Scottish Premiership 2019/20: Rangers vs Celtic – tactical analysis
With the 2019/20 Scottish Premiership campaign now over and with the new date for the start of the 2020/21 season on the horizon, each of the clubs will be looking back and evaluating their team’s performance looking at areas to improve upon/work on before the start of the new season. The main focus for many is always the title race and this season at the top, Celtic and Rangers fought valiantly before Rangers were unable to gain points in crucial games as Celtic opened a 13 point gap and won the title.
As part of a match analysis series, we will look back into these crucial games specifically dissecting Rangers’ league losses in the 2019/20 campaign evaluating the areas that enable teams to overcome the Gers. The first match analysis piece in this series will analyse the first Old Firm game in September as Celtic ran out 2-0 winners at Ibrox. In this tactical analysis, we will look at the tactics of both teams, and discuss the reasons for Rangers coming up short on the day.
Both Rangers and Celtic came into this game with a 100% record with three wins in the league but with this being such a big game, Steven Gerrard and Neil Lennon changed personnel in their team in a bid to lay down the first marker. Rangers lined up in their familiar 4-3-3 formation under Gerrard and the former Liverpool player made three changes to his side that won St. Mirren 1-0 the previous week.
Gerrard made two changes to the left side of his defensive line with Nikola Katić and Jon Flanagan coming in for Filip Helander and Borna Barišić – a sure sign he wanted to secure his side defensively. The final change was the addition of Steven Davis to add experience and quality in the single-pivot role, which saw Joe Aribo move into a more advanced left-wing position and as a result, Jordan Jones dropped to bench.
Neil Lennon set his side up in their usual 4-2-3-1 with the Northern Irish man also making three changes to his side from the previous week’s 3-1 win over Hearts. Lennon’s first change was enforced as Kristoffer Ajer picked up an injury in the mid-week Europa League game and was replaced by Hatem Abd Elhamed.
In midfield, Oliver Ntcham dropped to the bench and was replaced by promising young left-winger Michael Johnson as Ryan Christie moved across into the central attacking midfield position. Celtic’s last change was to re-establish prolific goal scorer Odsonne Édouard as the lone striker replacing the Ivorian Vakoun Issouf Bayo.
Rangers’ poor positional play and structure
The game started like most derbies do in a very cagey fashion with challenges flying in and thus the match was very stop-start as a result. When the match eventually settled down Rangers found it hard to impose themselves on the game and they were unable to put together long passages of play or combinations of passes and keep sustained periods of possession like they were able to achieve previously this season.
Granted the quality of opposition in Celtic is much greater than they have been facing up till this game, but they could only produce no more than a chain of three/four passes together which is uncharacteristic of the Gers under Gerrard. Rangers found it difficult to progress the ball forward and the result of these shortcomings was in part due to their poor positional play and structure.
We see this below as Rangers are in the build-up phase as they were playing out of the back. Rangers centre-back Conor Goldson has the ball at his feet with little to no pressure applied to him and is looking for forward passing options. The three Rangers midfielders highlighted are very flat, offering no angles to Goldson in order to access them. There is space if Davis drops back which would create a passing option but instead he stays in his midfield line.
With the midfield three being so flat, they are easily marked as Celtic’s midfield line can push up as a unit. Celtic’s midfield were not being challenged vertically with the Rangers midfield set up positionally to not provide any depth or height. Goldson has no short to medium forward passing options and so is forced to go long to the 5ft7 Jermain Defoe who is not very adept aerially and so Celtic are able to win the ball back.
Moving up the pitch in the attacking third of the pitch, Rangers had positional problems in this area as well as the front three, who were very narrow and picking up positions in the centre which was very congested instead of keeping width. Creating width would stretch Celtic’s defensive line which would create more space centrally for Rangers to move into, create the options for switches of play, and create 1 v 1 opportunities on the wings.
Above we see the positional problem as Rangers break Celtic’s midfield line but the front three are very narrow. Celtic’s defensive line is almost encouraged inward as both wings are not being occupied. Celtic can become narrow and compact and this makes it easier for them to defend against as Rangers are surrounded in this confined central positioning. The midfield and attacking lines’ positional shape made it very difficult for Rangers to build up through the lines and be effective in possession, and so this made it difficult for them to control the game.
Celtic’s pressing system
Rangers’ poor positional play also aided Celtic’s press as Neil Lennon’s side could commit more players to the press as a result of the Rangers’ midfield and attacking players being very static and narrow. The Celtic midfield could engage a little higher in the press knowing that the defensive line was matched up and able to be compact with the narrow Rangers forward line without any real threat.
