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Utrecht (2-0) and St. Mirren (4-0) analysis (double post)

August 23, 2010

Apologies for the delay in publication, but it was tictacs88’s birthday this past weekend. Inevitably, ‘things’ got in the way.

Utrecht, 2-0

The first point of note in this game is Celtic’s aggressive pressing prior to the opening goal. Celtic employed ‘ultra-offensive’ pressing during this period, meaning that attempts to disturb Utrecht’s possession began fairly deep into Utrecht’s half. The visitors found this quite difficult to deal with and so were largely unable to get the ball into threatening areas from which to play the final ball. A disappointment from Celtic’s point of view will be that Utrecht had two decent(ish) chances from fairly hopeful balls from deep. Both times they came from Celtic’s right, delivered diagonally towards the left-side of Celtic’s defence, where they were met by Utrecht’s Mulenga, one on the volley and the other a header. The volley can be put down to playing a make-shift left-back (Joe Ledley) who doesn’t naturally have the defensive positioning, or hasn’t had enough games to pick up the instincts of where to be. The header came because of a lack of familiarity in the back-line due to the new signing (Majstorovic) and make-shift left-back. Though both deliveries came from similar areas, no blame should be attached to the right-hand side of Celtic’s midfield/defence as the midfield had done well to force Utrecht to attempt crosses from a long way from the penalty area.

Another defensive strategy was that Silberbauer, the Utrecht central midfielder and captain, was singled out as danger-man. Scott Brown was given an almost man-marking job on him – which he performed excellently – but if he was involved elsewhere defensively then whoever was nearest was always quick to close Silberbauer down or mark him.

Formation-wise, Celtic began with a 4-3-3 – without the ball it became more of a 4-1-4-1, but with the ball it became a 4-3-3 of different composition to the initial one. The initial 4-3-3 saw a middle trident of Kayal, Brown and Juarez with the latter two slightly more advanced and charged with applying more pressure than the former who covered behind. The front three had Maloney on the left, Fortune on the right and Samaras up the middle. But when in possession, Juarez would shift forwards and play right alongside or often in advance of Samaras whilst Maloney would drift inwards to join Kayal and Brown in the middle. This may have been to utilise Juarez’s boundless energy and timed runs into the box and also get the better passers (Maloney and Kayal) on the ball in midfield to pick out the runs ahead of them. Scott Brown’s role in this was one that makes best use of his strengths, putting him in a position to cover for others forward bursts. He generally would line-up on the right hand-side of the midfield trident meaning he could cover the centre if needed to but also the right, vacated by Cha Du-Ri who regularly surged down the right-wing.

Positioning/movement for first goal

The picture above shows these movements in action for the first goal. Maloney (red dot) has drifted in-field from the left and Juarez (blue) has ran forward ahead of Samaras. These movements created passing options around Utrecht’s flat midfield four. At times it was similar to how a diamond formation does this, with Kayal at the base and either Juarez pushing forward to make the ‘tip’ or Samaras dropping deep to do so and Juarez getting beyond him. The two other points of the diamond were made by Maloney on the left and Brown on the right, though Brown’s involvement was dependant on the movement of Cha Du-Ri. If Du-Ri was in advanced position then Brown would play deeper and Fortune would move inwards to complete the diamond instead, though it was more of a skewed diamond due Fortune’s more advanced starting position. This is what happened in with the first goal, shown in the picture below. It is the same picture but this time with the skewed diamond marked out and Brown’s positioning shown (yellow) as he covers for Cha Du-Ri (off-screen).It gave Kayal a number of options and time to pick a pass, with Utrecht caught between closing him down and tracking the runners. In this instance he chose Samaras, with the eventual pass finding it’s way to the on-running Juarez in the penalty area and for him to score with an emphatic finish.

It is interesting to note these movements from the Celtic players, often in chain-reaction-type sequences (‘chain-shifts’), showing a growing level of understanding between them and that the work on the training ground is being transferred to actual matches. It makes Celtic’s attack a lot more unpredictable than in recent seasons, which can only be useful when playing packed defences at home in the SPL.

