Scottish Premiership 2019/20: Hearts vs Celtic – tactical analysis

Scottish Premiership 2019/20: Hearts vs Celtic- tactical analysis tactics

It was the clash of the top and bottom sides in the Scottish Premiership as Hearts hosted Celtic at a packed Tynecastle Park. Hearts have been really struggling this season and came into the game joint bottom of the league. Hearts are looking to rebuild their club after parting ways with Craig Levin and appointing Daniel Stendel in a bid to get their season back on track. In contrast, Celtic are flying high in the league and secured their tenth consecutive trophy by winning the league cup earlier this month. Celtic have only dropped five points all season in the league under Neil Lennon and they were looking to continue this form away against Hearts to go further ahead of Rangers at the top of the table.

Celtic duly obliged and had the game over before the break as they came out 2-0 winners over Hearts on the night. Hearts did trouble Celtic earlier on in the game before Neil Lennon and his Celtic side exploited a weakness in Hearts tactics. I will go through all this in my tactical analysis where Celtic eventually broke down a tricky Hearts side away from home.


Scottish Premiership 2019/20: Hearts vs Celtic - tactical analysis tactics
Credit: Wyscout

Hearts set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Coming into his second match in charge of Hearts, Stendel looked to experiment with his side to find his strongest XI in an attempt to get them out of a rut. Hearts have struggled this season have not won a game in five league games coming into this match. Stendel certainly shook things up and made five changes to his side that lost 1-0 to St. Johnstone. Joel Pereira replaced Zdenek Zlamal as the goalkeeper. Jamie Brandon came into the Hearts defence in the right-back position. Damour came into the midfield as well as Michael Smith who moved up from the Hearts defence to add balance to the midfield. Stendel’s last changes came in the form of the two wingers as Wighton and Mulraney came into the side to add some dynamism in attack.

Neil Lennon set up his Celtic side in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation making two changes to his side that beat Hibernian 2-0. Lennon was not taking this fixture against joint bottom side Hearts for granted and opted out of changing his winning formula too much. Jonny Hayes came into the side at left-back replacing Mbombo. The other change in the side saw Christie return to the starting line up and play on the right-wing to provide danger on the flank for Celtic. Jeremie Frimpong moved back a line to start at right-back to accommodate Christie’s inclusion in the starting team.

Hearts set out their intentions with an aggressive high press

Coming into this game, all the pressure was on Celtic to get a result and win a ninth consecutive game in the league. The pressure was off Stendel and his Hearts team as they came into the game as massive underdogs. Coupled with the underdog tag Hearts would want themselves to put on a good performance and raise their standards against the league leaders and for their new boss.

Hearts certainly set out their stall early as they looked motivated from the first kick of the game. Stendel has definitely put his stamp on this Hearts team and what was impressive from the outset was Hearts aggressive man-marking press. When Celtic were in possession and trying to build the ball out from the back Hearts pushed up and man marked any passing options for Celtic. This tactic frustrated Celtic as they were unable to progress the ball forward as they had no options. With no passing options, this would result in them losing the ball high up the pitch or kicking a long hopeful ball which majority of the time Hearts picked up.

In the image below, Hearts have employed an aggressive man-marking press which results in Celtic having little to no passing options. All of the Hearts players are no more than five yards away from a Celtic player so they will not receive the ball. Christopher Jullien who is on the ball is forced to play a lateral pass to Frimpong which ensures Celtic do not progress forward with the ball.

Scottish Premiership 2019/20: Hearts vs Celtic - tactical analysis tactics

The man-marking press Hearts employed really disrupted Celtic’s rhythm and they found it difficult to progress the ball into Hearts half. Hearts were not tactically rigid though and if the opportunity arose itself were a Celtic player was isolated or took a bad touch Hearts would commit more players to press around the ball to win it back. This shows how tactically flexible Stendel has made this Hearts side with just one game in charge of the team. Hearts were able to switch from a man-oriented press to a ball oriented press seamlessly in the first 15 minutes of the game.

Celtic have a throw-in deep in their own half and decide to play the ball out from the back. Hearts sense the opportunity to win possession back high up the pitch and press Jonny Hayes by committing players around the ball. Hayes is put under so much pressure that he concedes a corner a dangerous set-piece as a result of Hearts ultra-aggressive press, as you can see in the image below.

