasn’t able to make space for himself the same way.
Play primarily was conducted down Celtic’s left/Rangers’ right. This is for several reasons. Firstly, both midfields are geared to play that way. Arfield played on that side for Rangers and was the most attacking midfielder of their 3 and McGregor plays that side for Celtic more as a #8 while Brown holds the other side as a #6. Secondly, with Hayes overlapping and Frimpong inverting with Tavernier in an advanced position and Barisic sat deeper, as discussed before, this made the space to play and exploit for both sides on that wing.
Edouard being subbed on greatly facilitated Celtic’s forward movement. Celtic’s goal came from a free kick won on the wing by Edouard dropping off to the left and holding the ball. Their next chance was Johnston through on goal after Edouard dropped deep to receive the ball and held it while Johnston made the run. Instances beyond this were limited as the game dynamics changed after the red card. Celtic adopted a low block. Edouard dropping deep still allowed the wingers to threaten with an overlap.
Celtic found it difficult to reach the final third, mostly resorting to the Hayes overlap. This is because of Rangers’ compact defensive line packing out their box. Without space to play the ball, Celtic had a task to try and move the Rangers defence which they found difficult without committing too many players forward and overextending. Rangers found the final third on more occasions and this mostly came from quicker turnover play or Morelos drifting from the centre.
Rangers brought Defoe on for Kamara later in the game to try and add numbers near Celtic’s box and find their way into the box for an equaliser. However, Kamara had previously helped giving a passing option between the fullback and centre half which was now lost, giving Celtic more room to push on that side – Christie moved to this position – which damaged how Rangers could fluently move the ball into the middle third. With Celtic much narrower, their wide midfielders covered the overlap while their fullbacks tucked in to crowd the box, similar to how Rangers defended earlier in the game.
In terms of Rangers’ hold up play, Morelos plays a more aggressive role than Edouard. While Edouard drops deep and collects the ball, Morelos pursues the ball down the flanks and either holds it up for a lay off to late runners or cuts inside. This play was the catalyst for most of Rangers’ big chances in the game but died down as Morelos tired in the first half. As the game progressed, this movement was also used to win set plays which have contributed to 49.7% of the xG Celtic have conceded in the league this season while Rangers have created 28.3% of their xG this way.
Open play crosses from deeper positions by the fullbacks looked to open Celtic’s defence – especially when Tavernier delivered the ball to Jullien’s side for Morelos to receive. Many of Rangers’ crosses – open play or set pieces – led to a looser second ball. Rangers looked to be actively pursuing these situations, struggling to defeat Ajer and Jullien in the air, and to take advantage of the uncertainty. Later in the game, when Celtic had their two banks of 4 (with Bitton on and Ajer moved to right back), they better managed the second ball with McGregor and Brown closing the gaps in front of the defence.
On occasions when Morelos didn’t challenge for the wide balls, Ajer and Jullien collected the through balls easily. As they were sat deep, they were closely supported by Forster which limited the effectiveness of Rangers playing a more direct style. After the red card, when Celtic adopted a more rigid 4-4-1, this prevented Rangers from being able to try and exploit the space behind the defence at all and left them reliant on their build up play which lacked the tempo to unsettle Celtic. With Celtic’s front pressing line being broken so easily before this, Rangers should have capitalised but again it was slower play and hesitation moving the ball from the wing that hindered this.
Morelos’ penalty miss was one of the key moments of the game. Having taken the ball from Tavernier, the Colombian looked to want to end his duck against Celtic. However, he was all but geared to miss. This article details the psychology behind taking a penalty, asserting that a penalty to win is often more successful than a penalty to ‘not lose’, which is what Morelos faced. This is called ‘loss aversion’ and adds to the pressure Morelos was already feeling having never beaten a Celtic goalkeeper. It is also claimed that turning your back on the goalkeeper as you prepare to take the penalty, as Morelos did, damages your chances of scoring. Finally, higher penalties are more successful than lower penalties and low down on the striker’s stronger side was obvious enough for Forster to predict.
It could be argued both tactically and statistically that Rangers deserved to win the game. However, that is not how football works. Rather than taking solace in outplaying Celtic, Rangers should look at why they lost. Morelos is a good striker and is useful to Rangers’ playing style. He has proven himself in the Europa League, and yet he continues to lack the end product when it comes to Celtic. This is likely a mental issue as he still got into the correct positions and created chances.
Celtic once again have asserted their domestic dominance. Even with injuries, underperformance and minimal chances, they have come out on top. This mindset will prove invaluable throughout the course of the season, as it has done since Rodgers first took over. Lennon has shown in his second tenure his willingness to learn and improve as a coach and so I wouldn’t expect to see the same issues plague Celtic in the next fixture on the 29th.
Both sides were fairly one sided which played into the hands of Rangers’ narrow press. I would expect this to change as Frimpong and Forrest build more of an understanding and Barisic dropping off Forrest may not work so well next time. Kent’s cutting inside proved ineffective time and time again. With a fully fit Odsonne Edouard, I would expect Celtic to have much more success stretching the play both vertically and horizontally given what he brings to the team, which would easily overcome Rangers’ space-oriented press.