How Brendan Rodgers went old school to earn win over Hearts
It was set up to be the most one-sided battering of a Ladbrokes Premiership season chock-full of humiliating defeats administered by Brendan Rodgers’ side on their way to the title.
Sure, it was the last day of the season, trophy-day for the champions. These occasions can often descend into mere processions, played out half-heartedly by a pair of sides with one eye on their summer holidays.
But after a couple of initial blips since securing the league title, Celtic have gone on an absolute tear: destroying Rangers and Partick Thistle, while swatting aside St Johnstone and Aberdeen with relative ease. What on earth were Ian Cathro’s Hearts going to put up as a sort of final-day resistance? How were they going to stop the champions becoming The Invincibles?
The visitors had taken only one point from their first four post-split fixtures - a 2-2 draw with ten-man Partick Thistle - and were coming into the match after a 1-0 defeat at St Johnstone, a match where Cathro got into a half-time bust-up with striker Bjorn Johnsen.
Fellow The Scotsman colleague Joel Sked remarked this game could end up seven or eight-nil to the home side. It was hard to disagree.
Instead, Hearts set themselves up perfectly during the first half. Tipped to go with a 3-5-2, they instead went for a defensively-resolute 5-4-1. Esmael Goncalves, starting on the left, and Don Cowie were supposed to push forward and support Johnsen from the wings, while the entire team would drop back when Celtic had the ball.
It had exactly the desired result. Neither Stuart Armstrong nor Scott Brown could find penetration from deep against a very narrow midfield four, while Callum McGregor was completely lost in the pack. On the flanks, Scott Sinclair and Patrick Roberts saw their forays infield well-marshalled, and Leigh Griffiths was starved of service in attack.
Hearts even threatened on occasion themselves, with Johnsen causing Simunovic a few problems on the counter-attack. They even went close to taking the lead through Alexandros Tziolis. The midfielder’s free-kick looked to have beaten Craig Gordon but rose just over the crossbar.
Other managers, even great managers, would have left things as they were at half-time. Celtic still controlled possession. There wasn’t a pressing need to change things. It would have been easy to leave things as they were and trust the system and the players to eventually break through Hearts.
That’s what makes Rodgers such an outstanding tactician: he’s proactive rather than reactive.
Sure, Celtic may have eventually broke through regardless. But he knew the best way to ensure it definitely happened was to change his team’s shape. So he did.
On came Tom Rogic for Cristian Gamboa. The back four became a back three, though Kieran Tierney was still given licence to get forward with Scott Brown tucking in when he did so, as Rogic took up residence in the final third. The Australian was joined by Armstrong, who had switched with McGregor. The young Scot moved alongside Brown, screening for the back three, allowing Roberts and Sinclair to stay high up the park as wingers.
It was as close to the famous WM formation - the system which dominated British football for around 30 years between the 1930s and 1960s - as you’re likely to see in a modern-day setting. Dedryck Boyata and Jozo Simunovic were the old school “full-backs”, tasked only with defending. Brown, McGregor and Tierney would contribute on both ends as “half-backs”, leaving five players to do most of the attacking.
Within six minutes, Celtic found their opening. Hearts should have done a better job of denying it, but the changes were partly responsible for the goal and what Rodgers wanted from his team after half-time. Roberts and Sinclair, often encouraged to cut inside, mainly stayed out wide, leaving most of the supporting to Griffiths to be done by Rogic and Armstrong.
It was Roberts who put in the terrific cross and the Hearts back-line failed to pick up Griffiths, who headed in from close range. It was poor defending, but Hearts were perhaps confused by who was supposed to be marking whom following Celtic’s system change.
From that point on there was only one winner. Celtic camped in Hearts’ half for the following 30 minutes and only allowed the away out after Stuart Armstrong had made sure of the points with a
The visitors arrived with a gameplan, armed in the hope of matching Celtic’s players. They did for 45 minutes, and then Rodgers intervened. Perhaps it was this, and not a one-sided hammering, that was the most fitting way for Celtic and their indomitable manager to finish the league season.