Why Celtic must stick with midfield diamond against Rangers today

By Euan Davidson

January 2, 2021

It’s only the second day of 2021, and yet for Celtic, so much could be decided.

The Fireworks have barely stopped from Hogmanay, but the Bhoys faithful will be expecting more on the Ibrox pitch today. With Celtic in excellent form after a very decisive tactical change, Neil Lennon needs to stick with what’s working.

Yes, Christopher Jullien is likely to miss out, after his goalpost collision on Wednesday’s win over Dundee United. Otherwise, Neil Lennon can make his life easier by sticking to what works.

It makes little sense to defer from a winning tactic. Sure, the opposition haven’t been at Rangers’ level, Lille aside (BBC). With an empty Ibrox hosting the season’s second and potentially most important Glasgow Derby, let’s look at why Lennon needs to stick with what works.

 

Turnbull celebrates scoring for Celtic / (Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Bayer Leverkusen 3-2 Celtic | LIVE Reaction

Chances, chances, chances with Celtic diamond

It’s very odd to consider this, but it’s almost as if Celtic have benefitted from missing most of their wingers in recent weeks. Out of necessity as much as invention, Neil Lennon has used McGregor, Soro, Turnbull and Christie in a midfield diamond. It’s a relatively unfashionable tactic these days, but it’s working a treat.

Despite how narrow the formation looks, there’s real width in attacking situations. Christie is free to patrol the open spaces where our midfield overlaps the opposition, while Turnbull and McGregor’s stamina and work-rate mean they’re keen to drift out to wider positions if needs be.

That brings out the best in Celtic’s full-backs. We’ll get to that.

The obvious consequence is, of course, having two up front. During possession, you’ll notice one of Griffiths or Edouard drift a little deeper in order to draw out defenders, with the other holding a threatening position. The best example of that is Griffiths’ goal against Ross County (SPFL/YouTube).

Playing both Griff and Edouard together would give Rangers real problems. Potentially, Balogun may start alongside Goldson to combat the pace of both strikers, but it could still prove fruitful for the Bhoys.

 

Frimpong: excellent today against Hamilton / (Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Too compact last time; width name of game against Rangers

Something that goes a little under the radar is the freedom it allows our full-backs. Frimpong in particular has been outstanding since the formational change.

In the 4-1-3-2 shape, Frimpong can still make his roving runs, but he has more coverage in attacking scenarios, because of the compact midfield and the coverage of Ismaila Soro. Ditto one of Laxalt or Taylor on the left-side.

Frimpong’s defensive output has been excellent in recent weeks. Even a cursory glance at his improvement in match ratings indicates this (WhoScored?). His improved tackling is the result of more aggressive pressing, which puts Celtic on the ball right away.

With Frimpong likely to be taking on Ryan Kent today, he needs to show the same defensive enterprise as he did against Dundee United.

 

Celtic stars Ismaila Soro and David Turnbull / (Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Adaptability in defensive situations

We should probably accept the fact that Celtic won’t achieve 100% possession today.

I know, right? It’s a shame. Still, Rangers will be looking to make light work of the Bhoys today. But the diamond makes that a little more difficult for Steven Gerrard.

Celtic haven’t necessarily abandoned a back 3, if you follow. That’s because Ismaila Soro or Scott Brown can drop into the middle of the defence out of possession, with Laxalt and Frimpong in wing-back roles. Using an adaptable 4-1-3-2, the shape can easily change into 5-3-2 when out of the ball.

It means there’s plenty of coverage across the pitch. With the pace in Rangers’ side, that’s a huge advantage.

Limiting the channels between midfield and attack is a vital exercise for Neil Lennon today. Ianis Hagi is on decent form, and will be looking to provide killer balls into Celtic’s final third. From a formational perspective, Celtic’s current shape denies them that.

Yes, Rangers are better than Dundee United. Still, you’ll have noticed that not United, nor Kilmarnock or Ross County, had any joy trying to pass through the middle of Celtic’s third over recent weeks.

Neil Lennon should’ve taken that as a sign to stick with what works. Certainly, that’s what we’re hoping.