Celtic lost at Ibrox for the first time since Tony Mowbray’s reign, with Neil Lennon’s tactical tinkering trumped by Ally McCoist’s more predictable approach. The reaction to Charlie Mulgrew’s deserved red-card put an end to hopes of clawing back into the game, and Rangers held out comfortably.
As discussed in the tictactic match preview, Lennon’s selection was designed to find a happy medium between the first choice attacking “lop-sided” 4-4-2 and a more conservative alternative. Increasingly it’s looked like Lennon’s ‘Plan B’ is a 4-2-3-1 which has yielded unsuccessful, if encouraging results. Instead, the compromise was what initially appeared to be a fairly flat 4-4-2.
There are two or three main factors that distinguish this from the more familiar lop-sided 4-4-2. Firstly, the obligatory Ibrox dropping of Anthony Stokes (although admittedly, he is just back from injury): Georgios Samaras tends to clock up more mileage, adds a more physical presence, and is the closest striker on the Celtic books to what is classed as a targetman. The second and third points are; instead of a midfield four consisting of three central midfielders and a creative wide-player, defender Charlie Mulgrew was introduced on the left (with murmurs that Joe Ledley was carrying a knock) and Scott Brown returned from injury to start on the right. On paper a very flat, narrow midfield in danger of ostracising the strikers.
Badr El Kaddouri was a slight surprise at left-back – his one impressive appearance so far outweighing his relative unfamiliarity and a sizeable minority(?) of fans were perturbed to see Glenn Loovens start alongside Kelvin Wilson, rather than Mulgrew.
Ally McCoist had no such selection dilemma and throughout Rangers’ financial downward spiral the more “stream-lined” squad has arguably helped galvanise the team’s organisation. In this sense, Rangers adopted the same pragmatic approach that proved to be successful in last season’s League Cup final.
As expected, Juan Ortiz was dropped to allow Nikica Jelavic to start up-front alongside Kyle Lafferty. Sasa Papac came in for Kirk Broadfoot who had been deputising at left-back.
It’s a very straightforward, traditional British strategy that sees the width provided by 2 genuine wingers, with two big guys up front to pile constant high-balls towards.
Rangers take time to find foothold
It is this exact tactic that Celtic have been unable to really deal with since the days of Martin O’Neill (although Strachan’s vintage were reasonable in this regard) and McCoist knows it. And so the pattern of play tended towards Celtic dominating possession (while not really penetrating) with Rangers hitting back quickly, high and hopefully towards the strikers (via initially Steven Naismith). It was almost a concerted effort to force a mistake from Celtic’s centre-backs and goalkeeper, who is notoriously unwilling to stray from his line either for high-balls or to sweep and intercept through-balls.
Predictably this is where the opening goal originated – Beram Kayal and (perhaps more culpably) El Kaddouri failed to deal with Lafferty, who probably should’ve been put into touch by fair means or foul. His seemingly tame cross was cleared unconvincingly by Kelvin Wilson straight into the path of Steven Naismith, who finished well. Essentially an avoidable calamity of errors worsening in severity as each instance passed.
Rangers desire to use the ball in the air was a particular issue for El Kaddouri, who even little Steven Naismith was comfortably out-heading at every opportunity, to almost an embarrassing degree. And like for the goal, when the lanky Kyle Lafferty slunk out wide, the ease in which he could take down high-balls was worrying.
Were they more clinical at the back, Celtic could probably claim to be the better side at that point. But conceding the goal sparked two players into life, who would bridge the perceived gap between Celtic’s midfield and attack.
Most significantly, Scott Brown took it upon himself to almost act in the ‘Kris Commons’ role. Drifting in from the right, working with the strikers and carving out chances. Such was his centralness, he was almost spending more time on the left than on the right, where he was nominally playing.
Meanwhile, Gary Hooper was dropping deeper into more of a ‘number 10′ role, and was starting to linkup more successfully with Samaras’ knock-downs. On the ascendancy, the two players combined, with Brown delivering a fantastic, almost non-Brown style pass that cut wide open the Rangers defence. Hooper’s finish was delicious and reminiscent of his best form last year (which we’ve yet to see this term).
The two were looking unstoppable, but unfortunately the half-time whistle came far too soon for the duo to cause more damage, although Alan McGregor’s astonishing blunder allowed El Kaddouri’s hopeful shot to make it 2-1 before the interval.
