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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.