Revealed! The key defensive difference that has allowed Rangers to steal a march on Celtic this season

Sunday’s comfortable 2-0 win against Livingston was enough to ensure that Rangers opened up a six-point gap over Celtic at the top of the Scottish Premiership table this weekend.

Rangers Manager Steven Gerrard (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Rangers Manager Steven Gerrard (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

The Hoops had dropped points away at Aberdeen earlier in the day after a stoppage time penalty from Lewis Ferguson saw them pegged back in a thrilling 3-3 draw.

That slip-up allowed Steven Gerrard’s men the opportunity to further enhance their title credentials thanks to a pair of first half goals from Joe Aribo and Jermain Defoe.

Rangers: Get the latest team news, match previews and reports

Rangers: Get the latest team news, match previews and reports

From Celtic’s point of view, it was a third straight game without a win in all competitions, and the concern at Parkhead will be that the crown they have worn for so long is beginning to slip just a little.

In large part, that has been due to the eye-catching form that the Gers have themselves produced so far this term.

The Ibrox side are still unbeaten in the league, and have only conceded three goals – seven fewer than their city rivals.

And that defensive solidity has, upon first glance, been the foundation of Rangers’ success in 2020/21.

Both Glasgow clubs have hit 28 goals in the Premiership so far this term – although Celtic have reached that tally in one game fewer – and it is, therefore, the Gers’ ability to shut out an opposition that has seemingly given them the edge of late.

That superiority is reflected in the stats too – just about.

As per Wyscout, Gerrard’s side have indeed outstripped the Hoops in several key aspects of their defensive play, but the gap between the two sides is not as large as you may initially assume.

Rangers, for instance, have won a higher percentage of their defensive duels, but Lennon’s men have won just 2.1% fewer.

Likewise, the Gers have made more interceptions per 90 minutes so far this season, but the difference between the two teams is a minimal 0.33.

It begs the question as to why Gerrard’s side are conceding so many goals fewer than Celtic.

A closer look at the data would suggest, however, that Rangers are having so much joy defensively because they are putting in the hard work further up the field.

The Light Blues have a superior Match Tempo Index compared to the Bhoys, meaning that they move the ball quicker in attacking phases, but also harry and hassle their opponents more readily when they aren’t in possession.

The effect of that extra work rate across the pitch is that it forces sides into looking for longer, more speculative passing and shooting options on a more regular basis.

So far this season, teams that the Gers have come up against have, on average, shot from 0.81 yards further out, and have played passes that are 0.25 yards longer than sides facing Celtic.

On a basic level, that it is always going to make it more likely that they concede fewer goals per game.

Again, the difference between the two sides in terms of xCG – the number of goals they are expected to concede per 90 minutes – reflects that.

Celtic have an xCG of 0.96, meaning that they are giving away enough chances to justify just shy of one goal against them per game.

Rangers, by comparison, have an xCG that is almost 0.3 better than their rivals.

Of course, there are numerous other factors that have helped the Gers to build up such an admirable head of steam in the opening stages of this season, but the early evidence suggests that there is a greater level of intensity in the way that Steven Gerrard and his side are approaching this campaign, and with a six-point lead at the summit and an enviably watertight defence, it looks to be yielding results.