With Daniel Majstorovic ruled out for up to eight weeks, manager Neil Lennon may opt for the experience of Glenn Loovens over Thomas Rogne. Georgios Samaras doesn’t get many starts for Celtic these days but has started in the last three Old Firm matches, meaning he will likely form a front two with Gary Hooper in attack. Beram Kayal, Kris Commons and Scott Brown, who returns from suspension, will form the midfield along with either Ki Sung-Yeung or Joe Ledley. It will be interesting to see whether Lennon decides to go with playmaker Ki, who can dictate the tempo, or whether he predicts a tough midfield battle and favours the more industrious Ledley. Ledley may just edge it due to his brace against Inverness on Wednesday but either way Celtic should begin with their lopsided 4-4-2 which over the last month has evolved into more of a 4-2-2-2, but more on that below.
For Rangers, Steven Naismith is back from injury but may not be ready to start. Against Kilmarnock on Sunday, Walter Smith lined-up Rangers in a 5-3-2/3-5-2 formation with Diouf just off Jelavic in attack, but has favoured 5-4-1 against better opposition. Bougherra, Weir and Bartley will no doubt form the back three with Ricky Foster and Sasa Papac at wing-back. Smith must then chose between the two formations. Given Diouf’s tendency to drift away from his starting position, and the way Izaguirre exploited this when Celtic ran out 3-0 winners last month, Smith has a decision to make regarding how he fits the temperamental Senegalese forward into his line-up, if at all.
Celtic’s evolving 4-4-2
In that match, Celtic were able to play 4-4-2 without finding themselves overmanned in the centre of the pitch. This was due to Scott Brown playing a more tucked-in right–sided midfield role, effectively giving them a central midfield three, with Commons wider and more advanced in a lopsided shape.
Their last three matches, however, have seen Brown slightly more advanced and Commons playing narrower. This has made their formation resemble Villarreal’s 4-2-2-2, with two holding midfielders and two tucked-in wingers (although in Celtic’s case, one attacking midfielder and one tucked-in winger).
With the liberalisation of the offside law in 2005, which has seen the amount of offsides per match drop dramatically, high defensive lines are used less regularly meaning that games have become more stretched, leaving more space in the centre of the pitch. Most teams have reacted to this by introducing ‘four band’ formations – for instance, 4-2-3-1, the predominant formation at last year’s World Cup, as opposed to 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 – splitting their midfield into two parts. Neil Lennon’s 4-2-2-2 allows for this fourth band while retaining a 4-4-2 shape of sorts. This means he can field two, as opposed to one, strikers against the three centre-backs of Rangers.
The 4-2-2-2 obviously lacks width in the midfield but as is now the trademark of Lennon’s Celtic, the full-backs habitually scurry up and down the wings, play as wingers for large parts of matches and sometimes even find themselves in the opposition penalty area. For example, Celtic’s goal in their latest victory over Rangers involved a cross from Izaguirre that was finished, eventually, by Wilson. Scott Brown’s goal came about in a similar manner when he equalised in the 2-2 draw at Ibrox last month.
With a few exceptions, Celtic’s team more or less picks itself. What is less predictable is how Lennon will approach the match. It will be interesting to see whether Celtic come firing out of the blocks or whether they’ll, knowing that Rangers will almost certainly get plenty men behind the ball and keep it tight early on, be patient enough to enjoy long spells of possession and try to work openings without forcing them.
One thing is for sure, Lennon is never afraid to change his system or his strategy early on when things aren’t going his way. Against Hamilton two weeks ago he switched to a 4-3-3 midway through the first half and in the 2-2 draw with Rangers, he changed the position of several players with less than fifteen minutes played.
Key player – Scott Brown
One of the other key factors to the success of Celtic recently has been the revival of Scott Brown. In January, Craig Fowler criticised the ex-Hibernian midfielder on The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast website for failing to sustain his form after his £4.5m transfer. This can, at least partly, be explained by the majority of his time at Celtic Park being served as one half of a central midfield two. Due to the stretching of the game mentioned earlier, midfielders can no longer play the box-to-box role as effectively. This has caused most midifelders to adopt a more specialised role as either deep-lying or attacking. It seems that his lack of form was as much down to the type of 4-4-2 employed by Celtic during most of his spell there as Brown’s inability to ‘specialise’ himself adequately. Recently though, Lennon has tweaked his formation and allowed Brown to become more specialised. He has now hit form as one of the attacking midfielders, knowing that the likes of Kayal provide an anchor in midfield that lets him get at opposition defences.
