It was the third Old Firm derby of the season. Celtic had the advantage with the earlier league victory and the win in the Betfred Cup earlier this month. However, after a nine-year wait, this derby belonged to Steven Gerrard and his Rangers side. Even the most ardent Celtic fan would admit Rangers were the better side. Goals from Ryan Kent and Nikola Katić gave Rangers the win. Odsonne Édouard equalised with the aid of his hand in the first half, while Ryan Christie saw his penalty saved by Allan McGregor before the goalscoring took place. Rangers are now just two points behind Celtic in the Scottish Premiership with a game in hand.
This tactical analysis will show how Rangers were able to use their system and certain tactics on the day to make sure they went back to the Ibrox with the three points and the New Year bragging rights.
Neil Lennon went with his traditional 4-2-3-1 shape but he couldn’t get his wingers involved in the match because of Rangers’ narrow 4-3-3 shape – despite the graphic showing a 4-1-4-1. Steven Davis came back in for Scott Arfield in what was a pivotal choice by Gerrard and Alfredo Morelos replaced Jermain Defoe in attack for Rangers.
Rangers’ narrow shape helped negate Celtic attacks
Early in the game, Rangers’ tactics were clear: press Celtic high and stay narrow. The above image is from inside the first minute of the match. Despite Celtic having the majority of the possession with 58% to Rangers’ 42%, they couldn’t cope with Rangers’ shape and the way they shut off passing lanes and space with their narrow shape.
The above image shows Celtic trying to build from the back. However, due to Rangers putting the high press on and staying narrow the only pass for Scott Brown to play is back to Kristoffer Ajer. As you can see, due to Alfredo Morelos pressing Brown and Kent, Jack and Aribo closing off the options for Ajer to feed Bolingoli or Brown to turn and feed Callum McGregor, they have to go backwards and reset their attack.
This was a feature of Celtic’s build-up and Rangers’ shape, and Brown played eight passes to Jullien and nine to Ajer, which would suggest Celtic had to go play backwards and failed to find the attacking players in the build-up phase with direct balls into feet.
Looking at the picture above again, we can see Rangers are in the defensive phase of the game again, but this time they are much deeper and facing a potentially dangerous Celtic attack. The image above shows how narrow the Rangers back four were. They have protection from Jack and Kamara, so this means Christie’s options are limited: he cannot feed Johnston because it’s too congested and it will be easy for Goldson to block any effort. Forrest and McGregor are out of the game, meaning the only pass on is the wide one to Édouard, which Kamara could cut out. In the end, the narrow nature of Rangers’ shape and their ability to kill space meant Christie had to shoot from range and his subsequent shot went over.
The above example shows Rangers narrowing their midfield. Frimpong manages to beat Kamara and pop the pass into Christie. However, given the lack of space between the back four and the midfield, there is no way through. Davis and Jack are able to force Christie towards hist own goal, meaning Celtic have to recycle the ball from deep, allowing Rangers to maintain their shape in a comfortable manner.
Steven Davis was excellent, and his role in front of the back four made it easier for Rangers to marshal Édouard
It may have been the most unlikely battle of the day: Davis vs Édouard – most of the pre-match talk came of Connor Goldson and how he had to handle Celtic’s danger man. However, with Davis playing almost like a third centre-back at times between Katić and Goldson, the Ulsterman was able to help his defenders deal with Édouard.
The image above may not look like a great deal. However, it comes from a Celtic throw. Davis, surprisingly, is picking up Édouard while the two Rangers centre-backs step back from challenging for the aerial duel, but Davis wins the first header allowing his centre-backs to take control of the ball and start an attack. It also makes sure Édouard cannot get turned and face Katić or Goldson.
The above image shows Celtic trying to attack the Rangers goal. But Davis, circled, and his positional sense takes Édouard out of the game. McGregor cannot play a cute pass into the Frenchman because Davis is cutting out the passing lane. This forced Celtic wide and their cross was cleared. But again due to Davis, they could not get Édouard involved in their play.
Gerrard bringing Davis in and deploying him in a deeper role rather than having the midfield as a flat three was a small tweak but one that made a lot of difference in allowing Rangers to win the game.
Davis’ stats also backed up his graphically pleasing positional defensive play. He won 16 of 18 defensive duels and made eight out of 10 successful clearances as well as recovering possession 18 times. The duels against Édouard went in his far too: he won five out of his six direct duels with the French striker. It was a magnificent display.
Rangers were dangerous in transition – forward movement meant chances were created
Rangers were good in transition all afternoon and caused Celtic many problems with different types of attacks. The above image was just one ball over the top. Celtic were lazy with the press and it allowed Goldson to pick Kent out. Morelos gets in between the two defenders, who are ball watching but Kent crossed for Morelos to fire over. However, Rangers’ transition from defence to attack with one pass caught Celtic out.
Late in the game, as the image shows, Celtic are chasing an equaliser and are caught with five players ahead of the ball in this image. Kamara recovers the ball in the middle area, which was one of 22 from the middle area. Kent finds Morelos and Aribo’s movement means Morelos can play him in, but he shot wide. However, Celtic were without any shape and couldn’t deal with this counter-attack.
This analysis showed that Rangers under Steven Gerrard were able to carry out a tactical plan while Celtic had no answer or plan B to counteract Rangers’ tactical approach. Rangers have the title race in their own hands and look by far a better-coached side than Celtic.
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