Celtic are the most dominant team in Scotland. 9 consecutive trophies, 8 consecutive league titles and a convincing 2-0 win away to their nearest rivals leave no doubt of this. It’s easy to gush about the 73 goals scored so far in all competitions while it’s just as easy to forget the 20 conceded. This analysis will focus on trends within Celtic’s defending style in the first two games points were dropped this season – away to Livingston and away to Hibs.
Each game throughout a season comes with its own unique challenges. A specific game plan must be developed to take on every different test, which means changes in tactics. However, with a larger sample of games, specific trends can begin to manifest. Celtic primarily play games in which they are expected to be the controlling side. Europe is the biggest exception, arguably along with games at Ibrox. There already exists a 6 point gap between the two Glasgow sides and Motherwell, Motherwell having played a game more. This means that in the majority of Celtic’s domestic games they have much more possession, averaging at 62% in the league (67% last season) so far. Therefore, their defensive style will primarily revolve around guarding counter attacks while opposition are likely to be sat much deeper with stricter organisation.
Common defending styles
As mentioned above, specific game plans are unique and this includes the type of defence employed. This section will cover the main points of defensive tactics. It’s worth noting that teams will often employ a mix or variation of these rather than strictly one type – although that isn’t unheard of.
Man-marking is the most instinctive type of defending and is as old as football itself. It generally entails having the one player to cover and following them constantly and preventing them from receiving the ball is your responsibility. Despite the rise of zonal marking, this does still have its – albeit small – place in modern football. McInnes has Aberdeen’s midfield man-mark opponents which has returned mixed results – struggling against superior sides such as Celtic (and recently Rangers) but generally seeing off lesser squads, cementing the team as a regular 2nd place contender. This defensive strategy can also be used to have one player in a team seek out a threat within the opposing team’s squad and prevent them from becoming too involved in the game or to defend set pieces.
There are multiple variations of this tactic that address issues such as leaving your position, so only man marking the closest player to you, but this starts to become zonal marking. Click here for a good article detailing different types of man-marking and examples of them being used in recent years.
Zonal marking is the most common type of marking in modern football. The general premise is that a player defends against any players within their ‘zone’ and should the player move, the responsibility of covering them can be passed on. Again, this is not without variation. The two most common strategies employed with this tactic will be briefly discussed below but for a more comprehensive article, click here.
The first question that comes to mind when zonal marking is suggested is how to dictate where a player’s zone is. This is generally decided by either one or a combination of reference points. Arrigo Sacchi, who led Milan to back to back European Cups in 1989 and 1990, is widely credited with popularising zonal marking in modern football despite not being the first coach to use such tactics. He stated that his players were given 4 reference points: the ball, the opposition, the space and their teammates. Overall, it can be situational which of these points a zonal defence uses but can also be instilled by the coach before the game.
One common type of zonal marking is position-oriented zonal marking which uses teammates as a reference point. Often used as a low block, this style has players rarely pulled out of position because the team moves more like a unit, congesting the action space on the side of play but not giving chances for the opposition forwards to make a space and move into it.
Another common type of zonal marking is man-oriented zonal marking where the reference point is the opponent and players will stray slightly from rigid positions to give opposition less space and/or cut passing lanes. This style, or similar variations, is more common in dominant teams such as Celtic as it lends more to pressing and being proactive rather than the more reactive nature of having a position oriented defence.
Livingston vs Celtic
One of Celtic’s most critiqued performances this season was the 2-0 loss away to Livingston – a side in the bottom half of the table. It’s no secret that Celtic lacked the necessary creativity to break down the stubborn defence ahead of them – and losing Christie to a red card didn’t aid this cause – but they also conceded more than once. This is a feat that only Motherwell and Cluj had done before this during this season. Only Hibs have done it since.
Early into this game, Celtic’s defence showed traits of a man-oriented zonal defence, as shown below. While Livingston’s attack stayed wide, Celtic’s defence kept some compactness but was not rigid either. This probably comes from the fact that, as mentioned in the introduction, Celtic most commonly defend against counter-attacks. Using an attacking style that has fullbacks push forward, width is an appropriate tactic to find space (see how Rangers failed to identify this here). In the screenshot below, Ajer stays wary of the man while Jullien keeps in line with him but also is ready for a pass across to his side. Bolingoli-Mbombo drops into a more narrow position to do the same on his side, ready for Ajer to move in for the tackle. Both central midfielders, McGregor and Brown, chase back aggressively to pursue the ball and apply pressure to Dykes.
Another instance of man-oriented zonal defending is shown in the following screenshot too, with Brown straying from his central position to apply pressure, but also shows more awareness of passing lanes – specifically by McGregor in the centre. It would be simplistic to suggest that Celtic are purely a man-oriented zonal defence given the varied nature of reactions to opposition with the ball. Brown pushes forward from his position while McGregor controls the central space and cuts the passing lane. Elyounoussi drops deep centrally to pick up Jacobs which shows a fluidity in the Celtic defence – again expected with a dominant side. Bauer keeps tight to his man but is also a similar distance from Jullien and Brown – almost making a square shape with McGregor – showing signs of tight positional zones which reduce the space in which Livingston can play.
