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Not long after the celebrations of Champions League qualification had died down, Celtic were handed a nightmare-inducing group. They were drawn alongside German champions Bayern Munich, French giants Paris Saint-Germain and Belgian titleholders Anderlecht.
Once the group stage was confirmed, it was widely accepted that success for the Scottish club would involve simply staying in Europe beyond Christmas. This was manager Brendan Rodgers’ stated goal, and third place appeared the right target, combining realism with ambition.
However, Celtic endured a difficult beginning to their Champions League campaign, losing 5-0 at home to PSG. While the outcome was perhaps unsurprising given the financial gulf between the two clubs, the manner of the defeat was disheartening.
Once the dust had settled on that match, Rodgers offered his assessment, stating:
“The problems we had in the game were probably more mental than anything else. It's the mentality for me. I think for Celtic to qualify for the Champions League is huge in many ways, but that can't be seen just to be the success.
“I want us to go into the Champions League and then impose our way of playing and way of working. I know we're a million miles away financially from where other teams are at, but it still should allow us to compete.”
However, for Celtic to compete at the highest of levels, Rodgers may have to focus first on adjusting his tactics as opposed to the team’s mentality.
PSG EXPLOITED AN OPEN CELTIC
One of the criticisms of Celtic following the match was that they didn’t press the ball enough. However, in the defining first half – which ended with a three-goal advantage for PSG – the Scottish champions did press collectively high in a bid to stifle and disrupt their esteemed visitors’ build-up.
The issue in those instances wasn’t that they weren’t pressing high or intensively enough, but that the quality of their opposition was simply too much.
Celtic like to press high domestically, and this approach yields positive results on an almost weekly basis. This is part of Rodgers’ philosophy, something he has brought with him from Liverpool, but it is not necessarily the correct stance to adopt in all European games.
The clash with Paris Saint-Germain was one such game. The French champions were consistently able to retain possession and then play through their hosts’ pressure, thanks to defensive and midfield lines loaded with exceptional talent and gifted ball-players.
Once they had seen off Celtic’s initial press and secured the ball comfortably, they were able to pick holes in the Bhoys’ midfield line. Below are a number of examples of this. In the first graphic, Thiago Motta finds Kylian Mbappé; in the second, Marco Verratti finds the Frenchman.
Unable to press particularly effectively high up the pitch, Rodgers’ side were then too easy to open up, with PSG players finding plenty of space between the lines to exploit.
The layout of the Celtic midfield was an issue at times, with too flat a line and too great a distance between players making it easy for the French side to play penetrative passes. This is seen in the below still, where Motta easily threads the ball between Scott Brown and Olivier Ntcham to find Adrien Rabiot in space.
This continued to be an issue throughout much of the first half and beyond. Indeed, it was present for PSG’s second goal.
As seen in the below graphic, Motta once again has time on the ball, and once again there are too many gaps between Celtic’s highlighted central trident of Brown, Ntcham and Stuart Armstrong. The Italian takes advantage of the situation, finding Neymar and taking out the home side’s entire midfield in the process.
These issues were shown in the match statistics. Paris Saint-Germain made nine through balls on the night, which is precisely the number they average in Ligue 1 action. Celtic, however, would expect to provide a much sterner test than the majority of PSG’s domestic opponents.
The French side also enjoyed 69 per cent of possession, completed 91.2 per cent of their attempted passes, and completed 18 dribbles. All of those figures are higher than their domestic average, and only confirm how comfortable they found it to play through Rodgers’ side.
WHAT CAN CELTIC DO TO IMPROVE?
While their chances of progressing from such a tough group are always likely to be slim, Celtic could give themselves a much better chance by altering their tactics, particularly for clashes with the continent’s finest, such as PSG and Bayern.
In those games, it may be best for Rodgers to temporarily abandon some of his defensive principles in order to minimise the technical advantages of the opposition.
Instead of operating with a high press and moving in accordance to the ball in an attempt to close off the opponent’s passing options, Celtic could take up a deep block and focus on retaining their shape. This could be the 4-5-1 as chosen against PSG, but it could also see the introduction of an extra centre-back to provide numerical superiority in the centre of defence.
With extra numbers and less space in behind, they should then look to ensure the gaps between the lines are closed off. The midfield should drop back to play closer to the defence, and the attackers should follow suit.
This would likely reduce the chances of an opponent, such as PSG’s Motta or Bayern's Javi Martínez and Thiago Alcântara, finding so much opportunity for forward passes into dangerous areas.
Rodgers has certain footballing ideals and that is to be praised. The football produced by those ideals has often been scintillating and, in domestic action, extremely effective.
But, in order for Celtic to combat the aforementioned financial discrepancies and pose more of a threat to the continental hierarchy, he may have to adapt his defensive approach to suit the quality of the opponent.