Rangers 3 – 2 Celtic: Rangers benefit from poor Celtic & early red card

With the league title all but wrapped up, Neil Lennon hadn’t experienced a more “meaningless” Glasgow derby since his very first attempt as manager back in 2010. These encounters are so often decided by (the old cliché) – who ‘wants it more’. Celtic, jaded, lacked the motivation displayed by the hosts and while nothing tangible was at stake, the performance could still be considered fairly impermissible. The chance to make history at Ibrox, as frivolous a chance it may be, slipped by.

Celtic Lineup


Celtic 4-5-1

Celtic were without long-term absentees Glen Loovens, Daniel Majstorovic and Beram Kayal, but the biggest news was James Forrest’s failure to recover from the injury sustained at Hampden the previous weekend.

Instead of utilising either Emilio Izaguirre, Charlie Mulgrew or Joe Ledley at left-back, Adam Matthews came in. Kelvin Wilson and Gary Hooper dropped to the bench, with Cha Du Ri coming in at right-back.

Fully expecting a five-man opposition midfield, Lennon matched up with Samaras starting on the left alongside four central midfielders.

Rangers Lineup

Rangers 4-1-4-1

Ally McCoist welcomed back an entire back four, after defeat last week to Dundee Utd. This allowed Rhys McCabe to begin as a holding midfielder, and Lee McCulloch to make something of a shock start up front.

It was a shift away from McCoist’s generally preferred 4-2-3-1, aiming to pack the midfield and push high up the park minimising the gap between the defensive line and the lone forward.

Rangers take upper hand

Going back to the motivation theme, it was clear from the outset that Rangers were taking advantage of numerous psychological bonuses – the home advantage, the biting desire to avoid the unspeakable, but most significantly of all was Celtic’s initial apathy. Perhaps it was the lack of seasoned veterans (Scott Brown aside) perhaps it was the unfamiliar formation, but Rangers – and their meticulously compact depth – were bossing the early possession.

From the outset, Celtic’s tactics weren’t helping. When deployed on either side, it’s the signature of both Brown and Samaras to cut-in rather than providing width (and therefore space). Rangers exacerbated the congestion by playing a high back-line – which didn’t suit Celtic. Stokes, as lone striker looked to break the offside trap but generally doesn’t have the pace, wasn’t provided decent enough service and probably most importantly – couldn’t catch a break.

Rangers were therefore free to push up, get the ball to McCulloch, and get Sone Aluko free between Celtic’s fairly flat lines.

It was this space (and apathy) that allowed Aluko to escape Ki’s casual meandering, being able to run at Rogne at pace, and score a goal somewhere between fantastic and fortunate.

Both sides respond to opener

Lennon was the first to twitch, making the decision to push Samaras alongside Stokes – providing breathing room in the midfield and also aiming to exploit the high defensive line with genuine pace. The disadvantage was removing arguably Celtic’s only true “attacking” midfielder, and probably removed Samaras from his most effective position.

Rangers 3-5-2 - 12 minutes on

McCoist responded instantly, with a fairly easy and natural transition to a formation straight out of Walter Smith’s playbook. It’s well established that a 3-man defence isn’t best suited to facing a lone striker, so this switch looked to be a planned riposte to Celtic’s 4-4-2.

While making a mini-resurgence in World football (or at least Italy, having largely died out in the mid and late noughties) the 3-5-2 is usually considered a niche defensive system – as it can be so open to exploitation (through 4-3-3).

In both of McCoist’s iterations, the clear emphasis was on shutting down Celtic’s midfield, and with the numerical advantage Rangers could achieve this with ease.

The flip-side – the spacial advantage for Celtic – would have to come from the full-backs.

Dueling full-backs

With Brown and Ledley so keen to come in to the central midfield stramash, this left a 1 v 1 situation on either flank. Cha vs Wallace and Matthews vs Whittaker. It’s a vast area of ground to cover, but being a goal behind, the onus was on Celtic to press the issue (and another reminder of how crucial Izaguirre once was). It’s a straight up battle of stamina and will – if you let your man go, it’s an automatic overlap.

This is where Cha was exposed – with Celtic losing possession in Rangers half, Wallace made a gut-bursting charge into essentially a vacant right-back area. Cha trailling, and overtly at fault in losing his man, he pulled back Wallace prompting a controversial red-card decision. The term “clear goal-scoring chance” has been bandied around, but Wallace wasn’t guaranteed finding possession, or even guaranteed a shot at goal from a reasonable angle. It was a tenuous “clear” chance, but Murray produced the red-card.

Stokes sacrificed

Between Samaras and Stokes, it was the latter withdrawn for Emilio Izaguirre who went to left-back (and Matthews going right-back). Samaras is quite simply a more natural lone forward – better in the air and more mobile, so the choice was correct.

Rangers now had a 3 v 1 in defence, allowing Papac to return to left-back, making for a lop-sided 3-5-2

It left Whittaker largely one-on-one with Izaguirre, but faced with 2 forwards Celtic’s substitute was more reluctant to get forward (leaving Mulgrew exposed) – which gave Whittaker the advantage and freedom to get forward.

This was not entirely unrelated to Whittaker drawing the real killer blow. Having the freedom to cut inside, into Wanyama’s domain, the Kenyan made a lazy two-footed lunge which this time was a clear-cut sending off. Having struggled to support Samaras with 10 against 11, the game looked over.

