Rangers 0 – 2 Celtic | Tactical Analysis

Formation and overview

An unusually narrow 433 was Gerrard’s chosen setup in this derby. Opting for Aribo and Arfield as wide options, no recognised wingers were played. This, paired with a poacher like Defoe leading the line, suggested that Rangers’ game plan consisted of attacks through the centre. This allowed the Englishman to move into dangerous positions in and around the centre of the box. This choice was at the cost of Morelos, last season’s league top scorer on18 goals with 30 goals in 48 appearances across all competitions. Defoe so far in the league coming into this game, however, had a higher xG p90 (exl pens) (1.09 compared with Morelos’ 0.49). This highlights that currently he is getting into more dangerous positions – which is expected from his poacher playing style – than Morelos. Against the reigning champions, this could arguably be more beneficial to the team – especially with Morelos’ discipline being questioned having received 5 red cards last season, one of which was in this fixture.

All unreferenced statistics in this analysis are taken from Modern Fitba. For help understanding Expected Goals (xG), click the following links: part one and part two. Otherwise, see the glossary.

Kamara and Jack played as central midfielders ahead of Davis who sat as a deep lying playmaker tasked with distributing the ball and setting the tempo of Rangers’ play. A narrow shape such as this was presumably an attempt to block central play from Celtic and give Rangers the edge in the midfield battle. This is because such a compact shape gives Celtic less space to play and Rangers more scope to press efficiently and effectively in these areas. Rangers’ press was widely regarded as the tactic Celtic most struggled to face in both of Rangers’ wins against them last season but this setup, while enabling this defensively, limited width when in possession and gave Celtic a similar advantage.

Rangers’ back line was more predictable. McGregor started in goal. Flanagan, who replaced Barisic not long into the last half an hour of the Legia Warsaw game at Ibrox, was given the starting left back place despite being heavily right footed. It’s worth noting that his most successful runs at Liverpool were as a right back. Katic, Goldson and Tavernier, the Rangers captain, all held their place.

As expected, Celtic lined up with 4231. The system implemented by Rodgers allows for wing play as well as a #10 in front of a central midfield pairing. Edouard started as the lone striker, having already scored 6goals in all competitions this season and finished last season with an xG p90 (exl pens) of 0.63, ahead of Morelos’ 0.61.

Johnston and, PFA Player of the Year 2019, Forrest took to the wings for Celtic with Christie linking the play between them in the hole. Christie and Forrest finished the league last season with an xG p90 (exl pens) of 0.36 and 0.35 respectively, along with an xA p90 of 0.34 and 0.26. Johnston featured in 14 league games last season, scoring 5 goals. This was his third visit to Ibrox but his only visit featuring in his preferred position, initially playing as a striker and then a right wing back.

In the #8 role, McGregor supported the attacks while Brown sat deeper as a #6. Last season, McGregor played 3,167 minutes in the league. 5,894 total minutes over 69 games made him the most played player in Europe. The pair have developed a great chemistry between them with Brown anchoring and McGregor distributing. This gives a very solid foundation to link play to the front 4.

Derby debutants made up 3 out of Celtic’s back 4 and, when Bitton was subbed due to injury, all 4 were debutants. Jullien paired with Bitton in the centre giving a total height of 3.91m. Elhamed and Bolingoli-Mbombo started as fullbacks with the fullback on the side of play often joining the attack. Forster started in goal following his season-long loan from Southampton.

Holding off the high press

As mentioned above, Rangers’ high press was pivotal in the two wins over Celtic at Ibrox last season. When under such pressure, the Celtic defence – where attacks are often built from – could not effectively transition play into the midfield. They were also forced into mistakes, leading to Rangers winning. In the build-up to this game, questions were asked on how Lennon could overcome this.

