With the theatres of world football coming to a close, there are a few shows that still remain that are going to amaze the audience. The Champions League Final is on June 1st while the Europa League Final is on June 29th. We have also already passed the FA Cup final, a final which most certainly did not excite, and several other tournaments. One of the biggest ones that will be hitting this Saturday is the Scottish Cup Final between Heart of Midlothian F.C. and Celtic F.C. In our tactical preview, we will showcase, through tactical analysis, the tactics of both teams and their statistics before the matchup.

The Bhoys Look To Dominate Once Again

The Celtics, who have been historically dominant, look forward to adding another title to their long list of honours. It will not be an easy ride for manager Neil Lennon as injuries to key players have made it difficult for the Bhoys to make a clear plan. Most of the injured are on their way to rest so that they can declare themselves fit for the match. One such player, Kieran Tierney, Celtic’s star left back, has already done so. However with a pending double hernia operation after the match, Tierney’s involvement in the final is still a doubt. Another player with injury troubles is the centre-back Dedryck Boyata who has a knee injury and will be returning on July 15. Other injured players include right-back Mikael Lustig, right midfielder Jonny Hayes, and defensive midfielder Eboue Kouassi.

Celtic look to defeat Hearts with a high press  

The Celtic style of play has changed little with Brendan Rodgers’ departure. Lennon, himself, has asserted the claim that he has changed little of Rodgers’ successful tactics. As such, Celtic play an aggressive and forward-thinking style of play. A key tenet for Celtic is to press the ball and try to win it high up. The advantages of high pressing are many. One of them stems from a physical aspect and that is that pressing high tires the opponent. With players bearing down on each receiver of the ball, the team, and the player have to work more in order to retain possession.

One of the pressing techniques used by Celtics is to do a man-mark press. This means that as soon as an opposition gets possession, Celtic players start surrounding the player aggressively. However, this type of press does not involve a Celtic player pressing a sole opposition player. Often a pair or trio of players will follow. This allows Celtic to shadow the other players and as such, block passing lanes or any through balls. Moreover, the Celtic players also do curved pressings which often work to block access to more players. Often times, the only pathway for the opposition player will be to pass backwards. To more effectively accomplish these goals, the Celtics assume a 4-4-2 formation.

Scottish Cup 2018/19 Tactical Preview Statistics: Hearts vs Celtic
Here we see, from a previous match between Celtic and Hearts, the intensity of the Celtic pressing. There are two Celtic players going to the ball while the third is marking the Hearts player on the right. [Credit: WyScout]
This high pressing has many advantages and disadvantages for the Bhoys. This type of pressing hurries the opposition and can force them to make mistakes. This advantage is intensified as this type of pressing often occurs in the central corridor, allowing the Bhoys to directly launch counterattacks. Due to the pressing, the Celts often create 3v2 or an equal 3v3. Either scenario allows the Celtic to test the goal or allow for backup to create a more strategic attack. However, at the same time, this type of pressing has some disadvantages. If the opposition has good technical skills, it can be bypassed allowing for the creation of space.

Scottish Cup 2018/19 Tactical Preview Statistics: Hearts vs Celtic
Here we see the disadvantages of the high press. The Hearts player has time and space to attack Celtic’s right-hand side. [Credit: WyScout]

Celtic aim to choke Hearts with possession and quick wing combinations

Moreover, keeping in line with Rodgers’ tactics, Lennon has also adapted Rodger’s formation. As such, Celtic have been playing in a 4-2-3-1 and are a side that plays possession football. Their main priorities are to invite the opponent through the build-up and attack through combinations on the wings.

To accomplish these goals, Celtic play through short passes, averaging about 488 per game. This statistic has an effectivity rate of 86% which means that 86% of all the passes played by Celtic are short passes. Moreover, these short passes are used to attack the wings. This tendency to attack the wings can be seen as about 41% and 35% of the attack is played on the left flank and right flank respectively. This means that about 76% of Celtic’s attacks come on the wings. 

