Celtic face Astana in a crunch Champions League play-off on Wednesday in a repeat of last season’s tie, one which Celtic scraped through courtesy of a last gasp penalty.
There is already a base of knowledge surrounding the Kazakh side but the slight tweaks they have implemented since, along with the progress Celtic have made in the ensuing twelve months, gives the game a new dynamic.
Celtic toiled for large spells of the two legs last season, but injury problems and the threat of Kabananga and Twumasi deem the tie a tricky enough test of Celtic’s ability to warrant an analysis of Astana’s profile in both phases of the game.
How well Astana transition depends on which formation they employ. If it’s a 4-2-3-1, they will quickly become a 4-1-4-1. This is usually used away from home, where Astana are less ambitious going forward. Given the structural similarities between 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1, Astana can quickly get into shape when they play like this.
However, in home games, Astana tend to use a diamond 4-4-2. Given they still try to transition to the 4-1-4-1, this involves a striker and attacking midfielder dropping into the midfield. This makes them particularly vulnerable in wide areas. With this in mind, it’s easy to see Celtic having joy with the Tierney/Sinclair combination.
Indeed, captain Dmitri Shomko (number 77) is known for rampaging up the pitch on the ball from left back. There will be space in behind him which Celtic can exploit. Interestingly, he is also the only left back in the entire Astana squad, giving Celtic even more reason to target the Astana left in case of injury/suspension.
Off the ball, Astana revert to a 4-1-4-1/4-5-1 block. This congests the centre of the park. As such, they show little interest in seriously pressing the opposition until they reach the final third. Instead, they stay structured, stay organised and let the opposition come onto them. Playing against teams in a low block is something that Celtic are very much accustomed to in the SPFL. However, Astana are far more disciplined in their defence than any teams in Scotland.
That’s not to say that Astana are a one dimensional team out of possession. There are, as usual, a few ‘pressing triggers’. If a ‘pressing trigger’ occurs, the team will break their defensive structure to press the opposition. For Astana, it appears as though all midfielders have license to hunt down any misplaced passes as a three.
This gives Celtic two options to beat the midfield. The low block swarms the centre the closer you get to goal, so there will be space out wide should you get it out there quickly enough. Marin Anicic (number 5) may be a giant at 6ft 3”, however the cliché seems to hold true about tall, slow defenders in this case. While dominant in the air, he struggles with low crosses into the box, especially if faced with a striker making short, sharp movements. Alongside him, Yuri Logvinenko (number 27) is basically a slightly poorer version of his partner. Slightly smaller, slightly less alert and slightly more awkward.
The second option is to not give them any time to get into their block. Keep players high on the halfway line when under pressure, and break at speed on the turnover. Griffiths, Sinclair and Ntcham are all athletic players capable of getting the ball up the pitch quickly.
Astana have built a solid defence, if you play into their hands. However, it is quite simple to dissect when studied in depth.
Astana attacking analysis
The threat Astana pose Celtic going forward is no secret. Both teams are likely to field at least seven of the same payers in both starting line-ups, but Brendan Rodgers’ system is now ingrained in his players’ psyche whilst Astana look identical, bar some personnel changes in midfield.
At the compact Astana Arena they are a formidable side – as their unbeaten run of fourteen games in Europe attests to – but away from their own patch their conservative approach can render them passive.
Astana thrive on transitioning quickly from a low block, but their success was facilitated by Celtic’s poor ball retention and flawed press. Roll on a year and the midfield’s circulation and pitch coverage is one of their underlying strengths.
What has made Astana so effective at home is that they counter press and break from the second ball so sharply. Serikzhan Muzhikov (number 7) is an understated type of midfielder, but he is technically one of the most proficient in the side and is crucial to initiating counters by using his smart reading of the game.
Given time to methodically play through the lines they can, but their midfield triumvirate don’t possess a playmaker who is entirely comfortable receiving the ball with his back under the threat of a high press.
Manager, Stanimir Stoilov, is a pragmatist though. In the previous meeting between the sides he reacted to Celtic’s 3-5-2 set-up by playing long to Junior Kabananga (number 30), therefor counteracting Celtic’s waves of pressure. That will be a tactic likely to be utilised once again as the Congolese striker uses his explosive pace and power to bully centre-backs.
