How Celtic were able to exploit Aberdeen's near-perfect defensive gameplan

For the second time in a Hampden cup final, Aberdeen decided to go man-for-man with Celtic, and again it almost worked.

Ryan Christie scores the only goal of the Betfred Cup final. Picture: John Devlin
Ryan Christie scores the only goal of the Betfred Cup final. Picture: John Devlin

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It’s often a gamble for underdogs to use such a tactic. It places a lot of faith in the defenders to win their individual battles and continue doing so throughout the game. Because if one part of the machine starts malfunctioning the whole thing can fall apart. In a zonal system you can sometimes hide a defender having a bad game, because the unit is set up to deny space in the most dangerous areas. In a man-marking system, the safety net isn’t as vast.

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It can also be seen as playing into the hands of a team that’s great at passing and moving, which Celtic definitely are. Defenders can get dragged around into all sorts of different areas. The obvious example of this from the last two Hampden Park clashes between these sides was Shay Logan continually appearing in central areas as the right-back tracked the inside runs of Scott Sinclair.

Andrew Considine watches Odsonne Edouard as Ryan Christie makes his run, tracked by Graeme Shinnie and Shay Logan.

However, if there’s one strength of this Dons team at present it’s their ability to defend. They are disciplined, they are resolute, and there’s not one member of that unit Derek McInnes doesn’t trust.

It’s not unreasonable to say, had Aberdeen possessed the weapons in attack in the 2016 Scottish Cup final, when the man-marking system also pushed Celtic to the very end, they might have won on Sunday afternoon. You’d at least have expected them to trouble goalkeeper Scott Bain more often than they did. Even though it was a closely fought contest, there was still a feeling of passivity in the closing stages as everyone watching knew there was very little chance they were going to create an opportunity to level the match, let alone take it when it arrived.

Brendan Rodgers’ side weren’t bad, they were the stronger side on the day, but they failed to replicate some of their previous performances on the Hampden turf under the stewardship of the Northern Irishman. In part this was down to Aberdeen’s defenders doing their job. Only on a handful of occasions did Celtic breach the defensive wall, with a few of those coming in the latter stages as the Dons committed men forward in a desperate attempt to push the match into extra-time.

The gameplan did it’s job but, typically, unless you keep a clean sheet, it’s always going to be viewed as part of the downfall.

So as not to completely ruin the shape of the back-line, Aberdeen left one of the centre-backs free in order to match up a four-man defence with Celtic’s three-man attack. The midfield then looked after their opponents one-on-one: Lewis Ferguson on Callum McGregor, Graeme Shinnie on Ryan Christie and Dominic Ball watching Tom Rogic. Therefore, the two Celtic players not pressured by the man-marking system were the centre-backs, which explains why Dedryck Boyata was allowed to casually jog to the halfway line before making his defence-splitting pass forward in the build up to the winning goal. This is not a criticism of the system. You need to leave someone free against Celtic in order to cover the more prescient dangers, of which Boyata is not generally considered unless he’s attacking a ball from a corner.

For this particular passage of play, Andrew Considine was picking up Odsonne Edouard. The Frenchman dropped deep as Christie went, leaving a hole in the rearguard to exploit. As the in-form Scottish international makes his run, it’s well picked up by Logan who breaks off Sinclair as he spots the danger (all of which is illustrated in the image above). Unfortunately for the right-back, he briefly misreads the flight of the ball, taking one step back towards goal instead of continually his diagonally movement to block off Christie. That one step slows him enough that he can’t get over to block Christie’s initial shot.

As for Shinnie, though he picks up the run fairly early, he doesn’t have the pace to stick with Christie and ends up losing the battle. Boyata makes an inch-perfect pass, Christie takes a superb touch and gets a bit of luck when Joe Lewis’ save comes right back to him. These are the fine lines that can cost you so much when playing a team as talented as Celtic.