By that point, it’s likely that Ally McCoist cottoned on to a very obvious, gaping flaw in Celtic’s setup – Scott Brown’s persistent inward excursions, however successful they may have been, were leaving Mark Wilson outnumbered, and this in turn would let Sasa Papac if executed intelligently, free Gregg Wylde down the left-hand side to finally start providing quality crosses. Equally and favourably for Rangers, Brown’s ankle injury had made it’s ugly return, and he struggled to maintain the energy that allowed him to cover so much ground, getting into such good attacking positions.
Normally, when a team starts making use of a wide over-lap, it’s bad news for the defending team. But considering Celtic’s prominent inability to deal with decent crosses, the problem was intensified. Steven Davis’ stunning shot just after half-time cracked the bar and had the alarm bells ringing after again, a cross couldn’t be dealt with. Rangers incredibly “vertical” approach was starting to pay off.
More ominously and along the same theme, Celtic were beaten in the air for the equaliser in remarkably similar circumstances to Falcao’s goal for Atletico Madrid midweek and perhaps McCoist was taking notes.
Again, the goalscorer can be seen as the furthest left player inside the box (apologies for the picture quality). Lennon was surely frustrated that Falcao was able to run uninhibited from a similar starting position, and here Scott Brown had been tasked specifically with stunting Jelavic’s movement. Charlie Mulgrew in similar fashion was used to halt Dorin Goian (slightly obscured by Jelavic in the above image).
Brown failed to hinder Jelavic, but most concerning, Loovens (the centre of the three zonal-markers) rushed out apparently convincingly only to completely miss his header. His poor challenge against Falcao was put down to the striker having a free run, but here he completely misread the flight of the ball and shoulders much of the blame.
Pen-ultimately, continuing the aerial theme, the third came when Wylde was given that spoken of room on the left to whip in a decent cross, again dealt with poorly and Lafferty eventually scored.
Red card ends hope
El Kaddouri was continuing to be bossed in the air, and Lennon eventually lost patience bringing on Anthony Stokes. Samaras took up his less favoured spot on the left-wing and Charlie Mulgrew dropped to left-back.
Mulgrew in a way was slightly fortunate to be on the park – his booking after fifteen minutes for a dangerous lunge on Naismith could’ve been punished more severely, especially knowing the erratic nature of derby referees. And he continued to push his luck, eventually ending up hacking down Steven Davis in needless fashion to be correctly dismissed. That made two left-backs removed in the space of five minutes
This is where Lennon perhaps showed his inexperience. Where another manager at this arguably would have stabilised the team, knowing that Rangers were within touching distance (i.e. only a goal ahead). All that would be required is one big chance, as long as until the 94th minute the single goal difference stood. Instead he took a wildly more attacking stance leaving only three at the back.
A wide open 3-4-2 or even 3-2-4. But the way Rangers were setup would make this formation, in theory, entirely inappropriate.
One of the foibles of using three at the back is you’re more open to threats down either flank. Normally this is alleviated by using wing-backs to cover, but with the forward styles of Samaras and James Forrest (now subbed on for the ailing Brown), Celtic’s back exhausted back three were massively exposed.
Celtic were now neither able to maintain possession (their initial strength) or create chances up front, as they had now denigrated to hopeful hail-marys. Who worse to pump high-balls up to than Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper, or as we would then find Mohamed Bangura.
He was another strange change – clearly the 3-4-2 wasn’t working yet the final change was Bangura for Samaras. The one person would could arguably hold his own in the air replaced with another striker. Stokes moved wide into his most hated position, but by now the damage was done.
As the cliché goes, hind-sight is 20:20 and so this blog has a significant advantage over the managers it evaluates. Celtic required a goal and despite being a man down continued to add attacking players. But you only need to look as far back as Tony Mowbray to be reminded of the flawed formula – and the more the goal was chased, the more exposed the defence and the more excruciating the result. This was the case today – a promising performance thoroughly undermined: mainly by the defence and their inability to deal with crosses but also in overall strategy.
Looking back to comments made before the match from Ally McCoist, that Rangers “had too many attacking players, not to take an attacking approach“. He may have been stretching the theoretical options of his squad, but the point rings true about Celtic. The best attacking player in recent weeks (Forrest) was dropped in order to create a more combative midfield, that Rangers essentially bypassed. The most productive method of creating chances of intelligent tiki-taka passing between the likes of Hooper, Stokes, Forrest and Ki was largely rejected in favour of a more cautious approach, trying to make a targetman out of Samaras whose height, while appreciated in a defensive capacity, isn’t the route that Celtic have recently taken to score goals and win games.
While hindsight is indeed 20:20, it is a damning report. The hunt for Plan B continues, but is Plan A really that bad?