However, there are more aggressive instances of Celtic’s defence during this game. In instances like below, Celtic’s defenders completely cover passing options forcing Livingston into a specific move where the ball can be further pursued – essentially setting a trap. This higher intensity pressing tactic is another common trait of dominant sides within a league.
The following screenshot shows another example of this but this time following a throw in. Some set pieces are commonly defended with man-marking tactics which could explain how all options are covered in this image, if Celtic treat throw ins as such, but could also be a more aggressive press or a mix.
The first goal conceded is worth looking at based on the fact that it came from Livingston playing through Celtic’s defence. The below image shows Crawford receiving the ball in space between the Celtic defence and midfield. McGregor again is in a position that covers an option but, given the lack of pressure applied to the Livingston player, this is not enough to force a mistake. Ajer begins to move in in an attempt to dispossess him while Jullien and Elyounoussi hold their position, the former in close proximity with Dykes. The 3 deepest Celtic players here look to use each other as reference points for their position, keeping fairly straight. This is more position-oriented.
The next image shows Crawford turning after receiving the ball. McGregor and Ajer have both moved in to apply pressure. Crawford intelligently sees the space behind an advanced Ajer and slots it through. Interestingly, Bauer is still very wide. Without knowing Lennon’s defensive instructions it’s unclear why this is or if it’s Bauer’s mistake. He may have been told to cover the wide option but nonetheless the gap between him and Jullien is exploited by Robinson who latches onto the pass and scores. This, along with the space in which Crawford was able to receive the ball in such a dangerous position, are the two biggest criticisms that can be accredited to the Celtic defence leading up to this goal.
This image highlights the lapse from the defence in that Robinson has so much space inside the box. The left side of defence is left trying to chase back to stop him but his run was not tracked from nearer the right side. Livingston did give Bauer a problem to consider, the wide man giving him an extra threat to worry about, and there’s no guarantee that Bauer keeping the compact shape and tucking into a more narrow position would prevent a goal. The ball would have been likely shuttled across to the free man where Bauer tucked in and the defence would attempt to slide across and stop a shot from a potentially less dangerous position. Ajer being forced to move in for the tackle on Crawford stems from Crawford having so much space and is the reason the pass could be played to the running Robinson.
Hibernian vs Celtic
Another performance that was accused of lacking defensively was the 1-1 draw with Hibs at Easter Road. With Hibs being a more attacking side than Livingston, they were expected to have more of the ball which ended up true. Celtic had 53% of the ball against Livingston – even with a man less – compared to 47% at Easter Road. This gives us a chance to assess how Celtic cope with attacks with more build up play as opposed to quick counter attacks.
The first image shows a situation where Jackson holds the ball in defence, just inside their own half. Celtic’s squad opt to keep their shape and adjust to cut off passing lanes rather than follow the players out of position. This allows Hibs players to find space in wide areas and between the lines but assists in increasing pressure on Jackson as Ntcham pushes forward from the #10 position. With limited options, Jackson is encouraged to either try and move forward which poses the risk of a mistake, to try and play a long ball or to turn back and try again. To combine with this tactic, Celtic’s defensive line is fairly high but not the most compact. This is likely so that, should Jackson make the mistake or be dragged out of position, a counter attack is imminent with less distance to cover to the Hibs goal and the Celtic players do not need to adjust from a tighter defensive shape as they move forward.
Seconds later, the ball is played forward by Jackson through the space that was left after Brown moved to cover the passing lane. Scott Allan receives the ball in space in front of the Celtic defence and Doidge makes the run towards the space behind Bolingoli-Mbombo, who tries to track back and keep in line with the rest of the defence but is too far forward to do so. This is the move that results in Doidge’s cross deflecting into the Celtic goal by Ajer.
Here, Hibs attempt to break away and counter attack. Ajer and Jullien chase back keeping in line with each other to prevent space being found easily behind them. While they do this, Brown and McGregor once again chase back to aggressively apply pressure. This specific instance results in a foul.
The last image here shows another example of the defensive line using each other as a reference point to not allow space to open up behind while the central midfielders pressure.
Overall, Celtic’s defensive style seems typical of a side so dominant in their league. As discussed previously, Celtic’s primary defensive job is to guard against counter attacks. With an attacking shape that requires fullbacks in such advanced positions, the methodology in stopping a counter attack appears to be the two centre backs chasing back, using each other as reference points to prevent an easy through ball, while central midfielders press the ball and prevent the other side from having time to consider their options.
During instances where the other side builds up play from the back, Celtic are proactive in defending by guiding the player on the ball towards specific decisions that can result in a transition where Celtic can regain possession and attack. This is achieved by a high defensive line, not becoming too compact and cutting passing lanes.
Of course, two games are a snapshot of a whole season so we can assess how this style develops through the year. Should Celtic progress in the Europa League, it will be interesting to see whether Lennon makes changes with this against opposition that are a larger threat going forward.