In a weekend of astonishing UK football, the Glasgow derby did not disappoint. Filed under Old Firms that have it all, there were goals galore, a flurry of cards, wood-works, screamers, controversial decisions, the obligatory ruckus and finally entertaining pantomime.
But delve underneath the fiery hot surface and there was a compelling tactical battle.
Celtic Starting Formation
Daniel Majstorovic returned from injury to replace Wilson at centre-back who resumed his right-back role. The most dramatic difference from the side that beat Aberdeen 3-0 was the inclusion of Ki Sung-Yeung – making for 4 players in the starting lineup who’s favoured position is central midfield. But left-sided Joe Ledley took up a reasonably familiar left-midfield/wing slot to allow Ki back into the centre. Scott Brown continued on the right. Anthony Stokes was the man who dropped out, somewhat harshly given his recent form, but equally being perhaps the least athletic or defensively sound of the starting options, his exclusion is understandable at Ibrox.
While it could be argued that Lennon lined up in a 4-2-3-1 or as Sky had it – 4-5-1, the key component in this initial lineup was the actions of Old Firm debutant Kris Commons, and in fact the theme was similar to that of the 2-0 win at Ibrox in January – a solid, more conservative than usual 4 defenders, 4 midfielders plus a creative type free role just behind the lead striker.
Rangers’ Starting Lineup
Walter Smith also lined up in a similar cautious fashion to that previous 2-0 defeat. Namely a 4-4-1-1 with a free role going this time to January signing El Hadji Diouf and the lone striker role went to Nikica Jelavic. Generally Smith likes to have a man extra in midfield in tougher games so it may have been expected of Diouf to sit deep when out of possession – but this didn’t really happen and Diouf isn’t really that kind of player.
Without Lee McCulloch, Maurice Edu played alongside Jamie Ness but the remainder of the side was fairly as expected (unlike January where injuries forced Smith to reshuffle).
From the opening whistle, things looked very bad indeed for Neil Lennon’s side. Rangers kept possession and attacked frantically, taking the lead from a long-range strike from Ness. The young midfielder was allowed far too much room outside the box following a corner, even able to setup his shot allowing time to hit. It’s unclear who from Commons and Kayal were tasked to deny these situations from corners, but their block attempts were late and in vain. Soon after Steven Davis smacked the bar, and Ibrox was rocking.
If anything this initial deluge convinced Rangers of an easy win and they became happy enough to sit back and regroup. But this allowed Celtic’s midfield crucial time on the ball, and with Common’s starting to adapt to linking the midfield with Hooper (who at this point was isolated and dealt with easily) something of an extra man was developing in the midfield. Conversely Diouf wasn’t contributing and with Ledley and Brown getting involved centrally, the Rangers midfield was becoming overwhelmed dramatically.
Smith shocked into Plan B
Jamie Ness is a fantastic prospect and a promising light for Scotland’s midfield but despite the goal his shortcomings were exposed. Maurice Edu is an established international but Ness was faced with more than a 3 v 2 in the centre, and Celtic were taking advantage – Kayal after some fine linkup play should’ve done much better with a free shot from 18 yards.
Celtic’s width was coming from Izaguirre and Wilson, who both had tremendous games and indeed Commons’ goal came from an Izaguirre pass (albeit deflected) into the path of Joe Ledley, who’s cutback was swept in by an expertly late (and free) arriving Commons.
If it wasn’t planned before the goal, Smith immediately changed up:
This is a case where personnel impacts play more than formation, as on paper there isn’t a huge deal between 4-5-1 and the original 4-4-1-1. In fact on the attack Rangers looked more like 4-3-3 but it’s the centre that made the difference and stemmed the imperious hooped tide. Davis replaced Diouf who took up left-wing (with Naismith going right) and instead of a striker type player being asked to contribute to a midfield battle, Davis actually favours this position and his more natural instincts shone through. Meanwhile Diouf (and Naismith’s) speed and trickery were suited to the wing in a classic Smith counter-attack shape.
Red card changes shape – but not flow of game
Walter Smith’s quick thinking restructure put the brakes on Celtic running away with things, and furthermore swung the momentum back in Ranger’s favour. Jelavic was finally getting the service he had hoped for, but some poor defending, a swift counter-attack and even worse goalkeeping resulted in Rangers not only taking the lead once more but knocking Celtic down to 10 men with only 40 minutes played.