Scottish Premiership 2019/20: Hearts vs Celtic - tactical analysis tactics

Hearts high defensive line leaves too much space in behind

For Hearts tactic to aggressively press Celtic high up the pitch to work all lines had to move up as a unit. This tactic from Hearts was very risky against the best team in the league. However, Hearts were rewarded and controlled the game in the first quarter. During this good spell, there was a potential weakness that Celtic could exploit – Hearts’ high defensive line.  The Hearts defence was squeezing high up the pitch to close off the space between the lines so Celtic could not play any forward passes. This left the defensive line quite high almost to the point that the Hearts back line was in Celtic’s half when Celtic had possession of the ball. With Hearts’ defensive line being so high it left space in behind for a quality side like Celtic if they got the ball past the press to exploit.

Celtic nearly exploited the space in behind the Hearts defensive high line. As the ball makes its way forward past the Hearts press to Forrest. Hearts defensive line is high and disorganised. Forrest has the opportunity to play Edouard in behind in acres of space as Berra keeps him onside as he has dropped back from his defensive line. the pass from Forrest is blocked by Hearts, as you can see in the image below. A lucky escape by Hearts as Edouard is a quality player and was through on goal if that pass made his way to him.

Scottish Premiership 2019/20: Hearts vs Celtic - tactical analysis tactics

Another problem with Hearts’ high defensive line is they do not have the personnel in their team to play such a risky tactic. Hearts have defenders that are more suited to defending deeper as they do not have the pace to make effective defensive recovery runs for the space left in behind them. The lack of pace and make an effective recovery run was highlighted after Celtic’s second goal.

Hearts lose the ball in their own half to Celtic. Hearts defence is high and disorganised Ntcham plays the ball over the top to Forrest who exploits the space left in behind. Hearts defenders especially Berra are too slow to catch up with Forrest, as you can see in the image below. Only for the Hearts goalkeeper sweeping up this could have resulted in Celtic’s third goal of the game.

Scottish Premiership 2019/20: Hearts vs Celtic - tactical analysis tactics

Celtic carve Hearts open to comfortably win the game

Hearts played an extremely risky strategy against a top-quality side in Celtic. It was only a matter of time before they exploited the space behind the press, as I mentioned earlier. Hearts expended a lot of energy in the first quarter of the game pressing Celtic so high up the pitch. Hearts could not keep this level of energy up and began to tire leading to Hearts becoming ill-disciplined and making poor decisions. A major poor decision made by the Hearts players was misrecognised the opportunities to engage in a ball oriented press where they often played this press at the wrong times due to tiredness.

Celtic were able to then find the free man and play past the press and exploit the space in behind. In the image below, Jullien is pressed by Hearts but Scott Brown is free and he is passed the ball. Hearts sensed that this was an opportunity to win back the ball so committed players around the ball. This, however, left McGregor free and in space to play the ball in behind which results in Celtic’s first goal.

Scottish Premiership 2019/20: Hearts vs Celtic - tactical analysis tactics

Stendel looked to change his tactics and set up in a 4-4-2 diamond formation. Standel went for the damage limitation approach as he did not want his team to be humiliated in front of the home crowd. The tactic to change to a diamond in midfield made Hearts more compact and defensively sound but it did give Celtic more out balls on the flanks. Celtic utilised their two attacking full-backs as a result of Hearts tactical change.

In the image below, Hearts have compacted the central zone but have left acres of space out on the wing as a result. Frimpong is free and received the ball out on the right-wing making a two versus one Hearts defender and this move ends in a chance. Although Celtic did not score, they dominated possession and effectively saw out the game. Hearts with this tactical change effectively conceded the game and made it a comfortable second half for Celtic.

Scottish Premiership 2019/20: Hearts vs Celtic - tactical analysis tactics


Hearts tactics were to play a man-oriented high press against Celtic. Hearts did frustrate Celtic by shutting out majority of their forward passing options. Celtic were troubled by this tactic as they gave the ball away to Hearts as they were under pressure. Hearts had 56% possession in the first 15 minutes and controlled the game. However, Hearts players started to tire and leaked two goals in quick succession. Celtic’s quality shone through and were clinical as they scored two goals with their first two shots on target. Hearts then switched to more of a conservative approach playing a diamond in midfield. This Tactical change played right into Celtic’s hands as they ran out 2-0 winners on the night, as shown in this analysis.

Daniel Stendel will be encouraged by his team’s performance against the league leaders Celtic. Hearts are more tactically flexible than they were under Craig Levin. Stendel with more time to develop his philosophy will make Hearts a better team. Even with a loss Hearts still stay ahead of Motherwell on the fact they have a better goal difference. Neil Lennon will be relieved that Celtic got over that potential banana skin in Hearts. Celtic came out comfortable winners in the end after a tricky start to go five points ahead of Rangers before their game on Friday night.

Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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