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Scottish Cup 5th Round, Rangers 2-2 Celtic: Fascinating tactical battle and a thrilling game

February 9, 2011

Celtic and Rangers fought out a thrilling Scottish Cup game at Ibrox on Sunday. There were numerous interesting tactical changes from both sides throughout, as well as plenty excitement in front of a typically raucous crowd.

Celtic began the game with a couple of changes to the team sheet, the first being the return of Daniel Majstorovic to the centre of defence, allowing Mark Wilson to move back to right-back with Efrain Juarez dropping out. The more interesting change was further forward with Anthony Stokes sacrificed in favour of Ki Sung-Yong, back from international duty with South Korea in the Asian Cup. This meant a change in formation from the previous five games from 4-4-2 to something approaching a 4-1-4-1, with Kris Commons starting on the left, Scott Brown on the right and Gary Hooper given the nod as the lone forward. Ki formed a midfield trio with Joe Ledley and Beram Kayal, the Israeli given a traditional ‘holding role’ while the other two were slightly more advanced.

Rangers took to the field with a 4-4-1-1 formation, with the charming El Hadji Diouf in front of a midfield four of – from left to right – Naismith, Ness, Edu and Davis and behind the lone forward, Nikica Jelavic. This midfield setup was basically a mirror image of Celtic’s, with Diouf able to apply pressure to Kayal and the opposing sets of four cancelling each other out. This gave the Celtic centre-backs no easy out-ball, which Rangers cleverly compounded by having  each of their midfielders track their opposite man as he came short to collect the ball. This led to Majstorovic and Mulgrew nervously passing the ball between them until one would hit a  hopeful long ball towards Hooper, who had little chance in an aerial battle against the home sides’ defence. Hooper was also quite isolated, with a big gap between himself and the Celtic midfield and this caused him to come deep in search of the ball where he can offer little threat to the opposition goal.

As the image shows, no easy out-ball for the Celtic centre-backs, other than a hoof upfield

As the ball is hit forward to Hooper (green) he is out numbered by his more aerially dominant Rangers opponents. Also notice how far from the opposition goal Hooper is.

Following long-balls from their defence towards Jelavic to gain field position, Rangers were able to keep Celtic pegged back by setting up in this way and took advantage early on through a resultant corner kick. After the ball was half-cleared, promising youngster Jamie Ness fired them into the lead in with a fantastic strike.

Celtic looked to their fullbacks, Wilson and Emilio Izaguirre, to overlap and provide extra numbers and width in attack but moments after going one goal down this helped to almost cause a second. With the pair bombing forward, the midfield – under pressure from the opposition – carelessly lost possession in their own half, with Celtic with just two at the back. With gaping spaces either side of the centre-backs, Rangers quickly found Jelavic in one of them before he pulled the ball back for Davis to rattle the crossbar. Celtic were in need of a change and Lennon quickly replied with a reshuffle to his midfield. Ki dropped back to sit alongside Kayal while Ledley switched to the left with Commons coming into centre, just behind Hooper, who had been isolated up to this point. This was a shrewd tactical move by the manager which caused a complete turnaround to the pattern of the game, for a number of key reasons:

Easier build up from back

The switch to two holding players gave Celtic a four man box – Majstorovic, Mulgrew, Kayal and Ki – who were able to comfortably pass the ball around the Rangers pair of Diouf and Jelavic – a 4 v. 2 situation. The centre-backs could now pass the ball out of defence rather than be forced to go long.

Celtic's 'box' allows them to pass the ball around the Rangers pair of Diouf and Jelavic. 4v. 2

This was helped by Commons’ move infield to play ‘in the hole’…

Commons creates uncertainty

Beforehand, Rangers had no opposition player operating between their midfield and defence and found it easy to deal with the isolated Gary Hooper. With Commons now here, the Rangers midfield had an extra threat to worry about behind them, without which they may have still been able to close off Celtic’s new deep passing options of Ki and Kayal. Common’s clever movement ‘between the lines’ caused the Rangers midfield to drop back and stay close to their defence in an attempt minimise space. This not only helped contribute to the above 4 v. 2 situation but also allowed Ki and Kayal – who enjoyed a 2 v. 1 against Diouf –  to comfortably carry the ball into the Rangers half. In addition, Celtic had the potential to create a 2 v. 2 involving Commons and Hooper against Bougherra and Weir – a dangerous situation for a defending side.

