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Europa League Qualifying Play-off preview: F.C. Utrecht

August 17, 2010

We have nothing to lose and, although they are favourites, crazier things have happened in football. I hope they underestimate us – then we have a chance.

– Alje Schut, FC Utrecht.

There are rarely any easy games in Europe and this tie will be no different meaning Celtic will have to show Utrecht the same respect as they would to more illustrious opponents. However, there shouldn’t be any reason to fear them either.

Utrecht finished 7th in the Eredivise last season, achieving a Europa League Qualifying Round place by winning the division’s European play-off competition (open to the teams finishing 6th to 9th), a format similar to the Championship play-offs in England. Not unlike Braga, this was built on a strong defence – 33 goals against, only the top 4 conceded less – and like our recent Portuguese opponents aren’t particularly prolific. They scored just 39 goals – only the bottom 6 scored fewer – with their strike-force of Jacob Mulenga and Ricky van Wolfswinkel getting 8 and 7 goals respectively.


Last season Utrecht mostly lined up in a 4-4-2 shape. As with most teams who do well with 4-4-2 nowadays, they were predominantly a defensive side who sat deep and tried to minimise space between their flat defensive and midfield lines – the old “two banks of four” again. In recent seasons, Celtic have struggled to break through teams who have played in this way (largely owing to our own tactics) and so this is something we must be aware of. In some ways it could be like playing against a well drilled, organised and probably more able SPL side.

In their recent Europa qualifiers (first against KF Tirana, then against Lucerne), they switched to something approaching a 4-3-1-2. In Dries Mertens they have a talented attacking midfielder who was usually fielded on the flanks but for these games he was given more freedom and played behind the two forwards. But, they reverted back to their usual 4-4-2 for their opening match of the Eredivisie season away to Feyenoord and kept this for the second game against NAC Breda on Sunday. The games ended in a 3-1 defeat and a 3-1 win respectively.

Expect them to line up in a fairly cautious 4-4-2 on Thursday and make use of their quick players – of which they have a few – on the counter. Celtic will have to make sure they don’t get caught in possession when in the Utrecht’s defensive third as they break very quickly and make good use of space left by the opposition having players forward. Against ICT, McCourt lost the ball a couple of times in situations like this resulting in a counter, mainly through their winger, Johnny Hayes. Passes will also have to be accurate when in attacking positions – no hopeful through-balls or trying to force a chance when there is nothing on, something one or two players were guilty of on Saturday. Patience will be important.

Utrecht assistant manager, Jan Wouters, was at the ICT game and will have noticed Celtic’s vulnerability to counter-attacks, particularly down the left. In fact, the weakness of the left-side of defence is glaringly obvious to all that have seen Celtic this summer.

The stand-out player is Belgian attacking midfielder Dries Mertens. He is a very talented player, with excellent pace and dribbling skills, as well as an end-product. Such is his talent that there have been numerous transfer rumours linking him to the bigger clubs in Holland and to Premiership club Everton. He wins a lot of free-kicks in dangerous areas, the opposition often resorting to fouls to stop him and fortunately for Celtic, picked up an injury when this happened against NAC Breda on Sunday. He is a doubt for Thursday but if he plays, he may be switched to the right-hand side to take advantage of Celtic’s weak-spot (he normally plays on the left). His possible transfer could also help Celtic, as he may pick up a ‘McGeady injury’.

(Wouldn’t mind seeing him in the Hoops!)

Though the Utrecht strike-force are hardly prolific, they are intelligent players and their movement and link-up is better than anything Celtic face on a weekly basis in the SPL. Aside from Mertens, Utrecht are very much a team rather than set of star individuals and the front two fit into this philosophy well. They often look to build moves by getting the ball into Mulenga’s feet and have him bring others into play – not unlike Marc-Antoine Fortune, incidentally a former Utrecht player – which he does well, showing a good touch and speed of thought. van Wolfswinkel is more of a ‘fox-in-the-box’ type and tends to be on the end of moves more than his strike-partner.

Another thing to beware of is that, being a Dutch side, they are comfortable in possession. Though they a likely to mostly play on the break, when they get the ball they are good enough and confident enough to keep hold of it when it suits them. This is yet another similarity to Braga and again patience will be needed rather than silly tackles in over-eagerness to retrieve the ball.

In a number of ways, they are quite similar to Braga, but perhaps not quite as good. Even so, the Braga games were very difficult for Celtic and so we must learn the lessons from these games – both the players and the manager.

