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Champions League Qualifier 2nd Leg – Celtic 2-1 Braga (agg. 2-4): Celtic play into Braga’s hands

August 5, 2010

The first half of this game was almost identical to the 1st leg: Braga sitting narrow and deep, allowing Celtic to pass the ball in unthreatening areas, safe in the knowledge that we lack penetration. Celtic were able to work the ball up to the edge of Braga’s defensive third but would often progress no further, with moves breaking down due to a poor pass or an easy to deal with cross from deep.


Braga sat their midfield deep and close to their defensive line, minimising the space ‘between the lines’ for a forward (usually Samaras) to drop into or for any of the Celtic midfield to push on into. In recent times teams – such as Fulham last season or Celtic under Gordon Strachan (2nd season) – have done this to great effect when playing 4-4-2, defending using Alan Hansen’s favourite “two banks of four”. Braga – playing a 4-5-1 – took this one step further, using a bank of four and a bank of 5 , congesting the centre and making  it very hard for Celtic to play through them.

Celtic’s tactics and selection didn’t help matters, choosing to go with a standard 4-4-2. This made it easy for Braga to adequately cover all of Celtic’s players and cut off the passing options. When Hooiveld or Loovens were on the ball, Braga – rather than press the two centre-backs – would often drop off and cover the Celtic midfield and forwards, leaving no option other than a sideways pass to one of the full-backs or a long ball up-field in the vain hope that Samaras could win the aerial battle.

If Celtic tried to use their midfield, they would usually be coming back to collect the ball whilst facing their own goal and their Braga marker would simply follow and stay close them. This meant that the Celtic midfielder would usually have to just pass back to the defence, starting the process again.

Celtic forced to pass back by Braga

Celtic’s lack of width provided by their four-man midfield exacerbated problems and wasn’t helped by the fact that Juarez is not a winger, and that Shaun Maloney will always look to cut inside. A possible solution would have been to play with another midfielder, someone comfortable at swiftly receiving then passing the ball to a team mate – particularly as Braga were happy to let us have possession. Another solution is for the full-backs to join the midfield, or get beyond them up the flanks and this is what Celtic tried to do. Cha Du-Ri was an outlet down the right and was the only player to really provide width, but on the occasions that he did Celtic didn’t have sufficient cover if they lost the ball (another problem with 4-4-2). On the left, Mulgrew’s lack of pace, agility and running power meant that he never got beyond Shaun Maloney, probably also concerned about leaving space for a Braga counter-attack.

An ‘inverted winger’ (Maloney)  naturally cuts inside or ventures inwards, making it important that his full-back gets beyond him on the outside – this rarely happened. With Mulgrew staying deep and narrow, Maloney started hugging the touchline and when receiving the ball was often isolated and, as stated earlier, often facing his own goal. The pair tried to link up with a couple of one-two’s but with Mulgrew receiving the return pass in-field where it was congested. On one occasion this resulted in a loss of possession and from this Braga scored their goal.

They pinched the ball from Mulgrew just inside their own half and worked it out to their right-winger, Alan. Hooiveld had shifted across to cover the vacant left-back area to halt Alan from getting down the wing and Loovens moved across to cover Matheus, who had tried to run into Hooiveld’s vacated channel – nothing wrong so far. But, this left a big space in the centre of defence which one of the midfielders should have filled – perhaps a natural holding player would have been more likely to do this – and Cha Du-Ri was left as the only player covering the penalty area. Even so, despite the attentions of Maloney, Mulgrew and Hooiveld, Alan was allowed to cross too easily (see image below), and Cha Du-Ri could have done more to deal with it.

Alan (the ball carrier) is able to get a cross in despite the attentions of 3 Celtic players

The first half continued in the same fashion, Braga happy for it to do so and Celtic as good as out.

