Graeme Murty is rightly receiving plaudits for how he has turned Rangers around. The Englishman…
This time last year Celtic were 25 points clear of Rangers and laughing their way to a treble. It’s still likely the Parkhead club will finish the season with three trophies, but it’s not been plain sailing this time around.
Sunday’s Old Firm derby could be the first time in years that Rangers fancy their chances against their bitter rivals. Celtic are still favourites of course but it’s hard to dismiss the Ibrox club given their performances in recent weeks. There are key battles all over the pitch and we decided to take a closer look at a handful of them.
Of course, many of these depend on what formations Graeme Murty and Brendan Rodgers decide to play. The neutral will be hoping both teams go for it. It would be a shame if Graeme Murty reverted to a 4-4-1-1 rather than stick to the 4-2-3-1 that has resulted in the easy on the eye, free-scoring Rangers we’ve become accustomed to in recent weeks. With Celtic, it’s likely Rodgers will stick with a 3-4-2-1 when we consider the players who are unavailable.
So which areas of the pitch could this game be won and lost?
With Mikael Lustig suspended it’s likely that Rodgers will set his team up in a 3-4-2-1 formation. That could see Kieran Tierney and James Forrest feature as wing-backs; a position both have played on a number of occasions this campaign. Forrest is having the best season of his career and looks revitalised under Rodgers. In fact, he kept markee signing Patrick Roberts out of the squad, even before the Englishman’s injury, with his performances. Forrest not only is a threat going forward but has shown an impressive defensive solidity in his game.
The Scotland international has played in this role against the likes of Bayern Munich and has proven he has the defensive capabilities to play as a wing-back. After all, he had to track David Alaba that night which is no easy task. On Sunday he’ll come up against a player who has found his groove since arriving in Glasgow; Jamie Murphy.
While he’s not of the same quality as the players Forrest faced in Europe, he’s shown how dangerous he can be in the Premiership. As the graph above shows, the on-loan Brighton player has looked impressive since his move to Govan. In just seven league games he’s managed to score four goals and provide two assists.
However, when you scratch the surface Murphy’s numbers are even more impressive. He averages a goal or assist every 102.8 minutes. Not even Josh Windass (118.9), Alfredo Morelos (112) or Daniel Candeias (203) can match that.
Similarly, he’s already provided 15 key passes which works out at 2.19 per game. Again that means he comes out on top in terms of the number of key passes produced per 90 minutes when compared to his attacking teammates. The Rangers attacker also creates space for Windass which has played a part in the latter’s red-hot form.
In essence, if both managers go for attacking formations this could be not only an interesting battle but a vital one. Forrest is a significant player going forward for Celtic, but he’ll have to be at his best defensively to extinguish the threat of Murphy.
Moussa Dembele would be the first to admit he hasn’t been nearly as talismanic in this current campaign as last season. That said, the Frenchman has had notably less game time and seems to be re-discovering his form. A goal and assist against Aberdeen followed by a brace against Morton in the Scottish Cup will be a welcome sight to Celtic fans.
A confident Dembele is bad news for Rangers and their defence, particularly a defence which don’t look particularly solid. With news that Russell Martin may miss out through a back injury it could mean Bruno Alves is recalled to partner David Bates at the heart of Rangers’ defence. It comes as a bit of a blow as Martin has been solid for Murty’s side. Conversely, Alves didn’t look up to scratch against Falkirk last week.
The Portuguese veteran is evidently aware of his lack of pace which leads to him playing deeper. This is something that doesn’t suit the Rangers backline, particularly when the likes of James Tavernier want to bomb up and down the right flank. Moreover, Alves is very strong in the air which is a plus point for the Ibrox club, but he did give away numerous needless fouls against Falkirk; something that could be punished by Celtic.
Bates has been a mainstay in Murty’s side since he was thrown into the deep end during the last Glasgow derby. He’s impressed as a no-nonsense defender, who is good at tackling and making clearances. Like Alves, he is strong in the air, but still has improvements to make with the ball at his feet and when it comes to distribution.
In essence, we’ve seen Dembele run riot in Old Firm games before and if Alves and Bates aren’t up to speed he could do so again. Sure they are a match for Dembele in the air, but as the graph above shows that might not matter. Only nine percent of the Frenchman’s goals are headers compared to 57% from right foot strikes and 13% from his left foot. He’s also found the back of the net from set pieces on a number of occasions.
Rangers are most dangerous down the right flank. Tavernier and Candeias are both huge threats going forward and that’s reflected in the number of goals and assists both have produced this campaign. Similarly, Sinclair and Tierney have had another great season down Celtic’s left. Many will say Sinclair has been out of form for much of this season which is remarkable given he’s scored nine goals and chipped in with eight assists.
It would be an understatement to say these duos have been fruitful for their teams. In fact, between them they have scored 21 goals and provided 29 assists in the Premiership this season alone.
Were one of the pairings to get the upper hand it could play a huge part in who emerges with three points. That said, there’s also the chance that both neutralise each other which would mean it’ll fall to other players in different areas to step up and become the creative hub of their respective side.
The final battle worth focussing on is in the middle of the park. Celtic captain Scott Brown is the kind of player who lives and breathes for derby day showdowns. He’s now incredibly experienced and isn’t phased in the heat of battle.
The recently retired Scotland captain is also the engine room of this Celtic side. Nobody has played more passes in the Premiership than he has this season and he’s vital in terms of starting moves that lead to scoring chances and ultimately goals. However, he’ll have to show another side to his game on Sunday. Brown will also be tasked with preventing Josh Windass from continuing his red-hot form.
The Rangers attacker has been incredible in recent weeks, but he will undoubtedly come up against his toughest test on Sunday. Not only will he have Celtic’s defence to contend with, but also the league’s best all-round midfielder. Windass has been great at finding pockets of space this season and taking full advantage of. Again it depends on formations, but Windass has flourished playing through the middle rather than on the wing. Similarly, any chances that do come his way he’ll have to take as they could be few and far between with Brown inevitably breathing down his neck.
Brown has excellent anticipation and his defensive stats are deceptively impressive. He’s been involved in 189 defensive duels and made 141 interceptions this season. This puts the Celtic captain in the top 25 players in the league for both metrics. What makes those numbers more impressive is that Celtic have the highest ball possession in the league by some distance. On the contrary, they are the lowest when it comes to overall defensive duels and interceptions.
What does this mean exactly? Well, simply put it means that Brown is the combative midfielder that wins the ball back for Celtic. It isn’t very often they don’t have the ball, but you can bet that if they don’t Brown will be doing his damnedest to get it back. For him to be in the top percent for defensive duels and interceptions when Celtic as a team are bottom shows just how much of a powerhouse and workhorse he is.
It will be a fascinating battle and one that could ultimately decide which way the pendulum swings at Ibrox.