Celtic Park, like all great theatres of football, has a habit of accentuating the vibe and general tone of the fans inside it. On Thursday night, as Celtic played host to Zenit St Petersburg in the Europa League, that couldn’t have been more evident.
Although the Celtic fans were in full support prior to kick off, there was no doubt that after ten or 15 minutes the air of tepid concern and nerves was quickly making way for raw and wholly unexpected optimism. In a game in which most fans had hoped Brendan Rodgers’ side could have scraped a draw, the Scottish champions were not only controlling possession but dominating the chances against their Russian guests.
Wave after wave of green and white attacks befell Andrey Lunev’s goal. In the 78th minute Callum McGregor finally got the breakthrough with a wonderful half-volley thanks to a superb piece of build-up play from Charly Musonda. Celtic had a much-deserved 1-0 win to take to Russia.
With his arms crossed and a strained look in his eye, Zenit coach Roberto Mancini was quick to chalk the defeat up to his team’s lack of playing time. The Russian visitors were simply unfit and weren’t ready for the pace of competitive football, according to the former Manchester City manager.
There may be some truth to that – Zenit certainly did look off the pace – but to limit Celtic’s achievement to nothing more than an oversight from their opponents would be a grave under-appreciation of what really happened: Rodgers got his tactics spot on and the Glasgow side dominated from the first minute to the very last.
The former Liverpool manager has long been touted as a keen tactical mind and Thursday’s result was just the latest example of what Rodgers can do when he pulls out his tactics board and does his homework. Indeed, the formation and system Celtic played against Zenit was one that has evolved over the past six months of European football.
Rodgers started with a defensive back three against Zenit. Although that in itself isn’t entirely revolutionary, it was a decision first made when Bayern Munich came to Glasgow and the Celtic manager needed a way to shore up his back line while still offering speed and precision in attack.
Against the Bavarian giants, Mikael Lustig – Celtic’s main weak spot in Europe and the Scottish Premiership this season – was moved inside as a central defender, while Kieran Tierney was push forward to play as a wing-back and James Forrest was asked to tuck in and do a similar role on the right. And if not for two unfortunate goals, it would have worked relatively well.
At its heart, the 3-5-2 formation allows Rodgers to protect his central defence with an extra defender as well as two holding midfielders – usually Scott Brown and another – while emphasising Celtic’s main attacking threats: their pace down either wing. And it’s exactly what worked against Zenit.
Throughout Thursday night's match Tierney and Forrest terrorised either Zenit full-back through the match. Against Celtic’s right winger, Domenico Criscito, a central defender by trade, characterised his side’s lack of purpose and speed, while Igor Smolnikov looked isolated and often troubled when Celtic’s left-back came bombing down the wing.
According to WhoScored, Forrest completed six dribbles over the course of the game – more than any Zenit player. Meanwhile, Tierney’s six crosses could not be bested by anyone on the pitch that night aside from Celtic’s set-piece taker Olivier Ntcham. The left-back was also Celtic’s second most proficient passer of the ball in to the final third over the course of the match too.
Like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side, Rodgers’ team dominated the middle of the park but outsourced much of their creativity to pace and speed on the wings. And in Tierney and Forrest, Celtic’s new-look wing-backs, Zenit didn’t stand a chance.
Indeed, if Celtic did take the game to Zenit on either wing then that proficiency in attack was built on the foundations of dominating play in the middle of the park. The ball-winning, smart-passing excellence of Brown was on show for all to see on the night while his partner in crime, Eboue Kouassi, wasted little time making the most of his first start in European football this season. And in Ntcham the Scottish champions seem to have finally found a reliable No.10 purpose-built for European football. If Zenit had hoped to break or take the game to the Scottish champions it would have to be through all three of these midfielders.
Rodgers had set his team up perfectly to dominate the match, yet the tactical decision to bring on the attacking Musonda for Kouassi in the 73rd minute proved to be the deciding blow. Alongside fellow attacking midfielders, Ntcham and McGregor, Musonda offered some attacking flair that had been sorely missing from Moussa Dembélé’s game for much of the match.
Just five minutes after his introduction the young Belgian star had already broken through the Zenit defence to loft a careful pass for McGregor to volley home the winner.
Ultimately, isolating a single player for praise seems like an unfair exercise considering the circumstances. Celtic simply outplayed their opponents across the pitch. On a night in which their fans and critics alike gave them little hope of winning, Rodgers’ side overcame the odds with a superb performance and clever tactics.