Stick or twist? The Aberdeen dilemma facing the Old Firm

Aberdeen held out until the 87th minute against Celtic

“We tried to go to Celtic on the opening day of the season and lost 2-0. We tried to go to Rangers at Ibrox and lost 4-1. Today, we tried to come up with a different game plan to frustrate Celtic and hit them with a counter-attack.”

After his team lost 1-0 at home to Celtic, Aberdeen manager Jim Goodwin neatly summed up the dilemma facing all the teams that would face the old one.

Click or sit? Stick or twist? Aberdeen tried both approaches in three tries against Glasgow’s biggest two this season and came away with zero points.

Rangers visit Pittodrie on Tuesday with Goodwin looking to make it a lucky fourth and the Aberdeen manager will be under pressure to be less defensive in his approach.

Aberdeen “embarrassing” against Celtic?

Goodwin was crystal clear and made no apologies for his team’s tactics against Celtic, a game in which the side were seven minutes from equalizing before Callum McGregor’s late winner.

“It was all about containment,” he told BBC Scotland. “It’s not a way I particularly enjoy forming my team, but we respected the opponent before the game.

“If we had gone 0-0 it would have been our sixth draw in 46 games against Celtic in the league, so we knew how difficult the task could be.”

Aberdeen sat deep and shot twice, neither of which were on target, and their chances totaled 0.06xG (expected goals). They completed 119 passes, to Celtic’s 754, as the visitors managed 33 shots on 81% of their possession.

Goodwin’s point was that if they had continued, a tie with the best team in the league would have made the tactics worth it, but it is not a view shared by all.

“I think it’s a little off the mark, he said, if they got a point they would have been very happy with it,” former Aberdeen captain Willie Miller told Sportsound.

“They would have accepted that, the fans weren’t happy with it. Even if Aberdeen came out of this game by a point, I still don’t think it’s acceptable.

“The fans showed up in numbers, watched the exciting football and got their hopes up.”

Aberdeen are not the first team to sit deep and try to close down space in the final third to frustrate Celtic.

Goodwin pointed to the work done by his old club, St Mirren, before the game, in beating Celtic 2-0 earlier this season, the only team domestically to beat Ange Postecoglou’s side.

It was clearly an Aberdeen scheme, but there were two major differences that made all the difference for St Mirren.

While Stephen Robinson also used five defending at the back and three in midfield to outnumber Celtic players wide, Paisley’s side weren’t as deep – their backline was a bit higher – which allowed them to close in on Celtic in possession.

Average drawing of St Mirren's positions against Celtic
St Mirren’s center mid (black) v Celtic (purple) in their 2-0 win on 18 September
Average position chart for Aberdeen vs Celtic
Aberdeen Center (black) Medium vs Celtic (purple)

They made 18 tackles on the day, while Aberdeen only managed eight, and because they moved up the field they were able to get wing-backs into cross-forward positions.

St Mirren’s forwards had twice as many touches as Bojan Mijowski and Duc Pittodrie. More importantly, the team managed nearly three times as many assists — scoring from two of them.

In essence, it does St. Mirren’s disservice when she suggests that they lived in exactly the same way.

“There is a balance that needs to be struck,” former Hearts midfielder Michael Stewart told Sportsound.

“You weren’t as open and expansive as Aberdeen were at Ibrox against Rangers. But you’re at home, you have to give more than Aberdeen did. Aberdeen at home against anyone with 19% is embarrassing.”

So, should you go to Aberdeen?

Goodwin’s point was that they had tried to go in the previous matches against Celtic and Rangers and had conceded six goals and scored one.

“We got a lot of plaudits because we went to Ibrox and tried to be aggressive and press high up the pitch, beat it 4-1, and go 10,” he said. And no one will agree that they have been outdone.

It’s an obvious point, but a balance needs to be struck between both approaches. After a goal at Ibrox they could have pulled back a bit, for example.

The drawing

Hearts went toe-to-toe with Celtic on 23 October with a depleted defense and finished with more shooting and a better xG rating. They were unlucky losing 4-3.

In the end, the result was not dissimilar to Aberdeen’s, but Hearts fans were left feeling entertained as if their team had fired a shot, which makes all the difference in the mood around the result.

Aberdeen had won six of their seven home matches before visiting Celtic, scoring nearly as many goals as the old side had in their own patch. In Miovski and Duk, they had two in-form forwards in the division.

Goodwin has always espoused successful attacking football and that was evident in Pittodrie – if not on the road. Next is the Rangers visit.

Suddenly, the Irishman is under some pressure to show that he can find the right formula in these matches with the team he has without resorting to the same tactics he did against Celtic.

“I know they got plastered at Ibrox, but Rangers are nothing like a Celtic beast,” former St Mirren striker Rory Lowe told Sportsound.

“The Rangers defensive line has three out of four players playing out of position. If Jim Goodwin played the same way against the Rangers, it would be criminal.

“There’s opportunity there. He can’t be as expansive as he was at Ibrox. But he’s got to come up with something, so when they get the ball back they get the ball back: how do we get close to the opposition goal?”

Twice Livingston, St Johnstone and St Mirren managed to score points against the old firm using a variety of strategies. Aberdeen, which has far greater resources, is now under pressure to do likewise.


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