Late goal flurry

Celtic could only play 4-3-1, completely relinquishing the space on the flanks – and McCoist eventually responded by going 4-2-3-1 (bearing in mind the aforementioned pointlessness in 3 centre-backs versus 1 striker). An inswinging cross from the advancing Whittaker was eventually prodded in by substitute Andy Little, and for the third were caught vastly outnumbered on the counter-attack, Wallace made it 3. With Celtic forced to chase the game, a counter-attack was a continual threat.

Celtic deserve credit for fighting back – and surely exhausted after 89 minutes, there was enough energy left for Samaras to win a penalty (earning Bocanegra a red card). And minutes late, Rogne headed in another – but it was too little too late.


The 3-2 scoreline is a strange one. It reveals not only how poorly Celtic performed for 85+ minutes but how vulnerable Rangers were to full-blooded attacks.

While it’s easy to blame the referee for what was surely an incorrect early red-card decision, it’s impossible to get away from Celtic’s performance – their hunger. It’s another black-eye for Lennon – another “big” match squandered. It is his job after all, to motivate and inspire, and to get the tactics correct from the outset.

Questions have to be asked of the fringes of the burgeoning squad. The lineup suggested a lack of quality wide players (the evidence being a starting XI containing 4 central midfielders). It’s a poor reflection on Commons, Efrain Juarez , Paddy McCourt and especially Cha, and to a lesser extent McGeouch, Izaguirre and Rabiu Ibrahim.

It’s unfair to be too critical of Lennon – delivering the first title after 3 failed campaigns and a berth in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup. It’s also a revolution still on the rise – with the unprecedented young squad still a work in progress. But with a difficult competition still to be won and an incredibly important summer ahead, the weary recent performances – and lack of attacking verve – has to be addressed.

About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
This entry was posted in 2011/12, Rangers and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Rangers 3 – 2 Celtic: Rangers benefit from poor Celtic & early red card

  1. paranoidandroid says:

    Nice to hear your clear, concise evaluation of Sunday’s disaster. However, I think your being too kind to NL when you say that we shouldn’t be overly critical. I think the opposite. He actually has to start taking more responsibility, especially in his own mind, for these disasters. He continually blames others for his own failings, so he’s never going to learn from his mistakes.

    The refeeree was atrocious, and the players didn’t play well. But once again NL managed to start a game with a line-up that had every fan, and I expect every player, scratching his head before kick-off. The team was a shambles to start with, then he was taken to the cleaners tactically by Ally ‘first season in charge’ McCoist. I think we should be really worried by this.

    Plus, I would say that in most of our worst results in the last two seasons the team selection has been baffling and the tactics have been poor. Our players are not world beaters. They need tactics and a formation that allows them to play to their strengths. And I dont see why we cant play roughly the same formation every game, so that the players can get used to it. For me, it would be based on a three man midfield with overlapping full-backs. At the moment, the midfield would be: Ledley, Wanyama, and Brown starting every game in central positions. I’m sure we’d have at least beaten kilmarnock playing this way.

    NL has the potential to be a great Celtic manager, but, if I was him, I’d be searching the world for every single tactics and coaching course I could find this summer (and probably for quite a few summers to come as well), because I would know that I need to improve the way I use my (limited) players, if I’m ever going to become a good Celtic manager, never mind a great one.

  2. Big P says:

    I reckon most refs in Scotland are cheats….its disgusting watching them…..think I’ll go back to the gym at weekends….If I’m wrong then I guess I’ve been wrong all my life about my judgements..does the word stone wall come to mind

  3. gerry31 says:

    Well balanced article.

  4. Charlie says:

    Excellent analysis, always insightful.

  5. Ronan says:

    Excellent piece.

    Losing a goal/ giving Rangers a foothold early has happened far too often under Lennon and we find it difficult to get back into it often relying on a great half time team talk to get us into our swing.

    The part later on about Rangers vulnerability when put under pressure has also bugged me this season. In two games at Ibrox we have conceded 7 goals which is unacceptable but we have also shown in those games that when we do get a sniff we are likely to cause problems. We have barely shown anything in those games as an attacking threat yet have scored 4 goals , a good return.

    One decision that I thought could make or break the game was Ki starting. I’m a big fan of him and one aspect of his game that I like is his willingness to pick the ball from the centre halves and start a more fluid attack rather than the hopeless long balls that they usually resort to which does nobody any good but he never got into the game early on and ended up at one point playing at the top of a diamond midfield which I don’t think he can do.

  6. hot sauce committee says:

    Excellent piece, as always.

    For me, the side felt like there was a case of too many square pegs in round holes. An increasingly tired looking Matthews is played out of position at left back so Mulgrew is free to play in the middle, all because Kelvin Wilson still fails to look convincing at centre half. Cha coming in at right back gives plenty of effort, but has too often been found wanting defensively, and wastefull when in an advanced position.

    You can see why NL picked the midfiled he did, but no recognised wide players then relying on a right footed left back and Cha’s limited crossing ability was asking a lot in terms of creation on the wings.
    Then there’s the sending off…

    Whether it was down to lack of preparation, concentration or application (or all three), It’s just frustrating. It feels like another opportunity to lay down a marker, has been missed again.

    Izaguirre & Commons looked a bit more like there old self though.

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