SPFL 2019/20: Celtic vs Hearts – tactical analysis

SPFL 2019/20: Celtic vs Hearts - tactical analysis - tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

Who will challenge Celtic for the title this year? Rangers are the most likely nemesis, but there are other clubs who might damage the titleholders. Last Sunday saw Celtic clash with Hearts in an exciting SPFL fixture, as this tactical analysis will show.

In this analysis supported by statistics and tactics, we will look at two different trends during this game between Celtic and Heart. We will look how Celtic’s midfield was set up in different defensive phases of the game and the passing style of play by Hearts in this tactical analysis piece.


Celtic vs Hearts line-ups

Celtic fielded an attacking 4-2-3-1 formation in this home game against Hearts. Callum McGregor and Scott Brown were chosen by manager Neil Lennon to act as a defensive block in front of the three attacking midfielders and the sole striker, Vakon Bayo. He was tasked with holding the ball until the attacking midfielders would close in. Their midfield trio McGregor, Brown and Ryan Christie were instrumental to their style of play- especially McGregor and Brown, but we will touch upon that later in this analysis.

Hearts manager Craig Levein had a slightly different approach to this game, as he fielded a defensive 4-3-3 formation. His midfield was rather conservative in their defensive approach and Glenn Whelan was played as the deep-lying defensive midfielder, just in front of the defence. Which in defensive situations led to five-man defence. They wanted to disrupt the attacking style of play by Celtic by playing close to their own box and provide a tough wall.

Celtic’s defensive midfielders movement

Instrumental to Celtic’s 3-1 victory over Hearts was their midfield, as this analysis will show. Their midfield had different roles and positions in different phases of the game, as we will show now. We will focus on the role played by Brown and McGregor as this defensive pairing was vital in their defensive play.

Brown and McGregor were the defensive midfielders with Ntcham playing just in front of them.

While McGregor and Brown were the two defensive midfielders playing as a double ‘6’, they were constantly linked with Ntcham. Ntcham had a more progressive role as he was closer to assisting the attack than the defence. This trio would alter their position and role in the two different phases we will talk about in this tactical analysis: during defensive phases and during build-up phases.

First, we will have a look at the build-up phases of the game. In the image below you can see how deep McGregor and Brown play to their defence when they are either in the defensive style of play or building up after a Hearts attack. Often it seemed like they were marking the attacking players of Hearts, but in possession of the ball, this was different.

The defensive block McGregor and Brown dropping down to lure the Hearts attackers out of their positions

The two midfielders dropping down was to Celtic’s advantage because of two reasons. The first reason was that they could assist their defence when they were under pressure of the Hearts attack. Their defence would then consist of 6 players, which made it even hard for Hearts to pass their way through. Celtic would always have one player more than Hearts in attacks with a 4v3 situations assisted by the defensive block of McGregor and Brown.

The second reason was that they could lure the attackers to the midfielders. McGregor and Brown were marked by the Hearts attackers- this created space on other areas of the pitch. In this particular game, it left the flanks open for the wingbacks and wide midfielders to make runs down the line in an attacking mode of play.

It would give the wingbacks and wide midfielders the chance to receive the ball on the flanks and create opportunities from there but that was possible thanks to the movement by McGregor and Brown.

Brown and McGregor move to the fullbacks, opening up space on the flanks in the process.

These movements by the central midfielders were vital in the attacking style of play by Celtic that followed upon this. As said above, other areas of the pitch were left open and they were utilised by the homeside. They created space and with that space, Celtic could attack from the flanks and create a great number of opportunities.

Postional attacks of Celtic

As you can see above, Celtic created 24 attacks from position play. 79% of those attacks were conducted from the flanks, with the most expected goals coming from the left side (xG 0.31), followed by the right flank (xG 0.27). These were the direct results of the movement by de defensive midfielders.

The second phase we will have a brief look at is the positioning of McGregor and Brown in the defending phase: when Hearts have the ball and they are looking to dispossess their opponents.

