The anticipation and fanfare that surrounds the Old Firm game creates an allure that football fans around the world find infectious. The rivalry between the two clubs stretches back over a century, with their recent past only serving to stoke up this competitiveness further.
Despite the sides’ meeting in both domestic cup competitions in the past two years, this tie was their first league meeting since Rangers’ exile from the Scottish Premier League back in 2012. Both clubs have gone through significant changes over the four years apart, however they now both find themselves being led by modern, forward-thinking managers, both of whom have employed a playing style that is contemporary and aesthetically pleasing.
Brendan Rodgers shaped Celtic in a 4-2-3-1 formation, a set-up that is more of a default defensive shape rather than a true indication of how they would attack. They were dealt a huge blow in the lead up to this game with prolific front man Leigh Griffiths omitted from the squad through injury, however replacing him was the highly talented Moussa Dembélé who himself has scored some big goals this season already. New signing Cristian Gamboa started on the bench for this game, with the much maligned Mikael Lustig taking his place at right-back.
Warburton lined his Rangers team up in a familiar 4-3-3 shape, however his team selection raised a few eyebrows prior to kick off. Three new signings were handed their first league starts for the club in Josh Windass in midfield, Joe Garner at striker and Philippe Senderos centre-back. A further surprise addition was Niko Kranjčar, primarily as the Croatian has had an indifferent start to his Ibrox career, but also as it meant that Rangers were fielding an 11 that was far more attack minded than many Rangers fans would have expected.
Celtic employed a few variations within their building phases, a selection that was largely dictated by how play started and the location in which their possession was gained. Let’s first of all look at their default building pattern from goal-kicks or central turnovers near the top of their box.
This began with Sviatchenko and Touré stretching the space centrally to the width of the 18-yard box, both showing for the ball via a short pass from de Vries. As either centre-back brings the ball forward on the dribble Brown dropped between them and Biton stationed himself in front of Brown at the top of a defensive diamond of sorts. These movements were flanked by Lustig moving wide on the
These movements were flanked by Lustig moving wide on the right-hand side in line with Biton and Tierney pushing higher and wide on the left-hand side. From a positional perspective, this created four lines in which the Celtic defence and deeper areas of midfield could build play and penetrate the Rangers forward press. Rogic connected with the midfield by finding pockets in behind Rangers midfield, typically favouring the space in behind Kranjčar, allowing him to link with Forrest on the Celtic right wing.
Rangers’ build patterns started in a similar fashion with both Senderos and Kiernan stretching the space by positioning themselves at either end of the box. Tavernier stretched high and wide on the right side of the field, however on the left Wallace moved inside and formed what almost looked like a central midfield role.
The midfield structure was more spatially organised with all three players working within their own horizontal channel. Initially we saw Barton form a deep central position, with both Kranjcar and Windass attempting to stretch the central space by occupying pockets behind Biton and Brown. The concept was to remove each of them from Celtics forward press, giving Kiernan and Senderos central channels in which to dribble forward and drive the team higher.
This altered slightly when Kranjčar dropped deeper next to Barton, allowing Wallace to move higher and force Forrest to recover defensively. Windass remained in his high position within the inside right channel, acting as a link between the two deeper players and Tavernier who was wide on the right wing.
Celtic’s formation variation saw them break away from their default 4-2-3-1 shape and morph into a 3-4-2-1, with the ‘2’ in the formation acting as double number 10s, heralding the incarnation of a box midfield.
Celtic used a build-up pattern, which saw the ball work from Sviatchenko across to Toure and then out to Lustig. As this transfer occurred, Tierney moved forward from left-back into a wide position within the midfield line, triggering the movement of Sinclair off the left wing and into a central position with Rogic. Brown & Biton’s positioning saw them move out to a similar width as the outside backs of their new back three, with Sinclair &
Brown and Biton’s positioning saw them move out to a similar width as the outside backs of their new back three, with Sinclair and Rogic moving in accordance with the height and width of Tierney and Forrest on their respective wings. This central overload is designed to pull Rangers’ defenders out of their back line and create 1v1s in the final third, however it also afforded Celtic a spare man centrally in which to circulate possession should they be denied space in which to penetrate.
Rangers’ variation came when Kranjcar began to drop deeper beside Barton in central midfield, a move which was balanced by Windass remaining in an attacking position on the inside right channel. Tavernier’s movement into the midfield line on the right-hand side gave them natural width and a crossing option, affording Miller licence to move into the central attacking positions beside Garner. In the end, it shifted Rangers’ shape into a 3-5-2 of sorts.
Wing play penetration
Both teams are set up to attack through the wings, with each team employing variations on either side. Celtic’s wing play afforded them a number of opportunities during the game, exposing the space between Rangers’ full-backs and wide midfielders on each occasion.
On the right-hand side, Forrest positioned himself as wide as the space would allow him to play, using the movements of Rogic on the inside as a means of linking forward to go wide or to offer a diagonal cut back from the byline. Forrest is strong in 1v1 situations so is comfortable moving inside and attacking the outside, which was enthused by Rogic positioning himself based on what Forrest needed at that particular time.
On the left-hand side, a similar pattern of play was used, especially so when Celtic moved to the 3-4-2-1 set-up. Sinclair was given licence to move inside to pick up the ball which, when given the opportunity, allowed him to perform central dribbles between Rangers’ midfield and defensive lines. Tierney pushed forward in support of Sinclair as an overlapping full-back in wide areas, forcing Miller to pull back into an uncustomary defensive position. Quite often we’d see Sinclair using Dembélé as a link player too, allowing him to move into central positions and shoot on goal.
