Celtic win the tactical battle but Rangers show they can compete

Celtic win the tactical battle but Rangers show they can compete

By Stevie Grieve

Since March 2012, Rangers have been unable to match Celtic in the Scottish Premiership, yet after six years there are signs that Graeme Murty and Mark Allen have assembled a squad capable of competing with their cross-city rivals over the course of a league campaign. 


At the weekend, we saw Rangers pose a real threat to Celtic, and indeed had slightly more possession and more shots than the current league champions. Rangers failed, however, to use the one-man advantage they had for the best part of 35 minutes. In that period at 2-2, Alfredo Morelos had a very good opportunity to score, then an opportunity late on to make it 3-3, but this wasn’t the most concerning issue for Rangers.


At 2-2, with a player extra, they lost any semblance of tactical discipline. Players flooding forward, anxious to score and put Celtic under pressure, but leaving gaps in the spaces Celtic worked to create. At 11 v 10, Celtic no longer had to work for these spaces as Rangers would leave them wide open for the ever-impressive Callum McGregor to find at will, which led to the winning goal by Odsonne Edouard on 61 mins.


Rangers game plan


Whenever possible, Rangers played direct in transition, and used the pace on the counter attack to expose the space left behind by Tierney on the left side of Celtic. This kept the game broken and didn’t allow Celtic to get into a rhythm, especially on the left side.


In organised phases of possession, Rangers looked to use wide combinations between Jamie Murphy and Declan John on the left side, or James Tavernier and Daniel Candeias on the right. Sean Goss was a deep playmaker with Greg Doherty more towards the right side of the centre in a deeper position.



Morelos would stay central, making wide runs behind both full backs in transitions, while Josh Windass would be relatively free in possession to link the play centrally and make runs behind the defence to support wide attacks.


Defensively, they played a fairly narrow 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 but with man-marking in the centre of midfield, Docherty v Tom Rogic, Goss v Olivier Ntcham and Windass v Scott Brown. This left the problem of McGregor roaming into the left channel creating the central box midfield Brendan Rodgers has used since he joined Celtic. Occasionally, Tavernier would follow him into midfield, but this posed a further problem for Candeias tracking Tierney into the space created, separating the back four.


If there was one criticism of this system, it would be that Docherty was often too far to the right side, unable to defend the pass through the lines as he was unable to cover the distance to intercept passes from Dederick Boyata and Brown to McGregor. If Docherty was less rigid with his marking or positioning in relation to Rogic and more central, able to press passes as the ball travels, he could cover more of the positions McGregor would take up.


Murphy was able to control Kristoffer Ajer on the right, although similar to Mikael Lustig, his main job was to form a central back three in the build up with Ntcham inside in the central zone. Murphy could choose when to press knowing the threat of the pass behind to Rogic was limited with Docherty tracking him anywhere he went.


Rangers pressing circulation


If we could identify the difference between the approach of Aberdeen and Rangers, it would be to look at how Rangers controlled the centre, preventing Brown and Ntcham from manipulating the marker and being dragged wide to offer easy passes to Dembele.



In this example, Rangers have taken a leaf from the book of Kilmarnock, using a wide midfielder to press circulation, forcing play back inside. When Windass moves up to press Brown, Morelos presses from behind, but not so aggressively for either to be eliminated. Brown will pass back to Jozo Simunovic, who will predictably recycle play to Boyata.


As this happens, Candeias sprints to press the left foot of Boyata, to block the forward and wide passes, forcing him to delay his decision then lose possession to the onrushing Rangers winger. This was a common feature of Rangers – force play to the right where they could play 3v3 and press 1v1 from behind against James Forrest in channel positions as he moves inside when Rogic drops deeper to draw out Docherty.


Rangers’ issues with Celtic’s positional possession play


Rangers’ game plan was clear – play 3v3 in central midfield, press high, block the channels. The issue was when Celtic were able to organise the next attack very quickly after a Rangers attack. Often the situation above was a problem due to Goss and Docherty being very rigid and not adapting to the situation. Here, Goss cannot go to press, while Docherty is on the wrong side of the field. If McGregor is more decisive with Moussa Dembele, Forrest, Rogic and Tierney running ahead of him, Celtic can turn this into a scoring chance, which they do later on in the game to win.



A better way to organise these situations would be for Goss to recognise that he can’t press as its 2v1, and to drop off. This would allow Windass to shift over and press the ball, blocking Ntcham in the process. Murphy is in a balanced position, and can press Ntcham inside if Windass is beaten with enough security behind them to take the opportunity to press. Goss and Docherty could form a 4-2 block and make it difficult for Celtic to progress.


Celtic find a winner from Rangers not adjusting 


After the red card of Simunovic, Jack Hendry replaced the mercurial Aussie, Rogic, who scored the equalizer at 1-1 from 25 yards. This made Celtic create a 4-3-2/4-4-1 hybrid shape with Edouard playing high and wide left and McGregor deep and central on the right, with Brown and Ntcham playing central to stabilise the shape.



Murty then had a decision to make – how do they adapt the shape to use the extra player? Do they use Goss as a deep playmaker who stays central, and use Docherty and Windass to play 2v2 while pressing Brown and Ntcham? How does this impact Windass and Candeias? Would it be better to move to a more rigid 4-2-3-1, with Docherty and Goss in position to circulate play in front of the midfield with the possibility of Docherty making runs from deep with Goss picking forward passes?


In the end, Rangers didn’t change, and if anything lost all shape after Brendan Rodgers changed the shape slightly. In the scene above which lead to the winning goal. There is no control of the central space, Tavernier is caught too high with Goss covering him, leaving the space for McGregor free. Windass tried to recover but it was too late. McGregor turns, finds Dembele dropping off to release Edouard who loses Goss.


The final and winning goal is preventable by making a quick positional change in the mentality of the central midfield players. Rangers needed to start to completely dominate possession by moving the block and using the dangerous wide players in advanced positions with a solid base of four behind them. They needed to make Celtic feel like they had a player less, and be patient in looking for the winning goal. In the end, the anxiety to push forward and score to win resulted in losing all tactical discipline which ultimately gave McGregor the space to start the counter attack which lead to the winning goal.



Did you enjoy Stevie’s in-depth analysis of the game? Why not take a look at more articles he’s done in his tactical series for TheTwoPointOne:


Why are Tommy Wright’s St Johnstone in decline?

Why can’t Aberdeen win the biggest game? 

How has Steve Clarke made Kilmarnock so hard to beat? 

2 Replies to “Celtic win the tactical battle but Rangers show they can compete”

  1. Good Lord, TheTwoPointOne, this isn’t rocket science. Date your articles. This is the third time I’ve posted this (including a tweet which was ignored); it shouldn’t be a difficult concept. Every other news agency in the world does it.

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