Brown and McGregor start pressing high on their own half in the defensive phase of the game.

Brown and McGregor move as one defensive unit. In the image above they start to press as a unit, high on their own half. Where several teams press in a particular area of the pitch, Celtic chooses differently with this defensive block – as they close in on the player that has the ball.

The pressing of the player with the ball is fundamental in their way of moving. This can also be seen in the image below where they move to a flank when Hearts are playing the ball there.

When the ball is on either flank, McGregor-Brown move to that area in order to press the Hearts attacking players.

They try to force Hearts to make an error or regain possession of the ball with their particular style of pressing the ball. This has been successful throughout the game but has also left them vulnerable at the back.

Their vulnerability can be found in the defensive positioning with set pieces and long balls from the back. They are positioning themselves as a duo, as you can see in the image below.

McGregor and Brown play close to each other in a defensive shape.

As Brown and McGregor are playing close to the defence, there is a risk that will leave space for Hearts attacking players to move up the pitch. When Hearts win their aerial duels, this could immediately expose the spaces on the pitch and Heart could prove to very dangerous in this kind of situations. However they had a win percentage of 52.56% of defensive duels, this proved to be dangerous every time Hearts attacked in this manner.

Hearts’ passing style of play

Hearts lost this game 3 to 1 and had only 40.32% possession of the ball, but their passing style of play was quite attractive and direct in this game against Celtic. While they had a pass completion of 77.91% in this game, it was not the number of passes that is interesting to watch, but the way they passed the ball and how they did it, that was what made Celtic struggle with their opponents from Edinburgh.

Hearts had 81 passes forward and 39 passes to the final third in this game against Celtic. The intention to pass it forward, when being under pressure by the defensive block of Celtic, gives away the attacking intentions of Hearts. They wanted to get to the goal as quickly as possible, as they did have lesser possession of the ball.

Instrumental to their distribution of the ball to the final third, was defensive midfielder Whelan. This can be seen on the pass map in the image below, where he is illustrated as the midfielder that plays many forward passes.

Whelan’s forward passes in the game against Celtic

The midfielder drops from the midfield and plays just in front of the defence, as you can see in the line-up of Hearts. But when Heart attacked, Whelan would move up on the pitch, as you can see in the image below. 7 of his 11 forward passes were completed (64%) and in total 27 of his 33 passes were completed (82%).

Whelan has several passing options going forward

Whelan was important going forward and this can be seen in the attacking style of play by going forward. The passing is vital to the success of their direct attacking approach and this we can quickly illustrate with the image below of the attack in the 10th minute.

In this particular attack, we see two different types of passing. The first one is the passing that happens from the full-back to the wing-backs, in order to broaden the pitch and make runs down the line followed by a cross from both flanks.

Full-backs pass to the wingbacks in order to broaden the pitch.

The first option was to pass it to the wing-backs and proceed from there, but the second option was to play it long. Hearts played 29 long balls of which 16 were completed (5517%). Despite the data, the long ball was what threatened Celtic a lot.

The long ball goes to Washington and he wins the head ball, so the attacking players could go up the pitch.

This created the most danger in front of the Celtic goal and it was a viable option for the hosts to use to disrupt Celtic in their attacking style of play. Celtic had a hard time adjusting to the long balls and the second ball was a prey for Hearts, who then went on to attack the ball and force an opportunity. While this has not been very successful in the number of chances, this was the way to attack Celtic.

Final thoughts

Hearts came to visit Celtic with the knowledge that this was going to a very hard game. Celtic managed to win 3-1 against Hearts and they had to thank their shifting defensive midfield for it. That particular midfield made sure that Hearts could not get dangerous from their positional play, but had to look at other options.

This tactical analysis explained the following: Playing the long ball was one of those options and Celtic struggled with it. Celtic was still the better side, but their weakness with long balls has been exposed by this Hearts side.

Artwork by @chapulana

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