Kayal and Ki enjoy a 2 v. 1 situation against Diouf (blue)

Rangers forced to defend even deeper

As well as the uncertainty created by his clever movement between the lines, Commons’ positional switch allowed Hooper to play on the shoulder of the Rangers’ defence. His superior pace was no doubt a worry for them and so they retreated closer to their own goal and – for the reason discussed above (Commons’ movement) – took their midfield with them. Again, this helped with the 4 v. 2 and 2 v. 1 situations already discussed. In addition, Celtic’s own midfield could push further forward, closer to Hooper and to the Rangers’ goal. Ledley, Brown and Commons could make attacking runs into the box from higher starting positions.

Rangers now very deep. Lots of room for Kayal and Ki (both green). Jelavic (blue) is Rangers' furtherst forward player

Fullbacks able to offer more of a threat

As Rangers dropped deeper, they also got narrower. This, coupled with Celtic pushing forward, meant that not only was there more room for the Celtic fullbacks to exploit, but they were starting their forward runs from more advanced positions. Both Emilio and Wilson overlapped tirelessly.

Rangers deep and narrow. Gives a high starting position for Emilio (yellow) and lots of space in front of him (yellow area). The Kayal and Ki (green) v. Diouf (blue) situation can be seen again too.

All of the above combine for equaliser

The changes described above, that resulted from Lennon’s tactical reshuffle, all combined in the lead up to Celtic’s equaliser. Kayal and Ki brought the ball into the Rangers half and the Korean layed the ball left to Emilio Izaguirre, now able to take up an advanced position and in a decent amount of space. His attempted through ball deflected into the path of Joe Ledley, who had made a run into the penalty box. The Welshman pulled it back for Commons’ – whose tricky movement had eluded any Rangers marker – to arrive late in the area and score. Perhaps the injured Lee McCulloch would have provided better protection than Ness or Edu, with Walter Smith alluding to the problems created by McCulloch’s absence after the match. “I don’t think there’s any doubt we missed Lee at the weekend and the stability he provides. If you were looking at him over the period, I think he was heading towards being our Player of the Year this term. Maurice Edu and Jamie Ness are different types of players but we’ll have to try to cover that area if we are to be without Lee, ” Smith said.

Ki (green) moves into Rangers half and passes to Emilio (yelow). Notice also Commons (red) finding a pocket of space behind the Rangers midfield...

...and Commons (red) continues untracked by the Rangers midfield (all blue) before arriving in the box to tap in Ledley's pull back

Rangers forced into change of their own

Celtic were well in control, with the stats now regularly showing figures approaching a staggering 70% in their favour. Jelavic was now receiving high balls much further away from Celtic’s goal, and he generally looked very uncomfortable when in possession in these much less threatening areas. The home side were being totally outplayed and so Smith was forced into a change. Just as at the beginning of the game, he re-shaped his side’s midfield so that it mirrored Celtic’s. Davis and Ness were moved into advanced central positions, closer to the Celtic pair of Kayal and Ki while Diouf and Naismith moved to the left and rightt respectively. Maurice Edu dropped into a holding role in front of the Rangers defence, meaning he could track Commons’ runs and also limit the potential of a Commons- Hooper v. Bougherra-Weir 2 v. 2.

Ness and Davis (both blue) can now close down Kayal and Ki (both green). Commons (red) is marked by Edu (just off screen). Emilio (yellow) is still very advanced, as is Wilson on other flank (off screen)

As the picture shows, Kayal and Ki were now under more pressure and their defence – with the fullbacks pushing forward – are in a more precarious position should possession be lost. This eventually happened and it is what led to the Rangers penalty. Commons lost the ball in midfield with the Celtic centre-backs exposed due to the forward runs of their fullbacks. The two centre-backs were left to cover the width of the field and gradually parted, leaving a space in the middle for Naismith to dart into and his run was found by Jelavic’s through-ball. He was through on goal and was brought down by Fraser Forster – who was sent off for the challenge – in the area and Whittaker stuck away the resultant penalty. It was a good example of how Celtic still have it within themselves to be their own worst enemy at times.

Kris Commons was the outfielder sacrificed so that Celtic could bring on substitute goalkeeper, Lukasz Zaluska, meaning an enforced switch in formation to 4-4-1 and they managed to keep the score at 2-1 against a rejuvenated Rangers until half-time.