After the first goal, Celtic pressed less aggressively but were still offensive-minded. They generally looked to disrupt Utrecht’s play on the half-way line from this point on – ‘offensive pressing’ as opposed to the ‘ultra-offensive’ kind earlier.

Another point of interest for the first goal was the way that Utrecht were so worried by Samaras. He took two players (the two Utrecht centre-backs) out of the play before Juarez scored. This was to become a theme for most of the game, with him attracting two or more Utrecht players on numerous occasions. The pictures below show this:

For the first goal, Samaras draws in the two centre-backs

Samaras draws attentions of 3 Utrecht players, including the left-back, despite Fortune running into his area

Another instance where Samaras has two Utrecht players concerned with him

The second goal came when Samaras was being picked up by just one Utrecht player and he managed to lose him, which perhaps vindicates their attempts to double or triple-mark him.

The second half saw less action, with Samaras causing less problems to Utrecht. His second-half performance was quite a contrast to the first but at times one feels like the home support could afford him more patience, or at least as much as they do anyone else. As far as tactics were concerned, Celtic continued with an offensive outlook, though not quite as offensive as in the first-half. They generally looked to disrupt Utrecht’s play slightly deeper than the half-way line now and made sure they got good numbers behind the ball when not in possession. In the first half they had showed good energy and work-rate (right throughout the side) to get back into the the defensive shape, and they continued this right up until the final minutes of the game. Utrecht, on the other hand, were seemingly happy to keep the score at 2-0, and didn’t commit many players forward for fear of conceding again and putting the tie effectively out of reach.

The picture below pretty much sums up the two sides in the second half. Celtic getting numbers behind the ball, Utrecht not getting many players ahead the man in possession of it, leaving him with little options:

Celtic’s play was more patient in the second half too. They were happy to retain possession for longer periods instead of being as direct. At times the crowd grew restless, probably sensing Utrecht were there to be beaten comprehensively but Lennon understandably held back a bit. The risk of an Utrecht away goal was probably behind his thinking as well as his side’s porous defence in recent times. Later in the season, when the team is more settled and more confident in defence, we may see Celtic go for the jugular more in situations like this.

Aside from the aforementioned, there should be a mention for the two new signings, Daniel Majstorovic and Biram (though Beram has also been used) Kayal. The former looks like the composed, dominant defender we have been in need of in recent seasons and the latter looks like a real find. It’s only days but he appears to have a bit of everything in his locker – great passing range, energy, aggression, strong in the tackle and already showing signs of leadership, directing a number of his team-mates.

St. Mirren, 4-0

This game saw Celtic employ a slightly different shape to the one which started against Utrecht. It was more of a 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 with Maloney resuming the more central role he was deployed in against ICT and James Forrest playing on the left-wing. As in the Utrecht game, there were a number of synchronised ‘chain-shifts’  when Celtic were in the attacking phase, which St.Mirren found difficult to deal with. As the origins of these were from a different starting formation, with different personnel in a few of the roles, the shifts themselves were in-turn different from in the Utrecht game. Maloney’s central starting position meant that he now began in an area that he had been shifting to in the Utrecht game, giving him more freedom to move forward rather than laterally. Brown’s role was more attacking this time too, with him moving forward a lot more in support of  the attack and also looking to win the ball back further into the opponent’s half. Generally, it was a more attacking set-up than in the previous game and so to balance this Kayal tended to sit and hold his position more.

Probably most notable in the first-half was the resumption of the Samaras-Maloney partnership. The two players have a good understanding with each other and it was evident again on Sunday, with their movement causing no end of problems to St.Mirren. They seem to know that when one drops deep the other goes forward, often with Samaras coming out of his forward-line and Maloney pushing on ahead of him. Samaras dropping deep or pulling out wide has always been a feature of his game (it’s his natural way of playing) but Celtic haven’t always taken advantage of it. Often we would see him vacate the forward line and there would be no-one in a goalscoring position. He, and Fortune, have received a lot of criticism for this partly due to it being a lot different to the traditional British style centre-forward and the fact that rest of the team hasn’t been set up to make use of how they play. Against St. Mirren, Celtic took advantage of Samaras’ movement by making sure they always got other players to break ahead of him from deep. This is what happened with the first goal, a great example of a ‘false 9’ in action. It can be quite a potent tool – if their defender(s) follow him they leave space in their line for midfielders to break into from deep; if they leave him free they give him time and space to pick a pass.

