Rangers played up to the occasion, Celtic didn’t
The form of Hearts and Hibs in Edinburgh derbies over the past two-and-a-half seasons has given credence to the idea that derby fixtures, particularly in Scotland, are about hunger, desire and a willingness to outfight your opponent.
Prior to Sunday, Celtic’s quality had shone through in derby games, but so had their determination not to be bullied on the ball. They won the technical battle and the physical battle quite easily in the first two games, and would eventually do so again at Ibrox on Hogmanay after receiving an early scare.
This time around they were often too timid in their play, looking to keep possession rather than go for the jugular, while they allowed themselves to be thrown off their stride by a determined opponent. It’s no coincidence that Celtic’s man-of-the-match was Scott Brown, someone who never hides from confrontation and is always looking to push the pace of the game.
The same could be said for every member of the Rangers team. It was the type of performance fans have been crying out for all season. If they had delivered it more often the club wouldn’t be mired in third place, eight points adrift of Aberdeen and already mathematically eliminated from the title race.
Celtic’s centre-backs were their weak link
Celtic were thrown off their stride early in the contest when the champions-elect were uncharacteristically slack in their passing, particularly around the defence. Neither Erik Sviatchenko nor Dedryck Boyata are particularly comfortable on the ball, and they certainly don’t have the Virgil van Dijk-esque ability to take the play forward from the defence and make things happen.
Rangers played the two perfectly in possession. They got right in their faces and either forced them to knock it back to Craig Gordon, or into making a rushed pass out to one of the full-backs, who themselves would be immediately closed down.
While Boyata perhaps stood out a little more for the error which led to Martyn Waghorn’s first-half chance, it was Sviatchenko who would have the poorer game overall.
It’s now two Old Firm games in a row where the Danish stopper has failed to play to his usual standard, and with Jozo Simunovic fit again and on the substitutes bench, with Boyata in strong form following his return to the side, he may find himself out of the starting XI before the end of the season.
Rangers are more secure when they’re direct
Since the hair-raising early days where he resembled Bambi-on-ice rather than the sweeper-keeper Mark Warburton desired, Wes Foderingham has improved with the ball at his feet. However, it’s pretty apparent that distribution is never going to be one of his strong points, and the visitors looked more secure in defence when the goalkeeper thumped it long, rather than trying to find a team-mate with a quick throw or pass. Even when the ball sail errantly out of play, it still allowed the back-line to regroup. They could keep their shape and stop Celtic from creating anything clear cut.
For too long this team has mixed a lethal blend of poor defensive personnel with a telegraphed approach to playing it out from the back, and continued to drink the Kool-Aid regardless of the dire consequences.
New boss Pedro Caixinha is someone who wants his team to dominate games, but isn’t afraid to err on the side of pragmatism if it’s required. From what we witnessed on Sunday, that can only be a good thing for Rangers going forward.
Teams are learning to curtail Celtic’s left
In the last two games both St Mirren and now Rangers have had some joy by halting the flow of production down Celtic’s left flank. Only some joy, mind. This is still Celtic we’re talking about. But a little nonetheless.
It’s no secret that with Kieran Tierney and Scott Sinclair patrolling the area, the left side of Celtic’s attack is the strongest part of the starting XI. St Mirren tried their best to funnel attacks out to the opposing flank instead, and for 60 minutes it worked. Gary Mackay-Steven had tons of space, but couldn’t capitalise, while Sinclair found himself surrounded by opposing defenders whenever he touched the ball.
Though Rangers weren’t quite as obvious in their intentions, they still tried to do everything in their power to stop Tierney and Sinclair from winning the game. Deploying James Tavernier at right midfield, head-to-head with Tierney, certainly worked. The right-back has been heavily criticised for his defensive flaws over his Rangers career, but he’s actually pretty strong in one-on-one duels with opposition attackers. It’s his lack of positional sense that lets him down. With Lee Hodson behind him as fail safe, Tavernier was able to put in a more solid performance.
As for Sinclair, he never got to grips with the game at all. Arguably it was his poorest in a Celtic jersey. Though he starts on the left, he always likes to do his damage inside. But Rangers were ready for it every time. He was crowded out of possession by a sea of blue shirts on countless occasions, and failed to register a single shot at goal for the first time in domestic action since signing for the club.
One moment which highlighted just how out of sorts Celtic were came in the second period. Armstrong received the ball in midfield, quickly turned and curled a pass out to the left wing - and there was no-one there. Sinclair usually waits for Tierney to advance before attacking inside, but he’d decided to go early while the left-back stayed in defence, meaning Armstrong’s pass slid harmlessly out of play.
Nir Bitton is running out of chances
Despite Celtic leading at the half, Brendan Rodgers took the decision to withdraw the Israeli midfielder in place of Callum McGregor. While Celtic lost the second half 1-0, they enjoyed more possession and were able to pin Rangers backs for long periods. This was partially down to the energetic McGregor playing at a pace Bitton did not look comfortable with. The Israeli is undoubtedly the more technical gifted player, which is why he’s been given so many chances under Rodgers, but there’s been little sign of progress. While the rest of the team have stepped up a level or two since the manager’s arrival, Bitton has plateaued.
The midfielder had an excellent performance in the first Old Firm game this season, showing the kind of urgency in and out of possession he’s often criticised for lacking. However, that was the exception, not the norm. And this wasn’t the first derby where he’s been hooked before the end. It happened in the Betfred Cup semi-final where Armstrong’s introduction at Bitton’s expense gave the team a lift.
It’s unlikely McGregor will now come in and go strength to strength in the manner that his team-mate did, but with Eboue Kouassi waiting patiently in the wings, we could see less and less of Bitton as the season comes to an end.