The Scottish Premiership returned after a long waited 24-day winter break. Celtic came into the new year as league leaders, a feat they have achieved in the last ten years. Celtic’s opponents Kilmarnock have not had had the same success and have struggled before the break. The East Ayrshire club have lost their last five league games without scoring a single goal. Kilmarnock did manage to score a goal but extended their losing streak to six games as they ran out 1-3 losers against Celtic on a cold, foggy night at Rugby Park.
Kilmarnock set up defensively to frustrate Celtic. Celtic, however, dominated possession and their quality shone through as they got all three points by putting three goals past Kilmarnock. This tactical analysis will go in-depth into both teams tactics and provide analysis of how Neil Lennon’s side eventually came out as winners on the night, ensuring they cement their place at the top of the league ahead of their city rivals Rangers.
Alex Dyer set up his Kilmarnock team in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Kilmarnock had an impressive 6-0 win over Queens Park in the Scottish cup over the weekend. Dyer elected not to change his team for that game in order to bring consistency and start getting some positive results. The Killie manager did make one change to his team bringing in new signing Nicke Kabamba to play up front as the central striker. Kabamba merited his inclusion in the starting line up as he scored a goal on his debut coming off the bench. Supporting Kabamba was another new signing in Bunn on the right flank. Joining them on the other wing was Chris Burke who put in an impressive performance against Queens Park ending the game with six assists, Dyer was hoping Burke’s creativity would link up with Kilmarnock’s new additions.
Neil Lennon set up his Celtic side in a slightly different 3-5-2 formation to counter a potential sticky away game against Kilmarnock. The Celtic manager had to make a few enforced changes to his side due to a growing list of injuries. In all Lennon made three changes to his side that defeated Patrick Thistle 2-1 in the Scottish cup. Nir Bitton dropped out of the Celtic squad and starting line up due to injury and was replaced by Kristoffer Ajer. Tom Rogic also missed out on a starting place due to injury, Lennon elected to replace the attacking midfielder with defender Simunovic who lined up in the right centre-back position. The last of Neil Lennon’s changes came as a result of changing to a back three with Greg Taylor dropping to the bench in favour of the more attacking Jonny Hayes who played as a left wing-back.
Kilmarnock set up to frustrate Celtic
Alex Dyer knew how dominant Celtic have been in the league. The Killie manager would have targeted this fixture and with the help of a winter break had time to come up with a plan. Dyer’s tactics were very defensive as he set up his team in a 4-5-1 formation out of possession. The Kilmarnock players were instructed not to engage Celtic high up the pitch. Instead, Dyer wanted his midfielders to drop off and form a compact shape. Kilmarnock were very disciplined early on and they carried out Dyer’s strategy very well forming a low defensive block. With the Kilmarnock players not pressing Celtic, this afforded Celtic’s midfielders and back three-time and space on the ball. Celtic could, therefore, progress the ball into Kilmarnock’s half with ease.
In the image below, Celtic have progressed the ball into Kilmarnock’s half. The Celtic midfielders have time and space and also passing options as Kilmarnock do not press or engage any of the Celtic midfielders.
Kilmarnock elected to concede field territory in order to keep a well organised compact defensive shape. Kilmarnock blocked off the central zone of the attacking third so that Celtic could not play and create chances in the most dangerous position for attacking team on the pitch ( the D centrally in and just outside the box). Both the defensive and midfield lines for Kilmarnock stay quite narrow and compact so that Celtic had no space to a thread any forward balls centrally into their forward players. The only space that was afforded to Celtic was on the flanks as Kilmarnock were so narrow.
Alex Dyer’s tactics frustrated Celtic as Kilmarnock pushed Celtic out wide. Each player understood their role and everyone understood the gameplan – push Celtic wide and defend deep with numbers to clear crosses coming into the box. In the image below, Kilmarnock has blocked the central zone meaning that Celtic can only attack out in the wide areas. Kilmarnock did not mind them attacking down the flanks as they are set up defensively to deal with Celtic’s crosses.
Celtic’s patience is rewarded
Kilmarnock’s defensive system really frustrated Celtic, as possession-based teams like Celtic, find it difficult to create chances against a team who defend deep and are well organised. Alex Dyer certainly made it difficult as Celtic struggled to break down his Kilmarnock sides well organised defensive shape. Lennon did not help proceedings as he set up his side in a 3-1-2-4 formation when in possession. Lennon played a back three instead of a four and the three players in midfield were quite deep also. Celtic set up to play past Kilmarnock if they pressed onto them (having an extra defender in the build-up phase). Celtic’s system was also an attempt to draw out Kilmarnock’s players out of their defensive shape, the thought being that Kilmarnock would become impatient as Celtic kept possession and rush off their line to win the ball back.
