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The most consistent criticism of Brendan Rodgers during his time at Celtic was his inability or unwillingness to alter tactics for big games. In contrast to this, his successor, Neil Lennon, adapted tactically for his greatest test since returning to Parkhead, helping his team to a crucial 2-1 win over Rangers on Sunday that all but secured an eighth successive Scottish Premiership title.
In the previous Old Firm derby, which took place at Ibrox in December, the reigning champions were unable to impose their usual style on the game. Their rivals, led by Steven Gerrard, sealed a 1-0 win after implementing an aggressive high press that enabled them control of the contest.
Rangers’ pressing on that day went as follows: Alfredo Morelos split the Celtic centre-backs while closing down the defender in possession; there was essentially man-to-man coverage in midfield; and the wingers – Ryan Kent and Daniel Candeias – took up threatening positions in the channels before closing down Celtic’s full-backs from inside to out, forcing them to go aimlessly long.
Rodgers failed to adapt during that match, but Lennon wasn’t about to make the same mistake last weekend. He decided to opt for a slightly more direct attacking approach that not only helped to bypass the opposition’s intense pressing but actively looked to exploit open spaces in behind their back four.
This change didn’t come without warning. The Celtic boss, who was installed on 26 February on an interim basis until the end of the season, spoke of a need to be more progressive in possession following his first game back in charge – a 2-1 win away to Heart of Midlothian.
“If we are getting pressed then [we] might have to play through the press, rather than play in front of the press”, he told Rory Price of 90 Minute Cynic. “I’m not [going to stop us playing out from the back], I’m just going to try and stop [us] putting ourselves under unnecessary pressure.”
Lennon wanted his players to be braver on the ball and go for the penetrative option quicker, rather than simply holding onto the ball for the sake of it and inviting opponents to press high. This desire manifested itself against Rangers in a few different ways.
Celtic still looked to build out from the back on Sunday, though they did show an increased willingness to go long. This was perhaps seen most obviously through the kicking decisions of goalkeeper Scott Bain.
Often, particularly after back-passes to him had triggered Gerrard’s men to move up, the 27-year-old went long and wide out towards the touchlines, as opposed to passing sideways or short out to one of his central defensive teammates. He primarily aimed for right-back Mikael Lustig, with five of his six long passes going towards the Swede.
Indeed, Bain’s first real attacking contribution was a diagonal out to the tall full-back. This forced opposition left winger Kent to drop and cover rather than press higher. To summarise, the Celtic shot-stopper’s long passes forced Rangers back and prevented them from pressing high as they did so successfully in the previous derby.
Statistics help to give a fuller picture of how Lennon’s build-up modification affected the game.
Of Bain’s 18 passes on Sunday, 33.3 per cent were long. Only twice in his other 12 league outings this term has his long pass percentage been higher than that. This greater directness from the back helped Celtic to bypass the high press of Rangers, which had a positive impact on their ball loss numbers.
At Ibrox in December, they suffered 26 ‘low’ turnovers (in their defensive third of the pitch), 51 ‘medium’ turnovers (in the middle third), and 23 ‘high’ turnovers (in their attacking third). However, last weekend they lost the ball just 14 times low and 25 times in the middle, with the majority of their ball losses (56) coming high up the field.
Lennon’s emphasis on greater directness continued throughout his team’s attacking phase in the 2-1 win.
Rangers were able to pin Celtic back so effectively in December in part because once they had forced Celtic’s build-up wide, their full-backs aggressively closed their opposite wingers, meaning James Forrest and Scott Sinclair had no time to control and turn on the ball. This continued on Sunday, though it was frequently taken advantage of by the home side.
Lennon had his players target the space behind the Rangers full-backs, looking for Odsonne Edouard with balls over the top rather than always playing down the line to the feet of man-marked wingers. This often gave the French hitman a foot race or a 1v1 situation with Connor Goldson or Joe Worrall which he almost always won.
This ploy was particularly noticeable on the left-hand side, with left-back Kieran Tierney playing a few of these types of pass for the lone striker to run onto. And, even if the frontman couldn’t get on the end of them, it turned the visitors’ defence and took away any opportunity for them to press near the touchline.
On top of their longer approach in organised possession, Celtic were direct in attacking transition. Rather than re-establish control of the ball, they looked to play forward instantly to exploit the space available. To underline this, the only other time this season that they counter-attacked as often as they did on Sunday (seven times) was in Lennon’s return away to Hearts.
This quick countering style was seen clearly for the first goal.
After a failed Rangers attack, the ball fell to Forrest. Rather than take a touch or play backwards to a free teammate, he immediately played a first-time pass forwards to Edouard. With the opposition centre-backs disorganised, the Frenchman dribbled on before finishing to give his side the lead.
Clearly, Lennon’s wish for more progressive attacking became reality in the latest Old Firm derby. His side achieved their sixth-highest average pass length for the campaign, while playing their second-lowest amount of passes per minute. This is all the more noteworthy considering they spent almost half of the match with a one-man advantage after Morelos was sent off.
It may not have been Celtic at their scintillating best, but it was a clever tactical performance that showcased their interim manager’s willingness and ability to adapt for big games against tough opponents.