Sunday was quite a day for Scott Brown. The Celtic midfielder captained his side to…
Celtic kicked off their new Champions League campaign with a confident, professional display in Yerevan, with a 3-0 win over Alashkert in the first leg of their qualifying tie.
Against a quick, technical Armenian side, Brendan Rodgers’ team looked composed for most of the match and although Alashkert certainly had their chances it was the Scottish champions that were ultimately able to showcase their unmatched quality.
With half-fit players and contemplating managers still fiddling with tactics, these early games of the season can often be a simple case of just getting the result whilst paying little attention to the means of doing so, but on Tuesday night we saw some interesting tactics and individual performances.
As has become quite common for Celtic in European games under Rodgers’ stewardship over the past year, the Scottish champions started the game with a 3-5-2 formation that wasn’t too far off the formation shown above. As we can see, the key feature of the system allows for Rodgers to accommodate for the lack of a proper right back – such as Mikael Lustig – by playing James Forrest as a wing-back, while Kieran Tierney took up a similar role on the left.
We’ve touched upon Forrest’s impressive ability to adapt to a more defensive role in the past and again on Tuesday night the Scottish international was superb at dictating Celtic’s attacking pace and just about dominating the entire right flank for Rodgers’ team.
This was, naturally, perfectly illustrated through the wingers two assists and a goal on the night. Although his first assist was technically a horrendous shot that found Odsonne Edouard at the back post, his second was a well worked through ball to Callum McGregor after a striking run at the Alashkert defence in the dying moments of the game. Equally, his goal, just 10 minutes from time, was a perfect example of the composure the 27-year-old has found under Rodgers’ coaching.
Of course, goalscoring and playmaking from the pacey Scot will come as no surprise to Scottish football fans, but what may intrigue some is the manner in which Edouard was utilised in this match. The recently-acquired French striker was technically a strike partner alongside Moussa Dembele on paper, but in practice, he tended to pull deeper and play almost as a no.10 for Celtic throughout the match.
Last season we saw the young forward spend much of his time playing on the left side of Celtic’s front three and throughout that period he naturally adapted to cutting inside, playing one-twos with midfielders and developing an eye for playing in other players just as often as he scored himself. Although Edouard averaged 0.57 goals per 90 minutes for Celtic in all competitions last season, he also picked up 0.14 assists per game too. And on Tuesday we saw Edouard the playmaker rather than the goalscoring poacher.
Although, there were certainly some limitations to the formation. Perhaps it was a priority of Rodgers’ side that they bagged a few goals on the night, but Celtic’s midfield showed a cavalier approach to defending that we don’t often associate with the Scottish champions in Europe. And on numerous occasions that caused problems when the home side found room to counter-attack.
As we can see from the graphic above, Olivier Ntcham and McGregor were often playing far more attacking roles in Yerevan and that often left Scott Brown on his own in the central midfield role. That would usually be fine because the Celtic skipper would have two central defenders and the more defensively-minded Lustig to rely upon, but on Tuesday night Celtic were playing with two gung-ho wing backs and that left Brown with three central defenders that tended to play very deep and very narrow.
Indeed, despite Tierney’s talents going forward, Jozo Simunovic struggled to command the space behind the Scotland international and almost every Alashkert attack featured a dribbling winger or forward going toe-to-toe with the Bosnian defender. Although the 23-year-old actually did quite well whenever tasked with a one-vs-one situation, he was clearly out of his comfort zone.
Perhaps Celtic missed Dedryck Boyata – who, despite his faults, is far better on the ball and more comfortable playing a higher line – or maybe Brown’s fitness didn’t allow for him to get out to either wing to provide cover, but it was a constant issue for the Celtic defence and a better team would have undoubtedly capitalised on it.
Rodgers ultimately noticed this too and changed things half way through the second half by bringing Scott Sinclair and Eboue Kouassi on for Dembele and Ntcham respectively. The former went out wide and the latter played a more defensive role alongside Brown as Celtic switched to a 4-3-3 to take a more defensive, controlled approach to the game. Sure, it coincided with two more goals, but there certainly seemed to be more balance and far less of a threat from the home side once Tierney had been pulled back to a more defensive position.
Ultimately, it was a perfectly comfortable win for Celtic against a relatively weak opposition. But over the course of the 90 minutes, Rodgers will surely have noted plenty of things that he’d like to either expand upon or iron out before the season gets into full flow.