Rangers have more attacking options now
With a number of key players returning from injury, Walter Smith now has more attacking options at his disposal. The five-man defence will line-up as usual but it is the midfield and attack where Rangers suddenly have competition for places. In the attacking areas, Smith now has Jelavic, Diouf, Lafferty, Naismith, Weiss and Healy to choose from.
Nikica Jelavic will lead the line but then it would appear that Smith has four options regarding the set-up of his midfield. Option one is of fielding two deep-lying central midfielders flanked by two wingers can be dismissed out-of-hand. Smith attempted something similar in the 3-0 defeat at Celtic Park, albeit with Kyle Bartley as a defensive midfielder rather than centre-back, and found his side severely exposed down the wings. He will no doubt avoid this given the threat of Izaguirre and Wilson from full-back.
The second option would be to again play four across the midfield but instead play a winger on one side and a more defensive-minded midfielder on the other. For instance, Diouf on the left with Steven Whittaker tracking Izaguirre’s runs and providing protection and cover to Ricky Foster. This would allow Rangers’ deep-lying central midfielders to match up man-for-man against Commons and Brown but would leave space for Kayal and Ki/Ledley. In such a midfield four Diouf, if selected, would be the main source of support for Jelavic but has shown his inability to put in a disciplined defensive performance and his lack of tracking back would afford the central midfield two of Celtic the time and space to dictate.
Option three is a variant on option two and, therefore, falls foul of the same problems. Considering this is a cup final, Rangers may ditch their ultra-defensive approach, knowing that gambling on penalties may be too risky, and be slightly more enterprising in their approach. The formation would involve a deep-lying, three-man central midfield - most likely Davis, Edu and Whittaker – with Diouf or Naismith just off Jelavic but with the freedom to roam. This option would allow the central midfield to help out their wing-backs in tracking Wilson and Izaguirre but in turn would leave gaps in the centre of the pitch for Commons and Brown to exploit. A knock on effect of this is for one of the central defenders to step out, leaving space in-behind which could be dangerous.
Finally, there is the ultra-defensive approach preferred in the previous Old Firm and in most European matches this season that involves a bank of four relatively defensive midfielders in front of the back five, although one, usually the left-sided midfielder, pushes on more than the others. This may very well be the set-up Smith opts for, at least in the early stages of the match, as it stifles the central areas that Celtic’s front four operate in while also providing scope for doubling up on their troublesome full-backs. This would again allow Celtic’s central midfield two time and space but would make it much more difficult for them to work openings. The strategy may then be to keep the score at 0-0, introduce the likes of Weiss and Naismith as the match progress and Celtic become tired, knowing that they are the type of player that can create a yard of space and hurt opposition defences.
Key player – Madjid Bougherra
A recent article by Jude Ellery on Defensive Minded noted that Chelsea’s signing of David Luiz marked the revival of the libero, an attack-minded defender, but under a different guise in modern times. Whereas during the eighties and nineties the libero was a sweeper who would bring the ball out from defence and start off attacks, the more modern role is almost invariably a centre-back doing the same. As well as a strong defensive presence, an attacking option is something Bougherra has offered during his time at Rangers, although less so this year due to the absence of Lee McCulloch who would usually sit in front of the Rangers defence and slot in seamlessly when required.
Bougherra could often be found playing one-twos around the halfway line and providing overlaps on the right wing. There was recent evidence of this coming back into Bougherra’s game in Rangers’ match against Kilmarnock last week, and in a 5-4-1, when required, he may be able to revive his meandering runs more often, knowing that he has two centre-backs and ample cover from the midfield.
No matter how each team line up, the respective strategies, initially at least, will be for Rangers to keep it tight and for Celtic dominate possession. Whether Lennon instructs his side to heap pressure on Rangers early on or else remain patient will be interesting to see, but whatever it is, we have seen in the past that he is not afraid to switch shape early on in matches if the initial tactics are not working.
Rangers will get plenty men behind the ball and defend for the opening stages of the match. The main question will be whether this executed with a bank of four disciplined midfielders or else three such midfielders with one deployed in a more liberated role. Smith then has options from the bench, something lacking in recent weeks, that can force openings and create opportunities when the game wears on and becomes stretched.
*Since writing this article it has come to light that Bartley and Lafferty will miss the match due to injury, in which case Rangers will be influenced by their second half performance against PSV and probably include Kyle Hutton as a defensive midfielder in a 4-5-1 formation. Another option would be to reatin the 5-4-1 and move Saca Papac into the centre of defence. This would mean Steven Whittaker taking up the left wing-back role and Hutton coming into midfield. The injury to Lafferty means that Steven Naismith will almost certainly start the match.