I'VE NEVER subscribed to the cliché that "anything can happen" in a derby game as form and fitness usually have a large bearing on the outcome. Celtic’s hammerings of the Rangers sides of Halliday and Holt under Brendan Rodgers, and the Ibrox side’s supremacy in the last two seasons of Lennon dogma are evidence enough of that.

But this time it truly is different.

On the one hand, Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic are taking thrilling shape but remain the very definition of a work in progress. Whilst at Ibrox, it’s a case of "as you were". A burgeoning squad has been maintained and enhanced, and the template of play remains that was devised to efficient effect under the management team of Steven Gerrard and Michael Beale.

Can past results teach us anything about what is to some on Sunday?

History As A Teacher?

The last two seasons of derbies are fascinating to analyse when averaged out. Whilst Rangers have won 5 and drawn 1 of the last 8 matches (if we assign a nominal 3 points per match that means they have 79% of the “points”), yet the performance data tells a slightly more nuanced tale.

Here are some key metrics averaged over the last 8 matches:

Celtic Way:

What this tells us is averaged out, these games are almost a coin flip.

There is remarkably little between the teams across these matches.

  • Celtic have had more passes but overall possession is 50/50.
  • Celtic have created more chances, but Rangers create more overall due to greater efficiency from set-pieces
  • Celtic are more successful with forward passing, but Rangers, crucially, take out defenders more regularly with forward passes
  • Celtic’s xG is higher yet Rangers have more shots, and more possession in the box.
  • Celtic are slightly more efficient at pressing (PPDA)
  • Celtic have conceded more defensive errors and their ‘keepers make less slightly more saves

None of this is a surprise given how Lennon and Gerrard/Beale set up their respective teams.

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Celtic were largely dysfunctional in defensive transition due to inappropriate combinations (Duffy, Laxalt) and all with a declining Brown tasked with stopping opposition attacks. This had the knock-on effect of hampering McGregor in midfield, forced to cover defensive gaps. Also, last season, Celtic did not have the towering presence of Fraser Forster in goal.

Rangers have slowly built a highly organised and tuned unit. Supremely well-drilled, this is a side that is highly disciplined to not leave gaps in the defensive alignment. They also have a mix of athleticism and trickery in attack. Finally, they are very patient, seeking to control the ball at all times, and only play the ball in when the right moment to do so presents itself. And with Borna Barisic and James Tavernier, they have two very talented crossers of the ball.

Yet, when all the above is added to the massive variance disadvantages Celtic saw last season (Rangers astonishing xG overperformance, COVID outcomes, injuries and more) the performance levels show little between them.

In many ways, this was the worst Celtic side of at least the last 10 years, probably more, and the best of Rangers.

How Does That Help?

In terms of predicting Sunday’s outcome, Rangers will continue with the blueprint that has served them so well over two seasons, particularly in Europe. An interchangeable squad is flexible and large enough to overcome whatever COVID variance is at play in the camp.

We will see either a 4-3-3 or perhaps 4-4-2 diamond but the fundamentals of a tight, compact defensive alignment will remain. As will a patient, probing attacking strategy focused on getting into strong crossing positions and movement across the front five to get space in the box.

But this is an utterly different Celtic. Postecoglou has already fashioned an approach that is steamrolling the lesser SPFL sides. Over 30 shots against Dundee, Hearts and St Mirren. xG over 3.0 five times already including against a fine AZ Alkmaar side. Over 30 possessions in the box on average. Forcing the opposition keeper into more than 5 saves per 90m. Furuhashi and Abada have been attacking sensations in a short time.

The football is as thrilling as anything seen at Celtic Park since a Larsson, Hartson and Sutton infused side would regularly put away five and six.

Yet Postecoglou has hardly started.

With Taylor suffering a shoulder injury, it could be three Academy kids plus a stuttering Starfelt in defence. Rogic has been back to his best against the poorer teams, but struggles to cover the ground and make defensive actions as an “8”. Abada has made an electric start with 9 goals and assists already to lead the team but is only 19 and against Midtjylland and AZ Alkmaar can be led up blind alleys and mugged. The bench is paper-thin. To top it all Christie and Edouard’s contracts are running down with no sign of resolution albeit both are fighting manfully for the cause.

READ MORE: I was a Celtic cynic but now I believe in Angeball - Kevin McKenna

Long story short – we just don’t know what Celtic are going to turn up on Sunday. And neither do Rangers.

What we do know is it will be a side with attacking intent, who won’t sit in, and will pour forward at every opportunity. When Postecoglou started, I enjoyed his story about wanting to play football his dad would love. But in my head, I had visions of Tommy Burn’s Celtic full of attacking brilliance, floundering against a thick blue wall and getting mugged via a breakaway goal. In other words, ultimately naïve.

What we have learned so far in dealing with 10 men at home to Midtjylland, in closing out a 2-0 home win vs AZ, and in showing huge reserves of dig and determination to see out the game in Alkmaar, is that there are nuances to the Australian’s approach and more flexibility than his warm tales of youth would have you believe.

I have no idea what is coming on Sunday. And that is very exciting.