Celtic advanced to the final of the Scottish League Cup last weekend as they moved closer to a first piece of silverware in 2017/18. They defeated Hibernian 4-2 in the semi-final to set up a clash with Motherwell at Hampden Park on 26 November.
The win was expected but, while the score was suggestive of a reasonably comfortable afternoon, Brendan Rodgers’ side did encounter some defensive difficulties against their capital city opposition. What is particularly concerning is that these same difficulties have been in evidence in other games.
Celtic were, occasionally, too open, with the space between the lines subsequently being exploited by Hibernian. Indeed, Neil Lennon’s men scored their second following a pass that cut out the Glasgow giants’ midfield. Disconcertingly, that pass was an obvious one, as opposed to an eye-of-a-needle incisive through ball.
Rodgers will take his team to Aberdeen on Wednesday night for a meeting of the Scottish Premiership’s top two. Both teams are level atop the table with 23 points apiece, though Celtic are ahead on goal difference. If they want to ensure they remain in that position for the foreseeable future, they may need to improve defensively.
OPEN SPACE HAUNTS CELTIC
The space between the lines is important within a football match. Getting a player into that space affords teams what Positional Play disciples would term ‘positional superiority’. Put simply, players with space between the lines can cause havoc to their opposition.
Firstly, they offer a pass forward which can eliminate large numbers of players at once. Secondly, they entice the next line of opposition pressure and pose a difficult question – should they move up to close down the player between the lines, risking space behind, or remain deep and allow the player between the lines time and space to attack?
Celtic suffered the consequences of allowing Hibernian this space in the lead up to the Edinburgh side’s third goal last Saturday. The situation, shown in the below still, looked fairly obvious to onlookers, but Rodgers’ side were unable to prevent it.
The Hibs player between the lines, circled above in grey, received the forward pass that took out Celtic’s entire midfield line. With the Bhoys’ defence backing off, he then had time to pick a through-ball for Oli Shaw to score.
This issue may not be quite so obviously exposed in the Scottish Premiership, but it has been a recurring element of the team’s Champions League games this term. In the 5-0 defeat at home to Paris Saint-Germain it occurred regularly, with the space between Celtic’s defence and midfield being taken advantage of time after time.
Rodgers’ men were slightly more compact away to German champions Bayern Munich, but the issue still arose from time to time. Below is one example. Here, Mats Hummels picks a pass to Thiago Alcantara that takes out Scott Brown, Olivier Ntcham and Stuart Armstrong all at once.
The space between the lines isn’t the only issue, however. This lack of compactness can be compensated, to an extent, by aggressive pressing from the front and at the back.
The defensive line can man-mark rigorously to prevent any receiver from having time to turn and play passes; alternately, this man-marking could put off the ball-player from even attempting the pass in the first place. Meanwhile, pressure on and around the ball-player from the attackers can hurry their passing, cut off their options or narrow their field of vision, making penetrative passes through the middle less viable.
However, as seen in the above example against Bayern, Celtic’s attackers don’t apply enough pressure to Hummels. At the same time, the back four are hesitant to push up collectively or individually and close down Thiago. This only extrapolates the issue of the space between the lines.
A high defensive line would ensure the gap between defence and midfield was less overt, but this is not a feasible option in Europe for Celtic. One reason for this is simply the quality of attacker they are up against – Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Arjen Robben and Robert Lewandowski would no doubt take advantage of the resultant space in behind.
It’s also worth noting that Craig Gordon is not the most convincing of sweeper-keepers. He has brought down opposition several times before and, having occasionally given away possession cheaply, isn’t the most comfortable with the ball at feet.
Therefore, in Europe it would be best for Celtic to drop collectively and form a compact, medium or deep block, whereby the midfield and forward lines would drop back to compress the space between the lines.
Domestically, however, it may be best for Rodgers to instruct his side to defend higher as a unit. This may involve stationing the back line on or around the halfway point, while the attackers pressurise the opposition defenders and the midfield – Armstrong, Brown, Ntcham, etc – support the press.
Regardless of the decision taken, it’s clear that Celtic must somehow plug the gap between their defence and midfield. PSG and Bayern exploiting this may not have raised alarm bells, but Hibernian doing so should. With a more compact defensive shape, they would be assured of maintaining their domestic dominance.