This was the first Old Firm clash of the season in the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership and a first chance for Steven Gerrard to pit himself against the league’s elite. Celtic’s recent old firm record makes for grim reading if you’re from the blue side of Glasgow and the Hoops looked to put down a marker as they attempt to make it eight league titles in a row. Rangers, however, have started the season strongly under new manager Steven Gerrard, having so far reached the Europa League group stages as well as putting together an unbeaten run in domestic competitions. As this tactical analysis will illustrate, the match itself proved a tough test for Gerrard’s youthful side, six of whom were experiencing their first taste of the Old Firm. A 1-0 defeat, which from start to finish was dominated by Brendan Rodgers’ side who’s tactics allowed Celtic to weave their way through a stubborn and compact Rangers side.
Celtic opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation with the experienced Craig Gordon in goal and a back four, consisting of Mikael Lustig, Dedryck Boyata, Kristoffer Ajer and Kieran Tierney. Scott Brown and Olivier Ntcham set up as the two holding midfielders, whilst James Forrest operated on the right side of midfield, with Callum McGregor on the left and Tom Rogic more central. Frenchman Odsonne Edouard led the Celtic line. Gerrard set his team up in a 4-3-3 shape with Alan McGregor in goal and a back four made up of skipper James Tavernier, Connor Goldson and Croatian duo Nikola Katic and Borna Barisic. Ryan Jack played a holding role in midfield with Scott Arfield and Liverpool loanee Ovie Ejaria ahead of him. Another Liverpool youngster Ryan Kent operated from the right, whilst Kyle Lafferty played on the left. Controversial Columbian Alfredo Morelos was the lone forward.
Despite appearing to set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, after seconds of the game it became apparent that when in possession, Celtic adopted a 3-2-4-1 formation. In this system, Lustig played on the right of a back three while Tierney was deployed to play high on the left-wing. Skipper Brown and young Frenchman Ntcham both made up a double pivot that operated in front of the back three, while Rogic and McGregor occupied the space in between the Rangers lines.
As can be seen from this analysis, Celtic’s shape disrupted the Rangers midfield and allowed the current champions to build possession comfortably in their defensive half.
When building possession, the back three were rarely pressured, with Morelos and Lafferty more concerned with Brown and Ntcham finding the space to turn and play forward. However, this strategy was flawed, as the experienced Brown and intelligent Ntcham were able to play quick combinations with Ajer, Boyata and Lustig, which on several occasions, allowed them to break lines with forward passes into Rogic, McGregor and at times, Kieran Tierney.
These bounce passes were effective in drawing enough pressure from Morelos or Lafferty to open up spaces for Celtic to either switch the play quickly along the backline or to penetrate the Rangers midfield. This 5v2 in the build-up phase for Celtic was a theme present throughout the game and one that allowed them to patiently control possession and progress the ball without a great deal of pressure or difficulty.
Rangers’ pressing problems
As mentioned above, throughout the match, Rangers adopted a passive press and for the most part and sat in a medium block, where they attempted to prevent Celtic from penetrating centrally.
The lack of pressure from Lafferty and Morelos gave Celtic’s defenders considerable time on the ball to play a pass or in this case, step with the ball and disrupt the Rangers midfield.
Ajer did this effectively throughout the game, and his ability on the ball caused the Rangers right side some real problems.
When Ajer was able to eliminate Morelos, he created a 4v2 situation where he had options to play through, or around the Rangers midfield. Tierney was constantly hugging the left touchline, while Brown provided an option inside where he could change the point of attack. Also, McGregor’s position in the left half-space between the lines of the Rangers midfield and defence caused real positional issues for Arfield and Tavernier.
As can be seen above, Arfield is reluctant to press Ajer as he is aware of McGregor operating behind him, while Kent has attempted to press and ensure his body shape prevents a pass to Tierney. Tavernier is in a decent position, however, is left vulnerable in a 2v1 situation should the midfield become breached.
