Celtic FC 2 v 1 FK Sarajevo (5-2)
UEFA Champions League: First round qualifier – 2nd Leg
Celtic lined up with an asymmetrical resemblance of the 4231 system favoured by Rodgers. Kristoffer Ajer, slotting in as a makeshift right back, played deep and narrow while Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo played a much more advanced left back role, akin to the wing back position he played for Rapid Vienna. As in the first leg, Nir Bitton and Jozo Simunovic played centre back while Scott Brown and Callum McGregor sat in front of them, Brown in the #6 role and McGregor in the #8. Ryan Christie played in the hole in front of them, behind Odsonne Edouard who led the line. James Forrest started on the right while Lewis Morgan started on the left in place of the injured Mikey Johnston.
Sarajevo lined up with a 442 formation rather than the 4141 attempted in the first leg. This resulted in Rahmanovic supporting Ahmetovic as a striker pairing and Oremus joining Velkoski in centre midfield. Hebibovic dropped to right back displacing Sabanovic and giving Tatar room to start in right midfield. Milanovic held his jersey as the left midfielder, as did left back, Hodzic, and centre back pairing, Lazic and Serbecic. Sarajevo’s tactical switch was prompted by trailing 3-1 from the first tie and needing 3 away goals to qualify.
Celtic aimed to use the width of the familiar 4231 formation to stretch Sarajevo and exploit gaps created. Play primarily focussed through the left half space with Bolingoli-Mbombo cutting in from a wider position, supported by Edouard dropping deeper on the same side and McGregor pushing further forward. After Celtic switched wingers around the 22’ mark, Morgan stayed wide on the right when the ball was on the left as to prevent Sarajevo’s defence from becoming too compact. In attack, Bolingoli-Mbombo was very involved and Simunovic stepped wide to cover. Given Ajer’s more narrow tendencies as a right back, the formation skewed to 3 at the back at these points. Play often started with the centre backs while Bain’s distribution was mostly short. Christie worked as a focal point for play to flow through.
Sarajevo’s 442 was more rigid than the free-flowing 4231 used domestically but more attacking than the packed-out midfield used in the attempted low block of the first leg 4141. While compact and narrow in defence, Sarajevo attempted to counter attack down the flanks. The formation complemented this tactic as the team could remain structured but without Oremus in the hole breaking up play, Celtic had more room to play on the edge of Sarajevo’s defensive third. Breaking up play to disrupt Celtic’s flow was still part of the game plan with the team committing 16 fouls and receiving 5 yellow cards.
Breaking the Ranks
Crossing is rarely effective. There exists an element of selection bias in that the many instances where crosses do not create goals are forgotten – Soccerment calculate the top 5 European leagues as having a 23.5% cross accuracy with each cross only having a one in 64 chance of a goal being scored, or 1.6%. This is why Sarajevo’s narrow setup was tactically appropriate; Sarajevo were prepared for a counter attack while pushing Celtic to the wings, prompting crosses to the centre back pairing with a combined height of 3.82m.
Celtic overcame this in several instances by using Christie to exploit the hole where Oremus sat in the first leg between the defence and midfield. The first goal, as shown below, was a direct result of Edouard dropping deep to pick up the ball in the left channel, Bolingoli-Mbombo dragging the defence wide and Christie capitalising on that space.
Other examples of this were apparent throughout the game. In the screenshot below, Forrest cuts in from the left to create a threat in the half space while Bolingoli-Mbombo keeps the wide option open. Christie looks to move into the space where he can cause damage from ahead of the defence and Edouard strays right to keep space for Christie by adding a different angle for the defence to cover.
Celtic’s superior players affected how the game progressed tactically. Gaps were able to be created both through individual prowess and more intelligent movement. This highlighted a lack in capabilities from the Sarajevo defence. While the rigid setup was the better move, the Bosnian side struggled coming to terms with being the underdog after domestic domination. This is shown in the example below as Bolingoli-Mbombo beats his man and Sarajevo’s defence do not back the beaten Oremus up but also do not pick up Forrest on the edge of the box. You can also see how well Forrest and Christie moved between thesmelves between these two photos.
Guarding counter attacks
Brown has previously been identified as an anchor in place to prevent Celtic from conceding via counter attacks while high up the pitch. With Celtic transitioning to 3 at the back when Bolingoli-Mbombo joins the attack, Brown dropped deeper in this game, occasionally crossing paths with McGregor to fill the left-hand gap.
Sarajevo’s attempts to exploit the wings were foiled by Ajer on the right who held firm despite being in an unnatural position. He rarely crossed the halfway line and focussed primarily on his defensive duties. Bitton and Simunovic were rarely called upon and mainly distributed the ball from deep positions. Sarajevo’s goal came from one of their only chances but was initiated via a misplaced pass from Bolingoli-Mbombo. As the below screenshot shows, Bitton and Simunovic struggled to recover after widening their shape when Celtic had possession. Tatar positioned well in the resulting space to receive the ball.
Celtic were comfortable throughout the tie, even when Sarajevo equalised as the score in the previous leg left Sarajevo with too much to do. Individually, Celtic’s players were better position by position and a squad not used to such a defensive style could not contain them. Christie stood out in particular as the catalyst for Celtic’s attacks with an innate positioning intelligence while Bolingoli-Mbombo provided an added threat near the left half space where Celtic focussed their play.
Sarajevo not being as deep as the first leg left them too vulnerable for the dynamic Celtic attack to move freely. They capitalised on their chance well when it came but were not involved enough to create as many chances as needed to put the score-line in danger.