With the Scottish Premiership finishing early, and no Scottish football likely to be played until late August at the earliest, we are going to cast our minds back to 8th December 2019. Scottish League Cup Final. Rangers. Celtic. The Old Firm! Coming into the match, both teams were on a great run of form. Rangers were on a 12-match unbeaten run. Whereas arch-rivals Celtic had won their last 11 on the bounce! Including wins versus Rennes and Lazio amongst those 12. The final came at a crucial part of the season, both teams had been on a fine run in the league and found themselves separated by just two points at the summit of the table. Both Rangers and Celtic had a comfortable route to the final. Steven Gerrard’s Rangers beat East Fife, Livingston and Hearts to reach the final, whilst Celtic progressed via wins versus Dunfermline, Partick Thistle and Hibernian. The final proposed an early opportunity to land a blow on their bitterest rivals.
An enthralling match entailed, with Celtic boss Neil Lennon nicking a 1-0 win. This tactical analysis will examine the tactics behind the reason Rangers were unable to breach Celtic’s defence despite being so dominant.
Both teams had injury problems leading up to the game, Rangers were missing Steven Davis, who had been a key player for the Gers in midfield and Borna Barišić had recovered just in time for the game. Celtic however, had doubts whether the Premier League linked talisman Odsonne Edouard would be able to start, along with Celtic stalwart Leigh Griffiths only recently recovering from injury.
Celtic opted for a 4-2-3-1 with youngster Lewis Morgan leading the line. Rangers lined up their familiar narrow 4-3-3. There were many tactical changes in the match which we will discuss in this analysis.
Rangers were quick off the mark
To say that Rangers were the better team in early exchanges would be an understatement. They were by far the better team. Gerrard had his team press and rush Celtic at every possible opportunity. They had pinned Celtic into their own half with a PPDA of 5.5. Neil Lennon’s boys were struggling to play the ball out from the back. Rangers had targeted the left-hand of Celtic and frequently won the ball back successfully in this area during the first-half, as we can see below from Celtic’s losses.
It is quite clear that Gerrard had tinkered with his tactics to focus their press on Celtic’s left-hand side during the first-half, with Celtic left-back Jonny Hayes being responsible for 21 losses in the match. Nine more than his average losses for the last five matches.
Rangers rushed and harried Celtic’s backline forcing them to go long on many occasions. Another tactical ploy by Gerrard. Since Edouard was only fit enough for a place on the bench, Rangers had significant aerial dominance with Celtic forwards Lewis Morgan, James Forrest and Mohamed Elyounoussi not being renowned for their physical attributes and Celtic usually having Edouard to hold the ball up before the Frenchman links up with teammates. We can see an example of the pressure that Rangers applied to the left-back position in the first-half below.
Both Scott Arfield and Joe Aribo have initiated the press, forcing Celtic winger Elyonoussi to pass back to Hayes, Aribo continues to press Celtic by blocking the passing lane to Callum Mcgregor. Alfredo Morelos is perfectly positioned to assist in the press if the ball gets passed to either Mcgregor or Kristoffer Ajer.
Several other Rangers players assist in the press by either marking passing options or pushing up in an anticipation of a ball clipped down the touchline. In this example, the ball does indeed get turned for a Rangers throw-in in Celtic’s final third after Mcgregor is pressured into a poor pass when attempting to switch play to evade the press.
Rangers leaned heavily on their captain’s delivery
We have discussed how Rangers utilised a high press in order to prevent Celtic being able to play out from the back. What about when Rangers had comfortable possession and wanted to build an attack? Captain James Tavernier assisted eight of Rangers’ 21 shots. His set-piece delivery caused Celtic no-end of problems. He produced eight passes in the match that led to shots. Three for Goldson within the first 16 minutes.
All three from corners, the second of which Goldson should have at least got on target and forced a save. Tavernier was running the show from right-back. With the support of Ryan Jack as the side’s lone pivot, the ball found its way to the Rangers skipper time and time again. In the image below, we can see all of Rangers’ key passes and it is clear just how influential Tavernier was in their attacking phase.
Tavernier was causing Celtic problems; his corners were devilishly placed. We can see below an example of an early Rangers free-kick.
