Celtic 3-0 Hearts: Tactical Analysis

Opening goal for Celtic's John Guidetti. Picture: John Devlin
Opening goal for Celtic's John Guidetti. Picture: John Devlin
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CELTIC manager Ronny Deila was pleased with his side’s overall performance, saying they were “worth the win” against their Championship opponents in Wednesday’s League Cup tie.

The Scottish champions certainly looked much stronger than they did in Sunday’s dismal draw with Motherwell, but there is little doubt that his team benefited from Hearts mistakes at one end and wastefulness at the other. Celtic were excellent in some moments and capable of creating chances from numerous sources; guilty of completely switching off at others.

The latter can also be said of the visitors. Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson came with a gameplan that worked very well over the piece. The problem was the amount of mental mistakes made by individuals in what is still a relatively young Hearts side. Celtic’s quality may still have shone through, but there’s little doubt it would have been a much tighter match had the away side managed to execute some football basics.

Hearts bright start

For the opening 12 minutes of the match it’s no stretch to suggest that Hearts were the better team. Neilson had insisted that they would play their passing game and that’s just what they did in the opening exchanges. Using Prince Buaben as the team’s fulcrum, the visitors patiently passed the ball from side to side, their players moving into the open space whenever they could find it. A Jamie Walker shot deflected behind for a corner was preceded by a nine pass move that cut through the Celtic team with surprising ease.

The Edinburgh side also sprinkled in some direct play aimed at utilising the pace of Osman Sow behind Celtic’s pushed-up backline. Three times in the opening ten minutes Hearts connected on defence-to-striker balls which Sow either gathered and laid off for a teammate or used to attack the Celtic backline. There was another occasion when Craig Gordon had to be quick off his line to prevent the striker from tearing through in a one-on-one situation with the Celtic stopper.

It made Hearts a threat with or without the ball and when Jason Denayer fortunately managed to deflect a Callum Paterson cross away from the goal he was facing, Celtic appeared to be on the ropes. Of course, Deila’s side were always going to respond and Hearts would later rue the inability to score a knockdown while they were on top.

Celtic turn it on

The move building to the Denayer deflection saw another nine passes completed by the underdogs, with Buaben touching the ball four times throughout the move. In a team filled with specialised parts, Buaben had the ambigious role of involving himself in the play, whenever he could, at either end of the park. However, it wasn’t long before the experienced and excellent Celtic duo of Stefan Johansen and captain Scott Brown sussed out the strength of their opponents, and they spent the next 30 minutes crowding Prince whenever he even looked willing to receive a pass. With Buaben unable to turn with the ball it soon went back to the centre backs who had started the move and they were left with little alternative to hoist it upfield. The Celtic defenders at this point had also become wary of Sow’s threat, and did a much better job at challenging the initial ball and sweeping up the debris whenever it went near the big Swede.

Having been woken out of their early slumber, Celtic began dominating possession and moving with intent into the Hearts half. The difference in quality between the two sides in the final third had already become evident in the sixth minute when Anthony Stokes fired a shot inches wide after drifting into the space left by Morgaro Gomis whose job in the defensive midfielder role appeared to be denying Kris Commons at all costs. The supporting attackers from Hearts didn’t have the capability or confidence to produce something out of nothing, at least not in this particular match.

On 15 minutes we got our first glimpse that Hearts were not fit mentally to defeat Celtic on the night. An overhit through ball from Darren McGregor should have been easily cleared by defender Alim Ozturk. Instead the Dutch defender of Turkish descent tried to shepherd the ball back to keeper Neil Alexander, but he was too far from the custodian and allowed John Guidetti a free shot at goal, which the Swede wastefully put wide.

Even though he was being closely guarded by Gomis, Commons was still impacting the play and becoming the hosts’ biggest threat. His slip through pass on 16 minutes put Guidetti through on the right channel and the striker’s back post cross had to be cleared by Paterson. Three minutes later he got away a front post shot after splitting the back four with Gomis in close attendance. Only another two minutes had passed before he was involved again. This time he ghosted up to the front-line alongside Guidetti, curved his run ever so slightly to spring through the gap between Danny Wilson and left-back Adam Eckersley, and was only stopped when three Hearts defenders converged on him at the edge of the six yard area.

