Where Sunday’s Old Firm clash will be won and lost

Where Sunday’s Old Firm clash will be won and lost

By Stefan Bienkowski

Sunday’s Old Firm derby promises to be another chaotic, passionate feast of entertainment for diehard fans and neutral observers alike as Steven Gerrard’s Rangers travel to Celtic Park in the hope of taking advantage of a wounded Brendan Rodgers side.


We’ve taken a closer look at both clubs in detail (here are our Celtic and Rangers previews) but we also wanted to take a look at the tactics or particular trends that have stuck to both sides so far this season and whether we can make any predictions as to where Sunday’s clash will be won or lost.


Old (defensive) habits die hard


Let’s begin with Rangers. Although the pressure will undoubtedly be on Celtic to win this match, there is a sense of momentum and genuine improvement at Ibrox that fans will be hoping Gerrard and his side can take in to Sunday’s clash and cause something of an upset.


However, while Gerrard’s team do look far more impressive than what we’ve seen of Rangers over the past two seasons, there is still plenty of room for improvement. And against Celtic they may find some defensive issues arising that have already began to cause issues over the 12 games we’ve seen of them so far this season.


Gerrard has made Rangers far more compact between the midfield and defensive lines and for the most part that has improved the way they’ve played. The team are passing better, transitions flow remarkably well and the forwards are scoring plenty of goals. But it does have some defensive set backs.


For example, of the eight goals Rangers have conceded in their opening 12 matches in all competitions, five have come from set pieces or crosses in to the box, while a further two have come from direct, long balls over the top of the defensive line.



This was perhaps most notable in Sunday’s clash with Motherwell, when Connor Goldson’s slip allowed Danny Johnson to run on to a long ball to open the scoring, while Carl McHugh and Peter Hartley both scored important headers from set piece positions.


We’ve also seen this in other games too. Aberdeen’s late equaliser on the opening day of the season came from a cross in to the box, Kilmarnock’s solitary goal in the 3-1 League Cup victory came from Jordan Jones firing the ball to the back post before Borna Barisic bundled in to his own goal, while Ufa and Maribor both had success from either employing a direct long ball over the top or swinging a cross in.


When it comes to winning aerial duels, Nikola Katic is the only Rangers player in the Scottish Premiership top 20 with a success rate of 62%. When we open the metric out to all competitions we see Goldson slide to the top with a 67% tally, while James Tavernier, James Flanagan and Barisic are all below 60%. However, even that isn’t particular impressive compared to the higher standards set elsewhere. For comparison’s sake it’s worth noting that Bruno Alves (albeit limited in other factors of his game) won 79% of his aerial duels and the Celtic duo of Dedryck Boyata and Kristoffer Ajer each won 72% of their own last season.  



Although Goldson and Katic both look like superb additions to Rangers’ defense, they have joined a back line that notoriously struggled to defend crosses last season and despite their positive start it’s still unclear if either can single-handedly fix that chink in Rangers’ armour. Against a well-trained, physical Celtic side we may see this notable weakness once again exposed.


Celtic’s attacking issues


Coincidentally, while Celtic fans have spent much of this summer worrying about their own defense, Sunday’s test against Rangers should perhaps instead be viewed through the current issues Rodgers’ side face up front.


On Friday the Celtic manager confirmed that Moussa Dembele wouldn’t be featuring against Rangers due to the fiasco surrounding a bid from Lyon, which leaves Rodgers with Leigh Griffiths and Odsonne Edouard. Both are perfectly capable strikers on their day, but what should worry fans of the Scottish champions is the manner in which the team have taken to high-profile games this season and struggled to break down opposing teams when they make things very difficult.


The second leg against Rosenborg, in which Celtic walked away with a 0-0 draw, was initially seen as a resolute and professional result. Yet in the following round we saw Rodgers’ side struggle to break down a 10-man AEK Athens at Celtic Park and then lost 3-1 away in Athens when many expected them to dominate the game. The same can be said of the club’s opening tie against Suduva, who applied simple, defensive tactics and a dreadful pitch to completely breakdown Celtic’s ability to pass the ball with speed and precision. And in their only, real test in domestic competition this season Rodgers’ team were gunned down 1-0 by Hearts after yet another poor, attacking display.



In truth, 19 goals in their opening 11 games is nothing to be ashamed of, but when we peer a little closer at Celtic’s form we see that most of those goals have come against the likes of Partick Thistle, Livingston and Alashkert. At the moment, this Celtic side have no problem scoring until they have huge problems scoring. And that’s almost certainly down to minor problems peppered throughout this team.


I recently analysed Scott Brown’s notable demise at the heart of Celtics’ midfield last season and throughout this current campaign, which could be playing a major part in Celtic’s diminishing big-game form. In the 2016/17 season the Celtic captain was averaging 1.6 passes in to the opposing box each game, which has fallen to 0.7 passes per game this season. Similarly, Brown’s average through balls per game have fallen from 0.8 per match two seasons ago to 0.4. This suggests a huge drop off in attacking impetus from one of the most important cogs in Celtic’s midfield machine. And it could explain why the team are struggling to score goals in the crunch games.


Against a resolute Rangers side with impressive, central midfielders in Ovie Ejaria, Ryan Jack and Scott Arfield, we could find ourselves watching the Celtic captain, who so confidently dominated Old Firm derbies in the past, look like a shadow of his former self. And that could seriously limit Celtic’s ability to score goals.