Rangers travelled the short distance to Celtic Park on Sunday only to suffer a humiliating rude awakening at the hands of a superior side. Walter Smith recognises a serious lapse in recent form, but his counter-part Neil Lennon simply has more quality to work with in his squad.
Celtic lined up in one of the two choice formations; a lop-sided 4-4-2 as seen against Dundee Utd last week. The only surprise being the inclusion of Georgios Samaras at the expense of Anthony Stokes. It’s slightly harsh on Stokes who has been on a rich vein of form (indeed prior to the game was at the top of the SPL score chart, now equalled by Hooper) but the end result justified this decision.
Charlie Mulgrew continued at the heart of the defence, a truly bizarre transformation – once a reasonable SPL wing-back even trialled on the left of midfield, his defensive ability has always been his downfall. How strange now that he’s been reinvigorated as a solid, ball-playing centre-back. At first this seemed to be a desperation move by Lennon brought about by injuries, but now even fit again bona fide defender Thomas Rogne has been kept out the side. What a vote of confidence from Lennon to keep Mulgrew selected, in no sterner a test than the Old Firm.
Having utterly failed to deal with ten man Celtic’s midfield in the cup, Walter Smith persisted with a 5 man midfield. Arsenal loanee Kyle Bartley came in to play as the deepest of a central 3, El Hadji Diouf started on the right with Steven Naismith on the left. The 2 widemen would be expected to provide the main support for Nikica Jelavic, who would again be under threat of being cut off and isolated.
Space is key
The creation and use of space would prove to be absolutely key, with Smith mainly intent on congesting the active area of play, Lennon looked to open out the game. An almost unintentional result of protecting the defence has actually worked rather in Celtic’s favour. It’s been tradition to play a high defensive line and squeeze the opposition back into their own half with Gordon Strachan being a particular regular exponent, but this has left the back 2 vulnerable. Memories of through balls getting played beyond the lumberers Gary Caldwell and Stephen McManus still ring painfully, and the image of McManus kicking Andy Driver into the stand is just an example of how a high defensive line coupled with swashbuckling full-backs, can cruelly expose big centre-backs.
And this has been the source of many a Celtic centre-back’s undoing, but this has been fully rectified by simply playing deeper. No more Kenny Miller type exploiting of a high-line. Look where Charlie Mulgrew releases possession, and holds that position.
This image also leads on to the consequences of playing deeper – more space is created in the middle third as Rangers are stretched, and it’s no coincidence that the move on the left led to the Celtic goal. On a side note Diouf can be seen as the furthest to the bottom-left and obviously failed completely to track the run of his man, Izaguirre.
Diouf’s freedom and lack of positional discipline caused so much concern for Walter Smith, or rather the success Izaguirre was finding, that Diouf swapped sides with Naismith midway through the first half, but the damage had already been done.
Going back to discussing space, the final significant point: Ranger’s unnaturally higher line. As mentioned previously Smith’s intention was to congest the game and stifle any central creativity from Celtic. But with Celtic so deep, Rangers’ consequently had to push higher and higher up. This problem was exacerbated by Samaras’ deep roaming normally taking the more mobile centre-back Bougherra with him. The line was high, it was being disrupted, and Celtic had the pace and directness to exploit it. This also serves to explain why Anthony Stokes was left out – he doesn’t have the same pace as Hooper or Samaras, nor the defensive work-rate.
Comfortable in possession
But apart from the use of space during the game working in Celtic’s favour, in terms of individual performance the Rangers players were inferior in pretty much every department. Bartley playing as the holding midfielder was key in breaking up Celtic’s passing but his ridiculous early yellow card, which could’ve been red after only 2 minutes blunted his ability to get stuck into tackles.
The most significant battle was won by Gary Hooper, whose sharpness and pace was just too much for David Weir, at 40 years old finally looking well past his best. The opening goal was a supreme piece of skill by the Celtic striker, and while the second was a straightforward tap-in, there was still a lot of work to be done on the stretch. His composure in front of goal though, is outstanding.
At two nil down and the initial tactics not getting the best out of the Rangers players, Smith switched to a 4-4-2 hoping to get a bit more support to Jelavic:
With Kyle Lafferty also on for the injured Naismith, Rangers now had 3 strikers on the pitch. Again, this perhaps played into Celtic’s strength – the midfield. Steven Davis, a man on a run of poor form isn’t so suited to the winger role and rather frustratingly for him he spent too much time and effort checking the runs of the industrious Emilio Izaguirre, and Davis looked uncomfortable.
Meanwhile there was little creativity between big brawlers Maurice Edu and Bartley, and Lafferty too doesn’t prefer a wide role. With a defence paralysed between pushing up and keeping Hooper at bay, the game was seen out rather easily by Celtic, with no real need for tactical tweaking on Lennon’s part. Plan A worked and devastatingly so.
A moment to savour for the 50,000 or so Celtic fans who were at the game as Neil Lennon’s side are shaping into a dynamic, attacking looking outfit. A significant step towards the title, but as the manager stated, he won’t be taking anything for granted.