Celtic’s dominance on the left

Celtic’s opening goal had very little to do with Commons but it did come through a bountiful source the hosts would keep returning to with great reward. Prior to the match Neilson had surprised the Hearts supporters, and even the BBC graphics department, by starting Dale Carrick on the right and Sam Nicholson in the centre. With Paterson the weakest part of the visiting back defensively, and Emilio Izaguirre always a threat on the overlap, Neilson decided he preferred Carrick’s tremendous work rate and superior strength to Nicholson’s abilities as an attacking threat on the wing. If that was his plan it backfired tremendously. Paterson and Carrick, in particular, were routinely burned by the Celtic duo of Izaguirre and Stokes, though similar struggles for Nicholson in the position later in the match would suggest that Neilson was beaten either way.

The Hooped pair had combined in the sixth minute to send over a teasing ball to the back post that Eckersley, who looked good aside from his howler later in the match, managed to clear. However, it wouldn’t be until the 24th minute that they committed to attacking down that side, and from the move they found the opening goal. This time Izaguirre, going against Paterson instead of the more slow footed Carrick, decided to whip in an early ball. The cross was a good one, but it should have been comfortably dealt with by the Hearts defence and cleared for a corner. Instead, Wilson inexplicably headed the ball directly behind him despite going against his body momentum, and could only watch as Guidetti buried the ball into the back of the net off the inside of the post.

Two minutes later Stokes and Izaguirre (Izastokesy?) were at it again. Their initial give and go failed, so they just tried it again, managing to win a corner. From the set-piece an instinctive deflection towards goal from Guidetti had to be cleared off the line. Hearts then survived a similar scare on 33 minutes when Izaguirre, again beating Carrick, saw his cross almost turned into the net by Gomis. Neil Alexander managed to pull off a fine save to spare his teammate’s blushes.

Hearts beat themselves

Despite being starved of the ball for quite some time, Hearts kept their spirits up and finished the half the stronger of the sides. They gave their opponents another reminder of Sow’s danger as the striker took a direct ball on the left channel and his switched pass for Nicholson would have put the youngster through on goal but for a crucial intervention from Brown. Then, out of nowhere, Hearts should have been level.

Steven Thompson, in his job as BBC analyst, called Walker’s shot that crashed off the bar ‘unlucky’. That may be true to an extent, but every player going through one-on-one with the goalkeeper should be able to tuck the chance away without good fortune coming into the equation.

The visitors could have been forgiven for thinking that was their best opportunity to get back into the match. But if they did, they didn’t allow the miss to affect their concentration in the opening minutes of the second half. Like they had for the final 20 minutes of the first, Celtic moved the ball from side to side, probing for an opening. Hearts, on this occasion, wouldn’t allow it. They kept narrow in their shape and held Celtic at a distance.

Having survived the wave, they pushed forward once more and won a penalty with their first attack – the less said about the better. Sow, the player guilty of an extraordinary miss, was obviously still reeling from his sky high attempt in the minute that followed because he was easily bullied off the ball by Virgil van Dijk and the next time he touched the ball Hearts were 2-0 down. Ozturk was the guilty party this time as the centre back almost careered through Guidetti in a penalty box ‘shoulder charge’.

Dead rubber contest

The match was over at this point but that didn’t wane Celtic’s enthusiasm for scoring goals, something we’ve witnessed a couple of times already in the Deila era. Relentlessly attacking the Hearts right side, one goal was produced via Stokes’s cross that was chested into his own net by Eckersley, and several near misses followed where the final delivery of Izaguirre didn’t quite mirror the quality he produced earlier in the match.

Hearts, to their credit, didn’t allow themselves to be humiliated in the same manner Dundee United were back in August. While they had no answer to Izaguirre, they still successfully rebuffed every threat through the centre, though they earned their first slice of luck on the night when Stefan Scepovic’s shot looked to be going in before it hit his teammate Aleksandar Tonev in an offside position.

Craig is an online journalist with The Scotsman and founder of The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @craigfowler86