After consecutive defeats at the hands of Rangers and AC Milan, Celtic went into last weekend’s Scottish Premiership match against Aberdeen in poor form and were in desperate need of a confidence-boosting three points. However, the Dons put in an excellent defensive performance at Pittodrie and a 92nd-minute penalty from Lewis Ferguson earned the home team a 3-3 draw.
This result heaped even more pressure on Celtic going into this weekend’s Scottish Cup semi-final, especially after giving up a two-goal lead away to Lille in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday evening, leaving them without a win in their last four matches. However, this semi-final, originally scheduled for mid-April, presented Celtic with the opportunity to reach yet another domestic final and win their fourth treble in as many years, so Aberdeen faced a tough task to stop Neil Lennon’s men, who in recent seasons have dominated the Dons in the latter stages of the cup competitions at the national stadium.
After an exhilarating game a week ago at Pittodrie, one could be forgiven for thinking that Aberdeen could cause Celtic real problems at Hampden, especially given the Hoops’ sloppiness in the last fortnight. However, as has been the case in their last 34 domestic cup matches, Celtic came out as winners, with two first-half goals enough to send them through to the final to face Scottish Championship side, Hearts.
This tactical analysis will demonstrate how Celtic were able to break down an Aberdeen side who had defended excellently in the league match a week ago. In addition, this analysis will discuss the tactics of the two managers, Neil Lennon and Derek McInnes and how these played out during the match.
Celtic abandoned their controversial 3-5-2 formation after their 3-1 home defeat to AC Milan in the UEFA Europa League, where an improved second-half performance in a 4-2-3-1 had convinced Neil Lennon to revert to the shape that had served them so well in recent treble-winning seasons.
Scotland international, Scott Bain, made his third consecutive start between the sticks for Celtic, despite summer signing, Vasilis Barkas, appearing to have recovered from the injury that kept him out the team against Aberdeen a week ago. Ex-Manchester City youngster, Jeremie Frimpong started at right-back, while Shane Duffy partnered Israel’s Nir Bitton in central defence, who replaced the injured Kristoffer Ajer. AC Milan loanee, Diego Laxalt, continued at left-back after impressing against Lille on Thursday evening.
Captain Scott Brown returned after being dropped last weekend and partnered Callum McGregor in the centre of midfield. Ryan Christie started the match on the right side of midfield, while Tom Rogic started in the number 10 position, and Mohamed Elyounoussi started on the left, looking to build on the two goals he netted against Lille in midweek. Odsonne Edouard led the line, making his first start since the beginning of October, after contracting COVID-19 on international duty.
Derek McInnes made three changes to the side that drew with Celtic last weekend, continuing in the 3-4-3 formation that has served them well in recent weeks. Joe Lewis started in goal for an Aberdeen side chasing a UEFA Champions League qualification place, with a back three consisting of Tommie Hoban, Ash Taylor, and Andrew Considine operating in front of him. Ryan Hedges lined up in the right wing-back position, while Ross McCrorie moved inside to cover the injured Dylan McGeough.
After scoring a double from the spot last weekend, Lewis Ferguson kept his place in the centre of midfield, while Matty Kennedy replaced Jonny Hayes at left wing-back, who was cup-tied. Marley Watkins kept his place in the front three, while Scott Wright and Sam Cosgrove were brought into the starting eleven.
Aberdeen threatening down the left side
Aberdeen made a great start to the game and created three excellent chances in the opening 12 minutes. During last week’s league meeting, Aberdeen were effective in creating from attacks down the left side, winning both penalties from attacks down the left flank as well as scoring from open play through a ball in behind Celtic right-back, Frimpong. The Dons carried the same threat on this side in the opening stages, this time taking advantage of the overload they were able to create through Watkins and Kennedy, who was operating in the left wing-back position.
This example shows Aberdeen’s ability to create a 2 v 1 against Frimpong, who becomes caught between both Watkins and Kennedy, unable to step in to pressure the Aberdeen forward. Watkins manages to turn and slip in Kennedy, who is now 1 v 1 against Frimpong. The second image shows that the Northern-Irish international was able to beat Frimpong and deliver an excellent cross into the box, where Cosgrove rose above Laxalt at the back-post and headed the ball narrowly wide of Bain’s goal.
Aberdeen seemed intent on isolating Frimpong 1 v 1 against Kennedy, and only minutes later the Aberdeen wing-back found himself high on the left side against the Dutchman. Again, Frimpong failed to stop the cross and Kennedy clipped a delightful ball to the back post which Cosgrove diverted towards the goal, only for Bitton to deflect the ball into the side netting.
Celtic’s centre backs playing through midfield
Despite a nervous start, Celtic were quickly able to take control of the game, with their attacking rotations appearing to cause issues for the Aberdeen defensive structure. The example above shows Duffy thread a ball through to Edouard, who lays the ball off first time to Christie, who himself manages to switch the play to Elyounoussi.
This example set the tone for the first half and highlights how much space Celtic were afforded between the first two lines of the Aberdeen press. The Dons’ narrow front three appeared to be committed to preventing Brown and McGregor from getting on the ball and playing forward, however, these players’ clever movement, or lack thereof, meant that central passing lanes into the forwards were constantly open for Duffy and Bitton to exploit.
The image above is another example of this, where Bitton this time is able to pick out Elyounoussi behind the Aberdeen midfield line. Again, Wright’s and Watkins’ positions suggest that their focus was to prevent Brown and McGregor dictating from deep. However, this caused a problem for central midfielders, McCrorie and Ferguson, as Celtic’s high full-backs occupied the Aberdeen wing-backs. This essentially tasked both midfielders with dealing with Celtic’s three advanced midfielders, Rogic, Elyounoussi, and Christie, whose movement was effective in opening up central spaces.
