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Derby Day Preview: Celtic’s fullbacks could be key…

October 22, 2010

Rangers and Celtic go into this game on Sunday each with a 100% record in the league, both recording eight wins out of eight so far. Rangers are the top scorers with twenty-two compared to Celtic’s tally of eighteen though the latter, despite criticism from some quarters, have the best defence with just four against. Both sides look improved from last season, Celtic’s league record and Rangers’ league and European performances being proof of this and there is a good deal of quality on display from the two rivals. One doesn’t want to give the game a big build-up only for it to be a let down but recent form suggests that this will be of higher quality than witnessed in the last few years.

What will Walter do?

A big factor on the game will be lineup chosen by the man with no surname. This season he has rotated between a solid 5-4-1 for European games – with good results – and a 4-4-2 for domestic matches. If he opts for the latter it will be interesting to see who starts with the in-form Kenny Miller up front. Up until his injury, Nikica Jelavić was the most regular partner and his technical prowess, ability to drop deep to link the midfield and attack will be missed. There are two possible replacements in Kyle Lafferty and James Beattie, with the former’s match sharpness and decent form making him the most likely candidate. He has shown in recent matches a rarely before seen ability to fill that role of deep lying forward, setting up a number of chances for team mates but his all round play is inferior to Jelavić’s and he is far less of a goal threat.

Whatever Smith chooses, the most likely feature will be a four-man midfield with Edu and Davis the two certainties at the heart of it. Weiss will probably continue on one flank with the fairly standard setup offset by the slightly more free-roaming Naismith on the other. He plays an interesting role within the side, often changing wing depending on the opponents and he has licence to drift infield and support the forwards. If there’s a chance that Rangers opt for a midfield five then he could be used in a floating role just behind Miller with Lee McCulloch – back from injury – possibly coming in to bolster midfield. Naismith’s inward forward runs from out wide are often well-timed and coming from deeper position than a forward he has more time to look for space when doing so. At times he looks like an inside forward rather than a winger, a position enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years and a potent weapon when employed correctly. Indeed, this view is held by Sir Alex Ferguson: “When forwards attack from wide to inside, they are far more dangerous.”

Weaknesses in their 4-4-2

A commonly seen weakness in a number of teams 4-4-2’s is the space they allow between the lines, and Rangers are no different. Using this formation, they have been quite attack-minded with a high number of players getting ahead of the man in possession. Doing so, they have shown a particular vulnerability when losing the ball and transitioning from attack to defence. Not utilising a holding player means that there is a lot of room in front of the back four for the opposition to take advantage of, and a number of sides have done so in recent matches, creating chances and goals in the process. This is not just when losing the ball however, but also at times when the opposition is in possession. The first picture below shows this in action against Aberdeen:

And from the same game:

In both pictures there is a great deal of space that Celtic’s Samaras, Hooper, Stokes and Maloney have more than enough ability to take advantage of. Here’s another example, this time against Hearts:

While this is something that Celtic are well setup to make use of, it’s unlikely that it will be quite as frequent a feature on Sunday. The 4-4-2 is stretched in this way because it is so attacking but it would be a surprise to see Rangers adopt such an offensive approach against us. The central midfielders will likely be more disciplined and won’t stray so far from their defence but this can open up another opportunity for Celtic. Ki and/or Ledley, if selected, will be given more time on the ball in deep areas. If Celtic go with a midfield three, such as Ledley, KI and Juarez then the deepest of them (probably Ki) will have room to spray passes around. Of course, one of the Rangers forwards would probably be tasked with shifting back to counter this but it could still be something for Celtic to consider.

There are also weaknesses both in and relating to the Rangers back-line. Notice in the photos how their full-backs are always back, at times keeping the back-four very flat. This leaves an ideal opportunity for Celtic’s wide players, in particular our own full-backs’ overlapping runs. Again though, there is likely to be more cover in front of them with the Rangers wingers probably given more defensive responsibility  to help double up on our own but even so, this still can be taken advantage of by full-backs such as ours.

The other weakness comes in the form of one the Scottish media’s current favourite players, David Weir. The 40 year old’s form has been commendable over recent years but his age is quite apparent when you look at some the goals Rangers have conceded this season. Canny opposition forwards – especially the nippy type –  have made use of his lack of mobility by targeting his channel when crosses come in from wide areas, before nipping in front or peeling away just at the right moment. He doesn’t have the foot speed to cope with this, with goals coming in similar fashion Hooper’s first against Dundee Utd and so the Englishman may get some joy if delivery is good on Sunday. Weir particularly struggles when the opposition get in behind the Rangers defence before crossing, so again our full-backs – the players within our side that best supply width – could be very important here.


