Narrowing in: Rangers find their composure as Celtic freeze.
Written by: Jordan Campbell
Rangers made it two wins from two over Celtic at Ibrox this season, claiming “a more controlled and less emotional” derby victory than in December, according to Rangers manager Steven Gerrard.
Celtic lined up in a 3-5-2 formation, but Rangers did not engage Celtic nearly as aggressively or as consistently as the previous meeting at Ibrox.
Instead, they allowed Celtic’s three central defenders time on the ball and actively encouraged them to play wide by continuing to position Scott Arfield and Ryan Kent in narrow positions as part of a 4-3-2-1.
Gerrard tweaked the system after Alfredo Morelos’ red card against Celtic meant Jermain Defoe would be leading the line instead. Defoe is not a like-for-like swap for Morelos and, thus, had struggled to replicate Morelos’ hold up ability when receiving direct passes.
The latest set-up means he has two dynamic players in Arfield and Kent close to him in central locations, which has also improved Rangers’ ability to counter-press and retain a solidity to their defensive shape.
It was apparent from the off that Celtic were struggling in possession when Kent charged down Lustig within a minute – leading to the opening goal.
Rangers stood off Celtic’s back three when they had the ball. Defoe locked-on to Simunovic – the centre of the three – and blocked the pass into Brown behind him. Arfield and Kent tucked inside to also make that pass a non-starter, forcing Celtic to Lustig on the right or Ajer on the left.
Once that happened Kent or Arfield would shuffle across to whoever’s side it was on, but not so far as to open up a passing gap into Brown or through to Rogic/McGregor.
Lustig should have pushed higher and wider to offer the switch of play more often as that would have trumped Rangers’ attempts to suffocate balls into Brown. He was too deep, and the close distance meant Rangers could shuffle across in time.
The Rangers midfield three of Steven Davis, Glen Kamara and Ryan Jack marked the space behind zonally so one of them could press the ball when it was played to the wing-back and the other two would shuffle across to condense the pitch. Tavernier also pressed onto Hayes a times.
This is not a new tactic used by Rangers in an Old Firm game. Graeme Murty attempted it in the 4-0 Scottish Cup semi-final defeat last season, but Andy Halliday struggled with how to deal with Rogic moving out wide. Gerrard used it away to Maribor early this season too, but even when he returned to it recently against Hibernian and Motherwell it was usually in the form of a high press.
The aim was to stifle play into the central midfielders. That certainly worked, but Celtic were able to beat that structure relatively simply by playing around the structure down the left flank. Celtic’s problem there after was simply a lack of penetration – and that the solutions weren’t identified to become a consistent fix.
Problem-solving is one of Brendan Rodgers’ greatest strengths as a coach. His ability to read a game tactically and make crucial changes to overcome a defensive approach was a constant thread of his dominance in Scotland.
It is likely he would have picked up on the following in real-time. Kristoffer Ajer is Celtic’s best defender in possession and his driving runs are a huge asset when breaking down teams. He was not presented with many opportunities to do so against Rangers, however, as the narrow front three meant there was no numerical superiority for Celtic when building play.
That changed when Callum McGregor drifted into a left back position to receive the ball. It dragged Kamara wide, and because Arfield was occupied with shadowing Brown in the centre, allowed Ajer to venture forward.
This example below shows Kamara having to split himself between pressing the ball and tracking McGregor, while Hayes’ movement forced Tavernier deep before eventually receiving a through ball down the channel.
The other way Celtic were able to progress up the park was when the wing-backs simply dropped to receive the ball in line with the defence. Tavernier and Flannagan were reluctant to follow them, especially when that would leave huge gaps down the flanks where it was 2v2 (Goldson and Katic vs Edouard and Burke).
Kamara was also hesitant to shift out wide before the ball was played so that meant Hayes was able to run forward with the ball a good twenty or thirty yards before he was confronted.
Celtic struggled to find Edouard when they entered into the Rangers half. His first touch and ability to turn and drive at the defence was clearly on Rangers’ mind and they used Davis smartly to neuter him. While Oliver Burke was only looking for space in behind, when Edouard would drop into pockets of space Davis would gravitate towards.
Edouard is guilty of sometimes looking for too much time on the ball and the pressure applied by Davis from hisblindside saw him lose the ball twelve times in total.
Lennon accepted his 3-5-2 approach was not working and switched to a 4-2-3-1 after 29 minutes to try to change the flow of the game.
That led to Celtic having more controlled possession. Lustig returning to a traditional right-back position when receiving the ball left Kent with too much room to make up and meant he had a clear avenue to play forward.
In the second half Celtic were again allowed possession as Rangers tackled their back four in the same way as they did the back three. It always the left midfielder of Rangers, Kamara, going out to press Jeremy Toljan - Lustig’s replacement.
That, combined with Kent’s narrow position, meant there were opportunities to play quickly inside and take advantage of Davis’ exposed position.
He did an excellent job of timing when to press the space left for Brown, balancing that with ensuring Rogic did not slip behind him. Rogic’s movement was poor though as he never made an angle to stretch Rangers’ midfield.
Rangers in possession
Off the ball, Celtic were disjointed. Burke and Edouard looked to press Goldson and Katic but the rest of the team were pinned back. Jack and Kamara stretched the Celtic midfield by dropping into full-back positions and looking to receive on the same line. McGregor and Rogic followed and that left Davis free the majority of the time to pick up the ball behind Celtic’s front two.
Neither Edouard or Burke dropped back to follow Davis, meaning he was free to run off them and drive into space.Brown had to protect his back three due to Rangers packing the centre.
Rangers scored their second from a lovely move but most of their best moments came from countering Celtic, especially through the middle.
Arfield is possibly Rangers’ most important cog, stylistically at least. His understanding of space and anticipation of movement means he is well suited to this advanced role where he links play and combines with quick lay-offs.
He was most often the player Rangers found with their first pass after winning possession and his awareness with his back to goal meant he could play in third-man runners like Kent.
Celtic’s reaction to losing the ball was non-existent at times and Brown was left to patrol the middle of the park himself.
Goldson also had arguably his best game in a Rangers shirt, and definitely from a distribution point of view as his diagonal passes into Kent and Arfield worked well to imbalance Celtic.
Defoe’s movement in the second half helped with this as he dropped deep into Brown’s zone. It has been one of Rangers’ best adaptations in the least six games – their three forwards occupying multiple players by rotating and positioning themselves in between the full-backs and the central defenders.
Rangers may have found their form after the title race was over, but Gerrard looks to have settled on a system that suits his squad going into next season.
It is inherently adaptable and makes Rangers a far less one-dimensional team, but it remains to be seen whether they can produce performances like this on a consistent basis. For Celtic, well, they surely won’t put in a more meek and unimaginative display for a while.