We’ve got a really tasty Premiership round of fixtures this weekend, with almost every single…
Although Saturday’s Old Firm derby ended in a 0-0 draw, in many ways it felt like a genuine result and moment of celebration for Graeme Murty’s Rangers side. Not only was it the best performance we’ve seen from Rangers since they won promotion to the Scottish Premiership, but in many ways they went toe-to-toe with Brendan Rodgers’ side and ended up coming out of the 90 minutes intact.
It was a match of two halves, as the old cliche goes, with Celtic missing two clear-cut chances in the opening 45 minutes, only for Rangers to tighten their grip on the match and miss two chances of their own in the second half. It perhaps wasn’t the best game of football we’ll see this season in terms of quality, but it was one that unquestionably drew our attention and held our gaze until the final whistle.
This is how Rangers, against all odds, managed to keep the Scottish champions at bay and nab a point at Celtic Park.
Rodgers’ side are renowned for their attacking football and the manner in which they close opponents down with very little time or space. In many ways it’s the main allure of the Northern Irish manager’s time at Celtic: other coaches may be as successful but few can make their teams play ‘the Celtic way’ quite like Rodgers can.
However, on Saturday it was Rangers that looked far better equipped to play that counter-attacking, high-pressing style of football and it’s exactly why they managed to keep Celtic on the back foot for large parts of the match.
This was evident from the very first whistle, when a poor pass from Mikael Lustig was intercepted by Josh Windass in the fourth minute, allowing the English forward to close in on the Celtic goal, before passing it through to Alfredo Morelos to hit a shot.
Indeed, Murty clearly had a plan to pressure the Swedish full-back and his teammate Dedryck Boyata throughout the match due to their clear inability to pass the ball with the same speed and composure as their teammates.
Of Rangers’ seven clear goalscoring opportunities over the course of the match no fewer than four came about from Rangers dispossessing or intercepting Celtic’s attempts to get up the park. If Celtic can’t pass the ball they can’t score either and for best part of 90 minutes that’s exactly what Rangers ensured.
When we take a look at the passing stats of some of Celtic’s key players that becomes abundantly clear. Scott Brown, for example, has an average 80.95 passes per game yet that number dropped to 49.35. Similarly, as you can see in the graph above, Boyata, Lustig and even Kieran Tierney’s stats on the day were far below their season average.
There’s simply no doubt about it: Rangers effectively stopped Celtic playing their usual style of football and it limited what they could do.
No Rangers player personified that more than right-back, James Tavernier. The full-back has something of a love-hate relationship with the Ibrox faithful, who mostly appreciate his attacking attributes, but tend to sigh when he finds himself caught out of position or indeed floundering when any form of cross flies across the Rangers goalmouth.
However, on Saturday he was superb. Over the course of the game the 26-year-old made 12 interceptions against Celtic and made more passes than any other player in blue on the day. In fact, of the 51 passes he made over the course of the game 10 were in to the final third of Celtic’s half.
Essentially, the right-back was not only breaking down Celtic’s best attempts to attack down their left flank, but he also ensured that his runs, crosses and through balls were a constant thorn in the Scottish champions’ side. Not only did he manage to get the better of Scott Sinclair in defensive duels, but he also darted down the wing to swing the ball in for perhaps the best chance of the game, when Morelos’ point-blank header was expertly saved by Craig Gordon.
Of course, as much as Rangers deserve a lot of credit we can’t simply brush over the fact that Murty’s team were fortunate to come up against a Celtic squad that not only looked jaded but was also missing a number of key players to injury.
Rodgers’ decision to start Moussa Dembele and Stuart Armstrong despite their look-warm form of late seemed odd at first and was only confirmed through the match, while Sinclair left the field after 72 minutes.
Players out of form – even ones as talented as the three aforementioned examples – is nothing new, but where Rodgers would have happily turned to the likes of Patrick Roberts or Tom Rogic, the Celtic coach instead could only bring on Olivier Ntcham and push Callum McGregor out wide in a role that has proved exceptionally ineffective for him in the past.
Although Ntcham and Leigh Griffiths both added more once they came on for Sinclair and Dembele respectively, neither gave the width that Celtic desperately needed and on top of an already impressive defensive display from Rangers the champions looked exceptionally limited as they went forward.
In the end, it was a combination of factors that ensured a point for Rangers in the most unlikely of circumstances. A perfect storm, if you will, partially concocted by impressive tactics from Murty and then underlined by a Celtic side war-torn by impressive skirmishes domestically and truly testing clashes in Europe.