Young upstart caught in old enemy’s trap
Rangers came from behind to grab victory at Celtic Park, in Lennon’s first SPL defeat since taking over as manager in March this year.
This away victory had all the hall-marks of the Walter Smith setup that’s become so successful in his second spell as manager of Rangers – a predominantly defensive formation, strong disciplined defending, emphasis on set plays and lethal counter-attacking.
Smith demonstrated his flexibility as a tactician by employing a starting formation not yet seen this season – a 4-5-1 with Lee McCulloch in the holding role. This isn’t too dissimilar from the regular SPL 4-4-2 Rangers have been playing with the main change being a striker sacrificed for the extra man in midfield. Kyle Lafferty was charged with supporting lone striker Kenny Miller with Steven Naismith given a similar task on the right hand side.
After Shaun Maloney’s very early removal due to a facial injury, Efrain Juarez replaced him in a like for like swap and really the above formation went unchanged. Juarez does lack Maloney’s guile and trickery, although possesses good acceleration, stamina and short passing technique.
In the firey opening stages of the game which saw hard tackles galore, the two Rangers wingers progress was significantly stunted when being forced to track Marc Wilson and Emilio Izzaguire’s rampaging runs (see Dundee Utd post for background). This cancelling out of wide players (with Celtic’s Georgios Samaras and Anthony Stokes similarly occupied by opposition full-backs, this forced much of the game through the middle where the game became increasingly congested.
This is the ideal situation and one which the wily old fox Walter Smith likely forced – a draw would be a good result and taking the sting out of Celtic’s attack by stodging down the midfield worked well for Rangers.
With Georgios Samaras predominantly being a striker, his back-tracking is not his strongest area and therefore Steven Whittaker was the biggest benefactor – the exact same situation was replicated with Lafferty and Wilson on the opposite side. Wilson was getting forward well and causing problems, while the Rangers full-back Whittaker created the best chance of the opening spell hitting the post with a well placed volley.
Glenn Loovens increasingly found himself trying to by-pass the midfield completely with hopeful long-balls and again this played right into the hands of Smith and Rangers – Gary Hooper is a small poacher and not the best target man, and Messrs Weir and Bougherra dealt with the aerial battles comfortably.
To alleviate this and compensate for the midfield melt-down, Ki Sung Yong retreated to a role he plays with great success for his country – a deep lying playmaker. He may have been picking the ball up much further back than he necessarily wanted but the time and space he was being afforded started to cause Rangers problems. Smith’s response was to push Maurice Edu further forward with as high pressing as possible and despite being a defensive midfielder sometimes became Ranger’s furthest forward support for frontman Miller.
Ki is a clever player however and dominated proceedings. As predicted in the tactical preview, Celtic enjoyed the majority of possession but were struggling to break-down the sturdy and experienced Rangers defence and rarely crafted any open play chances.
Celtic’s other main success story was Samaras who often had the beating of Steven Whittaker. Unfortunately as with the stereotype associated with the big Greek, his decision making was often lacking and at times should’ve done better when in good areas of the pitch.
Importance of Set-Pieces
As with countless Old Firm’s, the deadlock was finally broken by a set-piece, an area that Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan concentrated on with real fervour. But it was little Gary Hooper who showed a real cool head and poachers instinct to control a flicked on Ki corner and lift the ball into the net. Perhaps Steven Davis was caught ball-watching and may have closed down Hooper quicker.
Into the second period predictably a hopeful free-kick wasn’t cleared successfully and Lafferty was able to direct the ball into the net with help from Glenn Loovens.
Furtheremore Ki was not only the most creative midfielder (and player) on display, he is also the best set-piece taker – his corners not only supplying Celtic’s only goal but also a regular thorn in Rangers side. A stinging Ki free-kick was another fine chance turned round the post by a fine Macgregor save.
Rangers’ high pressing doubled as the ideal springboard for counter-attacks and when the hard-working Edu charged down the under pressure Majstorovic, Miller was there to finish clinically and give Rangers the lead.
This seemed to frustrate Celtic who were probably the worse offenders when it came to bad challenges – having so much possession yet falling behind due to defensive blunders was such a bitter pill to swallow.
Penalty Changed the Game
Again, as predicted in the tactical preview a worry was that the referee would be forced into making a difficult decision and surprise surprise it went against Celtic. Referee Willie Collum was blind-sighted by Majstorovic and Kirk Broadfoot trundled over in the box with zero contact. With the referee seeing only the fall of Broadfoot he was duped into making the wrong decision and awarded the penalty that forced Celtic into making further changes to chase the game. While conspiracy theories continue and internet message boards are worked into a frenzy, it is difficult to blame the result solely on this contentious issue – Celtic were just not good enough in front of goal.
Paddy McCourt was introduced to replace the ineffectual Stokes, with Samaras moving up front, McCourt going left-wing and Juarez moving into the right flank that he’s become accustomed to this season. McCourt has long been hailed as the answer to Celtic’s attacking problems but he barely touched the ball, and when he got the chance to beat a player one-on-one, he fell short.
Celtic became increasingly desperate but by this time the damage was done and the more the Hoops toiled the happier Rangers were. Lennon had been caught in old Walter’s trap and there was no getting out of this one. The match today seemed to echo the characteristics of the opposing managers – young and naïve Neil Lennon’s fast and frantic team caught in wily old Walter’s clinical trap, and the more he struggled the more ensnared Celtic became.