Jack Lyons looks takes another look at Celtic’s tactics, this time from Saturday’s win at Fir Park. You can follow Jack on @JLyonsFootball
Celtic went into the Saturday lunchtime game at Fir Park knowing that a win would all but seal the league title after Aberdeen’s Friday night slip up.
Motherwell produced no shocks in their shape or selection, making no changes from ther 2-1 win away to Inverness the previous week, and beginning with a deep lying 4-1-4-1, which is a common approach to playing Celtic, striker Louis Moult was moved to the left side of midfield in order to accommodate him into the system.
Celtic lined up roughly as expected, with Erik Sviatchenko out injured, Charlie Mulgrew came back into the side, and the only other noteworthy selection was that Colin Kazim-Richards started in the left winger role nobody in the squad seems to want to claim as their own. There was a noteworthy shift back to the 4-3-3 that has appeared in some recent games.
From kick-off it was evident how the first half would pan out, with Celtic dominating possession and attempting to break Motherwell down, who would sit it with a low block, and try to catch Celtic on the counter (If this sounds familiar, see 90% of matches at Celtic Park). Motherwell’s attacking threat was very poor to say the least, despite some decent hold up play by Scott McDonald, he was left isolated. The first half shot count of 16-3 in Celtic’s favour very much reflected the balance of the match. As is often the case in matches such as this, Celtic’s ability to find holes in the opposition block and create chances is central to the outcome
Left Vs Right
There was a clear contrast between Celtic’s play on the right and left hand side of the pitch. While the left side looked stale, and bereft of ideas, the right hand side was lit up by impressive performances by Stefan Johansen and Patrick Roberts.
The picture above highlights the key difference between the attack on the left and right hand sides, the most dangerous spaces available for Celtic to operate were in the “half space” either side of Keith Lasley, Motherwell’s lone holding midfielder. While Johansen and Roberts found these spaces on the right with regularity due to the roles they are accustomed to playing (Johansen as a number 10, Roberts as an inside right winger), this was far from the case on the left. Bitton, used to playing a deeper role than Johansen, was far more comfortable playing in front of Motherwell’s midfield, and Colin Kazim-Richards, a striker by trade, tended to find himself on the home side’s defensive line.
A factor that only furthered this issue was Charlie Mulgrew’s distribution. By far the most technically able of Celtic’s central defenders, he fails to use his powers for good, instead of finding incisive central passing options, Mulgrew often tries a long diagonal ball, when a shorter, and often simpler option may have been better. On the occasions he was able to exploit the half spaces, Kazim-Richards clearly didn’t have the needle player abilities to exploit the space he found himself in.
Celtic’s opening goal in fact came from the left half space, when Johansen drifted across the edge of the box into space, where he was able to play in Kieran Tierney for the assist.
For the second half, Motherwell reverted back to the 4-4-2 they had played in previous weeks, with Moult joining McDonald up front, and Cadden moving out to the right of midfield. This change of shape changed the dynamics of the game in a very significant way, with Motherwell posing a far greater attacking threat at the beginning of the second half, and got the equaliser on the hour.
The other effect that the change in shape had was that it opened up more space behind the Motherwell midfield, particularly in the transition when Celtic won the ball. Without the holding player, Celtic found opportunities to get at the Motherwell back line, but were unable to take advantage of these opportunities.
Key to Motherwell’s half time change was not only formation, but their approach when Celtic had possession. Instead of looking to defend deep and deny Celtic space in the final third, they began the second half with a higher press, looking to put pressure on Celtic’s build up play. For Motherwell this was successful, and they often managed to force a long ball from the back, rather than allowing Celtic to build through the middle.
From a Celtic point of view, this brought up a recurring issue. As shown in these images from the Motherwell game, as well as the home game against Ross County in February, Celtic are unable to exploit the often extensive spaces left by teams when employing a high press.
A higher degree of positional flexibility and in-game intelligence would go a long way to allowing Celtic to solve these issues. Celtic’s build up play can often appear overly rigid, without much variability, and often (although not particularly in this case) a poor positional structure.
As the game went into the final 20 minutes, Motherwell tired and as a result their effectiveness in pressing and counter attacking was minimal. Leigh Griffiths got his second and the rest of the match went without much event, as Celtic comfortably saw out the remaining time to take a big step towards the title.
Overall, Celtic were by far the best side, and had they taken their chances, particularly in the first half, the scoreline could have been far more comfortable. However, after a dissapointing midweek away to Dundee, and Aberdeen’s friday night slip up, a 2-1 win away to the league’s form side was more than welcome.