A highly probably selection from Smith is the 5-4-1 that has served his side well in Europe, with Rangers unbeaten so far in the Champions League. Against Man Utd they produced an impressive defensive display – summed up well by defensiveminded’s article, a good insight into how this tactic works – where they limited the English sides chances well. They continued with a 1-0 win against Bursaspor, a game where after attacking in numbers early on and getting a goal they reverted to the similar style employed against Man Utd, though had few a more scares in this game. Their third game, again with this tactic, was against Valencia and was probably their best performance of the season. Despite employing what many have described as a defensive formation, Rangers created numerous chances and but for poor finishing could have won this game comfortably. The performance against Valencia and the injury to Jelavić’ make it more likely that Rangers will continue with their 5-4-1 on Sunday, as they look very solid when using it and have added an ability to counter-attack swiftly with it.

The 5-4-1 means a slight re-shift in the backline with Papac moving in to become a third centre-back and choice of Foster or Broadfoot – back from injury – at full-back. Weir’s weakness when dealing with crosses as in the 4-4-2 is still there, but not to the same degree because it is more difficult to get in behind them. Space tends to be surrendered in front of the backline as they sit very deep to stop the opposition trying to reach the byline. This means crosses come in from deeper areas, which is easier to deal with for Weir as he doesn’t need to turn quickly. Again though, if Celtic can draw in the Rangers full-backs using our wide players then there’s a chance we can create an overlap for our own full-backs.

Indeed, when playing against a team with three central defenders your full-backs can, in theory, become pivotal in turning the game in your favour. Three central defenders used to be popular as a means to stopping sides who fielded two strikers, with the idea being that there would be a two vs. two match up and one spare defender able to tidy up any loose balls or to cover his colleagues. Teams started to get around this by playing with one up front and having an extra player in midfield, leaving the side with a back three with two spare men in defence and a shortfall elsewhere. The theory behind this is summed up well in this article at – “An example of why three-man defences struggle against three-man attacks”. As the article points out, the side with a front-three’s wingers can push right up and either hold the opposition side’s fullbacks deep or take advantage of the space if they aren’t tracked. If the former, as is very likely from Rangers, the front-three side’s own full-backs can push forward and create a 2 vs 1 situation on the flanks. So, if Celtic opt for a 4-3-3 or 4-2-1-3 they could have joy in this way through Izaguirre and Wilson/Cha. One of the reasons for Valencia’s struggles was that their own full-backs – Mathieu and Bruno – didn’t provide enough of an attacking outlet, shown by the image below (again, from zonalmarking’s “Champions League chalkboards, matchday three”):

One would expect Celtic’s fullbacks, in particular Izaguirre to become a useful option therefore.

Interestingly, Bursaspor were the side who troubled Rangers’ 5-4-1 more than the other two in their Champions League group. The Turkish side fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation and at times showed the theory outlined above in action. However, like Valencia their fullbacks didn’t have enough of an impact with them instead relying on the trickery of their wingers. They had some joy with this through right-winger, Volkan Sen having the beating of his full-back. Unfortunately Celtic don’t have James Forrest available as he has the ability to cause similar problems. The image below shows Bursaspors formation against’ Rangers’:

A commonly seen state of play in the Rangers-Bursaspor game

The image is at first a little hectic, but here is the explanation:

1) Notice the space between the fullback and the centre-backs due to (3) the Rangers fullbacks marking their opposition wingers and (5) Bougherra leaving his line.

2) Notice the space open for the Bursaspor left-back to attack, though he doesn’t in this instance.

3) The Bursapsor wingers are marked by the Rangers fullbacks creating (2) and on the other side (4) shows how the right-back could easily provide an overlap.

5) Bougherra leaves his line to pick up the forward dropping deep. Bougherra does this a lot and it often (1) opens up the channel between him and his right-back. Izaguirre sometimes comes inside Maloney rather than overlapping on the outside so he could take advantage of this.

Finally, you can see how it is fairly unnecessary for Rangers to have three central defenders marking the one player. At least one of those spare men has become superfluous meaning if Bursaspor where more switched on they could have easily outnumbered the Rangers midfield.


This will be a tough game for Celtic, definitely one the toughest of the season so far, European games included. If Rangers opt for 4-4-2 then Celtic’s own 4-4-2 should have the beating of it but if they go for 5-4-1 then Celtic’s 4-4-2 could have problems, making the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 more suitable. Whatever tactics are chosen, it’s vitally important that Rangers don’t score first, as they are very good at shutting out opponents and hanging on to a lead. Another important factor will be Lennon’s ability to make game changing substitutions or switches to the formation, particularly if things are going badly. So far, he has been able to do so with success and has often found the way to unlock packed defences. Rangers will be a different prospect though, with better organisation and a far more clinical touch in front of goal than Celtic’s other SPL opponents so far. Celtic need to continue with their quick passing and creative off-the-ball movement, something Rangers have struggled against.