Warburton has built the left side of the Rangers team by positioning MacKay and Wallace within the same outside channel, however by splitting the space in half it creates two lines of forward penetration. When Mackay takes up a wide left position with play on the right, he offers a point in which a direct pass can be played to change the point of attack. Lee Wallace works in support of MacKay within the inside portion of the outside channel, & moves forward to penetrate the opposition back line. We saw this when Barton played a diagonal out to MacKay who was marked by Lustig, creating a gap between the Swede & his inside
Lee Wallace works in support of MacKay within the inside portion of the outside channel and moves forward to penetrate the opposition back line. We saw this when Barton played a diagonal out to MacKay who was marked by Lustig, creating a gap between the Swede and his centre-back Kolo Touré. With the Ivorian being occupied by Garner, it allowed Wallace to penetrate the space between the two as MacKay found him with a headed pass forward.
The variation we found on the right-hand side was best displayed during Rangers’ solitary goal. Windass utilised his central dribbling ability on a number of occasions, an action that triggered Tavernier to support him on the outside and Miller to move into the central space and occupy both centre-backs alongside Garner.
Given how offensively positioned Sinclair was for Celtic, the spot behind him became a point of transition for Rangers as they sought to create a 2v1 with Windass and Tavernier versus Tierney. Unable to press the ball, Celtic’s back line could only retreat, giving Tavernier a crossing opportunity from closer range, an opportunity that would allow Miller and Garner to combine for the goal.
Rangers’ defensive frailties have taken up a significant amount of column inches during Warburton’s time in charge of the club, a fact, however, that has often been overshadowed by their attacking prowess. In what has been a lukewarm start to the SPFL Premiership campaign, it would appear that a subsidence is not on the cards anytime soon.
Celtic’s first goal of the game came from an unchallenged header from a corner kick, an area Rangers have already lost a goal from this season and one that was a clear weakness in last year’s Scottish Cup semi-final with Celtic, and the primary cause of the loss they suffered in the subsequent final of the same competition. Rangers set up in a zonal system, which simply did not allow for the number of Celtic players attacking the ball, leaving Dembélé free to attack the ball unchallenged.
Perhaps the area which Rangers suffer most is the defensive structure of the central midfield area and its inability to protect the back line. With Barton taking up the deepest midfielder slot in a 1-2 central formation, it would lead us to believe Windass and Kranjčar would simply pick up Brown and Biton leaving Barton to pick up Rogic. Instead, Rangers’ means of defending Celtic’s central movement was to defend in a zonal vertical press, a set-up that gives all three midfielders responsibility to press the ball when it’s in their central zone, with the other two working behind the pressing player in support of him.
In theory this appears an economical way of defending the space, however in practice it’s been an altogether different story. As has been the case already this season, in periods of defensive transition the positioning of Rangers’ two advanced midfielders and their inability to interchange with the deep lying midfielder has led to a lack of connectivity with the back line, hence the heightened amount of 1v1 situations the centre-backs face.
Barton was forced to leave his spot on a number of occasions during the match, mainly to cover Kranjčar who was often caught in possession in advanced areas. Windass was unable to get back in time to cover Barton’s forward movement, often giving Sinclair an opportunity to move inside and attack the central pockets.
Perhaps the best illustration of this can be found in the build up to Sinclair’s goal, as Dembélé was able to pick up the ball in front of the Rangers back four and drive at them unopposed. In the interim phase, we see that Barton has pressed Armstrong who started centrally, but actually checked out of Barton’s central zone to link play with a forward pass from Lustig. As this happens, the nearest player to Barton, Andy Halliday, who had come on to replace Kranjčar as the left-sided central midfielder, doesn’t drop to screen the back line and creates a vacuum of space for Celtic to penetrate.
In the second phase, we see Armstrong pick up the ball again from a second Lustig pass, and he’s able to find Dembélé with a forward ball into the gap vacated by Barton. What made matters worse for Rangers was, during Dembélé’s dribble forward, that Kiernan stepped into Senderos’ zone to press the ball, allowing Sinclair free reign to peel off into the space Kiernan had vacated and pick up the through pass from Dembélé before slotting home his finish.
There is a chain reaction of poor decision making that is occurring within Rangers defensive unit right now, most of which is taking place before it gets to their back line.
Many would argue that Rangers’ central defensive pairing is not of the required level to perform within the game model Mark Warburton has deployed, an argument that would be heavily backed up by looking at Celtic’s second goal, which was a basic 2v2 situation to goal. That said, the overall structure of Rangers’ central midfield does not lend itself well to protecting what is often two central defenders with full-backs too far forward to assist in defensive transition.
I am sure this match will give Warburton food for thought, however credit has to go to Brendan Rodgers for transforming this Celtic team into a side that attack with such freedom and verve. Many who sat through the Ronny Deila era at Celtic complained of football that failed to evoke passion or excite the masses; the same cannot be said of this Rodgers side who are still in their infancy but have all the ingredients to move forward stronger.
Celtic: Moussa Dembélé
His role as a lone striker saw him perform as the highest point of Celtic’s attack, stretching Senderos and Kiernan to allow for central movements from Sinclair, and attack the front post on Forrest’s crosses. His ability to press as part of a defensive unit probably went unnoticed but played a large part in preventing Rangers from completing their usual amount of build-ups. Scoring the perfect hat-trick takes something special from any player, and his second goal typifies the quality and confidence Dembélé has to become a top player.
Rangers: Josh Windass
Injury has prevented Windass from making regular appearances thus far for Rangers, however the fans will be extremely pleased by his performance. He was Rangers’ best performer by some distance, offering them an attacking central presence off the ball but also having the quality to find wide players on both sides of the field. Perhaps this could be the game which cements his place in the team for the foreseeable future.
By Alistair Bain. Follow @allybain