Steven Gerrard is just nine games into his managerial career, but those nine games have…
Going into the first Old Firm derby of this season, the prevailing narrative was that the gap between Celtic and Rangers was closing due to factors on both sides. Celtic, we were led to believe, were weaker than before due to transfer window turbulence and a disappointingly early Champions League exit, while Rangers had been rejuvenated and re-organised by Steven Gerrard.
Perhaps this narrative wasn’t entirely wrong, and the gap has indeed closed. But, in the derby’s latest instalment at Parkhead, Celtic confirmed that they remain far in front of Rangers with a 1-0 margin of victory that could easily have been three or four times as wide.
Celtic dominated the game from the separate standpoints of possession, territory and chances created, with the woodwork denying Brendan Rodgers’ side on four occasions. They were comfortably the better team; here we analyse why that was the case.
Rodgers went with a 4-2-3-1 system that saw Scott Brown partnered by Olivier Ntcham in a double pivot. Mikael Lustig, Dedryck Boyata, Kristoffer Ajer and Kieran Tierney made up the back four, with the reliable Craig Gordon remaining between the posts. James Forrest started on the right wing, with Tom Rogic operating in and around the right inside channel and Callum McGregor moving between the opposite channel and the left wing. Up front, Odsonne Edouard started ahead of Leigh Griffiths.
Gerrard lined his Rangers side up in a 4-3-3 shape that has been favoured throughout his first few months at Ibrox. The defence was as expected – goalkeeper Allan McGregor was protected by a back four of James Tavernier, Connor Goldson, Nikola Katic and Borna Barisic. Ryan Jack anchored midfield with Scott Arfield to his right and Ovie Ejaria to his left, while Ryan Kent and Kyle Lafferty took the wing berths on either side of lone striker Alfredo Morelos.
Celtic’s 4-2-3-1 shape became more of a 3-2-4-1 when attacking, as Tierney often pushed high down the left flank. On the right, Lustig stayed deeper, giving Forrest more space to attack in advanced areas with his aggressive dribbling and speed.
One key element of Rodgers’ possession plan early on seemed to be overloading the right-hand side to then isolate Tierney on the left wing. With McGregor moving into the left inside channel and Rogic moving towards the right during build-up, Rangers’ midfield was drawn to the right-hand side, leaving space for Tierney on the opposite touchline. The left-back is excellent at 1v1 – he is among the top 10 Premiership players for completed dribbles per 90 minutes this term – so it made sense to get him into situations of isolation.
Celtic’s left-hand side was dynamic, with players varying their positions throughout the match. Tierney’s movements have been discussed, while McGregor also moved vertically up and down in the inside channel. These variations were problematic for Rangers’ man-orientated defence to deal with.
If, for example, Tierney advanced down the flank, Rangers’ right winger Kent would either follow the defender and create a huge distance between himself and Morelos, or leave Tierney unmarked. If Kent opted for the latter, Rangers right-back, Tavernier, had to either close down Tierney or stay close to McGregor between the lines. If he closed down Tierney, McGregor was free between the lines; if he stayed with McGregor, Tierney had space to attack down the flank.
Celtic were able to establish control of possession not only through the 3v1 they had in build-up, but through the presence of two No.6s in Brown and Ntcham. Brown would move between the centre and the right inside channel, forming triangles with Lustig and Rogic, while Ntcham often dropped deep in the left inside channel, allowing Tierney to push on. Morelos was often drawn to the No.6 in possession, so Celtic would quickly circulate the ball to the free No.6 and comfortably bypass Rangers’ first line of defence.
The 3-2-4-1 setup Celtic assumed offensively also involved the creation of a box shape in midfield that caused Rangers further pressing problems. This shape was formed by Brown, Ntcham, Rogic and McGregor, and it essentially surrounded the Rangers midfield three. Not only did this box give the home side numerical superiority in the centre of the pitch, but it threatened to get their two attacking midfielders in between the lines of Rangers’ defence and midfield.
Rangers’ midfield three had to solve two problems at once: one of Brown or Ntcham moving towards them with the ball, and the movement of Rogic and McGregor behind them. In order to close off the spaces for Celtic’s attacking midfielders, the trio would cede ground to Celtic’s double pivot, allowing the hosts to progress possession without facing pressure. At times when one of the Rangers midfielders did move up to pressure a Celtic No.6, their teammates would cover them, sucking the whole midfield into the centre and creating space out wide for Forrest and Tierney.
