The semi-final match between Aberdeen and Celtic in the Scottish Cup was an emotionally loaded game. The fans at Hampton Park saw Celtic advancing to the cup final, thanks to a 3-0 win. Aberdeen received two red cards though and thus finished the game with only nine players. This tactical analysis will show both teams approaches and explain why Celtic would probably have won eleven against eleven anyway.
Both teams were lined up in a 4-2-3-1 system. Their tactical approach was totally different though. While Aberdeen focussed on defending deep, Celtic were proactive and tried to create something. The possession rate of 68% to 32% in favour of Celtic speaks for itself. Also, 16-2 shots and 10-0 shots on target in favour of Celtic are clear indicators of how the game was shaped. Aberdeen only relied on long balls and thus had difficulties creating scoring opportunities. Celtic were more patient and were rewarded for that in the end.
Aberdeen failed to defend properly
As mentioned, Aberdeen wanted to defend deep and tight. Structurally, they used a clear 4-2-3-1 formation, which could be seen many times like in the following image.
Even though Aberdeen are positioned tight and narrow, there were still some weaknesses. We see that right winger Greg Stewart wanted to prevent the pass out to the wing. This may make sense, as Aberdeen had a lot of players in the centre and could win the ball there. However, Stewart wasn’t able to prevent the pass, as his positioning wasn’t optimal. Apart from that, the centre forward Sam Cosgrove wasn’t putting pressure on the ball.
There were many occasions though, where Aberdeen couldn’t hold the centre closed. Celtic tried to exploit these open spaces in the centre with dribbling into that area. Here, it is centre back Kristoffer Ajer who dribbles forward.
Also, there were situations where the other centre back of Celtic, Jozo Šimunović, dribbled aggressively into the open space. This image is a great example because it shows that Aberdeen’s forwards weren’t defending properly. They just weren’t able to attack the centre backs and pressure them.
Celtic’s build-up wasn’t perfect
When the centre backs dribbled, it wasn’t always successful though and it was a key cause behind their early frustration, being led into a trap by Aberdeen.
Here, the central midfielders don’t open up space in the centre. Thus, dribbling into that space is not a good idea. In the circled area, we see that Aberdeen has a four to three advantage. From time to time, Celtic weren’t able to adjust to the given situation. They had prepared an alternative plan for situations with a closed central area though.
In the initial build-up phase, Celtic tried a patient approach with a stable possession game. In order to execute this, the full-backs didn’t move forward but rather provided passing options near the ball on the wing. Here, we see Aberdeen with a good defensive positioning, where they have a clear man-orientation and are ready to pressure the ball handler. In the follow-up, two alternatives were prepared for Celtic. On the one hand, playing a long diagonal ball into the final third was an option. On the other, there were phases in the game where Celtic wanted to reduce the tempo of the game. So they would then move the ball patiently across their back line from one side to the other.
Problems emerged when Celtic wanted to play a short after being on the wing early in the build-up. Here is an example of a longline ball. Aberdeen is positioned well though, so the long line pass doesn’t make any sense. Aberdeen don’t have to shift and can easily defend the position.
Celtic were able to create space though
Despite these problems in the build-up, Celtic could create space in important areas and it was key to breaking down their opposition.
Here, we see again a situation where Celtic is on the wing early on in the attack. While there is some open space in the centre, it seems somehow unclear how to play the ball into that area.
Moments later, we see that intelligent movement opened up a lot of space. Aberdeen’s strict man-orientation proposed a lot of problems for them similar to the situation here.
Another way of opening up spaces were one on one situations on the wing, where the wingers James Forrest and Jonny Hayes tried to break through with dangerous dribbles. While this wasn’t a bad idea, it wasn’t decisive in this game.
Offensively Aberdeen were inexistent
There wasn’t much output from Aberdeen’s attack in this game. One of the reasons for that was their tactical approach. They relied too much on long balls, which were mostly hoofed forwards without any kind of control.
One of the rare build-up situations of Aberdeen can be seen in this image. Similar to Celtic, the fullbacks aren’t high up the pitch. The back line plus one central midfielder create a five against one situation. It would make sense to bring the ball forward by playing it out short. The fact that there isn’t any other Aberdeen player in this image underlines that the other players are positioned in the final third, waiting for the long ball. Celtic defended those balls without any problems though.
Red cards end the game
We have shown that Celtic were tactically superior. They would have probably won the game playing 11 vs 11. With Dominic Ball receiving a second yellow card in the 36th minute of the game, Aberdeen were down to ten men.
After Ball being sent off, the game proceeded in a similar fashion. Now there was more space, which was then exploited by Forrest in the stoppage time of the first half.
No more competitive game in the second half
In the second half, Aberdeen wanted to fight back and tried to give everything they got. They defended with every man behind the ball, and even built situationally a five man back line, as the following image shows.
When the game went on, Aberdeen lost their power to fight for every meter. They would still shift near the ball and try to close gaps, but it became more difficult the longer the game went. Also, it became evident that it wasn’t possible to defend with every player, as centre-forward Cosgrove stopped working against the ball.
In the 67th minute, Lewis Ferguson was also sent off with a red card due to hard foul. With two men down, there was no way to come back for Aberdeen. Celtic, on the other hand, couldn’t play on highly concentrated, as they had mentally finished the game. Situations like the following were the consequence. Despite having a lot of space, they played long balls into the box without getting any result out of it.
Due to the two red cards, we were robbed of an interesting game. From what we saw in the first 36 minutes, the probability that Celtic would have won the game anyway is rather high. After the first red card, it was clear that Aberdeen wouldn’t be able to hold the draw for too long. The second red card made the situation even worse, leaving Aberdeen ultimately without any chance. Their structured approach, keeping the ball central and denying Celtic the chance to break through was destroyed, losing two key assets in their shape and allowing Celtic to exploit the resulting spaces.