4-4-2 problems

Celtic’s tactics in the first half were a good example of why some have stated that the 4-4-2 is dead, and would provide good ammunition for such claims. The 4-4-2 isn’t dead, but faces problems and has become limited to certain ways of playing – unfortunately, these ways of playing were not what was required against Braga. The thinking behind this selection is probably rooted in the simplistic notion that playing with two strikers is more attacking than playing with one: Neil Lennon said we were going for a defensive approach in the first leg and played with one; for the second leg we needed to attack and went with two. However, nowadays it can be very difficult to be the side that takes the initiative when playing 4-4-2, with it being more suited to defensive-minded teams. The excellent Jonathan Wilson illustrates this point well and so I will simply point to his article  – The Question: What next for the 4-4-2? For those who do not wish to read it, here are relevant points:

“For a side looking to disrupt, 4-4-2 can be extremely effective Sit the midfield line deep on the back four so there is minimal space between the lines for attacking midfielders or deep-lying forwards to exploit, and it becomes very hard to penetrate…”

He then goes on to consider 4-4-2 in a more attacking sense, with pressing higher up pitch, using Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side (1987-1991) as an example –

“They squeezed high up the pitch, and so 4-4-2 made sense because a four-man midfield meant each member of the back four was protected by a midfielder and so was less likely to be isolated (which, with acres of space behind him, was a real concern)….

“…Pressing is still part of the game…but it has been made harder to execute because of the liberalisation of the offside law. The effective playing area has been stretched, and as a result, three-band systems (e.g. 4-4-2) have increasingly been replaced by four-band systems (e.g. 4-2-3-1)

“… if players could be persuaded to put their egos to one side… a club team could still be drilled into an effective pressing 4-4-2, but achieving that level of discipline is an exhausting, demoralisingly boring process that became too much even for Milan after three seasons; it was very hard to implement then, with the change in the offside law and players enjoying greater freedom to change clubs it is even harder now.”

Light at the end of the tunnel?

The changes in the second half gave Celtic more width and options going forward and it is good to see Neil Lennon recognising failures within his starting system and his willingness to change it. Fortune’s introduction meant a switch to what was effectively a 4-1-2-3 (though with a lot of fluidity meaning this wasn’t always the case) with him playing on the right-wing – as he did against Arsenal – and he definitely made an impact in this position. It also meant that Juarez was able to move into the centre, where he looks far more effective. Hopefully this will be recognised by the coaching staff, as well as the idea that perhaps 4-4-2 is not our best system. If this is the case and we change to something involving a three-pronged attack then Fortune could have a future on the right-hand side.

Another positive from the second half was the passing, movement and tempo of the play, with less long, high balls forward and much more one and two touch passing – thanks largely to the change in system. Of course, one must not get too carried away and remember that Braga had effectively stopped trying to attack by this point.

Also pleasing was Gary Hooper’s goal. He had little chance to make an impact in the first half but took his chance when it came in the second. It demonstrated a predatory instinct not possessed by our other forwards. He also showed that the central striker, provided he has good movement, doesn’t have to be a ‘big man’. If the team is balanced and set up well, then there is no reason why he couldn’t play as the poacher in a three-man attack, particularly if the physical presence is still there on the wings in the shape of Fortune and Samaras.

One final thing of note is that team are showing more signs of the growing team spirit, which is of course encouraging. On top of this, Lennon seems to recognise what the weak areas of the team are and, if some of the transfer speculation is to be believed, is trying to rectify them.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Serenity permalink
    August 6, 2010 2:06 pm

    Great site, with a good analysis of the game.

  2. Northern Times permalink
    August 7, 2010 8:03 am

    Couldnt help but feel if we had a bit more quality in the wider areas we could have done a bit more damage here. Maloney and Mulgrew in particular didnt really work.

    • August 9, 2010 10:59 pm

      you’re right that neither performed particularly well. mulgrew is painfully slow, but doesn’t have the positional sense to make up for it. out tactics on the night also relied heavily on the full-backs getting forward to provide width, which mulgrew is pretty much incapable of doing.

      maloney didn’t do much when he got the ball but most of the time that he received it he was a long way from any the braga goal and often facing the wrong way. he was too often iolated – the tactics were partly to blame for this but also his left-back.

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