Rangers defended in a 4-5-1 mid-block with man-orientated pressing. However, unlike most teams Celtic tend to face domestically, they were more zonal in their coverage, maintaining a clear and compact shape. This was done with two aims in mind: 1) be more proactive defensively, and 2) ensure players aren’t completely out of position in the transition to attack.
Teams as good as Aberdeen have deployed rather rigid man marking defensive systems to counteract Celtic’s possession game. Indeed, Rangers utilised a similar approach for the majority of last season’s Old Firm derbies. However, while this takes time and space away from the Celtic ball receiver, it makes pressing and counter-attacking difficult. Gerrard, evidently, is aware of this, and chose not to use such a reactive defensive strategy for his first derby.
Rangers’ centre-backs were cautious not to simply follow the opposite man in their zone. This helped to prevent gaps from opening up at the heart of their back line and kept a lot of Celtic’s attacking play in front of them. As for the Rangers midfield three – when one moved up to press one of Celtic’s No.6s, the other two would shift to cover behind. Again, the focus was on ensuring compactness and taking away dangerous spaces centrally between the lines rather than simply going man-to-man everywhere, leaving open spaces and becoming at risk to losing individual battles.
Lafferty on the left wing often took up a higher defensive position than Kent on the right. This was done to maintain access to Lustig, Celtic’s right-back, who stayed deeper than Tierney on the other side. Kent, however, didn’t simply follow Tierney. Rather, he maintained a close distance whilst simultaneously looking to form a cover shadow on the Celtic left-back. Not only did this allow him to intercept several passes out to Tierney, but it meant he could start counter-attacks from a higher position than had he gone man-to-man with his opposite number.
Rangers may not have been able to press as high as many would have anticipated them doing, but they were able to prevent large spaces from consistently opening up in their defensive shape, which was an issue last season. This perhaps explains why, for all their dominance of possession, Celtic’s only goal came from a counter-attack, and while they hit the woodwork four times, only one of those could have been deemed a clear chance – three of them were quality strikes from distance, two of which were deflected.
Celtic defended in a 4-4-2 mid-block with man-orientated pressing, with Rogic moving up to join Edouard in the first line of defence. Rodgers’ side were quick to press Rangers players receiving the ball with their back to goal and also stepped up collectively immediately after forcing a backwards pass in order to sustain intense pressure higher up the pitch. This approach regularly forced Rangers into a tempo of build-up they did not have the structure or confidence to effectively maintain.
Allan McGregor tended to go long from goal kicks, primarily targeting Lafferty due to his height. However, this rarely led to sustainable attacks and often meant quickly conceding possession and territory to Celtic. Meanwhile, in open play Rangers’ attacks were focused down the wings.
When they did regain some control of possession in the second half, their first thought was to get the ball wide to Tavernier and Barisic, who are both excellent crossers. By then Gerrard had switched his attacking system, moving Kent infield behind Morelos and Lafferty and going with more of a 4-3-1-2 in which both full-backs were virtually solely responsible for providing width and tasked with firing in crosses for the front two to attack.
But this cross-heavy approach wasn’t particularly effective for a couple of reasons. One reason was that the full-backs were the only wide outlets, making it easy for Celtic to close them down or narrow their crossing angles. Another was that the full-backs were often crossing from near the touchline, with a poor view of the box and a greater distance between them and their targets. Additionally, this focus meant occasionally missing better passes between the lines for balls into the box that were headed away.
With the full-backs Rangers’ only sources of true offensive width, there were no overlapping or underlapping runs, no positional rotations, and no passing combinations in wider areas to draw Celtic out. Consequently, while the away side were able to continuously whip in crosses, these crosses rarely troubled their rivals’ defence.
On 81 minutes, Gerrard changed his system for the second time in the game. Bringing on teenage winger Glenn Middleton for defensive midfielder Ryan Jack, he went from 4-3-1-2 to 4-4-2. Middleton went to the left wing, while Kent (later replaced by Daniel Candeias) went to the right wing. This gave Rangers more dynamism in wider areas, as the full-backs and wingers could combine with one another. They could also draw out an extra Celtic defender to create more space in the box for Morelos and Lafferty to move into and get on the end of crosses.
There is an argument to be made that Gerrard could have been more ambitious tactically, particularly in the way his side defended. Perhaps in future derbies he will look to a tweak of system to allow his side to gain greater access to midfield.
However, credit must go to Rodgers and Celtic, who were able to control the game for the most part through a balanced possession game built on central superiority and the threatening presence of 1v1 masters out wide in Tierney and Forrest. Once again, their attacking play won the day.