Celtic hosted Hibernian in a second vs third clash in the Scottish Premiership, as both sides looked to keep up with Rangers at the top of the table. The hosts came into the match after a narrow victory in the Europa League on Thursday night and aimed to continue their unbeaten start to the season. Meanwhile, the visiting side’s form has dipped following an excellent start to the season. A 2-2 draw with Rangers last time out would have encouraged Jack Ross that his side were capable of producing an upset against the reigning champions, but Celtic’s quality prevailed in the end, coming out 3-0 victors in a fairly routine manner.
This tactical analysis will look at the tactics deployed by both sides, and how these contributed to the outcome of the match. Further analysis will look at each side’s build-up play and defensive structures to determine what part these played in the match.
Neil Lennon continued with a similar lineup which he has used in most of Celtic’s games this season. There were three changes from Thursday’s Europa League victory, with Odsonne Edouard, Olivier Ntcham, and James Forrest replaced by Albian Ajeti, Mohamed Elyounoussi, and Jeremie Frimpong. Summer signing Vasilios Barkas continued in goal, behind a back three of Nir Bitton, Shane Duffy, and Kristoffer Ajer. Jeremie Frimpong and Greg Taylor played as wing-backs, tasked with providing width to the sides. The midfield three was made up of Scott Brown, Callum McGregor, and Ryan Christie, who had played in a more advanced role previously. Albian Ajeti was the spearhead of the attack, with Mohamed Elyounoussi playing in a free role off of him.
Hibernian were unchanged from their 2-2 draw with Rangers the previous week. Ofir Marciano continued in goal, looking to add to his five clean sheets this season. Paul McGinn, Ryan Porteous, and Paul Hanlon once again made up the back three, with Martin Boyle and Josh Doig as the wing-backs. Drey Wright, Alex Gogic, and Joe Newell made up the midfield, while Kevin Nisbet and Christian Doidge would again look to provide goals for Jack Ross’ side. While they were lined up in a 5-3-2, Hibernian often moved into a back four, with Boyle pushing forward, and Paul McGinn moving into the right-back position.
Celtic’s build-up play
In recent weeks, the Celtic manager has come under fire for the lack of strikers being selected, with only one of Albian Ajeti and Odsonne Edouard generally being given a starting berth. This was once again the case against Hibernian, with the former West Ham man given the nod. Much of this criticism has been due to their lack of goal threat posed, despite dominating matches. This was once again the case in this game, despite the convincing scoreline. Celtic dominated with 63% of possession, however, their expected goals (xG) of 1.81 suggests they outperformed in this regard.
It was often in the early stages of build-up play where Celtic struggled. Hibernian didn’t operate a particularly high press, which allowed the Celtic defenders plenty of time on the ball. As seen above, Celtic’s two deeper midfielders Brown and McGregor split, leaving space in the middle of the park. The defenders could have utilised this by driving forward with the ball or playing a progressive pass to Ajeti further up the pitch. Instead of this, Duffy played the ball sideways to Ajer, who then played it to McGregor, who dropped into the left-back area, with Taylor pushing forward. This passive play has been a feature of Celtic’s play in recent weeks and is an area which they should look to improve on.
A similar situation can be seen below. This time, Ajer does drive out of defence, but the issue is that he has no options. Brown and McGregor are once again far apart, and the passing lane to McGregor is completely cut off by the Hibernian midfielder. Brown is close to Ajer, and is his clearest option, but it is a lateral pass which doesn’t aid the attack. Greg Taylor’s run on the left flank poses a threat, however, Ajer is unable to pick this pass due to him having to slow down, and the oncoming pressure from Doidge. The more attacking players, Christie, Elyounoussi, and Ajeti, also fail to show for passes, despite there being pockets of space which they could drop in to.
Celtic’s attacking movement
While the beginning of their attacks looked sluggish at times, once Celtic were into the final third, their quality began to show. Once the wing-backs got forward to offer width, and the midfield were able to push forward to support them, they were able to pick Hibernian apart with moments of quality. The number of bodies they were able to get forward can be seen below.
Greg Taylor and Jeremie Frimpong can be seen high up on either side, which stretches the Hibernian defence. This helps to create gaps for the attackers to penetrate. David Turnbull and Callum McGregor have pushed on ahead of Elyounoussi, who had the ball. Along with Odsonne Edouard, Celtic now had six attackers forward, allowing them to outnumber Hibernian. While on this occasion the final pass was intercepted, it was a good example of the threat they could pose when enough attacking players got up the park.
A similar situation can seen below for Celtic’s third goal. Although not as many bodies are committed forward, it is a good example of how their movement stretched the Hibs defence. Out-of-shot Greg Taylor is once again high on the left-hand side, which drags Paul McGinn out of the defensive line. Odsonne Edouard also drops off from his central striker role, which drags Ryan Porteous out, creating a further gap. With David Turnbull pushing forward as this happened, he had the vision to pick out the penetrating run made by Elyounoussi, who was able to finish the one-on-one.
Hibernian’s defensive shape
As mentioned above, much of Celtic’s good attacking play was thanks to them pulling apart the Hibs defence. This created gaps through which they could create chances and ultimately score goals. The system they adopted was fairly fluid, with Paul McGinn often playing in the right-back area as Boyle pushed forward. This meant, on the break, the defence could become stretched, as shown below.
As Celtic counter-attacked, Lewis Stevenson faced up to Frimpong on the ball, while the other defenders got into position. Paul Hanlon is the furthest forward of the defenders, with a large pocket of space between Porteous and Stevenson, where Hanlon should be. This allowed Edouard to make a run across the front of Porteous, into the space, and to get a shot on target. Had Martin Boyle been back to support the defence, each player would have been shuttled over, which would have closed the space that Edouard was able to attack.
The five-man defence was also beneficial to Hibernian as it allowed them to perform man-to-man defending at times, as shown below. They have a bank of five as a base, but Paul McGinn steps out to follow Edouard. This came at a stage when Celtic were struggling to break through Hibernian’s defensive structure, therefore Edouard was looking for space to support his side’s attack. McGinn stepping out meant the midfield three ahead of him could continue with their man-to-man pressing too, as none of them had to pick up Edouard.
In general, Hibs were perhaps too passive, as they allowed Celtic too much time on the ball, which ultimately led to them being picked apart, thanks to the quality which Celtic possess. As shown by the graph below, Hibernian were much less active pressers than Celtic for the majority of the match. Their total PPDA of 19.2 is almost double that of Celtic’s at 9.7. This tells us that Celtic were more in the face of their opponents when they had the ball, whereas Hibernian tended to allow Celtic more time to pull them around and find the right pass.
Overall, this was a solid performance from Celtic, although they still didn’t pull up any trees. While the result is more convincing than in recent weeks, there were still elements of the performance which could do with improvement. The defenders were still ponderous on the ball and didn’t progress it as quickly as they could have. This allowed the visitors to get back in to shape to hold off the attack for longer. Despite this, there was promise in their attacking movement once they did get the ball into the final third. The threat posed by David Turnbull off the bench will also be a promising sign for Celtic supporters.
Hibernian won’t be too disheartened with their performance, though they may be disappointed to concede three goals regardless of the opponent. Their defence and midfield worked hard throughout to close off space for Celtic, but a few lapses ultimately led to their defeat.