Samaras in space (circled), Maloney breaks beyond him (red) and Ledley (yellow) on his way to arrive late into the box

The picture above shows how what happened with the goal. Samaras has dropped deep and out of his forward line but with Maloney (red) breaking beyond him, St. Mirren have the choice of  tracking him or going to close down Samaras. In this instance they have tracked Maloney’s run and so their line has been forced back, giving Samaras room on the edge of the box to eventually play in Ledley (yellow) for the first goal.A number of Celtic’s attacks were built on this kind of movement, with Celtic playing in threes and fours, always with one or two breaking ahead of the ball-carrier and others arriving later from deep.

Samaras-Maloney partnership. Samaras (blue) drops into the 'hole' and Maloney (red) looks to get in behind the defence.

Celtic’s tactical set-up was quite confusing for St.Mirren and they often seemed clueless as to how to counter it. Aside from the fact that Samaras and Maloney’s movement was too much for them at times, the natural width of Celtic’s formation was another big reason for St.Mirren having so many problems. To cope with the two players’ movement and runs from deep from Brown, Ledley and Juarez (deployed at right-back), St. Mirren kept their defence narrow – this gave lots of room to Fortune and Forrest out on the flanks. If the full-backs stayed on Celtic’s two wide players they would leave big spaces in the channels for those breaking from deep to run into.

Samaras ‘false 9’ examples:

Samaras (circled) has come deep, with the St. Mirren defenders caught between tracking him or staying in their line, resulting in neither. Three Celtic players break beyond him.

Here again, Samaras gone deep. This time St. Mirren tracked him leaving even more space than the previous picture. Again, 3 Celtic players are making use of his movement and are beyond him.

2nd half: Samaras(circled) draws two St.Mirren players (light blue), one of whom is the centre-back leaving his line. Fortune (orange) runs into the space. Also notice how, as a result, the St.Mirren right-back has tucked in slightly (though not enough to halt Fortune), leaving acres of room for Juarez (green) on the right.

The play throughout the first-half indicated that, barring poor finishing, a big score was a possibility and so it isn’t really a surprise that final result was 4-0. In fact, the only real surprise was that the win wasn’t by a bigger margin. The second-half turned into a procession with St.Mirren, like Utrecht, happy to lose 2-0 but unable to defend as competently as the Dutch side as well as generally being under a lot more pressure. McCourt’s introduction saw Samaras depart and Fortune take over his role. This didn’t impact upon the playing style a great deal, but Fortune tends to hold the ball up more and his general play is less erratic, with a more consistent first touch. The third goal came because of some good hold-up play by Fortune, before he turned and played in Forrest (now playing on the right). The St.Mirren left-back left the inside-left channel wide open for Forrest to run into, collect Fortune’s pass and smash the ball home. It was the speed of thought from Kayal to take a throw-in quickly that sparked it off and St. Mirren’s defence had switched off and didn’t react in time.

We then saw Murphy replace Fortune and he offers something quite different from than both the latter and Samaras. He stayed more in his forward line, more like a traditional target man who ‘leads the line’. He tended to stay right on St. Mirren’s defensive line, rather than dropping deep or drifting wide. Ki was another who came on, and showed the options Celtic now have in some areas from the bench. He came on for Kayal  and basically played the same role, showing his ability to spray passes about at will and scoring a fantastic goal. These sort of games are the type where Ki can continue to find his feet in Scottish football, as one suspects that he isn’t quite ready for the physical side of more difficult opponents than St. Mirren yet, particularly away games.

