Since Juventus monopolised the Serie A title race they’ve taken many forms – the bare-knuckled back three of Antonio Conte; the lateral overload of current Massimiliano Allegri – but arguably the best iteration of the side, and most compelling to watch, materialised during Allegri’s first season, when Juventus reached the Champions League final and struck a harmony through a spine of Conte grit and steadying flourishes of Allegri-inspired ingenuity from their creative players.
Juventus played a 4-1-3-2 with Vidal, Pogba, and either Claudio Marchisio, Marco Storari, or Roberto Pereyra operating in front of Andrea Pirlo.
However, it was often the case that one of that three, and one of the front two, drifted wide on opposite sides to drag opposition centre backs out of position, evolving into a 4-3-3 with Pirlo as the pivot and more often than not Vidal and Pogba as the shuttlers.
In theory, this left the Juventus back four without a defensive screen. A regista 6 and two box-to-box 8s, an inverted triangle, is, nominally, an uncompromisingly offensive midfield; yet it worked for that Juventus side, and I think it could be the next evolution for this Celtic side. Why?
The reductive answer is work ethic and intensity, on the ball and off it. Returning briefly to the Juventus comparison, Pirlo was the definition of a luxury player.
We all loved him as neutrals, pinging forty yard crossfield balls straight to feet and slamming free kicks into the top corner without accelerating above a canter all game, barely accommodating a tackle, block, or interception. He was magnificent in this pivot position, but permitted the freedom to perform in such an unshackled manner by the two shuttlers alongside him.
Vidal and Pogba, for all the English media’s fawning over his alleged laziness, worked really hard as the 8s; both in possession and without it. They pressed quickly, were hard in the tackle, and disciplined in a defensive block in their own third.
They were well drilled in covering the holes opened up by Pirlo’s wonderful inertness, and understood that if one lumbered forward another stayed back to pre-empt a counter. More vitally, this extended to Juve’s quasi-wingers – the striker and creative midfielder who shifted wide – and their own tracking back to cover the half spaces when full backs Lichtsteiner and Evra were pressed far back in the final bank of four defenders. This is a trait still evident in the Allegri teams today, with Mandzukic and Cuadrado still unstoppably running the full length of the wings for the game’s duration.
This means four players are covering the midfield gaps an ostensibly static deep lying playmaker leaves. He can control the tempo with freedom; provided he has the passing utility and ability to do so.
Enter Callum McGregor.
Forever Celtic’s utility man, the perennial solid-but-not-quite-guaranteed-first-teamer, the past month or so has perhaps been the first occasion where McGregor seems… permanent, at home, fitting. With Scott Brown now 33 and considered Celtic’s most difficult to replace player given his unmatchable drive and leadership, fans have been anxious about his prospective successor for years now; an anxiety exacerbated by the alleged pretender to the throne’s mediocrity, Kouassi.
But this anxiety is based on the assumption that Celtic need a Brown player, that in the long-term the team will sustain a tactical set-up that requires a defensive screen/midfield controller. What if progress for Celtic isn’t someone, Brown but younger, to slow the tempo down and shift sideways passes to assert ourselves in possession, but to speed it up and overload the opposition?
The biggest criticism of Celtic’s dire early season form, compounding a leaky central defence, was the lack of intensity or precision from the central midfield. Since Brown’s injury against Aberdeen in late September, and Mulumbu’s strange absence following the RB Salzburg defeat, McGregor, that utility man, dropped into the deeper midfield two of a triangle alongside Ntcham.
The first time this happened was away to St. Johnstone, when Celtic won 6-0 with Forrest bagging four. Including that game, they scored 23 goals in five domestic games, only conceding twice against Hibs at home. Before that St. Johnstone tie Celtic had only scored four in the same number of league games.
What stats struggle to reflect is the enhanced speed in Celtic’s transitions, the fresh rapidity with which they shift from regaining possession in their defensive third to countering instantly; this is largely down to McGregor’s upgrade on Brown’s passing proficiency, and confidence in playing these mid to long-range passes in the first place. The lateralness and immediacy of the team’s movement is exceptional.
McGregor subsuming Brown as the main man in front of the defence is, to some extent, agreeable among the Celtic support; but I’m also going to suggest that Ntcham – ironically fresh off a contract extension – shouldn’t come back in just now either.
Since his veritable, delightfully unexpected coronation as a wunderkind against Hearts in the League Cup semi-final, Christie has been instrumental to this new-fangled tempo; and is in someway symbolic of this Kloppian directness, averaging only 44.6 passes per game, but still having an xG (quality of chances) significantly higher than any other Celtic central midfielder in the league, at 0.41 per 90 minutes.
We’ve always known of Christie’s technical ability, the cynicism was predicated on whether he could mentally adapt himself to playing for a team that expects to win the league every season. That second half against Hearts seems to have instilled in him a confidence, a reassurance that he’s not out of his depth, that he’s at the level he should be.
What’s impressed me most has been his unfaltering defensive work and positional discipline. As an 8 rather than being pushed out wide or reduced to Rogic’s understudy as a 10, he appears liberated, charging box-to-box, making vital blocks at one end and surprising at the opposition’s back post 20 seconds later. Importantly, he’s rarely out of position; and when he is, he animatedly hurries back.
Ntcham is probably Celtic’s most technically gifted player after Rogic, and still being so young there’s plenty of time for him to improve on the faulty details of his game, but he’s often positionally suspect and sometimes lacks the urgency and defensive workrate you’d require as a shuttler in this system.
Corroborated by Christie’s work ethic and positioning has been development in Rogic and Sinclair’s own increased contributions in this area, where over the past few games they’ve improved their tracking back and spatial covering significantly. Forrest has been quietly excellent at this for at least 12 months and shouldn’t go unmentioned.
What this means, assuming Sinclair and Rogic maintain this simultaneous drive and defensive attentiveness, is a midfield collective that is tactically disciplined but positionally liberated, understanding that their positional interchanging is opening up holes in the opposition defences to exploit while remaining cognisant of the holes they themselves have opened up. It’s why Christie can make a run near post from midfield while Sinclair is coyly filling the space vacated in the channel. It’s why the team seem to overwhelm in attack but retain a shape prepared to combat counters; with McGregor at the centre of it all: combining both passing ability and defensive work ethic as the regista is a great bonus.
The inverted triangle of McGregor shuttled by Christie and Rogic has enabled Celtic to play their most exhilarating, and more importantly, incisive, football since Rodgers’s first season. They should not overthink this, and very simply keep it up.
(original artwork by Frankie Mitchell)