Celtic 3-0 Rangers: Lennon champions 3-5-2 in comfortable derby victory

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.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 3-4-1-2

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.

Rangers Lineup

Rangers 4-3-3 / 4-5-1

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.

Killer opener

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

Rangers post-30 minutes

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.

About tictacticuk

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

21 Responses to Celtic 3-0 Rangers: Lennon champions 3-5-2 in comfortable derby victory

  1. Brian says:

    A good analogy of the game. This is becoming one of my favourite sites to visit after a game.

    Like you I am intrigued as to how this system will work in Europe next season, well I hope.

  2. Raymy says:

    I echo the previous comments


  3. Jelly and Icecream says:

    So, do you think Neil has finally found his No. 10 in Commons or do you think Ibrahim, McGeouch, McCourt or Twardzik have a chance of usurping him, or more pertinently, will be given that chance?

    • tictacticuk says:

      Good question! It’s clear that Commons has struggled to convince Lennon all season – a long time to argue a case.

      It’s clear that an in-form Commons is just the ticket (although arguably more effective out wide) – I do think that Lennon will still be in the market for the right man if he becomes available. That’s entirely dependent on our dealings over the summer – and I guess the same applies to absolutely any position.

      With that in mind, maybe we will see Commons in behind 2 strikers next year. A long time to go until the proper matches begin. So lots can change…

  4. Thamm says:

    Good analysis of the game, really enjoy the site. Only one nitpick (and I may have picked it up wrong, so apologies). You said McCoist was able to keep intact the same back line as Walter but only Bartley was here last season. Goian, Bocanegra and Wallace are all buys under Ally. A back 4 to which not one penny has been paid towards either…as I said apologies if I’ve read it wrong but thought worrth mentioning if not.

  5. Rob says:

    Brilliant read as usual mate

  6. I thought that Rangers should have switched to 3-5-2 and matched up against Celtic.

    This would have freed Whittaker and Wallace as wing backs and provided the cover in the central defence which was needed when Commons broke through.

    McCabe controlled the game a month or so ago but with Commons occupying the same space, he was much less effective. Also, he really needs (at this stage in his development) to operate in a midfield trio to gain support.

    The long ball to McCulloch was never going to work against a Celtic backline which was much higher and the change to 4-4-2 from McCoist was wrong, giving the initiative to Celtic and allowing them to control the centre.

    Izaguirre showed what a good player he is. Celtic will do well to retain him once he gets back to his best form. Rangers never dealt with the Celtic left throughout the game. Kyle Bartley is no right back and provides no attacking outlet and is very uncomfrotable when dragged wide.

    Celtic took the initiative from the outset today and ran out easy, and worthy, winners.


  7. Jean-Pierre LeGuerre says:

    was waiting for your article today, as was really surprised Neil decided to use a back 3, especially with Victor out on the right… I thought he would have been needed in the holding midfield role. In the end… it worked out well!

    regards next season – if the team want to continue to improve, I feel we need a centre back who is totally dominant in the air (Balde style). The reason? Throughout this campaign, numerous spl sides have thrown 1 big striker in against us, and wrecked havoc. Beattie from hearts recently rag-dolled our back 2, and rangers tried it again today. The acquisition of an aerial defender who will dominate high balls in will mean that teams will simply realise that the high ball will not work, and so will have to try to play more football against us. The old-style MON 3-5-2 utilised a big back 3 – meaning that teams simply wouldn’t dare try to take us on in that area, as it was a waste of time trying to get anything out of Mjallby, Balde and Joos in the air. It is currently an easy option for other SPL managers, and it is up to Neil to put the personnel in place to make sure it stops happening. (the entire Celtic support could have told you that mcculloch would be up front today… and he was).

  8. Stephen says:

    Great read,, I’m gonna put it in me favorites. Great performance today,, but as you say the system will be subject to far greater tests very soon.

  9. TJ Hooper says:

    Good read and generally reflective both of how I felt things shaped up and concern over how better teams might fare against that formation. Some further thoughts:
    I feel that the formation does get the very best out of Scott Brown;
    It can run into the same issues MON teams did when we don’t dominate the midfield and allow a three man run at our back three (he later switched to a 4-4-2 after failing to come up with an answer against the better teams); and
    I certainly don’t think you’ll see it used away in Europe – it requires dominant possession to really be effective

    • tictacticuk says:

      Thanks. I completely agre with your two main points – that the system suits Brown…

      and that ultimately the 3-5-2 is open to exploitation – especially against the better sides. That’s why we’ll need a dependable 4 man defence to fallback on.

      Whether that’s his current #1 system (lop-sided 4-4-2) or a more continental 4-2-3-1 – not too sure. But it must be sorted before the qualifiers…

  10. davybhoy88 says:

    iv loved this site for over a good year now mate and another great sum up of todays game i think its refreshing using the 3 at the back again specially with 2 great ball players in there midfielders basically something that barca do a lot which should suit us in the SPL europe is obviously a different story! hoping you’ll be doing some more european classics during the summer again btw i think the leeds game maybe or my old man always talks bout big jocks tactics against forintina in that same run but anyway keep up the amazing work buddy cheers.

    • tictacticuk says:

      That’s a good point about Barca’s defence – that Pep has had no fear in using defensive midfielders at the back.

      I think that deserves an article in itself, but in short, for a team that enjoys vast swathes of possession your much better having defenders who are comfortable with ball at feet. That’s why Ukrainian Chygrynskiy could not settle within their system. He’s an equivalant to Loovens or Wilson – solid, strong defenders who hate having the ball at feet.

      P.s. I don’t know enough about those older matches but it’s something I’m keen to brush up on. Must get a look at those matches if there are vids out there to be purchased!

      Cheers for reading

  11. Geoff says:

    Regarding the #10 – I think this is why we signed Rabiu Ibrahim – he actually is a classic 10, and I really thought we would see him at some stage in th closing matches of the season.

    as for the dominating centre-half – I think K wilson is that man, when fit.
    I think he played in the first celtic/rangers match and mcculloch didn’t get a sniff.

    • tictacticuk says:

      I Geoff, cheers for reading. I can’t argue with anything you’ve pointed out.

      I’ve suggested before that Ibrahim might be that 10, and like you I’m a bit gutted that he’s not been put on the park in the post-champion matches.

      Not sure about Wilson mind.. has had a few wobblers as well as the decent performances. It’s going to be very interesting to see if him and Loovens (and big Dan) will still be here next term…

  12. TJ Hooper says:

    Just a quick follow on thought….
    Wonder whether that formation would have had the same success if Rangers had been able to call on a front three of Elbows, Jelavic and Lafferty. They’d have clearly had three long ‘out’ balls to get round the back of our defence as they did earlier in the season with a good chance of catching us on the hop. It might just be a sign of the times that they don’t have the staff any longer to mount such a brute force assault. Thankfully, not too many European teams go for that kind of style anyway.

  13. duggie73 says:

    Having Mulgrew and Wanyama and possibly by the sounds of it Lustig as part of a back 3 makes it interesting.
    O’Neill’s CBs were effective at defending, but no-one in their right mind would say they were expected to start attacks themselves- there’d be a case for saying the current crop are more comfortable when covering in fullback positions as well.
    If it’s persevered with, and there’s no inhibitions on the part of the CBs to break forward if they’ve the space to run into (dreaming of Lucio at Leverkausen here), opponents have to decide whether to push on to cover all 3CBs, or leave the wingbacks one on one with their fullbacks if the ball can be switched quickly enough through the midfield.
    Defos a mibbes.

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