Rangers’ lack of commitment to pressuring Ajer allows him to carry the ball beyond the Rangers midfield where he is eventually challenged by Kent’s tenacious tracking back. However, the ease with which he glided through the Rangers press so early in the game was a sign of things to come.
Celtic’s box midfield
Celtic’s superiority in midfield lasted throughout the game and much of this success can be attributed to their ‘box’ structure which can be seen in this phase of play.
Once again, Tierney’s high position is a problem for Kent while Arfield is reluctant to jump out of the disorganised Rangers block due to the threat of McGregor in the space behind him.
Tavernier’s dilemma is also highlighted here as his narrow position allows Tierney freedom to receive wide, and play inside to McGregor, who breaks into the Rangers final third only to disappoint with a poor cross.
Rangers’ weak press is exposed once again, however, the midfield structure also appears to be a cause for concern. Kent is unaware of how high Tierney is, which allows Ntcham simply to clip the ball in behind the Englishman and start the attack. This pass eliminates the entire Rangers midfield, allowing Celtic to attack in numbers.
Lafferty’s position here is beginning to have a knock-on effect to the shape of the midfield, as Rogic’s movement is causing Liverpool loanee Ejaria to vacate the centre of the pitch and get dragged wide to the left. As a result, holding midfielder Ryan Jack is playing almost on the same line as Arfield and Ejaria in the middle of the two, which exposes the space in front of the Rangers backline.
Tavernier seems to recognise this, and throughout the game gets tighter to McGregor, which leads to a great deal of success for Tierney on the wing. We should also mention striker Edouard, who’s ability to stay high and pin the Rangers centre backs, means that Tavernier is often isolated 2v1 against McGregor and Tierney.
Ntcham’s false fullback movement
French U21 international Ntcham put in a man of the match performance which included the winning goal at Parkhead. However, his ability, and that of stalwart Brown, to go through and over the Rangers block, was key to the champions’ dominance throughout the match.
On several occasions, Tierney’s attacking position vacated space at left-back where Ntcham would make a false fullback movement, where he joined the back four allowing Lustig to move wider. This gave Ntcham time to receive and play beyond the Rangers midfield, where Kent’s defensive frailties were becoming more and more evident.
In the above sequences, we see Ntcham receive the ball in a deep position on the left side of the pitch and on both occasions, he manages to play through or over the Rangers block.
In the first image, Tierney is successfully played in by Ntcham who’s precision pass eliminates four Rangers players. Kent’s defensive frailties are evident again, while Tavernier’s narrow position is beginning to cause him major problems as he seems uncomfortable with McGregor’s clever positioning.
In the second image, Arfield is again reluctant to step out the block and press the ball, which gives Ntcham the freedom to look forward and weigh up his options. Kent gets tight to Tierney, and similarly, Tavernier is pressed right up on McGregor, who is operating again, behind the Rangers midfield. The Rangers captain’s position, however, creates space in behind him, which Edouard manages to exploit with a run into the channel, where he is found by Ntcham’s lofted pass.
Rogic getting between the lines
Despite appearing to set up in a 4-3-3 formation, Rangers seemed to press as a 4-4-2, however it is questionable whether this was part of Gerrard’s plan.
Rogic fulfilled a similar role to that of McGregor on the right side of the pitch, and it could be argued that the Australian caused bigger problems for Ejaria than McGregor did for Arfield and Tavernier.
The positions of both Lafferty in the Rangers block and Forrest, Celtic’s right-winger, were key to Rogic’s success throughout the game.
In the top image, Rogic receives between the lines and can play in James Forrest, who drives at the Rangers left-back and wins a corner. Rogic’s ability to receive in these areas throughout the game is caused by Forrest’s ability to stay wide and occupy the Rangers left fullback. Barisic does the opposite to his fellow fullback Tavernier, and opts to stay with the wide player, which allows Rogic time and space to receive between the lines.
Another issue for the Gers was the position of Lafferty, who tended to position himself in an area which prevented Lustig, the Celtic right-back, from getting on the ball. This was a fruitless task and appeared to cause more harm than good as Ejaria was essentially fulfilling two roles out of possession, neither of which he did overly well.
