For the first time in three years, Celtic look to be heading into the group stages of the Champions League after a well deserved 5-2 win over Israeli champions Hapoel Be’er Sheva, who made the play-off round by pulling off an upset against Olympiacos.
Theoretical Point : Defensive Orientation
Before covering the match itself, it is important to explore a more theoretical point about football generally, and in particular, the way in which teams organise themselves without the ball. Arrigo Sacchi, who managed AC Milan to consecutive European Cups in 1989 and 1990, once explained that there are four key reference points every player and team have to consider when defending; the ball, your teammates, the opponents and the space. The distinction between defensive systems come from the order in which a team prioritizes these reference points. For example, a team that places most importance on teammates as a reference point, will first focus on maintaining a set defensive shape and keeping the correct distances and angles between one another, with the aim of ensuring the opposition has a tough time penetrating through their shape.
Perhaps the most simplistic approach is the use of the opponents as the first reference point through man marking. A historically popular approach, man marking simply means that the defending team’s players are generally designated an opponent, whom they are tasked with tracking across the pitch in any circumstance. This approach is still largely prevalent across lower-mid level club football, as well as at all levels of international football, where the simplicity of the system is ideal for implementation with teams that have minimal training time.
However, at the higher levels of club football, man orientation in the defensive phase is an increasingly rare sight, with the flaws in the approach being far too easy to exploit, particularly when going up against the best coaches, and most intelligent players around. Ultimately, the key issue with man marking comes down to the fact that if you send your player out to track an opponent, your players positioning is almost entirely in the control of an opponent, and as such intelligent, well organised teams are able to use this to open up and exploit key spaces on the pitch.
“If you mark man-to-man, you’re sending out eleven donkeys” – Ernst Happel
Putting your defensive shape in the hands of the opposition is not a particularly good idea, nor is your entire defensive shape being reactive, rather than pro-active. Additionally, this approach reduces the scope for players to react to the situation that faces them, and makes it too easy for the players to thoughtlessly stick to their man when the circumstances dictate that they ought to adapt and perhaps support a teammate, or protect an important space that is exposed.
While Hapoel lined up in their expected 5-2-3 formation, Brendan Rodgers opted to go with a variant of 4-3-3, having switched between this and his hybrid 3-5-2 formation during his time at the club. Big decisions came by way of Moussa Dembele and fit again Erik Sviatchenko only making the bench. The lineup had clearly been influenced by the performance at home to Motherwell a week earlier.
Celtic exploit the Hapoel midfield
As discussed above, defending sides are organised based on four key reference points. It would be overly simplistic, and easily exploitable, if a team was to organise based on only one of the reference points, and as such, most of the defensive approaches we see on the pitch look to use two or more of the reference points to organise themselves. In the case of Hapoel Be’er Sheva, they used “Man-oriented zonal marking”, where they line up within a defensive shape (roughly a 5-3-2 in this case), and within the framework of this shape, look to pick up individual Celtic players based on the situation.
The issue on the night, for Be’er Sheva, was that often the man orientations would take precedence over the zonal marking element of the system, and as a result, Celtic were able to open key spaces on the pitch through their movement.
Celtic had clearly noted the marking scheme of the Israeli side in pre-match preparation, and it was evident that they had targeted this as a weak point, with Brendan Rodgers’ side very deliberately and persistently opening space in front of the Hapoel back five through clever movement. In the early stages of the game this was done using Mikael Lustig as the player that would access the central space with passes from a deep right back position.
In the first stage of build up, Celtic exploited the 4v2 they had at the back, in order to free Lustig on numerous occasions, usually via some excellent passing from Eoghan O’Connell. The deeper central midfielders, Brown and McGregor would come deep, close to the back four, in order to drag their markers high up the pitch. Finally, Tom Rogic would drift wide towards the ball, again attracting his marker across the pitch and away from the centre. With the space ahead of the away side’s back line now entirely vacated, Celtic looked to attack this area, with Forrest and Sinclair darting inside, and Griffiths dropping deep. Finally, the movement of the receiving player would drag one of the centre backs out of position, allowing the others to attack the space in behind. This was the very route that Celtic attacked in the lead up to the opening goal, and had James Forrest put a little less on a through ball, could have easily led to a second.
As Celtic made use of this path to goal time and again, Hapoel eventually adapted, changing they way they pressed the Celtic defence, but this adaptation only opened up a different route for Celtic to attack, and this route would end up leading to Celtic’s second
Hapoel’s left forward, Nwakaeme, changed his positioning in order to prevent Celtic attacking through Lustig, however the outcome of this was that space opened up for Kolo Toure to drive at the heart of the visitors midfield, and ultimately access the same spaces in front of the defence. Toure’s dribbles perfectly highlighted the weaknesses in a man oriented system, with McGregor and Brown able to open the door for Toure to attack the centre with simple sideways movement. The outcome was the isolation of John Ogu, who was easlily bypassed in 2v1 and 3v1 situations.
Celtic’s stifle the Hapoel attack
An important element of Celtic’s dominance, particularly in the first half, was the way in which they pressed and counterpressed. Celtic were hugely impressive in this regard (something Rodgers highlighted after the match), and were able to limit their opponents to only one shot in the first half, a speculative hit from distance.
Jurgen Klopp spoke about training the impulse to press, rather than explicitly telling a player where he needs to be in a given situation, and how this was the key to his own counterpressing approach. Clearly Brendan Rodgers has done something similar with his Celtic squad, and combined with having a fairly well organised structure behind the ball, this has enabled the team to time and again recover the ball quickly after it is lost, a central element of Rodgers’ philosophy.
2nd Half developments
After a dominant first 55 minutes, Celtic quickly conceded two goals against the run of play, with the first two dangerous attacks Hapoel managed in the match. A potential cause was an injury to the important Lustig, who looked unable to run in the lead up to the first goal, and was substituted with what appeared to be an injury minutes after the second.
In reaction to the goals, Brendan Rodgers introduced Nir Bitton to bring calm and defensive stability to the midfield, and then Moussa Dembele for the fading Tom Rogic, in an attempt to offer more goalscoring threat to the Hapoel defence. While Celtic still largely controlled the match, they were not able to create as much danger, due to a change made by Hapoel, with the front two being less aggressive in pressing to avoid being as easily bypassed, and the freeing of Ogu to cover space after the removal of Rogic. The result was Celtic gaining more territory, but not being able to create dangerous situations as frequently.
A much highlighted aspect of the Celtic performance was the reaction to conceding twice in quick succession. With Brendan Rodgers continually stressing the focus he has put on instilling an improved mentality into the players, particularly in adverse situations, Celtic were again able to keep their cool under pressure, and quickly reassert their dominance over the match, before once again stretching their lead to three goals ahead of the second leg. The suspicion is that had it not been for Rodgers, Celtic could have easily crumbled under pressure in this situation, and not come away with a result as positive as they were able to on this occasion.
Thanks to a smart attacking approach in the first half, and a strong mentality in the second, Celtic were able to get their best first leg result of any qualifier they’ve faced in recent years, and give themselves an excellent chance of reaching the Champions League group stage which is so important to the club financially, as well as to the fans. It is very nearly a perfect start for Celtic under Brendan Rodgers.