From a defensive point of view, Celtic again employed ultra-offensive pressing from the start but this time switched between it and offensive pressing throughout the game, presumably for energy conservation or whether they felt more on the front-foot. One feature different from the Utrecht game was the speed at which Celtic attempted to win the ball back. When the ball was lost, the nearest Celtic player(s) aggressively chased down the ball to try to get it back – best at this was often Scott Brown – whilst others would quickly get back into the defensive shape and close off the passing options. This sometimes meant that players would fill-in in each others positions – e.g. if Juarez was the man tasked with winning the ball back quickly, Fortune would drop into right-back, someone else  would fill-in at right midfield and so on –  a defensive chain-shift. The strength of trying to win the ball back quickly is not just that it can do so, but also that if it doesn’t then it at least slows down the other teams play, giving you that extra bit of time to reform defensively.

What have we learned from these two games?

1. It’s early days for Lennon’s Celtic, and so probably to early to say what the ‘Lenny-style’ is. One thing we can be sure of though is that his side will work their socks off. Without exception, all ten outfielders in both games put in excellent defensive work. They tirelessly pressed or quickly got back into their defensive shape after losing the ball.

2. The defensive organisation is improving. The shape when defending has been good but it is also important to note the  improving transitions from the attacking phase to the defensive phase – the aforementioned speed at which the defensive shape is reformed and pressure put on the opposition ball-carrier. This side of the game is clearly something that is being worked on, and is a big factor behind the three clean-sheets in a row.

As Jose Mourinho says, “Transition speed is vital. Quick transition is the most important aspect in the Champions League – quickly restructuring to defend, or exploiting the opponents with speed when the ball is regained.”

3. Whilst there is notable improvement to the defensive side of this, if one is being hyper-critical they could say there is still a fair bit of room for improvement in terms of the transition from defence to attack. There were times in both games (particularly the St.Mirren one) where Celtic had won the ball back and had a chance to exploit the opposition’s shape but didn’t move the ball quickly enough to do so. There were however, times where they did – such as the third goal – and given time, they should get better at deciding when to play slower and when to play faster. Taking advantage of these situations more often should result in more goals.

4. There is growing unpredictability in the attacking play. Legendary Dutch coach, Rinus Michels stated that he developed Total Football’s switching of positions in the attacking phase to make his teams’ attacks less predictable for packed defences. Whilst not comparing the current Celtic side to one of the greatest teams ever, the same thinking is there. In the SPL we will face a number of teams who ‘park the bus’ and so it’s important we play in a way which they will find hard to predict. At the moment there are good movements being made by the Celtic players and, given time, they will hopefully add to these as well as make them more instinctive.

Also, being unpredictable for the opposition will in-turn make Celtic unpredictable for the supporters, meaning we will be more exciting to watch.

5. Biram Kayal seems to bring the best out of Scott Brown. Brown put in two of his best performances for quite some time with Kayal alongside him. He seems free of attacking responsibility (though occasionally did well when involved) and instead is able to concentrate on being Celtic’s ‘enforcer’. Kayal also provides cover for Brown to aggressively press the opposition. The added passing options mean that Brown is able to take a touch then move the ball on, with a simple pass instead of looking for a difficult one.

6. Biram Kayal looks a great prospect. In modern football, there is less and less room for specialist footballers – i.e. ones that specialise in doing one thing well. With the game requiring more fluidity and flexibility, players need to be multi-faceted and some are becoming hybrids of two or more specialist roles. It’s early days, but Kayal appears to be one such player, a hybrid between a deep-lying playmaker and an aggressive holding player. He is able to perform the duties some value in Marc Crosas, but is also able to play like a more traditional defensive midfielder when required. He looks the part.

7. Majstorovic looks like just what we have needed in defence in recent seasons. One description of him has been the ‘White Bobo Balde’ but he looks far more composed and able with the ball at his feet for this. It’ll be interesting to see if he develops a partnership with one of the players already at the club or if another is brought in to partner him. One would imagine it’ll be a more pacey player to compliment him.

8. James Forrest was a stand-out performer in the St.Mirren game, a possible man-of-the-match candidate. One-against-one, he looks like he’ll have the beating of most SPL defenders. He deserves to be in and around the first XI a lot this season. One would imagine he’ll feature a lot in the games against bottom-six sides.