Tavernier delivers a free-kick into the danger area, behind the Celtic defensive line, but just far away enough from the goalkeeper to create a moment’s hesitation and confusion in the Celtic ranks. Tavernier was able to deliver the ball consistently into these dangerous areas and was unfortunate not to have provided an assist on several occasions.
The quality of Tavernier’s delivery combined with the high press that Rangers had successfully applied were both key aspects of Rangers’ tactics. Firstly they wanted to press Celtic into turnovers so that they could counter in dangerous areas and if Celtic did clear their lines, then the delivery of James Tavernier gave Celtic another problem when they tried to push higher up and Tavernier was constantly looking to get someone in behind the lines.
Celtic’s attempts to beat the press were in vain
The Rangers press was a key tactical strategy; they pressed Celtic vigorously in the early exchanges of the match and created many good chances from pressing and counter-pressing situations alike. Celtic very quickly realised that they were troubled by the Rangers press and looked to play long balls over the high Rangers backline for Morgan to run onto. The problem Celtic had with this was Morgan himself. Whilst the youngster is quick off the mark, and most definitely quicker than Rangers centre-backs Connor Goldson and Filip Helander, he was just not physical enough and both Goldson and Helander had the speedster under control.
As Rangers were pressing Celtic towards the left-back position on numerous occasions, their get out of jail card was a long ball down the touchline towards Morgan or Elyonoussi. Celtic could not get out. Every time they played a long ball, Rangers would win the duel and the siege would continue, giving Celtic no chance of escaping their own half. The image below shows the Rangers recoveries in the first-half, and as previously mentioned, the right-back area was a hotspot.
One-way Celtic did beat the press in the first-half was to work the ball deep, usually to Ajer or Mcgregor, who would then look to switch play to Jeremie Frimpong, who was then free to drive into space down the right flank. Celtic had varying success; it did allow them to enjoy a fair bit of possession as the half progressed.
In the above example, we can see that Rangers are still engaging in a high press and Celtic have worked the ball to Ajer, who switches to Frimpong. This was a regular occurrence in the early stages of the game.
Celtic’s use of false full-backs
Celtic had limited success during the first half. As the half wore on, Celtic opted to drop Scott Brown or Callum Mcgregor in at full-back in order to assist with Celtic being able to play out from the back. This enabled full-backs Hayes and in particular Frimpong to be able to push further forward. We can see an example of this below.
Both Frimpong and Hayes have pushed up and Mcgregor drops in to aid Celtic’s build up. This change in tactics affected the Rangers press, since they were not able to commit as much as they could previously. The full-backs pushing up forced Rangers to occupy them with either a winger or a midfielder. Then when Celtic dropped a midfielder in at full-back, one of the Rangers midfield three would have to track them and this would create space in between the lines. We can see an illustration of this below.
As mentioned above, Celtic changed their tactical approach to build up in order to retain more possession. Both full-backs would push higher up and look to pin Rangers’ wingers back, then one of Brown or Mcgregor would drop into the false full-back position to aid with the build-up.
The effect this had was that it dragged a Rangers centre-midfielder out of the chaotic midfield area. This then allowed one of Celtic’s players to drop into the space vacated (orange area in the image) to further assist in the build-up. An example is shown below.
Here we can see that Brown has dropped in to allow Frimpong to push higher up and this causes Kent to have to pull away in order to press Brown. This action leaves Mcgregor in plenty of space to receive the ball and as Kent and Joe Aribo are being pulled out in order to press, it creates space in between lines that Celtic looked to exploit. Mainly due to the influence of Brown being able to dictate play from the deeper position he had adopted.
This tactical plan worked well for Celtic and as the half wore on, Rangers started to tire, and gaps started appearing. The next problem Celtic encountered was that without the presence of Edouard, they struggled for a focal point for their attacks and moves often broke down when trying to break into the final third
The introduction of Edouard
At half-time Celtic made a change with Mikey Johnson, replacing Elyonoussi. For the first 15 minutes of the second half, the match followed a similar pattern to the first. Neil Lennon then introduced his star player, Edouard, in the 59th minute. Celtic now had a focal point for their attacks, a player who is a natural striker, unlike Morgan or Johnson. Now when Rangers forced Celtic into playing a long ball, Edouard could hold up play, allowing Celtic to push up in support and giving them some respite.
