Why Ibrox domination was still another example of Celtic's top-to-bottom failings this season
Celtic were undoubtedly superior to Rangers at Ibrox. The home side, so utterly dominant in the league this season, could barely string three passes together for the opening hour.
Neil Lennon set his side up perfectly. Rather than being overrun on the wings due to the narrow diamond, the energy and dynamism of Ryan Christie and Callum McGregor on either side ensured Celtic always had the necessary cover. The movement of Odsonne Edouard and Leigh Griffiths up front also helped to stifle influential full-back tandem James Tavernier and Borna Barisic, who were expected to bombard the opposition box with crosses but were hesitant to vacate their defensive duties and leave the centre-backs in two-on-two situations. With this threat negated, it enabled Celtic’s midfield four to control the ebb and flow.
It was impressive and they should have won, but it wasn’t perfect and the failures of this season ultimately came back to bite them.
Firstly, the red card. It was a poor error from Nir Bitton to haul down Alfredo Morelos, but one we maybe shouldn’t have been too surprised to see. Bitton, as has already been proven, isn’t a centre-back on Celtic’s level. He was filling in because Christopher Jullien was injured in midweek and, crucially, because the much-maligned, marquee summer signing Shane Duffy couldn’t be trusted to start instead.
Elsewhere in defence, Jeremie Frimpong and Diego Laxalt had terrific games defensively at full-back and were relentless in their attacking support. But for the number of times they got into great positions they barely created a chance. That’s because neither has a consistent final ball. This season in the Scottish Premiership, Frimpong’s crossing accuracy sits at just 19 per cent (per Wyscout). Laxalt, signed for this exact purpose after Greg Taylor struggled in attack, has been successful on just 24 per cent of his attempts. Compare that to Rangers, who have Tavernier (31) and Barisic (44.5) and it’s a clear advantage for Steven Gerrard’s side. Had Celtic possessed Rangers’ full-backs on Saturday, they would’ve won easily.
The main reason they didn’t, even above the red card, was the play of Allan McGregor, who made a couple of tremendous stops in the first half. Now, Vasilis Barkas didn’t have much to do and certainly wasn’t at fault, but McGregor’s performance further highlighted a Parkhead issue. Rangers have a goalkeeper – arguably two with Jon McLaughlin an excellent understudy – who can win them points on his own. Celtic don’t and haven’t all season.
And finally, while Neil Lennon set up his side excellently from the outset, he didn’t seem to have a clear idea of how to combat the red card: haphazardly changing the shape and throwing on bodies.
Celtic were in control. Going 10 v 11 is a blow, but it doesn’t have to be a death knell. Gerrard himself showed that in his first season at Rangers where the Ibrox club continually had players sent off but lost few matches in which it happened.
Gerrard avoids doing what most managers do in such situations – leaving one isolated striker up front. This is exactly what Lennon did after Bitton’s early bath. Within seconds the hosts were in the ascendancy, and even though they’d been so poor for most of the game, the winning goal felt inevitable.
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