After playing their combinations, the Celts like to direct the ball through the centre. This can be seen as 58% of the shot directions go through that channel. These shots, moreover, come from the 18-yard box. In fact, almost 53% of all Celtic’s come from inside the 18-yard box. This gives an indication that Celtic favour cutbacks and low crosses as their tactics in the final game.

One of their combinations is to utilize a trio of Celtic players. This trio consists of a left/right back, left/right midfielder, and left/right winger. The progression starts with one of the two centre-backs who are positioned wide as to stretch the opposition formation. The centre-back passes the ball to the respective left/right back. The respective side midfielder, who has been deep with the centrebacks, makes a forward run to open himself as a passing option. At the same time, the winger starts making a wide run which opens up various options for the midfielder. He can either thread a through ball straight or open his body to pass the ball into the central corridor. More often than not, the winger is given the ball from where a cutback or a low cross is given to the striker.

Scottish Cup 2018/19 Tactical Preview Statistics: Hearts vs Celtic
Here we see a 2v2 in which the Celtic right winger is about to be released free on the wing. [Credit: WyScout]
In this picture, while we do not see the right-back, the combination can be seen. The midfielder has the option to release the winger who has space to run into (shown in red) or keep dribbing and wait for one of the strikers to join in.

This combination has minimal passes while allowing for vertical progression very easily. However, there are certain limitations to this. Putting a block of four opposition players, arranged in a diamond, can stop this progression. The three players can man mark this progression while the fourth player can act as an interceptor of any passes. This effectively creates a 4v3, nullifying any threat from the wings.

However, there are various other tactics that the Hoops utilize to break enemy lines. Diagonal balls from either the deep-lying midfielders or the fullbacks allow them to breathe while forcing the opposition to shift their positions. This change in positions can open up dangerous positions for attacking midfielders such as Ryan Christie to thread balls to the strikers. These balls also allow for the Celts to create 1v1 situations from where they can directly attack or allow for build up.

Scottish Cup 2018/19 Tactical Preview Statistics: Hearts vs Celtic
Here we see a diagonal pass from one side to the other side. [Credit: WyScout]
In the above picture, we see how the diagonal ball puts the receiving Celtic player in space and time for him to attack and threaten the opposition’s defence.

If the opposition does not allow the Celtics to play down the flanks, the winger is used as a target man. The ball is passed to the respective winger who holds off the ball. This involves one defender while alerting the second. The nearby attacking midfielder, fullback, and midfielder can come upfield. The winger can then pass back which can allow the midfielder to thread a diagonal ball to the opposite winger, through ball to the attacking midfielder or lob to the running fullback.

Scottish Cup 2018/19 Tactical Preview Statistics: Hearts vs Celtic
Here we see one of the wingers acting as a target man. This creates enough space for the running Celtic player to attack the defence.

The winger acting like a target man attracts a defender with him which disrupts the defence line and allows for the creation of the space in the central corridor. The seconds after this picture resulted in a gaol showcasing how this secondary tactic by Celtic can succeed.

This type of buildup creates a 4v3 at a minimum and a 4v4 at maximum. The opposition cannot afford to divert more attention as that would lead holes in the central defence. This allows the Bhoys to have controlling power and as such, allows them to direct the attack. Even though the above picture does not show this numerical superiority, it does showcase a 3v2 with the winger acting as a target man, running Celtic midfielder, and the far right Celtic winger going up against the isolated two central defenders.

The Hearts Look To Stop Treble for the Celtics

The Hearts started off this year’s Premiership with a bang. After the first thirteen games, the Hearts looked unstoppable. Top of the league and earning about 2.36 points per game, the Hearts looked to establish dominance. However, their fast start has withered away to snail’s pace as is evidenced by the fact that they have gained 15 points from 14 games since 2019. One of the main factors in their slowdown have been their injuries. Their most important player, Steven Naismith, has a knee injury and will return on May 25th, the day of the final. As such, he is doubtful for the match. Sadly, Naismith has been dealing with various injuries throughout the year and will probably look to be rested. Other injured players include left-back Benjamin Garuccio, central midfielder Olly Lee, right midfielder Callumn Morrison, and left back Demetri Mitchell.