Psychological factors are often not the best tools for analysing a game given their subjective nature but, with how Lennon had Celtic start the game, this is an exception. Instead of passing back from kick off, as is traditional, he had Edouard kick the ball out of play for a Rangers throw in near their corner flag. While giving up possession seems counter intuitive, it held a deep psychological advantage in this game; Celtic were the ones to be pressing. Rather than inviting a Rangers press and trying to overcome it, as in the previous visits to Ibrox, Celtic told Rangers in that move that they would be the ones pressing and attacking. Couple this with Gerrard’s narrow block and the home advantage appeared to have waned.

In addition to the psychological advantage this move provided, it also gave a tactical one. American Soccer Analysis assert that throw ins taken within 20 yards of a team’s own goal are more likely to result in a change in possession than possession retention. Only 7% of throw ins are this close to a team’s goal, but Lennon’s tactic ensured this was the case. In terms of position, it can be as simple as ‘yards were gained’. It puts the onus on Rangers to clear the ball from defence and Celtic can press to keep up the attack whereas a traditional kick off very much leaves the burden on Celtic to move the ball into an attacking position through Rangers’ press.

It’s also worth noting that while improving on finding methods to dismantle Rangers’ press, Celtic themselves pressed much more intelligently, cutting passing lanes well. Here is an example (all screenshots taken from Celtic TV).

Ntcham and Edouard here cut central passing lanes, forcing Rangers wide to their fullbacks or to resort to a long ball. Going wide to fullbacks with no wingers can only lead to a pass back into the centre or backwards which is predictable and easy to press while a long ball can lead to a counter attack dependent on aerial duels. This is an excellent example of players understanding shape and positional play well.

Midfield battle

Rangers’ narrow midfield was an attempt to dominate this area of play. This style leads to increased fullback involvement which could have been an effort to involve Tavernier more in attacking play. A move to push fullbacks forward could be positive but was hindered by Flanagan’s attacking limitations – being less comfortable on his left foot led to him not playing as wide and advanced as he needed to. Other implications of this style were that Celtic would struggle to play through them centrally. Celtic having a similarly compact defensive style led to play being limited in central areas and a tactical stalemate early in the game. However, Celtic had more wide options and therefore more space to play. On the left flank, Celtic had Bolingoli-Mbombo, who is naturally more attacking natured, and Johnston who often plays as an inverted winger in a direct style. Tavernier was left to deal with this on his own and, on the occasions where he got forward, left a gap for Johnston. Marking Johnston prevented him from joining attacks in the way Rangers became accustomed to with the right back assisting 20 goals last season.

Here is an example of the two teams reaching a midfield stalemate. Rangers have played from a defensive position into the centre but options on either side are both too close and marked out of the game. When pressed, there is no option left but to play a long ball over the top to be easily collected by Celtic’s centre backs.

Here, it shows that Celtic’s narrow centre has pushed Rangers unnaturally wide for their formation. Only Defoe is left central to wait for the ball and the 5’7” poacher is not known for his aerial prowess. Arfield is rightly supported by Tavernier but Jack’s positioning provides no attacking advantage. One of Guardiola’s key playing principles is movement into different zones on the pitch to create passing angles and this is an exact example of this not being done. Even if he was more advanced and tucked deeper into the half space in a better position to create a threat, Celtic’s midfield trio are all in the surrounding area with Bitton not too far ahead, currently guarding the ball in from Arfield. Jack and Kamara work well in build-up play, similarly to Brown and McGregor, but Rangers’ attacking midfielders should be the ones supporting wingers in the half space – not the ones attempting to create wing play.

Keeping them out

When Lennon took over as interim at the end of last season, players were regularly caught out of position. It’s fair to consider this a transitional period as players adapt to Lennon’s principles of play as opposed to Rodgers’. However, arguably for the first time, there was no trace of this here. Defender roles were very clear and left Rangers with no clear opportunities to get in behind the lines.

