As Ögedei Khan, the third son of Genghis, surveyed the map of the Mongol empire…
Although Celtic were never truly expected to win their first away tie in this season’s Europa League group stage, Thursday night’s 3-1 defeat to Red Bull Salzburg was a truly humbling experience that, ultimately, felt more self-inflicted than perhaps necessary.
After the game Brendan Rodgers stated that “the best team won” which was undoubtedly true, yet there was certainly a sense that if the Celtic manager had been a little more reactive and pragmatic throughout the match the seemingly inevitable result could have been avoided – or at the very least minimized.
Odsonne Edouard’s goal in the second minute of the game undoubtedly stunned the hosts due to the manner in which the French striker latched on to a seemingly hopeless punt up the park, forced his way past the wavering central defender and then calmly slotted the ball in to the net. Yet after that Celtic conceded all incentive to their opponents and showed them far too much respect.
Rodgers’ plan to play in the typical 5-3-2 initially made a lot of sense. The formation allowed James Forrest to play as a right wingback and allow Mikael Lustig to move inside as a third central defender. This meant Celtic had a reinforced back line and an extra body behind the untested midfield duo of Olivier Ntcham and Youssouf Mulumbu.
This, largely, did what it was supposed to do – suffocate the space in the middle of the park – but instead of Forrest and Kieran Tierney bombing forward on either wing to then counter attack, it instead turned in to a back five which was ultimately pinned back by Salzburg’s attack.
The graphic above from WhoScored shows the amount of crosses each side took throughout the match (Celtic in blue, Salzburg in red). As we can clearly see, Salzburg enjoyed the lion’s share of such chances, with Marco Rose’s side firing no less than 23 crosses in to the Celtic box over the course of the 90 minutes.
This was almost entirely down to the fact that both Forrest and Tierney were forced deep inside the Celtic half as they tracked Salzburg’s wingers. Which then meant the host’s full backs could attack either flank largely unopposed. Of those 23 Salzburg crosses flung in to the Celtic’s box on the night, 19 came from left back Andreas Ulmer and right back Stefan Lainer. And it ultimately lead to Salzburg equalising and then going on to win the game.
The first Salzburg goal on the 55th minute came from a Lainer cross on the right flank that was knocked on by striker Takumi Minamino and then cut back by Hannes Wolf for Munas Dabbur to knock it past Craig Gordon. The second, just six minutes later, was again a drilled cross from Ulmer to the Celtic front post where Minamino ultimately bundled it home. And even the third, a penalty converted by Dabbur, came about from Ulmer getting in behind Forrest on the left wing before the Scotland international was deemed to have brought him down in the box.
Indeed, after 11 minutes Salzburg had already attempted four crosses in to the Celtic box and with very little variation the home side continued to employ the exact, same tactic for the remainder of the match with very little response from Rodgers.
By half time it was clear that Celtic’s front two was entirely isolated from the rest of the team, deeply entrenched in their own half, but Rodgers decided to keep both Edouard and Leigh Griffiths on the pitch until the 60th minute. Yet by that point the hosts had already found their equaliser and were undoubtedly in the ascendency.
What Celtic lacked was a clear out ball. Despite his goal on the night, Edouard’s hold-up play was dreadful for much of the game and over the course of the 90 minutes the young striker lost possession no less than seven times. Which translates to around 23% of his total touches in the game.
As we can see in the graphic above, which shows the interceptions made by both sides over the course of the game (Salzburg in orange, Celtic in blue), the home side were simply picking off Edouard, Ntcham, Forrest and Tierney whenever they ventured around the halfway line.
That was undoubtedly in part due to Salzburg’s well-drilled team and a coherent system of closing down opponents, but it was also largely down to the fact that the likes of Forrest, Ntcham or Edouard really struggled to find teammates beyond the halfway line when they eventually got the ball. Celtic simply sat far too deep and as such were unable to release any of the pressure on their backline. So eventually it crumbled.
In Rodgers’ defence, the Celtic manager could point to the fact that he was not only without captain Scott Brown in the middle of the park, but he also lacked the kind of players that would link midfield and attack, like Tom Rogic or Jonny Hayes, and was without key central defender like Kristoffer Ajer and Filip Benkovic. Fine.
However, there’s no doubt that while the Celtic manager may have hoped his team’s initial set up was the correct call it became abundantly clear after no time at all that the Scottish champions were struggling under the 5-3-2 formation and Rodgers, ultimately, left it far too late to react to what was going on.