The first Old Firm derby of 2020/21 takes place this Saturday and with both sides in a rich vein of form, it has the potential to be a classic.
Rangers, who sit top of the Premiership having played a game more than their rivals, are looking to win consecutive Old Firm derbies in the top-flight for the first time since October 2009, when Walter Smith was still in charge at Ibrox, after they came out on top in the last encounter back in December.
That 2-1 loss at Celtic Park was the Bhoys most recent league defeat and since then, they have only dropped four league points. Neil Lennon’s side also boast the best shot conversion rate in the league this season (14.5%), having scored more goals than their rivals (25 vs 24).
As well as excelling domestically, Rangers have also been making waves in Europe, having eliminated Willem II and Galatasaray on their way to reaching the group stages of the Europa League for a third successive season. The Gers’ success is reflected in their impressive expected goals output, both going forward (2.4 xG per 90) and defensively (0.4 xG against per 90), ranking them first in both metrics in the league.
Given their strong start to the campaign, could 2021 be the year where Steven Gerrard’s men break Celtic’s nine year stranglehold on the Scottish league title? In this feature, we take a closer look at the underlying factors behind their successful start and highlight the key players who will have a big part to play in their pursuit for domestic honours.
Keeping Things Tight Defensively
Underpinning the success of Rangers so far this season has been their robust defence, which has conceded just three goals (including one own goal) in the opening ten league matches. These numbers are roughly in line with their xG conceded output (3.7), which reinforces that they have been conceding a very low number of high probability goal attempts.
The solidity of Rangers’ back four is reflected in that fact that as well as conceding only 1.4 shots on target per 90, compared to Celtic’s 1.6, 46% of their opposition’s goal attempts have occurred from outside of the box, in front of the back four. No team in Scotland has conceded a lower proportion of their total shots against from inside their own 18 yard box than Rangers.
Compared to 2019/20, the defensive unit has improved collectively, reducing the number of goal attempts and the quality of chances they have conceded. Gerrard has strengthened his defensive ranks this season, bringing in goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin following a strong campaign for Sunderland in League One, as well as Leon Balogun from Wigan, both on free transfers. However the Nigerian international has missed several games through injury, so a lot of credit for their defensive improvement has got to be attributed to the personnel who were involved at Ibrox last season.
Providing An Offensive Threat From The Full-Back Positions
As well as being part of the Premiership’s most miserly back line, Rangers’ two full-backs, James Tavernier and Borna Barisic, are also key players in their side’s offensive play.
Club Captain Tavernier is ‘Gers top scorer this season with five goals, however his goals output, as in previous seasons, has been boosted by his penalty output, with three of his strikes coming from the spot this term. In Gerrard’s 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 system, he provides width down the right hand side, staying close to the touchline and getting into advanced areas of the pitch. Barisic mirrors this approach down the left and amongst top-flight full backs, only Greg Taylor (35.4) has enjoyed more touches in the attacking third per 90 than Tavernier (33.4) and Barisic (32.5) so far this season.
Getting the ball into the box is a key part of Rangers’ play. Even taking into account their high average possession share (68%), their 19.6 open play crosses per 90 is comfortably the highest output in the league, which have resulted in 2.3 chances per 90. Both ‘Gers full-backs sit in the top five Premiership players for crosses from open play: Tavernier with 5.5 per 90, and 7.9 for Barisic.
The threat posed by their delivery, from both open play and set piece situations, has seen them contribute five assists between them so far this season and together, they are responsible for nearly a third of the club’s entire expected assists output. In terms of total xA for the season, Tavernier’s 2.6 output ranks him second of all SPL players, behind only Celtic’s David Turnbull (3), whilst Barisic sits fifth with 2.3 xA.
Set piece delivery accounts for a good proportion of Tavernier’s output, however we can see from the graphics below that Barisic has been successful at crossing into central areas during open play, whilst Tavernier has generated his highest open play xA outputs when crossing towards the far post.
