Celtic Victory Over Nõmme Kalju FC | Tactical Analysis

Celtic FC 5 v 0 Nõmme Kalju FC

UEFA Champions League: Second round qualifier – First Leg

Line -Ups


In a formation switch suiting the attack-minded Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo and the lack of a suitable right back, Celtic started in a 3412. This facilitated the use of both Odsonne Edouard and Leigh Griffiths, adding an interesting element to Celtic’s attacking play, with Ryan Christie supporting them both in the #10 role he seems to be making his own. When Kalju’s defence frailties became apparent, Bolingoli-Mbombo and James Forrest pushed forward as wingers rather than wingbacks while the midfield duo of Scott Brown and Callum McGregor skewed leaving Brown as a ball winning midfielder in front of the defence and McGregor could join the attack alongside Christie. This made the formation more akin to a 3142. Celtic’s defence consisted of Kristoffer Ajer on the left-hand side, Nir Bitton on the right-hand side and Jozo Simunovic between them. The fluidity allowed by Celtic’s clear superiority sometimes saw Ajer moving forward like a midfielder. Scott Bain retained his starting goalkeeper place.

As clear underdogs, Kalju sensibly set up in a 442 formation rather than the 4231 most commonly used in the Estonian Meistriliiga where they currently sit 4th after 20 games. This change in formation saw the prolific forward, Liliu, joined up top by 22-year-old Peeter Klein. A midfield 4 was made up of central midfielders, Mbu Alidor and Subbotin, along with wide players, Paur and Puri. Kalju’s defence saw limited change from domestic play, fullbacks Kulinits and Markovych starting along with Ugge, a consistent starter since 2016, and 24-year-old Avilov who made the step up from the U21s last year. Avilov’s appearance seemingly displaced the more experienced Reintam who is 29 years of age and contributed in half of the league games this season. 39-year-old Londak started in goal, as in Kalju’s first qualifying round, despite only seeing 6 league games in 2019.

Tactical Overview

Celtic’s 3 at the back formation gave Celtic many more central options going forward but limited wing play. Against a weaker side, like Kalju, this was appropriate – Celtic could play through them and create chances. Allowing Edouard to play off Griffiths on the left suited him as he received the ball at his feet more and could play from deeper than as a lone striker. They did play like two individuals at times but as the first attempt at this playing style since Edouard briefly played next to Moussa Dembele, that can be expected. Christie excelled turning build up play into chances while McGregor both distributed from deep and joined the attack.

Kalju’s inability to fill the 7 substitute slots available foreshadowed the gulf in class between themselves and Celtic, both tactically and individually. Despite attempting to set up with 2 banks of 4 to frustrate Celtic defensively and keep themselves with a chance for the second leg, the Estonian side did not manage to play with rigidity and structure. Players still played with the positional flexibility used in domestic play which was capitalised on throughout the game by a mercurial Celtic attack. On the few instances Kalju reached the final third, the forwards snatched at a shot as soon as the goal was in sight highlighting the understanding they had that they were outmatched but also the understanding of the occasion; it’s fair to say that Nõmme Kalju were just happy to be in this stage of the competition, visiting Celtic Park.

Zonal Marking

Kalju set up with a zonal defence but failed to execute it efficiently. A position based defensive system can be appropriate when outmatched individually and man-marking would therefore be difficult. Many revered defensive performances, such as Celtic 2-1 Barcelona, employ a combination of both; in that game certain players held their ground while others followed their man. Kalju did not have the co-ordination to pull off an entirely zonal defence.

Screenshot taken from Celtic TV, annotations are the author’s own.

As you can see in the image above, Kalju’s ranks were disorganised. Despite most trying to guard their space, some were pulled out of position by their man. This led to attackers (see Edouard) having space to receive the ball and also gaps to move through. Klein is trying to press high but this defensive style doesn’t lend to cutting passing lanes so he can be bypassed by Celtic’s build up play.

Shortly after the first image above, Bitton moves the ball right and passes to Christie. Kalju’s ranks have rightly moved across but again are ineffective. Lucien Favre’s Mönchengladbach side are an example of how this should be done, creating a low, narrow block to prevent spaces from opening. Contrast this with Kalju’s staggered movements and you can see how Celtic create spaces in dangerous areas and how Kalju are susceptible to Celtic’s incisive forward passes.

Using the Gaps

The Celtic attack found a weakness and capitalised on it. As mentioned, Kalju’s poor take on zonal defending left space for Christie to move freely in the hole and either half space to orchestrate attacks while wingers could freely stray wide or cut inside with both fullbacks trying to cover the gap rather than close down their man. Edouard and Griffiths made use of the staggered back line on several occasions to time a run through past their man but staying onside. Positioning was the key to Celtic’s bountiful success in this game.

