Having recently broken the British record for consecutive domestic games without defeat, it’s fair to say Celtic win most of the time. However, it was in defeat that the course of their 2017/18 campaign and short-term future may have changed for the better.
The Scottish champions seriously tested Bayern Munich in their latest Champions League fixture, creating several scoring opportunities before losing 2-1 to exit the competition at the group stage. But, playing with a new system, they showed enough quality to suggest they have what it takes to compete against Europe’s finest.
Brendan Rodgers persisted with that same shape, a rough 3-4-2-1, for the record-breaking Scottish Premiership win over St. Johnstone prior to the international break, and he would be wise to continue doing so upon the return of club football this weekend, with his side set to take on a resurgent Ross County.
The system works well for the team, though as always certain individuals benefit more than others. Perhaps the biggest single benefactor from Celtic’s latest tactical modification is Scott Sinclair. The Englishman has a unique and interesting role within the formation, one that allows him plenty of freedom.
Since moving to Scotland, Sinclair has revived his career. Having helped Swansea City into the Premier League, moves to Manchester City and Aston Villa didn’t work out. He needed the guiding hand of his old boss, Rodgers, to return to his best form.
Playing for the strongest team in the Scottish Premiership under a manager who truly understands his gifts, the 28-year-old has kicked on to a new level, even sparking murmurings of an England call-up. Despite a slight dip earlier this season, he has contributed consistently in the final third.
Last term he scored 25 goals and set up a further 11 in 50 appearances across all competitions. That was an impressive haul, though he’s arguably improved once again in 2017/18.
In the current campaign he has 11 goals and eight assists to his name from 23 games. While his goals per 90 minutes has stayed the same at 0.55, his direct goal involvement per 90 has shot up from 0.8 to 0.95.
Sinclair is fully aware of the positive impact the environment has had on him, saying: “I have never been at a better, well-gelled team where everyone is so together on and off the pitch. Winning mentality is the biggest thing, every game we go into we want to win.
“We have to keep working hard. The manager never lets us drop our standards, no matter whether it’s training or whoever we are playing against. He always wants us to give 100 per cent and to do the right things.”
Rodgers’ recent switch to the 3-4-2-1 worked wonders against both Bayern and St. Johnstone, and Sinclair appears ideally suited to the system. Against the latter he scored the opener before assisting the assist for his team’s fourth. Throughout that match he caused problems for his opposition.
SINCLAIR’S NEW ROLE
The 3-4-2-1 has, over the last two seasons, become the system du jour in England’s top flight thanks to Antonio Conte’s title-winning implementation of it at Chelsea. Since then, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and others have experimented with it to varying degrees of success.
However, the shape was around long before Conte. In fact, Rodgers utilised it during his time at Liverpool, enabling a vital upturn in form.
With his side hungover following a failed title challenge and the sale of Luis Suarez to Barcelona, he brought in the system for a trip to Manchester United. They lost 3-0 that day, but went unbeaten in their next 13 league matches, winning ten and drawing three.
He had experimented with the 3-4-2-1 at Celtic prior to the clash with Bayern, but having used it twice in a row to good effect there is reason to believe he could stick with it for a prolonged period. This should be music to Sinclair’s ears.
Nominally, the Englishman is the left-sided inside forward within the system, with Callum McGregor taking up the same role on the opposite side. However, he is given license to roam and maximises that opportunity.
Sinclair operates primarily between the left channel and the centre of the pitch; rarely does he shift to the left touchline, which is what many might expect of him given his most obvious asset is searing speed. As seen in the above graphic, he doesn’t remain static, often coming deep from a high starting position in the attacking phase to offer a connection to his team-mates.
These movements help Celtic to retain possession by reducing the distance between ball-player and –receiver, while they also help to progress possession by enabling a pass through one line of opposition pressure.
This can also create space behind the opposition’s midfield line to exploit. Sinclair sometimes targets this space immediately after laying the ball off, subsequently dragging defenders away from the ball.
An example of this is seen above. Sinclair drops deep and, simultaneously, Armstrong moves forward. The former receives a pass from the centre-back, Dedryck Boyata, before playing a first-time pass forward for the latter.
In the final third, Sinclair will often do a similar rotation with Dembélé. When the French striker drops off the front line and comes deep, Sinclair looks to attack the opposition defensive line. These movements are done to confuse and unbalance the opposition back line and create gaps between defenders to be penetrated.
Sinclair doesn’t move off the ball constantly – occasionally he simply takes up a position within the left channel and looks to receive, as seen above.
From this area, he will then look to drive towards the opposition defence at speed, targeting the space between the right-sided centre-back and the right full-back. In doing so he aims to commit two defenders and create a free man for his team in the final third.
Celtic’s new system had yielded two excellent team performances, though Sinclair is particularly relishing the freedom afforded him by Rodgers’ latest tactical alteration.