Here are highlights of Utrecht’s recent game against NAC Breda, gives you taste of what they are like:

How to get at them?

Celtic need to attack with width as Utrecht are likely to defend deep and narrow. Against Feyenoord they kept their back-four within the width of the penalty box when defending. Feyenoord, playing a 4-3-3 , kept their front-three wide in an attempt to stretch them and Celtic should employ something similar, and keep to the same system as employed against ICT. When Feyenoord’s wingers came in-field, it was often too congested and their attempts to play through the middle were fruitless.

The narrowness of Utrecht’s defending will also make overlapping full-backs important for Celtic. When teams defend deep and narrow then their opposition’s full-backs usually become the spare men in attack. At times, Utrecht looked vulnerable when Feyenoord’s right-back got down the wing and in fact scored a goal because of one of his bursts forward to put a cross in – Cha Du-Ri could be key.

Playing 4-4-2, they are unlikely to utilise a natural  or ‘specialist’ holding player. Though defending with two banks of four is often used in an attempt to limit the space between the defensive and midfield lines, there can be space in there if the team is stretched or enough players are occupied. If we can we do this, Shaun Maloney could thrive (provided, of course, we stick to the same system as on Saturday).

The Utrecht centre-backs aren’t the greatest on the ball – at least not as good as the rest of the team anyway – and so Celtic can take advantage of this in a number of ways. They can press Utrecht high up the pitch, put them under pressure as much as possible and try to force them into making errors – on Sunday they conceded a goal from NAC Breda when this happened. Alternatively, Celtic could drop off the two centre-backs but stay tight to all the nearest Utrecht outfielders so there is no obvious easy pass on. Either way, if they are forced to go long it should play into Celtic’s hands as Utrecht’s forwards aren’t the most dominant in the air, especially with the arrival of dominant stopper Daniel Majstorovic.

Should be better than our last European tie

Last time we went into a European first-leg, this site tipped it to be a great game. The same mistake won’t be made this time but this should really be a better game – from Celtic’s point of view – and a better performance is likely. We seem more settled now – the new signings gelling fairly well – and with higher fitness levels than before. Lennon appears to be getting closer to finding the shape that suits us best and one or two individuals are near to cementing their role within the lineup. The team is playing at a high tempo at times and if it can be sustained for longer periods – and so far they are managing to do so in every successive game – then Celtic should be able to see off this Utrecht side. One would hope so, the season is so much more enjoyable when European ties are in the calendar.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. ajaxbhoy permalink
    August 18, 2010 3:19 am

    Good analysis

    Janse was quite the thorn in Utrecht’s side until he was sent off. Hopefully the Swedish Maple can do the same thing on the back line without the dismissal.

    Agree with the progress game by game; with the massive turnover over the last few windows, the side has never truly been settled. This is now becoming the case, with only a few more additions required to make this side formidable for the next few years.

  2. JeanPierre LeGuerre permalink
    August 18, 2010 4:59 pm

    Watched the last 2 Utrecht eredivisie games (Feyenoord and Breda). no doubt at all that Mertens is their main threat in attack. Van Wolfswinkel appears to be on a run of form too, and will have to be watched. Defensively though, i really feel they are there to be got at. they seem to lack quality at the back, and have given away a few poor goals. i think if they are scouted properly, we should win, as we should be able to easily identify their strengths and weaknesses. Mertens will have to be closed down quickly. A grafter in midfield on our right is also a ‘must’ to assist Mulgrew…. I suggest Fortuné who has had a couple of very solid games.

  3. JeanPierre LeGuerre permalink
    August 18, 2010 5:10 pm

    There is some similar analysis here:

    worth a look i thought.


    • August 18, 2010 5:57 pm

      thanks very much for the links, they’ll all be checked out. wasn’t aware of gibfootballshow – looks good – or arsespeak. interesting that arsenal have got two, wonder if there’s any more?
      the reason this site was started was because it didn’t seem there was much tactical discussion of celtic matches, unfortunately there are articles like this –
      celticquicknews is a good site and don’t want to attack it but that article is pretty much nonsense from start to finish. the shame is that many of the comments below accepted it and thought it was good.

  4. JeanPierre LeGuerre permalink
    August 19, 2010 10:02 am

    tictacs88 – no bother mate – as I say, please keep up the good work. The thoroughness and detail is what sets your site apart as far as I can see.

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