In this image, you can see Kalju’s ranks leaving space for Christie in the centre while Forrest is unmarked on the right. Edouard and Griffiths are ready to time their runs, Edouard exploiting Kalju’s right back who has stepped out.

Again, Christie finds the space to receive the ball while Edouard moves from a deep position in the left channel.

In this example, Christie has the ball in the right half space while Forrest intelligently moves into the gap left behind the defender. Edouard is ready to receive the ball centrally while Griffiths begins his run further across the box adding an additional threat for the defence to consider. McGregor and Brown provide support from a deeper position.

Forrest could be seen cutting into the right half space also in which case Christie found space in a central position while Edouard and Griffiths again made runs behind the line. Attacking positional awareness is a critical trait in this Celtic side.

Midfield Triangle

When it became apparent to Celtic that Kalju were not as dangerous as Sarajevo on the counter, the midfield shape that Celtic used in that game, and lined up with in this game, changed. Brown became a central holding midfielder to guard against counter attacks while McGregor pushed forward and at points played alongside Christie creating an inverse triangle. Ajer also ventured forward in a position almost joining Brown as a deep midfielder.

This image shows Brown covering the 3 defenders as a central defensive midfielder while Bolingoli-Mbombo holds a deeper position on the left, showing similarities to the skewed back 4 played against Sarajevo. Brown in the centre links up the play well creating passing lanes that make a high press difficult for Kalju to undertake.

In this image, you can see Ajer supporting Brown while he holds that central position. McGregor has pushed forward in the left channel while Christie has filled the adjacent space on the right. Edouard has dropped into Christie’s #10 position to complete a midfield diamond while Johnston, who replaced Bolingoli-Mbombo due to injury, keeps the width. It’s worth noting that a back 3 formation should hold wide players like Johnston further back given the defensive duties attached to the role so his advanced position and attacking threat is a symptom of Kalju’s inaptitude.

 Celtic Defence

Celtic set up in this game with a back 3 rather than the skewed 4 used against Sarajevo. Although this seems like a fundamental change, Bolingoli-Mbombo playing wide on the left made the two setups resemble each other. The key difference was the order the 3 played in.

Here is a clear indication of the defensive formation with Brown covering in front, ready to help build an attack or drop into defence.

Kalju’s attacking formation often resembled a 3 with the winger on the side of play getting forward and supporting the 2 strikers. Here you can see Celtic’s defence resemble a back 4 as Forrest moves central while Ajer follows the ball left. While this shows good organisation and communication within the squad, it also highlights one of the limitations of using a defensive setup like this – wingers are effectively doubled up as fullbacks.

Set Pieces

Set pieces – corners specifically – were not optimal for Celtic last season. 422 corners were amassed. The visuals below the resulting action from these.

Visuals from Modern Fitba, Data from ORTEC

Despite this, this game was a positive for Celtic from a set piece standpoint. Corners were directed more towards the back post which, as the visuals above show, is the area where Celtic win the ball most often.

The first goal came from Christie’s cross to Ajer from a free kick. As you can see above, Ajer wins the duel which is unsurprising considering the 89% of defensive air duels he won last season – the highest in the league (Modern Fitba).

This image shows Simunovic about to connect with a corner. His movement behind the 6 yard box is critical in the connection, along with an accurate delivery from Griffiths to find the space.

This corner, again from Griffiths, finds Edouard. Edouard cannot redirect the corner so it falls to Simunovic. This emphasises the space that was available where the cross was delivered.


Kalju did well tactically to acknowledge the changes they were required to make to stand a chance in this fixture but did not execute them well enough to compete. Position based zonal marking has the intention of guarding the gaps and making the space too narrow and compact to play in. Kalju, however, allowed players to be drawn from the rigidity of their ranks and left spaces in behind, as well as amongst themselves. This allowed Christie to create chances by moving into dangerous positions. Edouard having Griffiths next to him helped him receive the ball deeper without letting the attack lose shape. This worked well against Kalju because wingers could still be involved but against better opposition, this would be at the cost of wing play.

Celtic’s positioning was excellent and midfield shapes being created made for passing lanes being open making possession retention easy. Brown specifically tied this together in the middle third while McGregor was key in making the transition into the final third. Defensively, Celtic were not tested so it is difficult to assess how this tactical setup copes at the back.

With several corners connecting, a goal from an indirect free kick as well as a direct free kick and a penalty goal, Celtic’s set pieces worked well against Kalju. This could be down to Lennon’s training, Griffiths returning or a poorly organised defence.

The tie is essentially over and the second leg will resemble a pre-season game while Celtic prepare for the third round.

Despite growing up, and now studying, in England, Celtic have always been a huge part of my life. I first watched the team with my dad; I fell in love and then there was no turning back. Torn between a statistically enhanced footballing style and a good, old-fashioned get-it-in-the-mixer-and-score style.

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