As far as the ‘meaningless’ type of Glasgow derby goes, the latest had reasonable worth attached for both clubs. Rangers, defiant on the brink of liquidation, are clinging on to competitive significance in Scotland. Celtic meanwhile, still have a number of demons to bury.
Neil Lennon made four changes to the side that beat Motherwell 3-0 last week with Glenn Loovens, Scott Brown, Adam Matthews and Georgios Samaras coming in for Thomas Rogne, Ki Sung-Yeung, Cha Du Ri and Pavel Brozek.
James Forrest is still out with that ankle problem, and there was no room for the returning Beram Kayal or Kelvin Wilson.
The only difference to last week’s (3-4-2-1) system was the positioning of Gary Hooper, who instead of dropping deeper alongside Kris Commons, was more overtly stationed higher up the park. The front 3 are becoming increasingly difficult to define – simply because Lennon is encouraging vertical movement between the lines in an effort to destabilise the familiar deeply entrenched defences.
Ally McCoist stuck to the same team and system as used successfully against Hearts last week at Tynecastle.
A standard 4-3-3 defending as 4-5-1, which also bears similarities to the formation used in the last derby at Ibrox.
This time round, Rangers were without key players Sasa Papac and Steven Davis, with Kyle Lafferty and Steven Naismith also long-term absentees. Kirk Broadfoot and Jamie Ness however, returned from injury to make the match squad.
4-3-3 vs 3-5-2
Celtic started with a cheeky trick – lining up apparently in a 4-1-2-1-2 (diamond) prior to kick-off (with Wanyama behind Brown and Ledley). They immediately reverted to 3-5-2 and gained the upper hand.
Apart from dealing with the unfamiliar Celtic 3-5-2, Rangers’ main concern was that Lee McCulloch has isolated from the off with Loovens doing well to keep him out of trouble. As an experienced scrapper, his focus turned to manipulating the ref rather than taking on his marker directly.
Rangers’ 4-3-3/4-5-1 is generally considered a ‘hard’ counter to a 3-5-2, in that a lone striker creates a numerical disadvantage for the three-man defence. 1 striker taking up 3 centre-backs is a waste of resources. Celtic circumvented this tactical situation, by using the ‘outer’ centre-backs quite cleverly. Like against Motherwell, Wanyama (and to a lesser extent Mulgrew) took up very wide positions (albeit very aware of not completely abandoning the central defender and leaving a 1v1).
If Wanyama goes head-to-head with one of Rangers’ three forwards, then the nightmare situation would be a 3 v 3. There must be a spare man, every other attacker must be picked up, therefore Celtic depended on the forwards defending from the front.
The image to the right, for example shows Wanyama (bottom right) accomodated by Little. Lee Wallace pushes for an overlap and is tracked by Adam Matthews (far right).
On the other side, Charlie Mulgrew can’t pickup Sone Aluko or that would leave 3 vs 3 at the back. Therefore Izaguirre does this task instead.
So finally, if Kyle Bartley attempts to create an overlap (top-left), it is one of the forwards (here, typically would be Samaras, on the right it’d be Commons) who has to track the run of the full-back.
Rangers lacked this attention to overlaps. Where Celtic looked to maximise numerical advantages, Rangers were typically committed to defending with 4 of the back-line plus the defensive midfielder – 5 vs 3.
This also exacerbated the problem of Rangers’ full-backs being unable to get up the park and exploit Celtic’s 3-5-2.
If Bartley (for example) leaves the back 4, Dorin Goian would potentially be left with a 1 vs 1 situation on the counter – again an unacceptable risk. Bartley and Wallace were caught in two-minds – barrel forward and expose their two centre-backs to a front-three, or sit-back and let the Celtic wing-backs attack.
Rangers’ “weaker” sides (be it on paper or financially) have in recent times ‘kept up’ with Celtic through various strategies. The most infuriating for Celtic, has been Rangers’ solid defence. Ally McCoist has been able to keep largely intact the same back four that Walter Smith made safe use of in his final season.
Strange then, that Rangers conceded an incredibly soft early opener. Commons racked up his 10th assist in 13 starts by lofting in a corner to Mulgrew at the far post. Mulgrew’s run was untracked from well outside the box with nobody paying attention – criminal defending to leave an opposition centre-back unguarded.
By 30 minutes, Celtic’s dominance was absolute resulting in the second. Brown – doing what he does best – scrapped for the ball, hit it on to Hooper whose first touch was difficult, and second put Commons through on goal.
Bartley rightly took a lot of flak for failing to make more of the covering slide-tackle (having come across from the right-back position), but Rhys McCabe was caught ball-watching as Commons quietly escaped, delicately dinking the ball over Alan McGregor.
Rangers change shape, if not run of play
The traditional 4-3-3 vs 3-5-2 paradigm had failed McCoist – the idea the 3 centre-backs defending 1 striker was a waste of bodies.
This was because Celtic’s outside centre-backs were confident enough to progress up the pitch – they are after-all midfielders by trade.
McCoist made moves to end this freedom, and also to provide more support to McCulloch – by going 4-4-2 and pushing Aluko up. (A similar change was also made in the last derby).
It also – on paper – deals better with marauding wing-backs – but now the discomfort was in the central areas. Celtic, for once, had a numerical midfield advantage and it became much easier to control the match (although with less offensive intensity).
Second half stroll
At 2-0 Rangers were finished, and it seemed a question of how many for Celtic? The central numerical disadvantage may have complicated matters for the third, as McCabe was caught in possession having zero options (both centre-backs were marked ). Commons stole the ball, fed Samaras, whose through-ball was perfectly weighted for Hooper to hammer in the final nail.
McCabe generally had had an impressive match, but these two lapses in concentration effectively cost Rangers two goals, and he was substituted moments later.
What followed was the tamest ending to a derby in a long time. Bartley predictably threatened to incite trouble with a couple of provoking challenges, but Rangers were finished and Celtic comfortable.
Neil Lennon’s decision to go 3-5-2 (or more accurately 3-4-1-2) was a surprise – but it proved pivotal and nostalgic. There are parallels with Martin O’Neill’s celebrated system – with Izaguirre the left-sided Agathe with superior delivery. And while O’Neill’s later iterations saw more “physical” players used behind the striker (Chris Sutton, Stan Petrov, or other fringe players) the use of Commons in the hole was inspired, harking back to some of Lubo Moravcik’s more memorable displays.
That is what the whole system was about – getting Commons causing damage in that number 10 position – and Lennon has been pursuing this method (as argued on this blog) for a very long time. An assist for the opener, a goal for the second and winning the ball in opposition territory for the third, is everything Lennon would’ve wanted.
There were further successes – the use of the wing-backs and the dynamic front-three – but there are still question marks over certain aspects of the system. The role of the central midfielders becomes strictly industrial, somewhat limiting the attacking potential and excitement of Joe Ledley, (on occasion) Scott Brown or, say, Ki Sung-Yeung.
The use of the outside centre-backs is also suspiciously open to exploitation. Wanyama was essentially a right full-back, making for a uniquely unheard of system.
McCoist’s attempt of using two strikers is probably the unconventional ‘best way’ of dealing with such a system, but it’s now too late to find out. The next real test is at the end of July through European qualification. Something says there’s a lot more twists and turns – for both teams showcased today – before we’ll find out if this 3-5-2 is sustainable for the future.
What matters now is that Celtic are champions. And what a nostalgic, fluid attacking display – against Rangers no less – to top off this most remarkable season.