After a dominant 2-0 win over Aberdeen last weekend in the rescheduled 2019/20 Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden Park, Celtic appeared to have put their poor run of form during October behind them. However, after an embarrassing 4-1 defeat to Sparta Prague at home in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday evening – a defeat that casts serious doubt over the prospect of European football beyond Christmas – Celtic were in the firing line once more for what can only be described as an abysmal defensive display.
Again, Neil Lennon’s side’s weekend fixture, this time against in-form Motherwell in the Scottish Premiership, carried huge pressure, where a dominant display was required to reignite the Hoops’ season.
After a slow start to the season, Stephen Robinson’s Motherwell side seem to have found the form that led them to a third-place finish in last season’s Scottish Premiership. However, after conceding eight goals in two games against the Old Firm this season, Robinson will be well aware that his side faces a tough challenge against the defending champions.
Since their 3-0 defeat in the reverse fixture, Motherwell have lost only once in the league, a 5-1 defeat at home to Rangers. Apart from this loss, they have won four out of four league games, scoring 10 goals, and keeping four clean sheets in the process. However, after losing goalkeeper Trevor Carson and defender Bevis Mugabi to injury, this impressive run of clean sheets may be difficult to maintain.
For the second consecutive week, Celtic silenced their critics with an excellent attacking display, leading them to a 4-1 away win at Fir Park. This tactical analysis will discuss the ways in which Celtic were able to break down a Motherwell side who have been so impressive at the back in recent weeks. In addition, the analysis will examine the tactics used by both managers and shed light on Motherwell’s struggles in possession throughout the match.
Stephen Robinson has tried a variety of formations this season, but since the 5-1 defeat at home to Rangers, during which Motherwell played a 5-3-2 formation, he has reverted to a 4-3-3 and lined his team up in this shape against Celtic. With both first and second-choice goalkeepers, Trevor Carson and Scott Fox, missing through injury, Aaron Chapman, signed in October, started in goal for the home team.
In front of him, Scotland international Stephen O’Donnell started at right-back, while Nathan McGinley started on the left of the back four. Mark O’Hara started in place of the injured Bevis Mugabi at centre-back alongside captain Declan Gallagher. The midfield trio was made up of Allan Campbell, Barry Maguire, and Liam Polworth, while the front three consisted of new signing Devante Cole, operating on the right, Callum Lang, playing on the left, and Celtic’s 2012 UEFA Champions League hero, Tony Watt, looking to continue his good form starting through the middle.
After a torrid display midweek against Sparta Prague, Neil Lennon, perhaps surprisingly, made only two changes to the starting lineup. Playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Scott Bain continued in goal, while full-backs Diego Laxalt and Jeremie Frimpong also kept their places. Kristoffer Ajer returned from injury, replacing Shane Duffy, whose form has been poor since his loan move from Brighton, while Nir Bitton kept his place at centre-back. Scott Brown partnered Callum McGregor in central midfield, while Ryan Christie operated on the right of midfield, with Mohammed Elyounoussi on the left and Tom Rogic in the number 10 role. Albian Ajeti replaced Odsonne Edouard in the lone striker role.
Celtic utilising the wide spaces
The image above shows Motherwell’s shape out of possession and it is clear from their two narrow banks of three that they were focused on preventing Celtic from playing through the centre, which is something they did so well against Aberdeen a week ago. However, this then afforded space in the wide areas for the Celtic full-backs, Frimpong and Laxalt, to receive without pressure.
The position of the Motherwell left-winger, Lang, is an issue here, as he is neither pressing Bitton nor is he on the same line as Frimpong, meaning that when the full-back receives the ball, Lang will not be able to press from the front. This immediately created a 2v2 situation on the right side of midfield and forced centre midfielder Polworth to vacate the centre of the pitch and press in the wide areas.
The same issue is apparent here, in the build-up to Celtic’s second goal. On this occasion, McGregor receives from Ajer and draws pressure from Maguire before managing to play wide to Rogic. Again, the position of the Motherwell winger, who is narrow, allows Celtic to play around the Motherwell defensive shape, and this time create a 3v2 situation on the right-hand side of the pitch, where Polworth is again forced to move wide and apply pressure on the ball.
Celtic were able to advance the ball to the right side of the penalty box and as this image shows, they were able to create a 2v1 situation on the edge of the Motherwell box, caused in part by the need for Polworth to press Christie in the wide area.
Rogic makes a well-timed run into the box, which Maguire is slow to react to, and is picked out by Frimpong, after which he manages to play a square pass for Elyounoussi to tap in from close range.
This theme continued into the second half of the match, as seen from the example above. On this occasion, Christie receives a pass from Brown from the centre of the pitch, once again exploiting the space between the winger and full-back. This time, Campbell and Cole are both unable to get across to press Christie, leaving McGinley in a 2v1 situation.
Frimpong overlaps the Scotland international and delivers a dangerous cutback, which Elyounoussi is unable to convert into a shot.
Celtic’s third goal of the game again came from success down the right side, where this time, substitute Elhamed was able to take advantage of the lack of organisation and deliver an excellent cross for Elyounoussi to head past Chapman. The Israeli full-back received from Brown, and, similar to the examples above, this pass was able to prevent the Motherwell winger from applying pressure from in front.
The positions of Rogic, who is in a position to run in behind, and Christie, who will look to receive in the half-space, mean that neither McGinley nor Polworth can press Elhamed, leaving Lang having to recover from his narrow position. Lang is unable to get goal-side of Elhamed who takes advantage again of the space left down the Motherwell left flank.
