In the lead up to an Old Firm game there is an adage that suggests form is no longer a factor and the outcome of the game is based solely upon who shows themselves to be most dominant. In light of Rangers’ upturn in form since the sides last met in September, you could be forgiven in colluding with the aforementioned mindset, however Celtic’s performances and subsequent results have continued to earn them wide acclaim, which would validate why the odds were significantly stacked in their favour entering this game.
Rodgers shaped Celtic in their now customary 4-2-3-1 formation, a shape that would alter into a 3-4-2-1 as play developed through the thirds. Despite coming off the back of a midweek game with Börussia Monchengladbach, Celtic were able to field arguably their strongest 11 for the match, with Craig Gordon representing the only change from the last time the sides met in September.
Warburton fielded a Rangers side within his preferred 4-3-3 shape, however the inclusion of Hodson at right-back and Tavernier into a more advanced role on the right wing suggested some structural alterations while in the defensive phase. Josh Windass returned to the line-up despite featuring very little since his last start in the September Old Firm game at Parkhead.
Celtic build-up play
Celtic’s build up play is orchestrated through a positional play model which sees Rodgers implement a system change to a 3-4-2-1 shape, which is effective on a number of levels but primarily it creates a central overload and allows them to maintain the balance of having two players within the outside channels. We see that with Tierney moving higher up the field and Sinclair moving inside, this forces Rangers to defend deep or run the risk of being split during the initial phase.
Celtic form three lines within their building phase, typically with the back three stretching the width of the field (Lustig, Šimunović and Sviatchenko, with Brown screening the back line and Biton moving horizontally to the opposite central position to Brown to offer balance). Celtic’s intent is to find the spare man through a simple up, back and through pattern, however if the initial receiver (Brown or Biton) is pressed from behind prior to the initial pass, they will drop into the back line and a side defender will move forward to form the second line.
This rotation worked because Rangers’ forward press was focused heavily on central areas, therefore when play worked into the spare Celtic defender, they had time and space to drive forward and pass into the midfield line unopposed. This occurred on a number of occasions through Sviatchenko, whose channel was left open by Tavernier dropping back to pick up Tierney in his own half.
Rangers’ forward press
Rangers’ defensive shape looked more like a 4-4-2 diamond of sorts, which was predicated around three specific pressing zones. First, Miller and McKay levelled out their positioning to press as a pair against Sviatchenko and Šimunović. This was then supported by Windass, who moved forward to pick up Brown during the initial building stages, with the exception of when Brown dropped back into the defensive line, which saw Windass remain behind Miller and McKay, giving his midfield partners some protection from entry passes into Rogic or Sinclair in advanced areas.
The final pressing zone came on Rangers right, with Hodson and Tavernier working as a pair to pick up Sinclair and Tierney on Celtic’s left side. It’s important to note that the pressing movements of the Rangers forwards were reasonably well structured – from McKay, Miller and Windass – given that Celtic had to change their building targets to the wide areas instead of penetrating centrally to Rogic. They all used a collective trigger of a sideways or backwards pass to press as a unit and get tight to their men, however the lack of stability underneath this press allowed Celtic to progress forward unopposed should they find the right time to do so.
This occurred due to poor structuring from Rangers, underpinned by the lack of pace within their central defensive pairing (Hill and Kiernan.) The back line sat almost half a field away, which increased the distances of Rangers overall defensive shape and space between the lines, leaving them ever more vulnerable in wide areas.
This is best illustrated on Rangers’ right hand side as Tavernier and Hodson worked together to man mark Tierney and Sinclair, both of which had the capacity to switch their positioning should their opponents rotate inside and out. In theory this plan would work well if the ball entered this zone via a straight forward pass or a lofted clearance, however with the vacuums of space available to Celtic’s spare man in the build-up, we saw on numerous occasions Sviatchenko break away from the left defensive position and create a 3v2 in Celtic’s favour on the flank. Hodson and Tavernier now have no ability to press the ball high up the field so in turn invite the ball into their half and are forced to deal with the attack closer to their own goal.
Perhaps one of the most impressive parts of Rodgers’ tenure thus far has been Celtic’s ability to press their opponents into submission within the first 20-30 yards of their half.
What impressed me was during the onset of a deep midfield, Celtic’s midfield and offensive structuring gave them the platform to break up Rangers progressions and forced them to go long or cause a turn over, countering the counter if you will. We see in the graphic that Sinclair, Rogic and Forrest press in central positions, supported by Biton underneath the initial line of press and Brown underneath again, flanked by the full-backs who take up an inside position.
The strategy of the press is to quickly block forward passing lanes, should any of Rangers’ central midfielders pick up possession via a turnover or indeed receive the ball from the back line during a build, and force the play to go back at all times. The press required two supporting lines of central pressure, something that when we look at the attacking setup of the Celtic team should always be available to them. Rogic and Sinclair initiate much of the pressing angles, with the remaining midfielders working horizontally in the first action to close the space in which to pass through them, but then moving forward to compact the space between the lines and force Rangers to look for a long ball.