It’s going to be a cracker….

10 Comments leave one →
  1. JeanPierre LeGuerre permalink
    October 22, 2010 4:51 pm


    Your analysis/preview is meaty, very good quality, shows a lot of hard work, is accurate and has good attention to detail.

    if the Hoops can replicate all of those qualities on Sunday, then we have a result.

    I don’t want to be a doom-monger, but we have so many new guys ‘on debut’ in derby terms, and also are lacking the type of real quality synonomous with the MON/early Strachan eras, I think we will be hard pressed to get a win against a very shrewd coach, and a very workmanlike Rangers team, high on confidence.

    I hope the huns sit in with a 5-4-1, as it will allow us to switch to a very attacking 4-2-3-1 with the ‘front 4’ all capable of good penetration, and as you point out, 2 fullbacks (regardless of who plays) who like to get forward.

    Very few glasgow derbies finish 0-0. If the huns sit in deep, that limits their chances of scoring somewhat, which statistically makes it more likely that we can score first, and then hopefully screw the head and shut them out. unfortunately in recent seasons, we seem to have had an ability to throw these games away with woeful defending.

    • October 22, 2010 5:05 pm

      Thanks, I aim to please!

      I agree we will be hard pressed to get a win. Like you say there’s a lot of derby new boys and one can never predict how they will handle it. There’s also an opportunity for one of them to become a hunskelper though!

      As in the article, I really hope they don’t score first. It’s been a curse for Celtic facing Walter Smith’s Rangers teams over the years.

  2. NickMcD permalink
    October 22, 2010 8:48 pm

    Thanks very much – a particularly good one!

    I’m more confident than the past couple of seasons that we’re well equipped to win this. Worrying!

    CQN made a good point I think in highlighting the danger from Rangers playing for set pieces. This could be where fielding several debutants exposes us most, in terms of giving away free kicks

    • October 23, 2010 10:13 am

      I have a mixture of confidence and worry. We’re certainly well equipped to win but it’ll be a tough one. We’ll have to be on top of our game. I think there is a feeling in me that either Rangers will knick it somehow or we’ll pass them off the park. A lot depends on how we mentally handle the occasion.

      Good point about free kicks, it’s been a feature of their play under Smith over the years. They’re a danger from set pieces in general, how many goals have we conceded to them from corners over the years?

  3. eamon wolfe permalink
    October 22, 2010 9:16 pm

    Another great piece of work! I always make a point of reading your articles and am never disappointed. They always show a level of sophistication and erudition that the mainstream Scottish media could only dream of – like a caveman looking at the Sistine chapel they simply don’t have the language to discuss football in such learned terms.

    I hope we destroy the filth and crush their bones into the ground (prediction 2 – 1 Hooper, Samaras).


    • October 23, 2010 10:09 am

      Thanks very much, one of the reasons this site was started due to state of the mainstream Scottish media that you have described.

      Hope your prediction is correct!

  4. October 24, 2010 8:05 am

    I’ve had a Bhoy and a Bear preview the game at May be of interest to you chaps (Gers man says 1-1; Bhoy says 2-1 to the ‘Tic).

    In general, I think the full-backs are just about the most important players on the pitch – odd that the market values them so poorly generally.

    Izaguirre is the best defender I’ve seen in the SPL since Cuellar. Not sure how long he’ll stay if he keeps performing like he does.

    Keep up the great work. Love the site.


    • October 24, 2010 7:05 pm

      Shame about the actual score eh?!

      Izaguirre is a great signing, a real find.

      Good site, hadn’t seen it before. I’ll check it out more when time permits.

  5. Darth Vidar permalink
    October 24, 2010 8:42 am

    An excellent article – as usual.

    I only knew about this site as someone posted a link in KDS.

    Quality analysis like this deserves a much, much wider audience. What is the traffic like to the site, are you happy with just word of mouth?

    I don’t understand the mechanics of, say, getting a link in newsnow, but I’ve seen some really poor posters getting a link to their single paragraph post. If this garbage can get on there – can you do the same?

    I’ll put you site in my signature – but what else is being done to promote it?

    Keep up the amazing work!

    • October 24, 2010 6:58 pm

      Usually get over 2,500 hits per month, though it is gradually rising.
      Word of mouth is always good but I’m not so sure what other ways there are of promoting it. I have a twitter page, and have managed to get a few links on other celtic fansites. The site had a guest match report in ‘Not The View’ magazine and there’s a possibility of more.
      I’ve applied to newsnow and am waiting for them to allow it to be featured. Any other suggestions?

      P.S. Thanks for the compliments.

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