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How Steven Gerrard has transformed Rangers and why Celtic might not find Old Firm derby as easy as previous encounters

This is the first Old Firm game in years that isn’t entirely predictable. Not all is well at champions Celtic - they’re weak defensively, Brendan Rodgers has taken shots at the board for a lack of investment and they’ve already tumbled out of the Champions League.

Rangers, meanwhile, are enjoying a resurgence following the appointment of Steven Gerrard. Much was made of Gerrard’s lack of Scottish football knowledge and the circus behind the scenes at Ibrox but so far, on the pitch, Rangers look organised, fit and ready to mount a serious title challenge.

Next up is an Old Firm clash sure to draw eyes from around the world. So, how will both teams approach this monster game?

What has Steven Gerrard actually done?

Upon arrival at Ibrox, Gerrard immediately began assessing and stripping his squad of the players deemed not to standard.

The board have backed him in the market and spent millions on transfers and wages in key positions, betting rather a lot of money on projected earnings to help pay for it. No pressure, Stevie.

In came goalkeeper Alan McGregor, Jon Flanagan from Liverpool, Connor Goldson from Brighton, Croatian defenders Nikola Katic and Borna Barisic, youngsters Ryan Kent and Ovie Ejaria from Liverpool and Scott Arfield from Burnley, amongst others. Striker Kyle Lafferty was just recently pinched from (potential title rivals) Hearts to return to his former club, and scored two on his first start.

Potential Rangers lineup
Potential Rangers 4-1-4-1 lineup

The result is a team which usually lines up in a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3, attacks down the wings and plays quick, attacking football. The example above is one possible lineup for the Celtic match - Gerrard has options and adapts to his opposition accordingly.

Gerrard talks the talk too, praising his players after a strong performance and speaking of a need to change the mentality of the club, but has already muddied his feet in the predictable world of conspiracy mongering and referee blaming.

On the pitch, the team’s shape is excellent. Player positioning has clearly been coached well and the team stretches the pitch in possession and constricts when off the ball. Ryan Jack has been superb as a ‘six’ linking defence with attack, ensuring Rangers have an actual midfield and play with the ball on the ground. In Europe Rangers have been professional and managed difficult matches on their way to Europa League qualification - though the SPFL has proven rather trickier.

A win against a dreadful St Mirren side is their only domestic league victory so far, after a sub-par Aberdeen equalised late in their opening game of the season and an impressive - and physical - Motherwell battled their way to a draw with a last-gasp goal in their most recent.

Before that Motherwell game Rangers had looked confident with the ball and assured in defence but the first signs of a wobble were evident at Fir Park as Stephen Robinson’s team more than held their own. Celtic’s attacking play will be a real test for this back line. 

Why is this game so tight

Celtic have had to deal with a push from Aberdeen for the title in the previous four seasons but have, really, mostly dominated without ever being tested to the limit. Rodgers spoke passionately about the need for recruitment during the summer - especially defensively - and an ongoing saga involving Dedryck Boyata and his desire to move to a higher profile, better paid league has caused real friction.

Rodgers blamed the board for failing to spend the money which would improve the team, threw Boyata under a proverbial bus, Celtic were beaten by AEK Athens over two legs in Champions League qualification and Hearts deservedly beat them 1-0. Relegation candidates Hamilton were extremely close to grinding out a draw in Celtic's last game, a narrow 1-0 victory.

Boyata returned for that Hamilton win, scoring the only goal of the game in front of supporters awkwardly holding a banner claiming the defender “isn’t fit to wear the shirt”. 

Without Boyata, Celtic have made a series of defensive mistakes in recent weeks. Their approach play in the final third has been short of invention too - there is a certain vulnerability about this team right now. Not all is rosey at Celtic Park and there is every chance that Gerrard’s team pulls off an upset.

Where the game will be won and lost

Cliches exist for a reason and 'tactics might go out the window for this one' is a great example of a nailed-on, accurate and tired Old Firm match phrase. Both managers will drill the importance of sticking to a gameplan and not being drawn into the hustle and bustle of a raucous Celtic Park atmosphere before kick-off, but once that whistle goes [cliche prevention software activated].

Celtic will most likely approach this game in a 3-4-1-2 formation, with Mikael Lustig partnering Boyata and one of Dusan Simunovic or Kristoffer Ajer in defence.

Potential Celtic 3-5-2 lineup for match vs Rangers
Potential Celtic 3-5-2 lineup for match vs Rangers

Rangers will target the wings, particularly the left, playing against James Forrest’s lack of defensive acumen and Lustig’s lack of… acumen. The first goal AEK scored in the second leg of Celtic's Champions League exit is precisely the kind of situation Gerrard will be keen to replicate.

Lustig
Lustig

Here Lustig is one v one against the AEK winger, who has the beating of him. 

Lustig cross
Lustig cross

Lustig doesn't get tight enough, isn't quick to accelerate and simply doesn't block or put off the winger enough. A low cross into the box reveals even more disarray in the defence. Not one of those Celtic defenders has looked for runners into the area - all are concentrating on the ball instead.

Celtic concede a goal
Celtic concede a goal

Rodrigo Brito ghosts in unmarked, Kieran Tierney dives in to try and prevent the inevitable and Celtic's European dreams were instantly in enormous trouble. They never recovered and lost that game 2-1.

Two of Rangers' three goals against Motherwell came from attacks focused down that same left wing, with Barisic sending in brilliant crosses for the poaching Alfredo Morelos and Lafferty (who always seems to score against Celtic) to pounce on. Rodgers has tried Christian Gamboa as a right-sided centre-back and could also use Callum McGregor as a right wing-back to stop crosses at source - this is a key battle and one Celtic have to get right. 

Master vs apprentice

Both managers will be desperate to knock the other down but Gerrard must be cautious - Celtic are the better team and have home advantage. Rangers used a 3-5-2 in the 3-3 draw with Motherwell and could do the same here.

Three centre-backs will allow for numerical superiority at the back against Celtic’s two strikers, which also allows for Barisic and Tavernier to provide width higher up the pitch to swing crosses in for Lafferty and Morelos.

Rangers' 3-5-2 setup for 3-3 vs Motherwell
Rangers' 3-5-2 setup for 3-3 vs Motherwell

Neither team has looked particularly comfortable dealing with set pieces this season either. Rangers in particular have conceded one against Aberdeen and two against Motherwell already, and with plenty of fouls and free-kicks to be had on Sunday, this game could well be decided by a set piece.

Midweek European exertions will have an influence on who starts the game - certainly for Rangers who endured the majority of a gruelling game against Ufa with only 10 men - and how the players lineup, as well as the players' confidence. The only certainty is this match will be entertaining. 

There is far more to Scottish football than this Glasgow derby alone and three other teams - Aberdeen, Hibs and Hearts - will have an eye on the fixture to see how it benefits them. A draw helps all.

This game isn't just about bragging rights - it could be the start of an exciting title race and whoever wins gains a big early advantage.