Second Half – Celtic dominate despite being a man down

Rangers took to the field for the second half in the same way that they ended the first. In typical Smith fashion, they looked to hold their lead and continued to defend deep and narrow, with the same lineup and formation. Celtic kept the same set of players and formation as well, but now with a noticeably greater flexibility to its shape, both with and without the ball. These changes were clearly the result of half-time instructions from the management team. When defending deep, they lined up in two banks of four – with Hooper staying up or occasionally dropping back to help out – and kept compact and narrow as a unit. Rangers’ conservative nature and intention to hold onto their lead meant that they only ever had a maximum of five players in attack against Celtic’s eight in defence. Therefore, Celtic were largely comfortable when defending deep.

Celtic's compact and narrow '2 banks of 4'. Rangers only have 5 men in Celtic's half.

However, when they looked to win the ball high up the pitch, there was a definite change in shape. This is easier to explain with the help of diagrams than with text alone:

Diagram 1: Celtic's 10-man high pressing when ball was on left.

The side of the pitch on which the ball is on is known as ‘the strong side’, while the other is called ‘the weak side’. Usually, when a team presses the strong side, their players on the weak side drop deeper. As the above image shows, when the strong side is on Celtic’s left, Joe Ledley would join Gary Hooper as an auxiliary front man and together they would press the back four. Left-back, Emilio Izaguirre, would shift upwards to keep four in midfield while on the weak side, Wilson stays back to make a three man defence. When the ball was on the right, the same would occur but with the right-sided players shifting forwards while the left-sided ones stay back:

Diagram 2: Celtic's 10-man high pressing when ball was on right


This way, Celtic were able to retain the same amount of pressure as a side with eleven players.

When in possession Celtic’s midfield stayed narrow with width provided by the fullbacks, much in the same way as we saw in the first half. They were up against a Rangers side largely intent on sitting back in numbers, keeping to their 4-1-4-1 formation and defending deep and narrow. So again, Wilson and Emilio had space to move into and advanced positions from which to start their attacking runs. Their tireless overlapping allowed Celtic to create a 6 v. 5 situation in midfield (sometimes a 7 v. 5 when Hooper dropped deep) and was a large contributing factor to Celtic’s dominance in possession (which continued to approach 70%). When both went forward it left two (Majstorovic and Mulgrew) in Celtic’s back-line but this wasn’t that much of a risk due to Rangers’ negativity, with the pair up against an isolated Jelavic, who was often a long way from his midfield as well as the Celtic goal. He had a difficult job and must get some credit for occasionally posing a threat single-handedly.

Rangers deep and narrow, with Jelavic (off screen) a long way from his team mates. Lots of space on flanks for Emilio (yellow) and Wilson (green).

In addition to the width provided by the fullbacks, Celtic’s midfield were very fluid, with a lot of off-the-ball movement and position switching. This provided the ball carrier with number of passing options and is another reason for Celtic keeping hold of the ball so well. It is an interesting development to see a midfield containing what are essentially four central midfielders play in this way, with each always looking for a pass rather than the ‘head down and run’ approach employed by some of our wingers.


An example of Celtic's midfield fluidity, position switching and passing angles.

Lennon throws the dice

Despite this dominance in possession, Celtic – whilst looking threatening – were finding it difficult to carve open the Rangers defence. When the fullbacks got into good crossing positions there was often only an outnumbered Hooper to aim for in the penalty area. He needed more support up front and so on the hour mark, Giorgios Samaras was introduced in place of Beram Kayal. It seemed a risky move but it was a necessary one and it meant another change in formation to Lennon’s side, to something approaching a 4-3-1-1. Samaras went up front to spear-head Celtic’s attack, while Hooper dropped in just behind him, with Ledley, Ki and Brown forming a midfield trio and the back four staying the same. Wilson and Emilio continued to provided width up and down the flanks. Celtic started to press higher more frequently, in similar fashion to that shown in Diagram 1 & 2, but now with more players committed into Rangers’ half.


Celtic's high pressing continues as in Diagrams 1 & 2, but becomes more frequent and aggressive. Here when the ball is on their left...

... and here when the ball is on the right.

The substitution meant Ledley and Brown had larger areas to cover in attack and defence and the pair dealt with the extra workload admirably. In particular Brown, who also now took over Kayal’s role of forming the ‘box’ with Ki, Mulgrew and Majstorovic. He was practically playing the role of two players and showed fantastic energy levels to cover the large distances in order to do so.