On this occasion it was a stone wall penalty and card albeit Naismith did ‘play for it’ in that he left a trailing leg anticipating the keepers slide. But if Frazer Forster pulled out of contact it would not only have been seriously embarrassing, but a yellow card for the winger. Alas Forster steamed in and like Naismith’s knee had to take the red on the chin – straightforward and no complaints.
To widespread (unwarranted) bemusement it was goalscorer Commons who took the hit for the team and was replaced by Lukasz Zaluska. And while Commons influence was increasing, he was the only real disposable player. In a 4-4-1-1 when the player behind the striker is removed, the shape doesn’t have to change at all and so Celtic were able to cope reasonably well.
But after a mini spell of blue dominance, strangely the sending off had a double effect – yet again subduing perhaps a complacent Rangers but also injecting a sense of urgency in the Celtic side. Individually there were just more commited performers wearing green and white, with the full-backs in particular putting in mammoth shifts dominating an entire flank each.
This allowed Ledley and Brown to come inside, so while the “3rd” man in the centre was sacrificed, the full-backs overlapped (providing width) allowing the wide midfield men to get involved in the central battle.
Ambitious Lennon chases second equaliser
In fact with Ledley and Brown coming in so central, Lennon was able to gamble on removing Kayal (strangely a regular removal on the hour) in favour of striker Georgios Samaras, who enjoyed such a marvelous game last time round. He was always sure to feature, especially on the counter given January’s heroics but tends to be less effective when trying to unlock a deep, stubborn defence.
Ledley, Brown and Ki continued to run the centre, the latter in particular central to keeping possession. But with a man down how could Celtic continue to operate with 3 in the centre? Where was Rangers’ overlap or advantage?
It can partly be explained by Rangers’ generally conservative defensive line, but it’s mainly down to the attacking ability of 2 key Ranger’s positions – left-back and to a lesser extent one of the two deeper centre-midfielders (mainly Ness)
As the above diagram demonstrates, Scott Brown was instrumental in minimising overlaps in midfield and on the right. But question marks have to hang over Sasa Papac in that he was almost completely free to get forward. Brown had to shuttle between being the extra man and closing down Papac on that side, but a more aggressive attacking full-back could have caused Celtic more problems. Papac (and Whittaker) were nowhere near attacking enough, and with Wilson and Izaguirre exposed (unlike in the usual 4-4-2 where a wide midfielder offers protection in front) overlapping Rangers full-backs should’ve been expected.
What also enabled Brown’s shuttling was the relative lack of threat from the opposing central players – Edu and Ness by this point were exhausting and (despite the excellent goal) are more destroyers, not having the attacking impetus of opposite numbers Joe Ledley and Ki Sung-Yeung in particular. Ranger’s traditional deep defensive line exacerbated the problem.
Who else then but Brown to equalise again for Celtic, getting high up the park on the right and not getting closed down fast enough, he curled in a sweet left-foot shot beyond Allan McGregor – who later made a stunning point-blank stop to deny Samaras the third.
Smith’s final roll of the dice
Somehow Celtic were still on the ascension, though vulnerable on the counter. Naismith’s (correct) second yellow for diving in the penalty area was a let-off. The Celtic full-backs were asked not only to mark man-to-man but provide attacking width – it was predictable that Naismith was able to eventually evade his marker, but unfortunately for him his continued play-acting got him into trouble.
With Celtic seemingly destined for the winner, Smith reacted immediately by bringing on the tricky Vladimir Weiss and Kyle Lafferty in place of Jelavic, who’d battled tirelessly and solo for much of the game.
Weiss looked determined and his energy and dribbling put an end to Wilson’s forays up the field. Lafferty too suffered like Jelavic not really getting support from a Rangers midfield that struggled. Celtic’s inability to get that third along with Rangers’ fresh legs made for an ending perhaps favouring the blues, although another goal never seemed likely as the game fizzled out.
Neil Lennon will take a lot of encouragement from his side today, who dominated for great spells even a player down. Creating that extra man in the centre of midfield worked especially well, and Walter Smith will be concerned that his midfield was overrun so easily, at home no less. At one point in the second half the possession statistic leaned rather incredibly 67% in favour of 10 man Celtic. But it was an incredible game, with some incredible individual performances – but can’t help the feeling that conservative Smith was his own worst enemy.