However, Kilmarnock were very disciplined and stayed deep and therefore Celtic’s system did not have the desired effect. Lennon’s set up was focused on the wrong area of the pitch which left his team short in an attacking sense. Kilmarnock were able to deal with Celtic as they had the numerical advantage creating a nine v four in favour of Kilmarnock, as you can see in the image below. Celtic were impatient and were trying to force forward passes in an attempt to create chances but they were snuffed out by Kilmarnock.
After 20 minutes, Celtic started to adapt to Kilmarnock’s defensive tactics. Celtic stayed in the same shape but began to get more patient in possession. The key to beating a team that sets up in a low defensive block is to move the ball quickly from one wing to the opposite wing and waiting for a mistake or an opening in the defensive line to strike. Celtic playing this way moving it quickly from Hayes to Frimpong the two wing-backs, and playing the ball patiently to create an opportunity. Celtic’s patient play in possession was rewarded as Kilmarnock broke out of their defensive shape.
Celtic moved the ball quickly were they eventually found Frimpong on the right-wing in a one v one with Kilmarnock’s left-back. Frimpong dribbles and races by the left-back, which causes a ripple effect in Kilmarnock’s defensive shape. Findley the Kilmarnock centre back gets drawn out of his position to Frimpong leaving a huge gap in the box. Edouard moves into this space as Frimpong crosses the ball in for him to score Celtic’s first goal, as you can see in the image below.
Dyer’s changes deliver mixed results
Going into the interval Kilmarnock having defended so well went into the interval behind by a goal. Alex Dyer and his coaching staff had to mull over the decision of whether to keep the same system essentially a damage limitation approach or look to be more aggressive and commit more players forward in an attempt to get back in the game. Dyer chose the latter as Kilmarnock pressed and engaged Celtic higher up the pitch. This however played straight into Celtic’s 3-1-2-4 set up as they were easily able to play past Kilmarnock’s press, as I mentioned above. With Kilmarnock committing more players forward, this left space for Celtic to exploit.
Very quickly Celtic exploited the spaces in behind as they played past the press. It only took five minutes before Celtic went further ahead, as Kilmarnock commit to many players forward. There press is disorganised leaving Kilmarnock with five players high up the pitch and unable to affect the game, as you can see in the image below. McGregor exploits the space in behind as Kilmarnock are scrambling back but are unable to stop Celtic’s attack leading to a goal.
After Celtic’s second goal, Dyer threw his last roll of the dice to try and salvage something from the game. In the 62nd minute, Dyer brought on Eamonn Brophy for Kilmarnock’s attacking midfielder El Makrini. With this change brought a new attacking system as Brophy played up front to support Kabamba and Alan Power moved into the attacking midfield position. So Kilmarnock played in a 4-1-3-2 formation which offered a greater attacking threat to Kilmarnock’s play.
The introduction of Brophy was a positive move as he was very lively and looked to run in behind and into the space between Ajer (Celtic’s left centre-back) and Hayes (Celtic’s left wing-back). Dyer’s decision to move Power up the pitch was also a good move as he looked to receive the ball behind Celtic’s midfield line and then look to play passes in behind Celtic’s defence. Less than five minutes after Alex Dyers both Power and Brophy were heavily involved in getting a goal back for Kilmarnock.
As you can see in the image below, Power cleverly positions himself in space behind Celtic’s midfield line to receive the ball. As Power receives the ball Brophy spins out to the space beside Ajer as he rushes out to close down Power. Power plays the ball in behind for Brophy who takes a shot but its half blocked to Power who sets up Kabamba to score on his full debut for the club.
Alex Dyer set up his team very well to defend deep and block the central zone which frustrated Neil Lennon’s Celtic side. Celtic, however, began to adapt well and became more patient in possession as they eventually broke down Kilmarnock’s well-organised defensive set up and broke the deadlock before half time. Kilmarnock went chasing a goal after the break but Dyer’s initial changes were too aggressive and this led to Celtic going further ahead. Eammon Brophy made a huge impact off the bench and the change in Kilmarnock’s system that came with the substitution, as shown in this analysis.
In hindsight, Alex Dyer might reflect on his decision to set up in such an aggressive attacking manner almost immediately after half time, which was maybe implemented a bit too early. If Dyer stuck with his defensive approach to try to keep Celtic just to a one-goal lead with ten, fifteen minutes to go and then make the aggressive attacking changes maybe Kilmarnock could have potentially nicked something from this game. However, making these hard decisions under pressure is why management is so cutthroat. With the quality that Celtic have throughout their team, they will expose any slight weakness or mistake, as they did so on this occasion against Kilmarnock, taking all three points.