In the move below we see that Rangers are trying to build up from the back again through Goldson and Celtic has pushed up and across to block off any passing options to stop any progression the ball forward, with Odsonne Édouard doing well to keep Daivs in his cover shadow. Celtic have created numerical superiority in midfield with a 6 v 3 and this causes Goldson to hesitate with his pass which this acts as a trigger for the press. Celtic makes good use of the sideline to press Goldson and the ball goes out for a Celtic throw-in.
Rangers became very predictable in their build-up looking to progress the ball mainly down the right and always trying to access right-back James Tavernier (46% of Rangers attacking play was down their right side). Celtic countered this very well as Rangers looked to go down the right and Celtic then pressed them in an aggressive manner, diagonally pushing the Gers towards the sideline and cutting off any options inside.
We see this is evident in the move below when once again Goldson has the ball and is looking to access the right side again as Celtic commit players forward and engage in an option-oriented press, blocking the passing lanes through a mixture of man-marking (Édouard marking Ryan Jack behind Goldson), zonal marking (Callum McGregor cutting off the right half-space, James Forrest on the opposite wing and Scott Brown screening the centre), and cover shadows (Christie shutting off the passing lane centrally to Davis and Johnston partially cutting off Tavernier).
As a result, Goldson has no real passing options which again triggers the Celtic press. Christie does a great job of pressing the centre-back aggressively towards the sideline once more, who is rushed into a decision and this forces him to try to pass the ball into Tavernier. With Celtic’s great preparation and pressing structure, Johnston is able to intercept the pass, and on the transition sets up Édouard for a Celtic goal, punishing Rangers.
Rangers make positive changes, but still unable to breakdown Celtic’s defensive unit
After the interval, Gerrard addressed his forward line’s narrow shape by bringing on more traditional wingers in Liverpool loanee Sheyi Ojo and Jordan Jones who provided width and stretched Celtic’s defensive line. Gerrard’s last change was to give the wingers an option in the box as Alfredo Morelos came on for Defoe. The Gers changes made an impact as Rangers had more possession and a little more control in the game.
In response, Celtic took a more passive approach when the second half resumed falling back from a medium block just before half time into a low defensive block as you can see in the image below. Neil Lennon’s side had a PPDA of 29 with his team being compact and got bodies behind to limit Rangers exploiting any space.
Celtic stayed in a narrow defensive shape pushing Rangers out to attacking down the wide channels and were set up very well with bodies back to defend any crosses that came into the box as we can see below. We see the ball played out to the left wing to Jordan Jones but Celtic have doubled up on the winger, even if Jones gets by the two Celtic players the defence is set up well with Rangers being outnumbered in the box, with another Celtic player making his way back to further support the defensive unit.
Celtic were very comfortable defending Rangers’ crosses and Gerrard’s side’s attacking tendencies were not inventive and had no creative spark in the team to penetrate Celtic’s defensive unit, offering no service to their striker Morelos who became a very frustrated figure. His frustration led him to drop out in a bid to get on the ball and create chances as we can see below.
Morelos has dropped deep from his central position out to the wing to receive the ball in the right half-space and tries to create a chance instead of being in the box on the end of the move, which is ideally where Celtic want a prolific forward like Morelos to be.
Ultimately Rangers lacked a creative playmaker to open up the Celtic’s defensive unit and failed to use their 61% possession effectively to create high-value chances as they created no big chances and only registered two shots on target in the entirety of the game. Celtic on the other hand with lesser possession created three big chances had six shots on target, scoring two goals to win the game.
Rangers struggled early on to control the game or build up through the lines effectively, this was due to poor positional play and structure from both the midfield and attacking lines, which also aided Celtic’s pressing system making it easy for them to commit more players to engage in the press which resulted in Celtic’s goal as mentioned above in the analysis. Gerrard tweaked his tactics in the second half which provided width but they were unable to break down Celtic’s defensive unit.
This game really highlighted Gerrard’s lack of creativity and inventiveness in the final third in the side on the day. Although this game was played very early on in the race for the top, it gave Celtic the first advantage over their rivals in the push for the UEFA Champions League and the title but it also gave other teams the blueprint in how to beat Gerrard’s side. This leads us to the next piece in this series in which we will analyse Rangers’ loss to Kilmarnock coming out later in the week.