The above screenshot shows how Celtic keep a compact defensive shape with Bolingoli-Mbombo tucking in. This is aided by Rangers’ frailties in wide positions with this specific setup. Jullien stays goal-side of Defoe while being aware of Ojo’s wide run. Elhamed, Brown and McGregor all show awareness to cut off passing lanes, forcing Rangers into a long ball. This was a trait of Celtic’s defence consistently through the game, along with the narrow block to force Rangers wide. Dealing with long balls and crosses was no issue for Bitton and Jullien who could recycle possession and build an attack from this easily.

From this throw in shortly after the first image, Celtic’s defensive organisation is clear. While still compact as to not give Rangers room to manoeuvre, passing lanes are still blocked so Rangers players that stray further can only be reached by high balls which give the Celtic defence chance to clear or launch a counter attack. Defoe is safely guarded in the centre with Bolingoli-Mbombo and Bitton ready to head the ball clear or react to a loose ball while Jullien prepares to block the ball.

In common instances where Rangers kept to their narrow attacking shape, Celtic’s narrow block worked well. As you can see in the screenshot above, there are no gaps in the Celtic defence with Rangers struggling to find space to move the ball on the ground. Tavernier, one of Rangers’ only wide options, has drifted narrower while Johnston maintains a wider position to guard the space and be ready for a counter attack. McGregor holds a central position, not necessarily marking a specific player, but guarding the space to keep gaps to a minimum and reduce playing areas in a zonal fashion. Bitton and Bolingoli-Mbombo track their runners while McGregor does this. Bauer cuts the passing lane for the through ball leaving Aribo no choice but to shoot from distance, which Forster comfortably catches.

You can see in these examples the positional clarity the Celtic defence had in this game, knowing when to guard the space and when to guard the man. Had Rangers utilised wide men to stretch them and create threats, this could have been disrupted but, without this, the Celtic defence could easily hold.

Breakthrough

Hayes’ goal that put Celtic 2-0 up came at a point in the game when Rangers’ defensive line was unusually high, as shown below, and was more a result of Rangers attempting to equalise and neglecting defensive duties.

However, this was not the case with Edouard’s goal to break the deadlock. Celtic’s press and a defensive error gave Edouard the chance he had to score.

Goldson has the ball in defence after some passing at the back, trying to create an attack. He drifts wide into the space left by Tavernier filling the wide spaces ahead. Celtic efficiently remove any passing options he has, forcing a misplaced pass to Johnston. With him being out of position, Jack must drop deep to defend.

Johnston drives into the half space and looks for the through ball to Edouard. Jack, stepping into Goldson’s place, steps out towards the ball which gives Edouard room to move. Katic’s realises Jack has stepped forward and stops his run in a bid to try and play Edouard offside. It is mistimed and Edouard scores.

The two images here give a different view of this move. It’s clearer to see Katic lose his momentum as he tries to turn and align himself with Jack’s movement. You can also see Jack’s error stepping forward that gives Edouard the space. It also exhibits Edouard’s attacking intelligence to move into the gap while Johnston’s pass is timed and directed perfectly.

Conclusion

Rangers’ biggest enemy in this game was the tactic employed by Gerrard. A lack of width played to Celtic’s defensive strengths and attempts to move through this left vulnerabilities at the back – especially when Tavernier moved into advanced positions. However, this does not take away from Lennon and Celtic’s game. Each player clearly understood and carried out Lennon’s instructions to press high and cut off passing lanes while keeping the back compact.

After facing criticism, credit must be given to Lennon but also players such as Bolingoli-Mbombo, Jullien, Bitton and Elhamed. Their increased understanding of the game plan and each other’s movements led to them having a perfect game and giving Rangers no chance to level the score. Brown’s ball winning in midfield was critical and missed in the last two Rangers wins. This result sees Celtic top the league with 12 points, maintaining their perfect start, and Rangers follow with 9.

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Despite growing up, and now studying, in England, Celtic have always been a huge part of my life. I first watched the team with my dad; I fell in love and then there was no turning back. Torn between a statistically enhanced footballing style and a good, old-fashioned get-it-in-the-mixer-and-score style.


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