Article by Ben Griffis
The historic Old Firm of Scotland battled it out on May 2nd to a 4-1 Rangers victory. Rangers had already won the league and Celtic were guaranteed 2nd place, but this match’s meaning never changes based on league position or if titles/positions are at stake. For these storied clubs, this match is everything. Supporters demand victory for their club regardless of the players, managers, situation, or other factors surrounding the club at kickoff.
Yet, even with both teams’ league positions decided, the 5th and final Old Firm derby of the 2020/21 season had more at stake than most. While Rangers won the title almost two months ago on March 7th, they went into the match undefeated with 3 matches remaining and looking to complete only the second invincible season in modern Scottish football history, following Celtic’s 2016/17 undefeated season. Both clubs finished an 18-game season undefeated in the 1890s; 1897/98 (Celtic) and 1898/99 (Rangers).
Celtic were itching to be the team to beat Rangers this season. Celtic started the season looking to secure a landmark 10 league titles in a row, but a very poor season—relative to Celtic’s lofty standards—saw them knocked out of the Champions League qualifiers and finish bottom in their Europa League group, all while dropping points to teams they should have beaten and going through backroom issues that led to manager and former player Neil Lennon resigning in late February. John Kennedy, a long-time Celtic coach and assistant to Lennon, took over as interim manager after Lennon’s resignation. This is his first stint as manager of a club.
Rangers won their first title since 2010/11, having gone through administration in 2012 only to be accepted into the 4th tier of Scottish football for the 2012/13 season. After 3 promotions in 4 years to return to the top flight, they steadily built the club back to their former glory. Their manager, Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, is no small part of this growth.
This was the 5th derby of the season for the clubs, with Rangers winning 3—twice in the league and once in the Scottish Cup—and the clubs playing to a draw on the first match after Rangers clenched the title when Celtic dropped points to Dundee United on March 7th.
Rangers were without squad center backs Filip Helander and Leon Balogun as well as midfielder Scott Arfield. Celtic’s center back, Christopher Julien, was still out with a long-term knee injury.
The result mirrored both teams’ seasons well. A foul by Callum McGregor just outside the Celtic box led to Kemar Roofe’s opening goal a few seconds later after the ref played advantage. The ref showed McGregor his second yellow card during Rangers’ celebrations. Celtic were down to 10 men and trailing 1-0 in the 26th minute. Rangers never let up—nor did Celtic’s problems—and the match ended with a deserved 4-1 smashing for Rangers. Much like their season, Celtic were out of this match early on while Rangers stormed ahead.
Rangers Buildup and Attack
Rangers built up using a 4-4-2 diamond, with Davis dropping deeper than the other two midfielders. Kent stayed forward but roamed around to get into space in order to run at Celtic defenders. Barišić and Tavernier were very wide but not incredibly high and could come back in line with the center backs or midfielders to receive passes. Rangers used all sides of the pitch fairly regularly and did not favor a particular side, but tended to build up through the middle and finish attacks from the wings.
With Celtic defending in a high line, Rangers aimed to counter swiftly after winning the ball back. Typically, this involved players running at the Celtic defense at speed and then laying a pass or cross into space, attempting to catch Celtic defenders before regaining their shape.
Rangers players ran at Celtic players during attacks—as well as counters—with relative success. These runs, while not always beating the Celtic defender, pushed Celtic back and allowed more space for other players trying to pick up a second ball. Celtic defenders had particular trouble defending Kent’s runs, and by the end of the match Rangers’ players had control of the pitch entirely.
One of Kent’s runs led to both Callum McGregor’s second yellow and Kemar Roofe’s opening goal after 26 minutes. Kent eased past 2 defenders before pushing Celtic’s back line back a few yards. A challenge popped the ball out to Kamara, but McGregor made a bad challenge. Kent and Aribo played a 1-2 and Kent’s off-target shot was buried by Roofe. McGregor was sent off and Celtic were both a goal and a man down at once.
Rangers players running without the ball also caused issues for Celtic. Rangers aimed many crosses at a man running into the box from deep, but Celtic defenders did well to clear these dangerous balls between the back line and goalkeeper. Kemar Roofe’s 2nd goal, however, came from such a run that no defenders picked up on. Roofe ran from in front of the Celtic midfield line to behind the last defender. No Celtic player seemed to notice. Watch the video below to see how Roofe’s run made the goal so easy.
Another key attacking tactic Steven Gerrard employed—with great success—was allowing his players to use individual skill to beat their man. Celtic players all across the pitch dealt with this skill poorly, and 2 Rangers goals came directly from skill. Morelos’ goal in the 33rd minute came after he cut the ball inside at the edge of the box and between Scott Brown’s legs. A great finish in the near-side top corner saw Rangers take a 2-1 lead.
Jermaine Defoe’s goal and Rangers’ 4th also came after he twisted up Celtic defenders. Watch his goal below to see how easily he beat his man and passed the ball into the net.
Gerrard lined Rangers up in a similar 4-4-2 diamond they attacked with, though Aribo and Kamara could easily drop back into a 4-3-1-2 when Celtic pushed higher. In the early stages of the match, Rangers did not close down the ball carrier quickly, which led to a few Celtic chances—and one amazing McGregor save from an Elyounoussi shot—until Rangers’ first goal.
Rangers players, instead of pressing, positioned themselves to cut off Celtic’s passing lanes in the first half. This tactic was effective, stifling Celtic’s progression several times. The Celtic players were looking for Rangers to run at them and close them down, but they stood back and ensured their passing lanes were blocked. Celtic countered this with runs from center back Ajer, which Rangers seemed unable to handle.
