This may all seem a bit too theoretical but the consequences of this tactical change are tangible. This season, Matthews provided the second highest amount of assists for us in the SPL (after Commons), with eight. Izaguirre was our third highest provider with seven and Lustig also contributed four assists. In total, our full backs created nineteen of our league goals, a remarkable increase from season 2006/7 when our full backs supplied four assists in the league, just two assists in season 2007/8 and seven in 2008/09.
This isn’t to denigrate the players or management during the Strachan era – as everyone knows, we won three out of four titles and reached the last sixteen of the Champions League twice during this period. However, what it demonstrates is the change in the role of the full back at Celtic; from being primarily focussed on defending, to the role being evolved into one that is now viewed as a key component of our attacking play as well. Matthews epitomises this transformation.
And yet, last season was probably very frustrating for Adam due to his recurring injuries. In late September, Matthews suffered an ankle injury, missing games against Motherwell, Hearts and our tie in Moscow. Shortly before Christmas, he again suffered an ankle injury missing three more fixtures and in March he had to be substituted in Turin as he damaged his hamstring against Juventus. This injury subsequently ruled him out for the remainder of the season. Matthews’ last league game for us was in February – I guess his contribution of eight assists is even more impressive when you consider that he only played in half of our SPL games.
Something that I really like about Adam is the quality of his first-touch passing. When receiving a diagonal ball from a centre back on the touchline, he’s adept at playing a fast, accurate first-time pass inside to a midfielder, then immediately spinning and going beyond his left-midfield opponent, ready for the return ball. It may be a fairly typical attribute of an attacking full-back but he’s particularly good at it – no unnecessary touches slowing down the play and good, firm, precise passing.
At Rugby Park, he frequently left the Kilmarnock left sided players ball-watching, as he ran beyond them into space. Another memory of that game was the excellent quality of his final ball, cutting it back for Brown’s goal in the first-half, then later his exquisite sand-wedge chip across the goal for the oncoming Samaras to head in off the bar.
Another memorable moment by Adam Matthews last season was his wonderful goal at Arbroath, picking up a loose ball in midfield, running 30 yards or so and cracking in a controlled, angled drive into the far top-hand corner.
Apart from his obvious attacking attributes, his display against Barcelona demonstrated how good a defender he can be – Adam was outstanding. It’s often been said that ‘he didn’t put a foot wrong’, and while that may be true, it doesn’t really do his performance justice. There is a huge difference between ‘not putting a foot wrong’ in a standard SPL game, and marking the best player in the world out of the game.
How many times have we seen Messi and Dani Alves draw opponents in before exchanging quick passes and taking the defender out of the game? That famous Wednesday night, Messi, Pedro, Sánchez and Iniesta were inter-changing positions all game, attempting to coax the Welshman (and his fellow defenders) out of position, leaving space vacant for Alves to move into. Adam kept his tactical discipline admirably, never allowing himself to be drawn out of position when Barcelona were on the attack, leaving a gap for them to exploit.
On the contrary, it was Matthews who was able to find space behind Alves. Already 1-0 ahead, Commons intercepted a Xavi pass on the edge of our box, broke free down the right hand touchline, paused and played a forty yard ball along the half-way line to Charlie Mulgrew. As Mulgrew and Ledley exchanged passes, Matthews had anticipated an opportunity and was sprinting down the touchline. Adam received the ball, played a one-two with Charlie, ran into space beyond the Barcelona defence, collected Mulgrew’s pass and curved a low cross ball with the outside of his right foot that was just a few inches beyond the advancing Samaras.
The performance against Barcelona showed the level of footballer that Adam Matthews can be; an accomplished defender with excellent tactical discipline and concentration, as well as being very comfortable when in possession, fast and with tremendous stamina.
The challenge now for Adam is to put all of these components together consistently. As much as I like him and his style of play, I think that, as fans, we should be beginning to raise the level of expectation for Adam. He’s had a good first two years at Celtic but now is the time to push on – the guy has the potential to be an exceptional footballer, not just a good one.
Adam Matthews has a long-term contract at Celtic (until 2016), which is good for us as fans, but also good for him too. In this Celtic team, with its strong emphasis on getting fullbacks into attacking positions, Adam is in the ideal environment to develop his obvious talent.
I hope and expect that Adam will be placed higher than tenth position next year.