The gap is still as wide as ever. Celtic barely needed to break a sweat in the second half to score twice, claiming all three points against their city rivals Rangers at Ibrox. Brendan Rodgers’ side have been before, beating the Govan side in five of their six meetings last season. Rangers fans hoped the gulf might have narrowed in the time since.
On this showing, it hasn’t.
But while some of last season’s defeats were partly the result of poor management from the blue side of things, Pedro Caixinha, at least every one, couldn’t be blamed for much in this instance.
The Rangers manager was up for the match and bought into the event, even squaring up to Scott Brown as the teams walked down the tunnel for half time.
Things were fairly even in the first half. Rangers matched up to Celtic in a 4-4-1-1 formation which saw Alfredo Morelos start as the lone striker. Whether that was a deliberate ploy or not, it saw some early success, with the hosts simply tracing the visitors’ system. Wherever there was a Celtic player, there was a Rangers player charged with following him, occupying the same space.
First half man for man
This tactic was perhaps best illustrated in the middle of the park. Off the ball, Carlos Pena was used to track Brown, restricting the influence of the Celtic captain. On the ball, the Mexican was hopeless, too slow to launch counter attacks, seemingly unable at times to even control the ball, but as a tactical pawn in a defensive sense, the playmaker at least served a purpose in the first half.
There were times when Pena was switched with Graham Dorrans, moving the Scotland international into the attacking midfield position for spells. Josh Windass did a good job of stretching the pitch down the left wing, providing Rangers with an effective outlet. They lacked the same on the right side, though, even with James Tavernier playing as something of a wing back. It meant they lacked balance.
It didn’t take much, such was the struggle the Mexican faced to take control of the ball for more than two touches, but as seen in this screen grab, the champions began to crowd out the playmaker. That allowed Brown to take a grip of the game as he so often does on these occasions.
In response to this, Caixinha withdrew Pena and replaced him with Kenny Miller off the bench. Trailing by a goal at this point, it was the natural reaction from a losing manager, taking off a playmaker to throw on a striker, giving his side more attacking intent. At least, that was the intention. As it materialised, this warped Rangers’ shape and ultimately did more harm than good.
A lack of options
There wasn’t much else for the Portuguese to do. His options from the bench were limited, with Jason Holt and Eduardo Herrera the only other players he could have turned to at that stage of the match, with the scoreline as it was.
But by introducing Miller, effectively giving Morelos a strike partner, Rangers gave Celtic the freedom to control the match.
And that’s the crux of the issue for Rangers when it comes to games against their Glasgow rivals. They have no choice but to match up, ditching their own game in order to counter Celtic’s. But when Celtic make the breakthrough with their superior quality all over the pitch, Rangers have no way to impose their own game. This was evident on Saturday.
Herrera was also introduced after Celtic’s second goal, changing Rangers’ shape even further. It was as if the harder Rangers dug to get out of the hole, the more they dug into the hole, making it more difficult for themselves to escape.
By removing the line of attacking midfield, the likes of Brown and substitute Callum McGregor were able to dictate things, with the full backs also afforded more freedom to provide another option.
This is where Caixinha made mistakes. In hindsight, it would have been better to keep Rangers’ midfield shape. Holt might actually have made a better option than Miller. Jordan Rossiter could have been slotted into the centre of midfield, pushing Dorrans higher up to replace the tiring Pena, who doesn’t look fit enough to complete an hour of play, let alone 90 minutes.
Instead, Dorrans was actually dropped into an even deeper position, as if Caixinha envisaged him as something of a quarterback, providing service for Morelos and his strike partners. Miller and Herrera simply exacerbated the problem they were already facing.
There are ways to stop superior teams, and to a certain extent Caixinha adopted them in the first half. But he was too quick to abandon these methods, even if the reasons why he did it are understandable. Celtic are superior in every way, in every single position. It takes a lot to counter that.