Celtic’s goal came from a lack of awareness on Rangers’ part. A Celtic corner a minute after Rangers’ opener found Ajer in lots of space at the back post. Ajer headed it back across the goal to Édouard, who Berišić was marking but didn’t continue marking after the ball soared over his head. Édouard buried his close header to equalize.
As mentioned earlier, Rangers couldn’t defend Ajer’s runs with the ball into the box. Ajer made 3 runs with the ball from the center back position into or near the box and hardly had to beat a man to get into a dangerous position. No Rangers player seemed to know if they were supposed to pick up Ajer and left it to their teammates. This was poor planning on Gerrard’s part, as Ajer’s runs are a trademark of Celtic’s attack.
As the match went on, Rangers had less defensive work to do because Celtic could hardly keep possession. After Wright replaced the injured Berišić, Aribo slotted in a left back, but was not tested by Celtic players.
Celtic’s Buildup and Attack
John Kennedy used a very high line in buildup, starting most attacks from Welsh or Ajer. Before being sent off, McGregor would drop deep to act as a playmaker, with Brown remaining close to offer an option to move the ball up through dribbling. Both fullbacks stayed very high. Édouard came deep to play quick passes off of midfielders or wingers. Before Rangers’ opening goal, Celtic were fairly dominant in possession and played well-placed, quick passes between their players to move the ball up the pitch.
As noted above, Ajer made many runs from the back line. When he joined the attack, Brown would drop back and fill in next to Welsh. These runs allowed Celtic to have a target man in or around the box, so they would try to work the ball wide and cross it to Ajer. In the opening phases of the game this movement looked very dangerous, but Celtic couldn’t capitalize on it.
After McGregor’s sending off, Celtic built up similarly to before, but with Brown instead playing both his role and McGregor’s role of playmaker. Celtic changed their shape to a 4-3-2 after going down to 10 men, and this was seen in their buildup as well. The fullbacks stayed wide but didn’t push as high, remaining in line with Elyounoussi and Turnbull as Forrest formed a front 2 with Édouard.
As the second half progressed, Celtic found it increasingly difficult to keep possession and create chances. Despite this, however, Kennedy made the interesting decision to sub off Édouard—Celtic’s striker—and replace him with a winger, Mikey Johnston. This change didn’t work out, as Celtic still crossed the ball but lost Édouard’s size. Further, Johnston could have acted as a false 9, dropping between Rangers’ lines to pick a pass unmarked, but he remained with Rangers’ center backs when Celtic got the ball in the final third. This was a curious decision from the interim manager.
With 11 men on the pitch, Celtic defended in almost a 4-1-1-3-1, with Brown sitting deeper than McGregor. Both midfielders could run to press any onrushing Rangers player.
After McGregor’s sending off, Kennedy switched to a 4-3-2 defensive shape, which was fairly effective. Elyounoussi and Turnbull dropped in as wide midfielders but worked hard to shift central-wide-central as needed based on Rangers’ ball movement, so Rangers weren’t able to use their man advantage in buildup as much as they would have liked.
Celtic’s main defensive weakness was defending runs and individual skill, as discussed earlier. Celtic players all across the pitch had difficulties defending Kent, specifically, as well as Moreno, Aribo, Berišić, Roofe, and later Defoe. These players either made dangerous runs that Celtic defenders didn’t pick up, or they used their skill to beat their defender.
Again, watch Roofe’s second goal above to get a sense of how Celtic couldn’t properly defend runs, and watch Defoe’s goal to see how easily they are beaten with skill. While some skillful players are very difficult to defend against, there were multiple Celtic defenders each time. Further, for Moreno’s goal, after he beat Brown, Ajer should have closed Moreno down. Instead, Ajer waited for Moreno to move closer to Ajer, but he let loose a great strike. Had Ajer closed Moreno down sooner he may not have been able to get his shot off or it could have been blocked.
After not pressing urgently most of the second half, Celtic picked up the pace in the last 10 minutes. While this caused some issues for Rangers players, it was too little too late for Celtic. Had they pressed more urgently earlier in the half they might have had a few more chances.
While Celtic controlled much of the first 15 minutes, Rangers dominated the rest of the match, deservedly beating their fierce Glaswegian rivals 4-1. Rangers didn’t have to defend much after Celtic’s equalizer, but Gerrard’s decision to cut Celtic’s passing lanes early on was effective. Rangers’ ability to continuously beat Celtic defenders with runs or skill set the tone of the match. Celtic’s Ajer, however, caused many issues for Rangers with his own runs with the ball from center back.
Rangers now only need to draw or win against Livingston and Aberdeen to finish the season as unbeaten champions, which has only happened once in modern Scottish football history. If they play half as well as they did against Celtic, they will be favorites for it.
Finally, this was the 5th Old Firm derby of the 2020/21 season, and Rangers’ 4th victory. 1 draw earlier in the season means that Rangers finished this year’s Old Firm matches unbeaten—welcome ammunition for their supporters against a Celtic side who had previously won 9 titles in a row while Rangers were recovering from being relegated to the 4th tier of Scottish football in 2012.
Gerrard has been performing admirably at Rangers over the 3 seasons in charge of the club, winning the league this season and 7 manager of the month awards. Gerrard’s rebuilding of Rangers was no simple task in the face of a historically dominant Celtic side. While helped by Celtic’s internal and managerial problems recently, he has successfully brought Rangers back to the top of the league and brought back quality European nights to Ibrox. The only success left outstanding for Gerrard and Rangers are the Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup, which they have not won since their relegation to the 4th tier. Time will tell if Gerrard stays at Rangers much longer, but they will be well-placed to challenge for those cups next season.
Rangers’ stadium, Ibrox, where the match took place.