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Utrecht 4 – 0 Celtic: Embarrassing defeat, but sometimes it’s not just down to tactics

August 27, 2010

As the title states, sometimes one cannot just praise or blame tactics for a victory or defeat. Though there are tactical discussions to be had about this game – which we will get to later – they aren’t necessarily the major cause for such a capitulation. There was a major change made by Lennon – most notably the dropping of Maloney – and despite this decision having somewhat of an impact, it is largely the players themselves who should take the blame. It is a British trait in football to blame the mentality of players rather than technique or tactics when things go wrong and this is usually a mistake, but for once such criticism is closer to the truth.

The major tactical decision made by the manager for this game was the exclusion of Maloney. It could appear to be just a simple personnel change and that the formation wasn’t really affected, which is true to an extent. A team’s starting formation is just that, the initial physical arrangement of players on the playing field. They key to how the side plays are the shapes they take up when attacking or defending, and the formation dictates the positions from which the players start in before moving to create such shapes. When a side is described as ‘rigid’ it is because their players don’t deviate much from their starting positions and hold the shape which they begin with, whilst a ‘fluid’ side will shift into quite different shapes from that they begin with.

So what impact does the exclusion of Maloney have on this? He is a player who naturally does not play in a traditionally British position or style. His natural game is to drift between the midfield and attack – a type of player that Michel Platini describes as a ‘9 and a half’ and he likes to roam and look for space, not sticking to a specific position. Having this type of player in the side means that, even if you are looking to keep more rigid, you will still have that extra bit of fluidity and unpredictability in your attacking play. The downside is that this player has to be disciplined enough to get back into his defensive position when possession is lost, with him possibly having strayed far from it beforehand. However, Maloney has so far shown good defensive responsibility and the setup of the rest of the team has been such that a good defensive shape can be formed even when he (or someone else) is out of position. So, his exclusion meant Celtic lost a bit of ingenuity and movement between the lines (something no-one else really provides), which would have been particularly useful against Utrecht’s 4-4-2. To pick him up, someone from their defence would have had to shift forward, or someone from their midfield would have to shift back, which in turn can create spaces for other players. Leaving him would allow time and space to work in if he received the ball.

The other effect of Maloney dropping to the bench is that Celtic lacked a player who can link the midfield and attack, meaning there was often too much of a gap between them. This can be particularly evident when – as against Utrecht – you are faced with an onslaught and so the midfield drop back deep to try to protect the defence with the striker staying up-field. When possession is regained it is important to have a player who can link the two for counter-attacks, which Celtic didn’t have, meaning Samaras was mostly isolated. He was also isolated in the attacking phase, with little support for much of the game.

So why didn’t things improve when Maloney was brought on? This next point is probably the most important as to why Celtic performed as they did, and it is largely relating to the character of their individuals. Under Neil Lennon, we have seen a change to a more fluid style of play than under previous managers, with the players having more freedom and with more switching of positions in attack. However, when a side is lacking in confidence or nervous the players often revert back to sticking to their starting roles, taking less risks in their off-the-ball movement and less individual responsibility to make themselves available for a pass. The effect is that you end up playing rigidly, which is fine if you intended it to but not so good when fluidity is key to how you attack, as it has been so far with Lennon’s Celtic. The defenders largely stay in defence but more importantly the midfielders and attackers stay in their zones and so attacks are more predictable. We saw it in the World Cup with England with their problem being not so much their 4-4-2 formation – though it did play a part – but their mentality resulting in a reversion from their fluid style in qualifying to rigidity in the tournament: two strikers not offering anything different, four midfielders staying in midfield, whilst Germany’s was able to easily pass around them. In the first half against Utrecht, Celtic had three central midfielders, none of whom broke their lines in support of the attack. The two wingers mostly stayed on the wing, which should be less of a surprise given this is how these two have played when selected in these positions so far this season. Only Samaras was prepared to move around and leave his line, but as has been stated he was often isolated and nobody was making use of any space he may have created by trying to break into it – this is where using a ‘false 9’ can break down, with it highly dependant on runs from deep. Celtic didn’t have this, a stark change from the previous three games.

The other effect of nervousness is a more obvious one – individuals just don’t perform as well they normally would. Lennon’s post-match comments included that the side lacked belief and this was evident in the high number of individual errors. There is too much to comment on in this respect and so I will save us the torture of doing so. I will add though, that this was a game where the senior players needed to show leadership and not be the ones making mistakes, instead they largely put in ‘rabbit in the headlight’ type performances. Indeed, it is a great worry that the player least affected by the occasion was a teenager with little first team experience and that so far, this side has fallen apart on the biggest occasions.


People can criticise a manager for making a lot of changes to his squad in a short space of time but matches like the Utrecht second-leg have become far too frequent in recent times. The lingering lack of character or ability to handle pressure are justification for Lennon’s clear-out and also for it to continue. The Ireland under-21 coach, Don Givens recently gave his thoughts on the Celtic manager’s transfer policy, and he makes a good point:

“If you are starting to put a squad in place, and you know that the attitude is right, then you can start working on getting the tactics and the shape of the team right. The attitude has to be right to give yourself half a chance.

“If you send out a squad and you know that they are going to give you everything and show good character, it means a lot to you as a manager. It means that you are getting the maximum out of them straight away. That is a huge benefit to you.”

The only positive – if you can call it that – is that Celtic will be able to concentrate solely on domestic matters, without the distraction of European football. Winning back the SPL was always going to be the priority this season and is what needed to be addressed before even thinking about anything else. However, European football a vital part of this club and nothing is going to alleviate the sick feeling resulting from such an early exit.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2010 4:28 pm

    Great post mate, really well put.

    Disappointing performance, I would have kept the same 11 from the St Mirren game, keep it tight, but hindsight is a wonderful thing, concentrating on the league however isn’t as much of a comfort considering the continuing poor performances of Scottish teams could lose the SPL the 2nd Champions League spot, which is a disaster.

    Tactically I think Utrecht got it right over the two legs, at 2-0 down they shut up shop a little, mixed with Celtic’s cautious second half not wanting to lose an away goal, when Utrecht got 2-0 up last night they had no intention to keep it tight, they smelt blood and went for the jugular.

    • August 27, 2010 5:32 pm

      Your comment about hindsight is very true. On this blog I can highlight tactical strengths or weaknesses after the event, but I’m sure Neil Lennon – or any manager – can provide ample justification for their decisions beforehand, far more so than any spectator, ‘pundit’ or fan.

      Losing the other Champions League place is indeed a disaster, how much further will Scottish football fall? The way it’s going the Europa League places will be under threat too. Something really needs to be done, a complete shake up from top to bottom.

      As for Utrecht, they must surely have seen the brittle character of our team, particularly away from home in Europe. At times like the situation at 2-0 down, when things aren’t going well, good teams fall back on their strengths. It’s difficult to say what the strengths of this Celtic side are.

      Thanks for the compliment on the article.

  2. JeanPierre LeGuerre permalink
    August 27, 2010 4:55 pm

    Can’t help but think that the Celtic camp collectively underestimated this FC Utrecht team. one must query exactly how much preparation and research had been done.

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