Rangers’ midfield variance
In an effort to pull Celtic out of their preferred defensive set up, Warburton used Holt and Windass as a means of breaking pressure, but also to create opportunities off the ball for their team-mates to advance into. Much of Holt’s movements connected him with Wallace and McKay on the left wing, a part of the field where Rangers have attempted to isolate Celtic’s Lustig in the past.
We saw Holt many times during the match running forward in a diagonal motion, splitting the line between McKay on the wing and Miller in the inside left channel occupied by Šimunović. This tested Biton’s ability to track his man and provide defensive coverage, a move that would vacate a central pocket for Rangers to advance through should they decide to ignore Holt’s advances. In a similar movement, yet in the opposite direction, Holt would drop back into the space between Hill and Wallace – a pseudo full-back role – allowing Wallace to advance forward and McKay to peel into a central channel.
This disrupted much of Celtic’s defensive balance as Biton felt compelled to press forward and run the risk of exposing his back line. Ultimately it bared no fruit in Rangers’ endeavours for a goal, yet was something that gave Rangers an opportunity to increase their ball circulation out of the back.
A further means of breaking pressure during build up were the central dribbles of Windass within the right inside channel. He displayed his central dribbling trait during the first Old Firm match of the season, and for long parts of the game appeared to be gaining ground on turning one into a scoring opportunity. When he was able to break past Brown or expose a gap that had been vacated by an advanced position of the Celtic skipper, Windass’s forward movement created a 2v1 situation on the right wing with Tavernier advancing forward and thus presenting Tierney with a dilemma of where to cover and when to press the ball.
This particular strategy looked promising in the Celtic half, however when he gained possession in deeper areas via turn over for example, his efforts were often diluted by Celtic’s aggressive counterpress, which saw both Brown and Sinclair quickly latch onto his attempts to carry play through the inside channels.
Rangers’ most significant alteration came at the beginning of the second half, with Warburton pushing forward Tavernier to press within a three -man front line whenever Sviatchenko had the space to advance forward. In theory, his cover-shadow would prevent any direct pass to the wing to Tierney, however it now required Hodson to move out of the back line and man mark Sinclair in the inside left channel, and Halliday to leave the central pivot role and mark Rogic in Celtic’s inside right channel. While this gave Rangers more opportunities to win the ball higher up the field, it also gave Celtic additional gaps in which to penetrate the Rangers back line should they beat the forward press. Later in the match, Waghorn would come into the game and performed this role, which also gave Rangers more of a direct attacking option through his ability to cut inside onto his left foot.
Celtic’s alterations invariably lead them to victory in the game, coming in the form of Leigh Griffiths who replaced Rogic, and Armstrong who replaced Biton, both playing pivotal roles in the Celtic goal. Armstrong gave Celtic athleticism and a dynamic quality that saw him penetrate the Rangers midfield line and occupy the space behind Andy Halliday in the inside right channel. With Halliday having to work out of his natural position to defend Armstrong, it also moved him away from his pivot role when Rangers were in possession, a move that would seriously unbalance their ability to gain any form of possession superiority.
Griffiths’ role altered from Rogic as he moved into the forward line next to Dembélé, with the caveat that his movement would start inside of Clint Hill, the Rangers defender, and move behind Lee Wallace, the Rangers left-back. This was especially the case in the game’s winning goal as Griffiths pulled Clint Hill out of the central area to the edge of the box, leaving Dembélé in a 1v1 battle with Rob Kiernan at the edge of the six-yard box. The Frenchman latched onto Griffiths’ cross and applied an intuitive finish in the dying moments of the game to claim victory for the Parkhead club.
It would appear that Rangers have made strides in their ability to defend as a unit, something that Warburton was vehemently criticised for after the last encounter. That said, the dynamic attacking qualities of Celtic and the subsequent lack of attacking quality from the Ibrox side placed them on the back foot for large parts of this game. Celtic were unfortunate to have an earlier goal ruled out in the match, when Sviatchenko’s header was wrongfully called as a foul, a goal that may have transformed the outcome of the game significantly.
The victory was a deserved one for Celtic on this occasion, and with much of their team performing at optimum level it would appear foolish to think this run of form is going to end anytime soon.
Celtic: Moussa Dembélé
The Frenchman’s goal once again put Rangers to the sword, showcasing his ability to finish in tight spaces, but also showcasing his creative qualities. His movement, touch and technique were a constant threat to Rangers throughout the game, as he twisted and turned his way out of immediate pressure to bend a shot on goal.
Rangers: Matt Gilks
Despite an early scare in the game where he misplaced a touch and subsequent short pass to his team-mate, Gilks showed himself to be very capable of performing at this level. A back-up goalkeeper for much of his career, Gilks has been used in the cup competitions by Warburton as a means of keeping him sharp and prepared should Foderingham, Rangers’ number one, ever be unavailable for selection. After today’s game, it begs the question whether their roles will reverse in the future.
By Ally Bain. Follow @allybain