Although Ianis Hagi is getting all the plaudits for his prolific assist output (which we will come onto shortly), the underlying numbers suggest that the full backs are integral to creating goal scoring opportunities for Rangers from wide positions and dead ball situations.
The Direct Threat of Ryan Kent
Whilst the full backs are causing problems for their opposite numbers by constantly getting forward down the flanks, winger Ryan Kent provides a different type of threat by cutting inside from the left and looking to occupy the half spaces in and around the edge of the box.
The 23-year-old is averaging 44 touches in the attacking third per 90 this season, which matches the output of Celtic’s Ryan Christie. No other player is completing more touches in advanced areas than the Old Firm duo.
In total, Kent has made 265 passes in the attacking third, nearly 100 more than any other Rangers player, and is the club’s leading chance creator with 25. However, one area where he stands out in the league is his dribbling ability. He has been involved in 44 take-ons this season, 25% more than any other player in the league, with a success rate of 61%.
So far this season Kent has attempted 14 shots following a carry, which has resulted in two goals. He has also linked-up with his teammates to create six chances after carrying the ball at least five metres. The graphic above shows how he travels with the ball into central areas, including on the occasions where he has moved across to the right hand side, to create chances.
The Englishman’s influence in improving his team’s overall chances of scoring is reflected in his Possession Value (PV) output for the season. Possession Value assigns credit to players based on their positive and negative contributions in possession, covering key on-the-ball events including passing, dribbling and crossing, and how they increase a team’s probability of scoring during the next 10 seconds of play.
Kent’s net PV of 0.52 per 90 is by far the highest in the Rangers squad this season, over 0.2 higher than the next best player, Ryan Jack. Barisic ranks third in the squad, which reinforces the dual threat from Rangers’ attacking left.
Hagi The Goal Provider
Nearly a quarter of all the chances created by Kent this season have fallen to Ianis Hagi, but whilst the 21-year-old Romanian is slightly underperforming on his xG, scoring once from shots worth a combined xG of 2.4, his real impact since moving from Genk in January has come through the assists he has provided his teammates.
Since his Rangers debut in February he has recorded nine assists in all competitions, three more than any other player. If we exclude penalties, he has assisted three of the Gers’ last four goals in all competitions.
Operating predominantly in a number 10 role, his primary ball distribution when playing forward has been short link-up passes in central areas, where he has looked to get the ball into Kent on the inside left and into Alfredo Morelos when the Colombian drops short to link-up play. However the main beneficiary of his assists has been Scott Arfield, who has scored three league goals since February courtesy of Hagi’s passes.
Can Morelos Break His Old Firm Duck?
Since his brace against St. Mirren in the second match of the season, Alfredo Morelos has only scored once in the Premiership and he will be hoping to get onto the scoresheet on Saturday, given that he is yet to score against Celtic in the league in 10 attempts. In total he has recorded 22 shots against the Bhoys, including eight on target, without finding the net.
The 24-year old was one of the standout performers in Rangers’ run to the last 16 of the Europa League last season, scoring six goals in the group stages in matches against Porto, Feyenoord and Young Boys, however in the 2020 calendar year he has endured a barren run domestically, scoring just three times in 16 league appearances, from chances worth a combined 7.8 xG.
Despite his goal drought, Morelos is still adept at finding good goalscoring locations inside the box, as shown by his 20/21 Premiership shot map below. If he can continue to get into these positions, he will be hoping that his goal scoring output returns to what we would expect from xG.
Morelos featured twice for Colombia during the international break and with Kemar Roofe still working his way back to full fitness following injury, it is very likely that he will be asked to lead the line on Saturday lunchtime, as Rangers look to secure back-to-back wins in the league at Celtic Park for the first time since in March 1997. There would be no better time for him to open his Old Firm account.
If he can help his side to victory, it will be a big collective statement of intent from Gerrard’s men that the Scottish title race could be going right to the wire come May.