Like Arfield, Ejaria was reluctant to step onto Brown, however, Rogic’s clever movement and ability to receive on the half-turn meant that the young Englishman was constantly watching the ball run past him to the feet of the Celtic number 18.
Again, the second picture highlights Jack having to step into a flat Rangers midfield due to Ejaria getting pulled wide by Rogic’s positioning.
Celtic’s aggressive press
Throughout the game Rangers struggled to build possession, partly due to their lack of quality on the ball, as well as Celtic’s effective counterpressing.
Celtic’s ability and desire to close down Rangers restricted the away side to play long, hopeful balls up to the front players, which were often inaccurate or lacking support from the second ball.
Celtic’s dominance in possession allowed them to quickly transition to defence upon losing possession and get numerous players around the ball, enabling them to stifle Rangers’ attacks before they had the chance to play out of pressure.
In the example above, Rangers win possession back on the right flank and there are immediately four Celtic players around the ball, blocking forward passing lanes, thus making it difficult for Arfield to play forwards.
Celtic’s ability to create a 4v3 in this area allows them to press aggressively and force Rangers to either play backwards, which on this occasion is not possible due to the position of Edouard, or to play long up to Morelos and Lafferty.
This option is the one taken most often, however, brought the Gers little success with Morelos struggling to win aerial battles against Boyata and Ajer, and when he did win the first header, the second touch was rarely that of a player in blue. Northern Ireland international Lafferty also offered little and was more focussed on riling up the Parkhead crowd by engaging in a volatile physical battle with Celtic’s Swedish right-back Lustig.
Celtic’s press was relentless throughout the game, and as mentioned, very little time on the ball was given to any Rangers player.
Having said this, Celtic had a clear plan to stop Goldson from having time on the ball and had identified him as a player who could be exploited when in possession.
As with the example above, the result was a hopeful ball forward into the Rangers front men, which played right into the hands of Celtic, who were able to win headers and second balls and re-build their attacks.
In this example, Goldson has received the ball back from a Rangers midfielder and immediately is pressed by Rogic, while the Celtic players behind this initial press each lock on to Goldson’s short to medium passing options, leaving the Englishman no option but to play long.
Goldson was a target, however, Celtic pressed in this way regardless of who was in possession. Rangers were rarely allowed to play through the middle of Celtic and this theme continued throughout the game, contributing heavily to Celtic’s success and Rangers’ inability to build any sort of rhythm in the game.
Rangers’ lack of quality
There was a gulf in class between the two teams, particularly when it came to the quality in possession. As mentioned, Celtic were patient, controlled and incisive when they needed to be.
This is in contrast to Rangers who struggled to build any spells of possession, stemming from a lack of movement, as well as a distinct lack of quality on the ball.
Stray passes, overhit crosses and poor decision making hampered the Gers’ in the final third against a resilient Celtic defence
The top image shows Rangers in the build-up phase having just won possession. They have all ten outfield players in the defending half, against only four Celtic players. This presented a good opportunity to play out from the back and use their numerical superiority to play through, or around Celtic into the attacking half.
However, Croatian centre-back Katic opts to play more of a clearance beyond Morelos, resulting in a loss of possession, allowing Celtic once again to control possession.
The second example shows Rangers counterattacking down the left, with five Celtic players recovering from behind the ball. Barisic has two options inside in Ejaria and Kent, both of which have space to either drive into, or commit a Celtic defender. However, Barisic opts to attempt a tricky lofted pass beyond the Celtic defence to Morelos, which is easily cleared away by Ajer.
These examples highlight the difficulties Rangers faced throughout the game when in possession.
Rangers can count themselves rather lucky to have only conceded one goal and have their goalkeeper Alan McGregor to thank for managing to fend off a sea of Celtic chances.
The experienced Brendan Rodgers seems to have got the better of his former Liverpool skipper on this occasion, who himself will learn a lot when reflecting on his team’s performance.
At least three more Old Firm tests await Gerrard and his side this season, and it will be interesting to see how the young manager responds after his teams’ disappointing display against the old enemy.