And finally…

A final mention must go to a very special moment in the St. Mirren game. This came in the first-half after an extended period of pressure exerted by Celtic on St. Mirren, when Maloney and then Fortune hit the post. In the last couple of seasons there may have been groans from the stands after something like this but instead there was applause for the endeavour shown by the team. The effort and work-rate shown so far this season appears to be winning the fans over again and this moment seemed to signify a corner is being turned. The ensuing chants of “Celtic! Celtic! Celtic!” surely sent a shiver down many a spine, and was like the return of an old friend. Is Lennon bringing the thunder back? It appears so…

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Northern Times permalink
    August 23, 2010 8:53 pm

    Excellent analysis again. Im glad to see our set up for domestic games is similar to the one we deploy in Europe. I used to get frustrated with Strachans rigid system at home when everyone knew how we played. There was very little variation apart from giving Nakamura more of a free role as the game wore on.

    Is there any chance of you doing some historical analysis of our old managers so we can see how things have evolved??

    On another note, would you agree that Scott Brown looks better because he doesnt have as much ground to cover. Last season teams played through our midfield and i felt it was down to him to cover every midfield position with very little help due to our formation. With Kayal and Juarez doing a similar job pressing Brown looks like a new signing. He also has plenty of options in midfield for a pass which means he retains possession much better.

    • August 23, 2010 9:52 pm

      Thanks very much.

      Historical articles were something I had in mind for this blog, with Strachan’s team definitely one that has been thought about. Watch this space…

      On Scott Brown, yeah i’d pretty much agree with that. The last two managers appeared to want to build the team around him but didn’t really do it properly, not making use of strengths enough nor balancing the midfield against his weaknesses. They set up the team as if he were a world class central midfielder, capable of much more than he actually is. Lennon appears to be building the side around him as well, but has set up the team so that Brown is able to play his natural game – which is kind of the point of building the side around an individual, isn’t it? – and with less demands made of him.

  2. Tomdickfoolery permalink
    August 24, 2010 10:48 pm

    Excellent Analysis of these games. Finally, a site which breaks these games down and explains a little bit more than the numpties you always seem to get 2 rows in front of you on the wrong end of several pints :o) Keep up the good work and once again thanks.

  3. chelmybhoy permalink
    August 26, 2010 6:42 am

    Excellent work. Here’s hoping the team employs the ‘ultra-offensive’ tonight for an early goal. I totally agree with your point towards the end (3) where you mention how slow Celtic sometimes where, in the past, with getting the ball forward quickly to exploit opponents weaknesses. I have to say McGeady was an example of this, when we were in attack, we always seemed to give defenders plenty of time to get back and regroup. Looks like Lenny will have the team playing in a different way. I’m enjoying following Cetlic this season, and your blog.

    • August 26, 2010 1:36 pm

      Yeah it looks like Celtic will be more enjoyable to follow this season (honest mistakes may influence that though…we’ll see). As the Mourinho quote pointed out, those moments just after a team has lost the ball are when they are most vulnerable defensively and have become probably the most important part of the game.

  4. JeanPierre LeGuerre permalink
    August 26, 2010 9:18 am

    Good to see you back TicTacs88. Tonight is a nice test for Lennon and his ‘system’. Defending a 2 goal advantage going into a european away leg, it will be intriguing to see (a.) his choice of personnel, and (b.) how hard the team are set up to go on the offensive and search the away goal.

    Once again – keep up the good work – the site is a crucial addition to the range of Celtic websites available, and fills a vital hole.

    • August 26, 2010 1:41 pm

      Yes, agree. Tonight’s game will reveal more about Lennon the manager. Interesting also that we now have different options so we can make slight changes to how we play, depending on the game. In the past I don’t think there was as much of a variety of players or versatility within them. He said he wants an away goal so we’ll see how much he wants to get one tonight.

      Can’t wait.


  1. Celtic’s evolving 4-4-2… « Tictical Analysis

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