Motherwell’s inability to build possession
Throughout the 90 minutes, Motherwell found it difficult to build possession and this was partly due to the effective counter-press Celtic performed after losing possession in the final third. This example, which led directly to Celtic’s first goal, demonstrates the away side’s aggression when attempting to win the ball back.
Polworth was able to rob Rogic of possession, however, was immediately pressed by Christie, with Rogic and Brown also closing the space, preventing Polworth from playing forward. The midfielder opts to play back to Gallagher; however, his pass is intercepted by Ajeti whose subsequent shot canons off the post and is followed in by Elyounoussi, putting Celtic 1-0 up.
In this example, Celtic’s reaction to losing possession is again effective in allowing them to regain the ball high up the pitch. This time, Ajeti loses possession and immediately presses Polworth who is forced to play back to McGinley, who himself is pressed by Frimpong and forced to play back to Gallagher.
The Scotland international is then pressed by Christie, leaving him with no option but to play long where Brown is tight to Cole and manages to outmuscle him, regaining possession. The Celtic skipper plays to McGregor, who takes advantage of the overload Celtic now have on the Motherwell left side and finds Rogic, who then plays in Christie to shoot from the right side of the box.
A similar example is seen here, with Gallagher regaining possession in the Motherwell penalty box. Immediately, Christie pressures the ball, while his pressing shadow prevents Polworth from receiving a pass from the centre-back.
Meanwhile, McGregor recovers from the edge of the box to a position which stops Maguire from receiving, while centre-back Bitton gets tight to Watt, leaving Gallagher no option but to play long, conceding possession.
Celtic’s relentless pressure without the ball continued in the second half, as seen in the image above. On this occasion, Christie lost possession on the edge of the Motherwell box and was able to force Lang (now out of the picture) to play back to McGinley, who is also pressed by Christie.
Concurrently, Edouard and Rogic get tight to McGinley’s short passing options, leaving the full-back with no choice but to play long, where Brown is waiting to restart the Celtic attack.
Celtic stretching the Motherwell midfield
As mentioned previously, Celtic were afforded a lot of space in the wide areas, which on occasion was stifled by the quick pressing of the Motherwell central midfielders. In this example, McGinley and Polworth are quick to double-up on Frimpong, preventing the young Dutchman from travelling down the line with the ball.
However, the work rate of the Motherwell wingers, in this case, Cole, meant that Polworth had to press wide left centre for Celtic to exploit, which they manage to do here through Ajeti and from here the Swiss striker combines with Christie to switch the play.
Similar problems were encountered on the left side and the image above shows Lang trying to recover, while Campbell is forced to come across and press Laxalt. This causes the Scotland U21 international to become disconnected from Maguire, leaving space in front of the Motherwell defence.
Laxalt’s pass is overhit, however, O’Hara clears only as far as McGregor, who plays to Brown, who switches play, allowing Celtic to attack down the unbalanced Motherwell left side.
An almost identical situation occurred later in the first half and this time, with Lang again recovering from behind the Celtic left-back, Campbell tries to anticipate the pass into Elyounoussi, leaving space for Ajeti to drop towards the ball and receive between the two central midfielders.
Celtic exploiting the weak side
With Polworth and Campbell forced to press in the wide areas, the Motherwell midfield three often found themselves covering only one half of the pitch, as seen in the image above. In this example, Polworth pressed Rogic, who played back to Christie to switch the play.
Meanwhile, Maguire and Campbell had moved across to cover the central area while Polworth pressed wide, which with the absence of wingers tracking back, left Laxalt and Elyounoussi in a 2v1 situation against O’Donnell on the left side of the pitch.
A similar situation occurred in this instance, in the second half, where Christie was again able to switch the play under pressure from Polworth in the right midfield position. This left Maguire and Campbell struggling to cover the width of the pitch, leaving Elyounoussi and Laxalt in a 2v1 situation against O’Donnell and able to progress the attack into the Motherwell penalty area, from which they earn a corner kick.
In this image, Celtic manage to switch the play from a deeper position, this time through Bitton, whose clipped pass eliminates Lang, leaving Laxalt free to attack the space in front of O’Donnell where he combines with Elyounoussi, who then plays a pass into Ajeti in the Motherwell penalty box.
Motherwell’s threat from set plays
Despite not creating many high-quality chances during the match, Motherwell posed a constant threat from set-pieces, primarily through the aerial ability of Gallagher. The example above highlights Gallagher outjumping Bitton, who was tasked with marking him, and the Scotland centre-back managed to make contact with the ball, heading narrowly wide.
Celtic seemed to miss the aerial dominance of Shane Duffy, with this example again showing Gallagher beating Bitton in the air from a corner kick. The Motherwell captain headed down across goal, prompting a goalmouth scramble, which Celtic were able to poke clear.
With these examples in mind, it was, therefore, no surprise that Motherwell’s only goal of the game came from a set-piece and was scored by Gallagher. Here, Polworth’s free-kick was aimed towards the Motherwell skipper at the back post from where he was able to direct a header across goal, beating Scott Bain in the process.
This was another convincing league performance by the defending champions, made easier by Motherwell’s lack of organisation without the ball. Lennon will hope that the upcoming international break will serve as a chance for him to galvanise his group of players, who face a tough challenge in closing the gap between them and unbeaten league leaders Rangers.