Celtic faced Hearts at Hampden Park in the Scottish Cup final, looking to complete a historic treble treble. Hearts came into the final without a win in their last five matches, including a 2-1 defeat against Celtic in their final league match of the season.
Since Neil Lennon has taken over from Brendan Rodgers, Celtic have maintained their domestic dominance despite questions being raised over their performances. In this tactical analysis, we analyse how Celtic overcame a dogged Hearts side to seal the treble treble.
Hearts stifle Celtic
Hearts set up in a narrow 4-3-3 shape out of possession, with a heavy emphasis on controlling the central area of the pitch. As Celtic set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation they were able to create numerical superiority in central areas. Hearts were content to allow Celtic to work the ball into wide areas of the pitch, as they shifted across in an attempt to prevent crosses into the box.
Hearts allowed the Celtic defenders to have possession of the ball in their own half of the pitch, instead looking to block passing lanes into the midfielders. The two wide players Clare and Mulraney concerned themselves with preventing passes into Scott Brown and Callum McGregor. This led to problems for Celtic during the build-up phase as they were unable to get Tom Rogic in possession in advanced areas of the pitch. Edouard became an increasingly isolated figure in the first half as a result of Celtic’s inability to cleanly progress up the pitch.
Celtic often struggled to progress the ball through the middle of the pitch, through a combination of Hearts’ defensive shape and their own poor positioning. On many occasions, both Brown and McGregor would find themselves in the same horizontal line as the front three for Hearts. As a result of this positioning, the defenders found it difficult to pass the ball to them with the ability to turn and play forwards. This led to a large number of passes being played back to the central defenders before the ball was played wide to one of the fullbacks.
One way in which this could have been overcome would be for the defenders to play a flatter vertical pass into either Edouard or Rogic, behind the first line of pressure, who in turn could have played a lay off pass to maintain possession of the ball in advanced areas of the pitch.
A further way in which Celtic could have provoked a change in the Hearts’ shape would have been for one of the defenders to dribble forwards with the ball. This would have attracted one of the Hearts forwards to move from their position, creating space behind them to exploit. Given Ajer’s ability on the ball it was perhaps surprising that he, in particular, didn’t attempt this strategy during the match.
Hearts attack down the left
In possession, Haring dropped between the two centre backs, which enabled them to push both fullbacks higher and wider. Tom Rogic joined Edouard to press as part of a front two, thus giving further reason for Haring to create a back three as this created an overload in the initial build-up phase.
Hearts’ main attacking threat came from their left-hand side. They often looked to create overloads on this side of the pitch which enabled them to penetrate behind the Mikel Lustig at right back. Sutchuin-Djoum was operating on the left side of the midfield three and drifted towards the left half space away from the Celtic midfield two of Brown and McGregor, making it difficult for him to be marked. Hickey at left back was able to push forward and hold his position wide. This left Lustig with a dilemma, to either stay with Hickey and allow Sutchuin-Djoum possession or apply pressure to him and leave Hickey free.
Most often he was attracted towards the ball without applying any real pressure on the ball, therefore allowing Hearts to play around him. This strategy looked to be the most likely way that Hearts would create a clear opportunity to score.
Hearts take the lead
Hearts went ahead through Ryan Edwards. The goal came from Hearts working the ball into the left-hand side, where they had looked most dangerous in the first half. Sutchuin-Djoum played a clever lofted pass into Hickey, who played a pass in the space left by Lustig for Mulraney to run onto. His cross into the box was blocked and from the resulting throw-in, Sutchuin-Djoum and Hickey combined once again to find Clare, whose clever back-heel fell to Edwards who swept the ball into the Celtic net.
Celtic go more direct
Following the Hearts goal, Celtic began to adapt their approach as the defenders started to bypass Brown and McGregor in midfield and instead look to find players in more advanced areas of the pitch. Due to their positioning, there was often support near the receiver to enable them to play a lay off pass and possession to be maintained.
The change in approach enabled Celtic to bypass Hearts’ midfield and front line and bring Edouard into the game. This became a turning point in the match as Celtic were finally able to exert a level of pressure on the Hearts’ defence. As a result of playing more direct passes into the front players, they were able to bring the wide players into the game in more advantageous situations than the first half.
Hearts came into the match on the back of several poor recent results but turned out an impressive performance to provide Celtic with a tough challenge to overcome. A good defensive display by Hearts was undone by two errors, resulting from a change in approach from Celtic. The decision to play more directly into the forward players, whether this was an instruction from the bench or the players own intuition, helped to change the momentum of the match.