Hearts look to surprise Celtic with wing play 

While the Celtics are all about possession football and are visually similar to sides such as Liverpool and Manchester City, the Hearts are in a contrast. One of the biggest problems Craig Levein and his Hearts have had is scoring goals. Their highest goal-scorer, Naismith, only has ten goals. Their second highest goal scorer, Peter Haring, only has five goals. As can clearly be seen, the Hearts have attacking problems.

This problem stems from their attacking tactics. While the Jam Hearts like to build up, their build-up does not yield in any attacking scenarios that are productive. While their go-to formation is a 4-4-2 when in possession of the ball, the Hearts like to switch to a 3-4-3. This formation gives them width, something that can be used against the Celtics to stop their wing progressions. This formation allows the Hearts to use their common attacking combinations: running into channels.

The Jam Hearts like to pass to their respective wingbacks. When they have the ball, the respective wingers stray wide as to open themselves for passing lane. More importantly, they use their body to block the ball to create a channel. The wingers can use the channel to run along with the ball, allowing them to reach the final third. 

Scottish Cup 2018/19 Tactical Preview Statistics: Hearts vs Celtic
Here we see a Celtic player releasing the corresponding winger to the right. This is an example of running into a channel. [Credit: WyScout]
In this picture, the movement of the winger will attract the defender which will, in turn, disrupt the defensive structure of the opposition. Moreover, the winger has ample space and time which he can use to cross to the striker. This tactic has some issues. This sort of tactic can be easily stopped by having the respective Celtic player mark better or to have another midfielder between the fullback and the winger. Moreover, this progression can be nullified if the whole team shape compacts which would make the striker offside.

Hearts look to their target man to get in behind Celtics’ defence 

Another tactic used by the Hearts is that of a target man. When using the target man, the whole team moves upfield by some amount. The team then condenses into some section of the pitch. The goalkeeper, then, plays a long ball to that area. The goal is for the target man to either win the first ball -duel- or for the remainder of the team to win the second ball. This allows the Hearts to instantly progress upfield without using energy. As such, the players can quickly start counterattacks and put the opposition in danger.

Another aspect to the target man tactics is the use of the target man to hold the ball. Often times, the target man -striker- will move near the right or left flank to serve as a reference point for their combination as discussed before. This allows the Levene’s team to retain the ball for a little longer and explore more creative ways of scoring. The striker’s presence creates a 3v2 situation. This can allow Hearts to gain advantage and play intricate 1-2 combinations or through balls to any runner.

Scottish Cup 2018/19 Tactical Preview Statistics: Hearts vs Celtic
Here we see the striker of Hearts receiving the ball and the two wingers behind him. [Credit: WyScout]
Here in this picture, we see the potential options that Hearts could attack. The striker could head to either of the wingers (shown in blue), allowing for them to dribble and attack. He could head either of them the ball (shown in blue) and then quickly turn (shown in red and purple), where he would receive a through ball (shown in pink). Both of these options allow Hearts to inch closer to the goal and as such, create chances.

The ultimate aim of the target man is to allow the front three to link up and play together. This is the foundation of the Hearts’ attacks. The reasoning behind this is that many teams separate their defence such that you have two or three centre-backs in the central corridor. By having three forwards, a 3v2 or a 3v3 can be created which can allow Levene and his men just enough space to create chances.

However, the lack of goals clearly shows that these tactics are not working. Add on top of that several injuries and a fatigued squad and all of a sudden it does not look so well for Levene and his men. However, Hearts have shown that if the whole team works together in unison, these deceptively simple tactics can work.

So who will win? 

As we head into the match, both teams will be vying for the glorious trophy. While Celtics will be focusing on nice and neat football, Hearts will be looking at their target men and hoping to strike it lucky. While Celtics are the favoured for the win, one should not count out Hearts. This is football and the win of the underdog is what the people live for.


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Abhishek Mishra

Writer at Ronnie Dog Media
Hi, I’m Abhishek. I am a current student and come from India. I am interested in providing and improving tactical analyses.