Moments later, the same situation occurred, again through left centre-back, Bitton. The Israeli managed to thread a pass through to Rogic, who found himself with space between McCrorie and Ferguson. This space was created by Christie and Elyounoussi, whose narrow positions allow them to operate in pockets of space that disrupted Aberdeen’s defensive shape. In the example, McCrorie is turning, having moments earlier tried to block the passing lane to Elyounoussi, while Ferguson was recovering from the left side, having pressed Christie in the build-up, who himself had transferred possession to the left side of the pitch. This image again highlights the problems that Celtic’s forwards created throughout the first half.
On this occasion, Celtic are once again able to penetrate the centre of the pitch, this time in transition from an Aberdeen throw-in. Here, Laxalt attracts McCrorie, while again, Rogic is being closely marked by Ferguson on the left side, leaving Christie free to attack through the middle. The Scotland international picks the ball up, and Ferguson moves to the middle of the pitch, freeing up Rogic to receive. Celtic’s number 18 then feeds Elyounoussi, who finds himself free on the left side and manages cut the ball back across the box.
Celtic’s rotations around the box
Celtic’s ability to play through their opponents enabled them to create from narrow positions in the final third, as Rogic, Elyounoussi, and Christie constantly found themselves between the lines, in the half-spaces. In this example, Elyounoussi has received a pass from Bitton and has attracted McCrorie towards the ball. Meanwhile, McCrorie’s central midfield partner, Ferguson, is occupied by the narrow position of Christie, creating space between the two Aberdeen central midfielders. Edouard drops into this space and receives from the on-loan Southampton man, while Rogic stays high, pinning the three Aberdeen central defenders. The French U-21 forward carries the ball into the penalty box and Aberdeen manage to scramble the ball away.
In the example above, Christie takes up a position between the two Aberdeen midfielders, who once again are preoccupied with the positions of Rogic and Elyounoussi, meaning Christie became the spare man. It should be noted at this point that none of the three Aberdeen centre-backs seemed comfortable stepping into midfield to solve this problem, giving more time to the Celtic attacking midfielders.
Moments later, in the same phase of play, Christie found himself unmarked on the edge of the Aberdeen penalty area. The distance between Ferguson and McCrorie is highlighted once again, with the movement of Rogic, who has also pulled Hoban away from Taylor in the centre of defence, and Elyounoussi, wide on the right (out of the picture), leaving the defence unprotected. From here, Christie is able to thread a pass through to Edouard, who would have put Celtic 1-0 up had it not been for an excellent save from Aberdeen goalkeeper Joe Lewis.
With the above examples in mind, it was no surprise that Celtic’s opening goal of the game came from this area of the pitch. As can be seen from the image, Celtic had each of the five attacking lanes covered, which in turn stretched the Aberdeen midfield, again leaving space in front of the defence.
At this moment, Christie plays to Rogic and makes a run inside, receiving back from the Australian, who was pressed by McCrorie. The threat of Edouard moving into the box had caused the Aberdeen back three to drop too deep, making it difficult for any of them to step up and confront Christie before he curled it expertly past the helpless Lewis.
Celtic’s second goal came from a similar situation, with Christie again starting the move from the right side, where he manages to drag Ferguson towards the ball. The Aberdeen midfielder fails to close Christie down, allowing him to play into Edouard’s feet, while Elyounoussi moves towards the ball, bringing McCrorie with him. This creates space for Edouard to turn and play in Rogic on the left side of the box, and the Aussie clips a perfect cross to the back-post for Elyounoussi to finish into the net.
How Celtic exploited Aberdeen’s wing-backs
The second goal was one example of Celtic’s ability to get down the sides of the Aberdeen backline, which they did excellently throughout the game, partly due to the inexperience and questionable defensive ability of wing-backs, Hedges and Kennedy, who are without a doubt more effective in attacking positions.
This image is taken from the early stages of the first half and highlights Kennedy’s defensive frailties as he fails to prevent Frimpong from getting into a crossing position. The young full-back delivers a dangerous cross, however, neither Edouard nor Elyounoussi seem to anticipate the delivery to the back post and Celtic fail to capitalise.
In this example, Hedges’ positional awareness in punished, this time by Elyounoussi, who was picked out expertly by Duffy’s cross-field pass. The Norwegian darts away from Hedges, while Rogic’s position prevents Hoban from pressurising the ball and Edouard and Christie command the attention of Taylor and Considine. Elyounoussi clips an excellent cross to the back post which Christie heads narrowly wide.
Despite a change of shape in the second half, Aberdeen finished the game in a back three, which gave Celtic more opportunities to exploit the wing-backs, another example of which is seen above. This time, substitute Elhamed has driven forward with the ball and finds Rogic on the edge of the box. Kennedy fails to tuck in which creates space between the Northern-Irishman and centre-back Leigh. Elhamed takes advantage of this and makes a run between the two, receiving back from Rogic and cutting the ball back across goal, which the Aberdeen defence manage to clear.
After a close encounter between the two last weekend in the Scottish Premiership, many pundits were fearful that Celtic’s dominance was on the decline. However, as they have done so many times in recent years, Celtic were able to dismantle an Aberdeen side, whose 3-4-3 shape seemed to have played into the hands of the quadruple-treble chasers. Celtic fans will hope that this performance, and the prospect of another domestic cup-final on the 20th of December, will rejuvenate Neil Lennon’s men as they hunt down Rangers at the top of the Scottish Premiership.