Kabananga is the focal point and central to everything Astana do well. Capable of holding the ball up even without great service he is a striker with many arrows to his bow, as he can more than cope with the physical battle or exploit space. He manages 4.52 touches inside the opposition box, a number Celtic will have to reduce as he averages a goal every other game, testament to his ability to get a shot away without having to shift the ball too drastically.
Scott Brown will have an important job in screening the passing lanes into his feet, as once he has the centre-backs pinned his trademark move is to roll them and drive into the channel. Srdan Grahovac (number 8) is the main source into Kabananga’s feet, playing over eight passes into the final third per game at a success rate of 80%.
Centre-backs Logvinenko and Anicic are heavily involved in possession, often due to the lack of penetration from the centre of midfield, averaging 56 and 58 pass each per 90 minutes. Both are left-footed, which represents an imbalance when building play from the back, so Celtic may press from the right to set traps.
Goalkeeper, Alexandr Mokin (number 35), who Celtic faced in 2013 when he was between the sticks for Shakhtar Karagandy, is vulnerable with the ball at his feet.
At goal-kicks, the target is defensive midfielder Ivan Maevski (number 18) as his kicks from a standing start don’t often reach far beyond the halfway line. The German averages 6.52 aerial duels a game with a success rate of just over 54%.
Rodgers should have his forwards under strict instructions to press the back-line all the way to Mokin as his poor kicking technique is worse when the ball is moving.
Kieran Tierney had one of his most difficult nights in a Celtic jersey in the first-leg up against Patrick Twumasi (number 23) as his raw pace saw him skip by the full-back on numerous occasions. The Ghanaian winger is incredibly fleet footed and is often left detached from the defensive shape in order to instigate the counter-attack and provide support for Kabananga. He is an all-action player, as his numbers show: 4.06 shots, 5.68 crosses, 5 dribbles per 90 minutes.
However, he is unrefined when it tight areas and can be wasteful with his final ball, even if he is capable of producing a long-range strike or whipped delivery.
Young Boys, who beat Astana 3-0 at home last year, nullified Twumasi by doubling up on him as soon as he received the ball and not allowing him to turn.
Tierney has the tools and, more importantly, nearly another 50 senior games under his belt now. The Scot has developed athletically and is a wily defender 1v1, which is why he would be favourite to come out on top of the battle. Twumasi does tend to drift inside if Astana manage to gain a foothold in proceedings so Tierney will have to be aware of runs in the channel between himself and Jozo Simunovic.
Astana’s opener last season came from a corner which Craig Gordon’s attempted punch failed to connect with. After watching a dozen or so games, Astana don’t seem to have devised a bespoke routine suited to the opposition. Their usual set-up is for a group of four players to gather centrally in a cluster between the penalty spot and the edge of the box.
Astana don’t possess the ability to outmanoeuvre Celtic in possession, but with eight of the ten likely outfield starters standing at over six feet tall, their presence from set-plays represent the biggest danger to Celtic.
Twumasi is on outswinging corners and Muzhikov/Grahovac rotate the inswingers from the left. There is not much variation in the delivery as the target seems to constantly be Maevski on the six-yard box line.
Astana will most likely have identified Celtic’s right channel as the most fragile area, with Mikael Lustig and Nir Bitton able to be exploited. Astana used Roman Murtazayev (number 45) on the left flank against Legia Warsaw in the away leg when defending a lead, but shifted Muzhikov wide Spartaks Jurmala.
The former is a gangly forward who is aerially very strong and likes to drift inwards to join Kabananga as a pairing when the ball is wide. His inclusion will depend on whether Astana decide to prioritise physicality in the middle of the park to combat the physical presence of Brown, Olivier Ntcham and possibly Tom Rogic.
All of Astana’s midfield options are high-energy players but Stoilov has the dilemma of opting for Laszlo Kleinheisler (number 6) to play alongside Maevski and Grahovac, which would see Muzhikov shift out wide, in order to give the team more defensive solidity, or sacrificing a central midfielder to accommodate Murtazayev.
If he chooses the latter then Celtic may feel the game is more open, but similarly, Astana would be a more potent force.
Whichever variation Astana decide to go with on Wednesday, despite Astana’s doggedness, it will take a well below par performance from Celtic for the Kazakhs to avenge their defeat last season.
By Dougie Wright & Jordan Campbell