Celtic play Rangers on Sunday in a title-deciding match at Parkhead. Perhaps we’ve all been…
Hearts firmly established themselves as Celtic’s bogey team last Saturday afternoon when defeating the reigning champions 1-0 at Tynecastle thanks to an outstanding Kyle Lafferty strike. In the process, they maintained their 100% start, securing a second win in the second round of Premiership fixtures.
Craig Levein’s men sit rather prettily at the top of the table as it stands, and many fans have started to dream again after an underwhelming 2017/18 campaign stunted by issues relating to the club’s stadium, playing squad and management. And while it’s early days, there was plenty in the win over Celtic to suggest that Hearts can vie with their beaten opposition, as well as Aberdeen, Rangers and Hibernian, for a top-three spot this term.
There was nothing overtly unique about the defensive setup Celtic were faced with at Tynecastle. Hearts shaped up in a 4-1-4-1 formation without possession, pressed the ball before Celtic reached halfway with it, and did so in an intensely man-orientated fashion. Many a Premiership outfit has tried and failed to humble Brendan Rodgers’ side using similar tactics, though one slight difference – Hearts’ flexibility – meant they were able to effectively stultify their visitors’ build-up throughout most of the game.
Levein opted for a back four of Michael Smith, John Souttar, Christophe Berra and Ben Garuccio in front of goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal, with Peter Haring acting as the defensive screen between the back line and a midfield four of Jake Mulraney, Olly Lee, Steven Naismith and Kyle Lafferty. Up front, Uche Ikpeazu was tasked with single-handedly applying pressure to the first line of Celtic build-up, moving between their centre-backs and goalkeeper Craig Gordon in a bid to eliminate or reduce the viability of, passing lanes between the trio and force Celtic forward or wide.
Hearts deployed a man-orientated midfield press, generally pressing on or above the halfway line. To give better context to their man-orientations, it is worth noting how Celtic lined up: Rodgers went with a 4-2-3-1 with Scott Brown and Eboue Kouassi in central midfield, Callum McGregor in attacking midfield, Jonny Hayes and Scott Sinclair on the right and left wing respectively, and Leigh Griffiths up front.
Celtic’s central midfielders regularly pulled wide into the half-spaces – the areas between the wings and the centre of the pitch – to receive possession from the centre-backs. In these areas, they could receive the ball whilst maintaining a better view of the pitch and any oncoming pressure – had they remained central they would have received with their back to goal. While this gave them a better understanding of what was going on around them, Brown and Kouassi rarely had time or space due to the man-orientated pressing of Naismith and Lee respectively.
The away side’s full-backs, Mikael Lustig and Kieran Tierney, both pushed on, though they were tracked by Hearts’ wingers. Lafferty and Mulraney would initially position themselves so as to form cover shadows on their opposite men – this meant they could remove Lustig and Tierney as passing options and simultaneously support the midfield press – though they often ended up acting as auxiliary wing-backs if and when Celtic established possession and their full-backs pushed high down the flanks.
One side benefit of Lafferty and Mulraney dropping deep is that it allowed Hearts’ own full-backs to tuck in and form an extremely horizontally compact back line, reducing the spaces centrally through which Celtic could attack. This also ensured numbers in and around the penalty box to block shots, or at least force Celtic to shoot from difficult angles, resulting in Rodgers’ side only hitting the target with five of their 14 attempts. For the sake of context, Hearts found the target with seven of their 15 shots.
Hearts’ pressing took away Celtic’s immediate passing options when building up. One of Jozo Simunovic and Jack Hendry was often free, but their central midfield and full-back teammates were generally blocked by cover shadows or under threat of pressing from their opposite men. This, along with some structural issues in Celtic’s attacking play which we will discuss soon, led to the champions playing a galling amount of hopeful long balls from back to front that were gobbled up by the aerially dominant Hearts defence.
In their previous match against Livingston, Celtic played just 31 long balls; at Tynecastle, they played 63. As a consequence, they struggled to build possession effectively through the thirds and the large majority of their attacks petered out or were broken up.
While asking his side to press in midfield, Levein also utilised a low defensive line. This approach comes with risks, as a man-oriented defence is open to manipulation by a dynamic attack filled with positional rotations and varied movements, which Celtic’s often is. To mitigate the risk of huge gaps being opened up between the lines, flexibility was key.
Hearts’ middle five tracked and pressed their opposite men, but they didn’t do so rigidly – if, say, the ball was with Kouassi on the right and Brown was on the opposite side, Naismith would tuck in closer to Haring in central midfield rather than stay tight on Brown, thus guaranteeing some semblance of compactness and helping to close off the centre of the pitch. Hearts players would also switch who they were marking so as not to be completely drawn out of their shape.
It is only right that the majority of this analysis be devoted to Hearts’ defensive strategy. For any Scottish team to beat Celtic, they are going to have to produce a sound performance without the ball. However, it would be misleading to suggest that this result was all about what Hearts did well. There were some things that Celtic did badly, and it cost them dearly.
One issue that was particularly noticeable in the first half was that when Brown and Kouassi pulled wide, Celtic’s attacking midfielders were either too slow to adjust their position or did not adjust at all. This left huge gaps between the two midfield layers that made it all the more difficult for the central duo to penetrate or find a more advanced teammate. While McGregor staying made sense, as he was looking to gain positional superiority behind Hearts’ midfield line, Hayes and Sinclair could have come deeper to offer a pass to Brown and Kouassi.
Another, perhaps larger issue was the absence of Kristoffer Ajer in defence. The Norwegian has become a mainstay at the heart of Rodgers’ back line and is appreciated predominantly for his forward raids with the ball at feet. Without him, Celtic’s central defence simply didn’t possess the same composure and incision.
Hendry and Simunovic often passed between one another needlessly and rarely stepped forward with the ball at their feet to provoke pressure and create space for teammates in more advances areas. Not only did the duo fail to consistently take advantage of the 2v1 they had on Ikpeazu, but whenever they did out-play Hearts’ first line of defence they seemed to lack the confidence to carry possession much further forward, at times forcing passes that weren’t there.
Defence saved Hearts last season, and it was at the, ahem, heart of their latest win over Celtic. But what was different this time around was the more varied attacking threat they posed. When Levein pulled Lafferty out wide and Naismith into central midfield last season he essentially nullified his own attack so as to nullify the opposition’s; now he can pull off such positional switches without reducing his own team’s offensive potency.
The summer signings of Ikpeazu and Steven MacLean have given Hearts additional options up front. While the latter did not play on this occasion, the former started and caused problems to Celtic’s defenders. His strength, hold-up play, touch and pace gave his team a couple of different possibilities: he could hold off his marker, shield the ball and bring others into play, or he could look to take on his marker.
Almost impossible to shake off the ball, the 23-year-old helped Hearts to counter-attack by making the ball stick or dribbling beyond. All in all he won just under half of his 70 duels and succeeded with four of his six dribbles, one of which led to the goal as he went past several Celtic defenders before crossing for Lafferty to score.
In 2017/18, Hearts’ defensive play worked, but their counter-attacking didn’t. Too often they pumped long balls up to a forlorn Lafferty in the hope their top scorer would figure something out. Often he didn’t, which is why Levein’s side had the lowest xG (expected goals) in the Premiership. Promisingly, albeit only after two games this season, their xG is the fourth-highest in the league.
If they can continue defending with the organisation and tenacity they showed against Celtic, Hearts now have the offensive weapons to make opponents pay.