Brown (green) comes back to form the 'box' with Ki, Mulgrew and Majstorovic

Samaras’ introduction meant Celtic now had an aerial presence – with a better target in the box and with Hooper now able to run onto his flick-ons – and more pace to worry the comparatively slow Rangers’ defence. Perhaps having flashbacks to the torment he caused in the Ne’erday Derby, the Rangers’ defence retreated further towards their own goal and invited even more pressure from Celtic. This culminated in Emilio taking advantage of the increasing space on the flanks before putting a cross which was half cleared, possibly due to the added physical presence of Samaras. Rangers’ were so defensive now that they had eight players in their own penalty box but neglected to pick up Brown, who was free on the edge of the box. The ball was eventually worked out him and he had time to pick his spot, curling a left-footed shot into the far left corner. It was an excellent strike and if anybody deserved a goal based on their performance, it was the captain.


Rangers' 8 players in their own box while Brown (green) is in space on the edge of the box

Celtic continued to dominate and go in search of a winning goal, which they may have got had Samaras not incorrectly been ruled out for offside when through on goal. His introduction did allow Celtic to pose more of a threat in attack but also meant they were more open defensively, with the centre-backs now receiving less protection due to the departure of Kayal. This meant that when Celtic lost the ball, Rangers were able to threaten through quick breaks involving their quicker players, such as Steven Naismith. However, one of these occasions that he found himself in an advanced position, he shamelessy dived to the ground in search of another penalty. The referee rightly awarded him his second yellow card – the first for a reckless tackle – and the Scotland international was given his marching orders. Rangers’ responded by introducing Vladimir Weiss and Kyle Lafferty in place of Diouf and Jelavic respectively, but these substitutions did little to alter their game-plan. They switched to a 4-4-1 formation – though a far more defensive minded one than Celtic’s – with Weiss going to the left-wing and Lafferty taking over the role as the lone front-man. Aside from one break where Weiss’  long range shot troubled Zaluska, Rangers were intent on keeping the score at 2-2, and managed to hold out for the rest of the game.


It was an exciting game, full of the kind of drama that one expects when these two sides meet. Celtic’s possession and style of play probably deserved more than just a draw, but given that they were a man down and came from behind it can still be viewed as an excellent result. Rangers’ were perhaps too negative in their approach but this may also indicate a growing respect for Celtic’s attacking prowess. The game had numerous tactical switches and, unlike in the meeting at Celtic Park in October, Lennon showed he has the tactical nous to outmanoeuvre Smith. We look forward to the replay…




Whittaker, Bougherra, Weir, Papac;

Davis, Ness, Edu, Naismith;

Diouf (Weiss 76);

Jelavic (Lafferty 76)

Subs not used: Alexander, Healy, Bartley


Forster (Zaluska 39);

Wilson, Majstorovic, Mulgrew, Izaguirre;

Brown, Ki, Kayal (Samaras 62), Ledley, Commons;


Subs not used: Loovens, Stokes, Carey

11 Comments leave one →
  1. shanghiedbhoy permalink
    February 10, 2011 12:43 am

    Excellent analysis, as ever. Really appreciate your efforts to enlighten myself and other fans of the great game. There is cetainly a number of tactical and personnel permetations available to the manager with the likes of Samaras, Forrest, Stokes, McCourt (and even Ljundberg) eager for a starting position; would you suggest that perhaps there isn’t a ‘strongest’ starting eleven given such a wealth of talent (relatively speaking, in the context of the SPL) and that the line-up will continue to be set-up for particular games?

    • February 10, 2011 12:13 pm

      Thanks, I was worried that I over did it with the length but glad it’s been appreciated.

      I agree that there probably isn’t a set strongest XI, and instead certain lineups for certain types of opponents. I would suggest that the midfield and strike partnership that took apart Hearts (Commons, McCourt and Forrest fighting out for the one wing spot), with Izaguirre and Wilson at fullback, is our best lineup for opponents other than Rangers. If we go one up front (as is likely against Rangers due their usual packing of the midfield) then our best bet is Samaras as he, so far, has shown he is most competent at that role (though I’d be interested to see if Hooper could have a few more go’s at it).
      So yes, I think the lineup will change for particular games and we will rotate using the depth of players available. We probably don’t have an XI who we can be sure will go out and get result, no matter the opponents. But who does?

      One thing we do seem to be developing is a strong ‘spine’ around which the rest of the lineup is built. In that spine I’d include Izaguirre, Kayal, Brown, Hooper and possibly Ledley. Not sure about Majstorovic being part of that due to his age. So to that spine we need to add a permanent goalkeeper and a centre-back (or two) – Kelvin Wilson?

