Celtic 1-3 Rangers: second half turnaround
A typically fiery Old Firm derby saw Celtic lose their 100% record, and Rangers maintain theirs.
Celtic were unchanged from their win last week at Dundee United, starting with a 4-4-2 system that saw Georgios Samaras dropping deep to the left.
Rangers made two changes from their midweek draw with Valencia, bringing in Lee McCulloch and Kyle Lafferty. Their shape was more like 4-5-1, with Lafferty out wide on the left, Steven Naismith on the right, and McCulloch in the holding role in the centre of midfield.
The game started in the expected fashion, with a booking after just one minute and ten seconds, tackles flying in and both sides generally looking to hit the ball long from defence to attack, bypassing the midfield.
After a few minutes Rangers started to play the ball around the midfield, taking advantage of their one-man advantage in that zone, and seeking to drag the Celtic midfielders out of position. Anthony Stokes and Shaun Maloney played narrow to try and compensate, and the Rangers full-backs didn’t seek to get forward and exploit this space.
The game changed after 15 minutes when Maloney was forced to depart through injury. Neil Lennon brought on Efrain Juarez, (who could have been a straight swap) but in making this change Lennon also altered the formation of the side, as Celtic switched to a 4-2-3-1ish system, with Juarez floating around in an attacking central midfield role, and Samaras stationed permanently on the left.
The nature of two 4-5-1 systems meant that the game became congested in the midfield zone, with few players getting any time on the ball. The one exception to this was Ki Sung-Yeung, who dropped deep to receive the ball from his centre-backs, and got Celtic playing well in the centre of the pitch. His technical quality and positional sense were superior to the five other central midfielders in the first half, and Ki became the key player.
Lafferty forced back
The other interesting battle was down Rangers’ left, where Mark Wilson got forward to good effect, pushing Lafferty back into his own third of the pitch. Lafferty tracked well but made a couple of mistakes, making this a good route of attack for Celtic, although no real chances came from it. It was very useful from a defensive point of view, however, because as Lafferty was the midfielder most likely to link up with Kenny Miller, Rangers had no support for their lone striker. Miller hardly had a kick in the first half.
With the midfield battle overwhelmingly congested, and little creativity on show, it was no surprise that the opening two goals – one from either side, either side of the break – came from set-pieces. Gary Hooper put Celtic ahead by converting a corner at the far post, before Glenn Loovens turned into his own net following a free-kick.
Those goals may not have come from open play, but their timing did reflect the dominant side at those points. Celtic ended the first half extremely strongly, with Ki dictating the game and Celtic forcing three corners in quick succession. Rangers, however, were much better in the second half – they played higher up the pitch and their midfielders closed down Ki more quickly.
Rangers take charge
The other effect of Rangers moving higher up the pitch was that Miller received more support. It generally came from the central midfielders rather than the wide players, and this resulted in Miller’s first goal – Maurice Edu got forward to meet Naismith’s well-weighted forward pass, and after he’d forced Daniel Majstorovic into a panicky clearance, the ball dropped to Miller to volley home. It’s worth mentioned here that Rangers were 4-1-4-1 whereas Celtic looked more like 4-2-3-1 – so Rangers had two central midfielders with license to attack, Celtic only really had one.
Rangers were in the ascendency, squeezing the space by pushing high up the pitch, and a third goal came from the penalty spot.
Lennon made the obvious switch, putting Samaras back upfront and going 4-4-2 again, but this just resulted in the same situation as in the first 15 minutes when Rangers were the better side – they had one fewer midfield player and with Rangers sitting deep and getting nine men behind the ball, Celtic looked out of ideas, only creating a couple of scrappy half-chances.
In fact, Rangers were probably more dangerous on the counter-attack and should have scored a fourth – some poor decision-marking on the counter-attack let them down here. Their 4-1-4-1 system simply matched Celtic’s 4-4-2 late on, with McCulloch a spare man between the lines, and Celtic’s compensation, a free centre-back, not much help when looking for a goal.
The pattern of the game hinged on two major factors – first, the early injury to Maloney and Celtic’s subsequent rejig, which resulted in a congested midfield. Secondly, Rangers moving up the pitch in the second half, which both put pressure on Ki, and gave Miller more support – simultaneously limiting Celtic’s chances of scoring, and increasing their own.
It was also notable that no second half changes affected the overall pattern of play – Lennon was forced to use Juarez early on – his pace and direct running may have been a useful trump card when Rangers tired late on.