Did you ever play Pokemon? If not, the concept isn’t too hard to understand.The Japanese phenomenon…
In April 2016, Celtic and Rangers met in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup. Despite still being a second tier side, Rangers stunned the Scottish champions with a spirited 2-2 draw resulting in a win on penalties.
Unfortunately for Rangers fans, this victory would spark a mini revolution across the city. The following week, it was announced that Ronny Deila would be leaving his position as Celtic manager at the end of the season. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers would be his replacement.
The most successful domestic season in Celtic’s history would follow, with the Parkhead side completing an undefeated treble. Since that day two years ago, they’ve faced their city rivals eight times and are yet to taste defeat.
Twenty one goals scored, six conceded, six wins and two draws.
The longer this unbeaten derby streak goes on, the more difficult it will be for Rangers to shake off. In March, they twice led against Celtic. Yet they were twice pegged back and faced the ignominy of eventually losing to a Celtic side down to ten men.
Two consecutive league defeats followed, as the wheels of any aspirations of a title challenge Rangers thought they had came well and truly flying off. So how on earth can Rangers pull something off on Sunday?
There are two types of team who have done well against Celtic this season.
PSG, Bayern, Anderlecht and Zenit St Petersburg are the first type: slick European outfits drilled well tactically who have the individual talent to win most games.
The second are names closer to home. Seven of the other 11 Scottish Premiership teams have taken points off Celtic this season, compared to the four of last year. In six of these games, the opposition have stopped Celtic from scoring.
In these games, the opposition have frustrated Celtic by denying them space in central areas, smothering any shots and breaking up the flow of Celtic’s game by any means fair or foul. You stay close together, force Celtic to throw low % crosses into the box, and wait for them to a) overcommit or b) make a mistake then attack quickly and surgically.
Given that keeping the whole team compact is the best way to victory on Sunday, Rangers have a problem. The Ibrox side tend to line up in a 4-2-3-1.
Two centre backs stay deep, fullbacks stay high and wide, while the four attacking players push up the pitch and press opposing defenders as far back as they can. This means that when teams break the first line of attacking pressure, Rangers are left looking like this:
The gap between the attackers and the midfielders is huge. The gap between the defenders and the midfielders is huge.
This gung ho approach is great against Hamilton when you have the sheer firepower to be able to win 5-3. It’s great against teams who don’t know how to counter, who rely on the wings, whose defenders take a bit too long on the ball.
However, Celtic are not Hamilton, they know how to counter, they have many ways of getting the ball into the final third, and their centre backs always have a passing option. Once Celtic get past the first Rangers line of pressure, the analogy of a hot knife through butter is apt.
Here’s the thing. Rangers don’t need to win in open play on Sunday. Like two years ago, there’s the possibility of drawing the match and taking it to penalties. Josh Windass missed the 4-0 win over Dundee through injury, so why rush him back? By contrast, Ross McCrorie made his first appearance of 2018 and played for over an hour.
In a game where not conceding is mathematically more beneficial than scoring, it makes absolute sense to drop McCrorie in between the defensive and midfield blocks for this one.
Rangers aren’t Bayern Munich, PSG or Zenit St Petersburg. Celtic will most likely be in control of the ball for the majority of Sunday’s game.
However, as Kilmarnock, Motherwell, Dundee, St Johnstone, Kilmarnock and even Rangers have shown this season, you don’t need to have the ball to stop Celtic from scoring- you just have to control the territory.
Graham Dorrans, Greg Docherty and McCrorie should forget about pressing the Celtic players. Along with Russell Martin and Bruno Alves, the quintet should just make the middle of the park as stuffy as possible.
Similarly, as much as James Tavernier and Declan John love a foray forward, they must stay back. Otherwise, James Forrest, Kieran Tierney and Scott Sinclair will eat them on the counter. Can you imagine any of these three players going one to one with Martin?
Between Alfredo Morelos, Jamie Murphy and Daniel Candeias, there is enough attacking power to be able to create a few chances. If one goes in, great. If not, it’s more important to stop Celtic scoring anyway.
Discipline and restraint are the keys for Rangers in this game. If they show that, they have a fighting chance.