We can see the effect Edouard had on the match by looking at duels won percentage comparison with Morgan below; not only did Edouard have a higher win percentage in all his duels, he made more in every area despite playing fewer minutes than Morgan.
Edouard’s first contribution was the winning of the free kick that resulted in the only goal of the game. He had been on the pitch for a mere 34 seconds!
Soon after Celtic’s goal, Jeremie Frimpong was sent off and this increased the importance Edouard would have on providing Celtic with brief moments of respite from the constant pressure that Rangers were applying.
Post red card reactions
Following Frimpong’s red card and Morelos’ missed penalty, Celtic responded immediately by substituting Forrest for another centre-back in Nir Bitton; this change moved Ajer to right-back and Celtic adopted a very compact 4-4-1. The two banks of four remained tightly bunched with the aim of denying Rangers the opportunity to play through the centre and forcing them to the flanks. We can see an example of this compact formation below.
Rather than continuing to press Rangers as they had done for the first 60 minutes of the match, Celtic now looked to stand off their opponents, allowing them possession of the ball and forcing it wide. Then defending against crosses wasn’t difficult as Rangers very rarely got enough players in the area to cause Celtic’s defenders any significant problems.
Rangers have had problems breaking down low block defences since Gerrard became manager. Celtic played on this and allowed Rangers to have 60%+ possession, full well knowing that if they could remain compact and restrict space centrally, Rangers may struggle to create chances.
Celtic’s game plan from the first-half was now even more crucial and the introduction of Edouard allowed Celtic to soak up pressure and hit long balls to Edouard before attempting to hit Rangers on the break. This exact scenario should have put the game to bed after Edouard played in Mikey Johnson for a 1v1, but the latter fired wide.
Above, we can see an example of Edouard managing to hold up the ball before dribbling into space and playing a through ball for the on-rushing Johnson to run onto.
Last roll of the dice for Rangers and Fantastic Forster
Following 15 minutes of attempting to break down the resilient Celtic defence by peppering them with crosses, Rangers had one last role of the dice, introducing Jermaine Defoe in place of Glen Kamara. This substitution triggered a change in formation for Gerrard’s side, with Ryan Kent slotting in behind forward duo Morelos and Defoe in a 4-3-1-2.
This tactical change coincided with a change of approach from Rangers. They started to play more passes vertically into the feet of Defoe and Morelos or into narrow channels for both forwards to run onto and they created several chances with this method. We can see an example below.
Due to Tavernier providing a wide option, a channel had opened in the half-space for Morelos to run into. Arfield found him with a perfectly weighted pass for the Colombian to fire away a shot.
Rangers were better than Celtic in a tactical sense and had played the better football, created the better chances, and had dominated possession in the second-half and despite having an xG of 2.65 as opposed to Celtic’s 0.60, found themselves losing 1-0. One player who had a considerable contribution to the outcome was Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster; the ex-Southampton man was the best player on the pitch and was voted man of the match. Forster made a total of eight saves, including the save from Morelos’ penalty.
Forster was the prime reason why Celtic were still in the game at half-time, with five key saves in the first-half with a combined xG of 0.43. Undoubtedly, if it were not for Forster, Rangers would have been leading at half-time. Instead, they had expended a lot of energy for no reward, and ultimately Rangers ran out of steam and ran out of ideas at the match wore on. A massive contributing factor to that was the performance of Forster.
In this tactical analysis, we have discovered that this was tactically a very interesting game and Rangers will be disappointed to have lost. Steven Gerrard’s got his tactics spot on. His men dominated for most of the game. A small lapse in concentration to give away a cheap foul and poor defending from the resulting free kick cost Steven Gerrard his first trophy as a manager. Neil Lennon would have been immensely proud of his team to deny Rangers for the best part of 40 minutes with only 10 men.
Were Celtic deserved winners? No. Did Rangers deserve to win? Yes. Sometimes in football the best team doesn’t win. If it were not for Forster and some determined defending from Celtic, Rangers would have had an early Christmas present. The wait continues for Rangers to break Celtic’s run of 10 consecutive domestic trophies, a run that stretches back to August 2016.