Celtic's dreams of Champions League progress were all but dashed on Tuesday night as they suffered a 2-1 home defeat to Bayern Munich. The result leaves Brendan Rodgers’ side six points behind the German giants, who are second in Group B with two fixtures left to play.
Despite the scoreline and its implications, the Scottish champions’ manager was pleased with the way his side performed.
“How disappointed we are shows you the level we played at,” he said post-match. “It’s arguable that we created more chances than them…It was very much a collective performance tonight.”
While defeat is, on paper, a negative, Celtic were able to hold their own throughout the encounter with the German champions. And, while Bayern were without several key players, the hosts couldn’t call upon star centre-back Jozo Šimunović and wing wizard Patrick Roberts.
Rodgers’ happiness at the team display in such circumstances was fair. While Europa League football is now the aim, this showing acted as evidence that the Glaswegian giants can compete with the best on their day.
And here are the major tactical insights from the game.
FORREST EXCELS AT WING-BACK
It feels as if James Forrest has been around forever, yet the wide man is only 26 years of age. Seemingly stuck in the ‘prospect’ stage of his development for several years, he looks to have decidedly broken beyond that tag on the basis of his display against Bayern.
A quick look at Rodgers’ team sheet suggested a 4-3-3 shape with the home-grown winger on the right and Scott Sinclair on the left. However, Celtic instead lined up in a rough 3-6-1. And they did so to good effect.
Forrest was integral to his side’s ability to cut through Bayern and get into the final third. Starting at right wing-back, his driving runs on the overlap and occasional inward forays drew pressure and created space for team-mates.
All in all he completed five dribbles, which was significantly more than anyone else on the pitch. He also played four key passes, which only Arjen Robben could equal.
Excelling as a wing-back with his combination of industry, technical ability and aggression on the ball, Forrest may well have found his best position.
BAYERN EXPLOIT DEFENSIVE ISSUES
Throughout Celtic’s Champions League campaign, defensive issues have been worryingly prevalent. Their lack of compactness allowed Paris Saint-Germain to pass through their midfield time after time in their group stage opener, while similar difficulties were encountered away to Bayern.
However, at home to the German champions Rodgers’ men had fewer problems of this nature. Their defence kept a relatively high line, near the halfway point, while the midfield four of Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong, Scott Sinclair and Callum McGregor dropped deeper to reduce the space between the lines.
But, despite this improvement, Celtic still suffered from poor defending. Having made an outstanding start to the match and threatening the opposition goal on a number of occasions, they were caught out by an embarrassingly simple long ball over the top from Bayern goalkeeper Sven Ulreich.
Dedryck Boyata was slow to react to the pass going over his head, while Mikael Lustig was unable to provide the cover required. Furthermore Craig Gordon, who as the shot-stopper behind a high line must be more active in such situations, failed to defend his goal or cut out the pass. This all led to Kingsley Coman having most of the goal to aim at, and the Frenchman duly found the net.
It wouldn’t be accurate to suggest the opener changed the flow of the game; Celtic continued to move the ball well and create opportunities. However, without it the Scottish side would have gained a vital point.
CELTIC LEARN COMPACTNESS LESSON
As discussed above, Celtic’s defensive woes came from behind their defensive line rather than in front of it. They were also far less frequent than in previous Champions League matches. And their increased compactness between defence and midfield was shown statistically.
In the 5-0 defeat to PSG, the French side played nine through balls, two of which were accurate. In the 3-0 defeat away to Bayern, the German side played six through balls, one of which was accurate. However, on Tuesday night Jupp Heynckes’ outfit played just one through ball, which was not accurate.
Arturo Vidal tried to move beyond and offer a pass between the lines, but Celtic’s squeezing of the space made if much more difficult for their opponents to penetrate their defensive block.
CELTIC PLAY OUT WITH COMPOSURE
Rodgers has been insistent on not changing his principles to counter the quality of opposition his side have had to face in this season’s Champions League campaign. In the 2-1 loss to Bayern, his stubbornness was proven to be right.
His side did indeed create the more chances than their illustrious rivals. Armstrong missed an excellent opportunity early on, while Ulreich and his defence made some important blocks at crucial junctures.
Most excitingly, Celtic’s moments in the final third weren’t based on luck, the chaos of long balls or the intensity of a fizzing Parkhead crowd. Rather, they were the result of progressive possession built efficiently from the back and through the thirds.
Brown was particularly commendable for his control of the ball under pressure from Bayern defenders, helping to secure possession before moving it forward. He was helped by Armstrong, McGregor and the centre-backs, all of whom combined well with one another and the wing-backs.
Celtic enjoyed 47 per cent of possession in the end, which is significantly more than they have boasted in previous games against the top two seeds in their Champions League group.
The fact it led to serious scoring chances is an indicator of their increasing composure at the top level, something Rodgers must be credited for.