  2. Darth Vidar permalink
    February 10, 2011 1:20 pm

    Not read the article yet…but will pore over it later…looks really in-depth as usual.

    But…just a quick question…and it may seem trite.

    Would you consider changing the picture on your banner. Probably every Celtic fans most disappointing image recently is of Tony Mowbray, head bowed, with not a clue what to do next. It was the defining image of his reign at the club. Just wondered why you would choose this pic seeing as all the negative connotations it holds. You want a bold(er) picture of Lennon surely. Or a team celebration picture?

    Maybe you are not technically inclined to put a new one their, or don’t have the time. People on forums are usually keen to help a fellow Celt? What do you say. Or am I just being silly?

    PS – any word on News now links?

    • February 10, 2011 3:11 pm

      It’s actually something I’ve been thinking about doing recently. At the time at started this blog I thought putting the most recent manager in the logo seemed quite relevant. He’s a good example of a manager who went wrong while Lennon was seen as the future and one who (hopefully) would go well.
      I was going to change it season by season with the next hopefully being Lennon holding a trophy. But now Mowbray maybe seems too distant a memory to be relevant so I may consider changing it sooner. good to know peoples thoughts on this anyway.

      • February 10, 2011 4:19 pm

        oh and on the newsnow thing, I tried a little while ago but had no success. since then I’ve made a couple little additions and tried again just the other day. here’s hoping I get on there this time!

  3. Darth Vidar permalink
    February 10, 2011 1:21 pm

    *there (christ)

  4. Jean-Pierre LeGuerre permalink
    February 10, 2011 11:33 pm

    A Big result like this one, needs Big analysis – so good to see your usual thoroughness has been enhanced even further for this one.

    The physical conditioning of the side seemed particularly good – any idea who is now in charge of the Sports Science dept at the Club? I know that the previous guy Gregory Dupont left about a year ago – has he been replaced?

    One word of caution though – there has been a lot of crowing from the rooftops, but we only ended up with a draw. Winning is all that matters, and in this Cup-tie, we haven’t done that yet. We conceded twice, and the lead-up to the penalty was some shocking play from Celtic, where we conceded possession and yardage very cheaply. This battle is far from over, and the ‘winning culture’ that Neil Lennon is trying to develop is already deeply ingrained through the whole of rangers FC. They are a poor quality side, but they are far from beaten.

  5. thebigyin permalink
    February 11, 2011 7:41 am

    Congratulations on very detailed and thought proving analysis which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.
    We are still work in process but we have shown that we are learning fast with such a surprisingly young collection of players.
    I can see this group ruling the roost of the spl for a number of years to come and hopefully re-establshing themselves in Europe.
    However as pointed out in earlier posts, we have won nothing yet but the signs are very very promising, again my sincere appreciation for the quality of work you have produced here.

  6. JeanPierre LeGuerre permalink
    February 11, 2011 10:00 am

    TicTactics – I have re-read the article this morning, and it really is excellent. Superb use of photographs to illustrate the shape of the 2 sides during the game.

    Keep up the good work.


  7. February 11, 2011 12:24 pm

    thanks very much for the comments.

    as appears to be the general feeling, we are making progress as a side but must not get carried away.
    the players are developing that winning mentality but rangers have already had it for a good few years and won’t give up the title easily.

    however, it is difficult not to get excited about this young squad – and management team – and we have reason to be optimistic about how they could fare in europe.

    good point about the physical conditioning of players. the head of sports science is a guy called kenny mcmillan, who used to work for aston villa and newcastle and also consulted with the new zealand rugby team.

  8. JeanPierre LeGuerre permalink
    February 11, 2011 1:05 pm

    good point about the physical conditioning of players. the head of sports science is a guy called kenny mcmillan, who used to work for aston villa and newcastle and also consulted with the new zealand rugby team.

    Thanks. This sounds interesting. Am a keen rugby fan myself so will do a bit of digging. Neil lennon said it was important to sort out the sports science side of things, and it is. These sort of things are variables we can control as a Club. we can’t afford the best players, but we can buy good athletes, and make sure they are the fittest.

    Going down to 10 men had (physically) no impact whatsoever. the team actually went up through the gears, and ran the full complement of rangers players, ragged. There didn’t appear to be any instances of cramp etc – the players simply upped the pace and kept going. Good to see.

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