Ronny Deila’s spell in charge of Celtic officially came to an end at the conclusion of the 2015/2016 season, but it was the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Rangers in April of that year which sealed his fate.
Although Celtic created the far greater volume of quality chances, Rangers’ prolonged periods of possession, often escaping Celtic’s press with ease, came to characterise the game afterwards.
It was a visceral judgement of a match Celtic should’ve won by a couple of goals, but after Warburton’s initial verve turned stale, a slow process of reverse-revisionism – if that’s a thing – has crept in.
The initial reaction came to symbolise the difference in the mood surrounding the two teams at that point: one, with inferior individual talent, invested in a clear blueprint competing against a disjointed collection of individuals.
Celtic’s lethargic performances in Europe the summer previous saw Malmo and Molde enjoy success against a passive midfield. Celtic were pressing the ball as individuals and leaving space behind them rather than hunting in packs and scanning to stay aware of the team’s overall shape.
Deila had promised uber-fit players with an aggressive approach to winning the ball back but Scott Brown’s lethargic performance in the aforementioned Old Firm served as confirmation that the Norwegian’s reign had become turgid.
Eighteen months on, the resurgence of Celtic’s captain has come to define Brendan Rodgers’ invincibles. Intense and insatiable, the same nucleus of that team have morphed into a juggernaut in Scottish football.
Premiership sides can’t live with the intensity they play at when in possession, but it is the relentless pressure Celtic put on the opposition when they are fleetingly without the ball, forcing them to think at a speed they aren’t capable of, which helps Celtic grind down their opponents.
4-0 has become the par score, but it is the second number in any scoreline prediction which tends to be constant: nil.
That confidence in Celtic’s defensive capabilities is due to the consistency of Celtic’s front-foot approach to regaining the ball.
The evolution of Celtic’s pressing structure
There were initial teething problems in implementing this high velocity press during last season’s Champions League qualifiers.
Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Astana could both potentially have eliminated Celtic had they been more clinical. Celtic went through prolonged spells where they lost their shape, with Nwakaeme in particular causing myriad issues for the Israeli side, drifting inside from the left to receive the ball behind the double-pivot of Bitton and Brown.
The movements have become autonomous since the turn of the year though, as the players have acclimatised to the demanding nature of the gameplan which places the emphasis on the individual to decide whether his bearings makes it worth vacating in order to push on.
Central to Celtic’s improvement in the efficiency of their pressing is the spacing between the three lines. Under Deila, the shape would be far too expansive, giving the likes of Bitton and Rogic too much distance to cover.
The central defenders were also reluctant to follow the striker into midfield, meaning there was a large area behind the midfield for the ball to be played into. Now, Simunovic is the clear organiser of the back four and decides how high the line should support their midfield when pressing. Griffiths or Dembele also drop into the opposing holding midfielder’s space when they have comfortable possession.
Rodgers has sought to progressively make his side more compact by narrowing his wide players and asking them to gamble on a negative pass being played. The winger on the opposite side from the ball takes up an aggressive position ready to press the centre-half, leaving open the possibility of an early switch, but it puts him in a threatening starting position and forces the centre-half to make a decision whether to play it long or risk being robbed as the last man.
There is a clear focus on what the objectives of the press are. Domestically, Rodgers clearly doesn’t believe any team has the technical ability or composure to play through their high pressure. His side press as a unit, forcing the ball out wide or usually making the opposition resort to long-ball tactics.
Most sides opt to set-up very deep, which drags their wide players into secondary full-back roles, meaning there is often an absence of an out ball. Xavi’s famous five second limit on pressing before dropping back into shape is present at times, but the clear pattern emerges when, if having won the ball back, the team don’t play forward within a couple of passes, Celtic squeeze.
Compactness key to the counter-press
After Celtic’s sudden collapse on Tuesday, Rodgers analysed the reasons behind the lapse in their defensive solidity.
He said: “We weren’t compact enough in possession, which then didn’t allow us to press.”
Key to Celtic’s success in penetrating a stubborn low block is how they create overloads. It is a rehearsed explanation that switching the ball horizontally at a quicker pace than the opposition can shift across is the trusted approach.
This, in theory, will open up gaps for the team in possession to exploit as the weight of numbers can no longer crowd them out. Rodgers helps to create this imbalance by structuring his players in a way that encourages close proximity.
This does two things: it makes retaining possession easier and less risky as there is usually an escape route should a player be tightly pressed, and it also assists with combination play as the distance of any one-two is reduced, meaning the initial bounce pass can be released at a later stage when committing players at the edge of the box.
It can be most commonly seen on the left side where Tierney pushes up extremely high, allowing Sinclair to drift inside and occupy the half-space. This is supplemented by the most advanced midfielder providing a third option as a third-man runner.
These tight clusters not only drag out embedded defences, they provide security and a positive platform from which to counter-press from. The way that Celtic’s shape contracts instantly after losing possession has become one of Celtic’s unheralded strengths.
The asymmetrical nature of Celtic’s 4-2-3-1 means that Lustig ventures forward far less often than Tierney, with the Swede’s positioning allows Tierney the freedom to continue pressing when possession is lost.
The left centre-half drifts towards the left full-back position and Lustig ticks in slightly to counterbalance. Rodgers took this a step further against Kilmarnock last week when he played Tierney as one of the two centre-backs.
Brown acts as the security blanket, giving license to the other five attackers to close in.
Can Ntcham provide the perfect balance in Europe?
Rodgers spoke openly last season about wanting to bring in another European quality midfielder, hence the signing of Olivier Ntcham from Manchester City after a loan spell in Italy with Genoa.
The Frenchman has seamlessly slotted in to his orchestrator role alongside Brown, adding an aggression and athleticism that will improve Celtic’s solidity in the Champions League.
When Rodgers signed Kouassi Eboue in January he referenced one of the key components in how he and his backroom staff identify players suited to their style.
He said that Eboue “protects the middle of the pitch as I like it to be protected”, which highlights how crucial denying counter-attacks through the heart of the team is to Rodgers.
Although Celtic have asserted complete dominance domestically in both phases of play, the midfield’s flaws were shown in the group stage of the Champions League.
Manchester City posed the sternest test of Celtic’s pressing structure at the Etihad when they went toe to toe with Fernando, Gundogan and Zabaleta. They were able to regularly cut through the middle of the park.
Celtic chose not to engage Barcelona but Bayer Levekusen were also able to navigate Celtic’s high press in both legs, posing questions over the athletic and tactical ability of Brown’s two partners to perform at this intensity against elite opposition.
Tom Rogic’s invention and ability to find pockets of space is unrivalled in the squad, but his defensive output can be found wanting at times. Armstrong has a tendency to allow blind-side runs when playing in a deeper role, while Callum McGregor’s slight physique can inhibit his performances against superior teams.
Ntcham is positionally sound and possesses the recovery pace to compliment Brown as the primary initiator of the press.
He was guilty of being drawn to the ball against Rosenborg, which allowed Jensen to pick up the ball in the hole, but his presence was felt in the later rounds where he guarded the space behind him responsibly.If the first wave of pressure is navigated, Rodgers will feel more comfortable with Ntcham’s presence prioritising the central space and forcing the ball wide.
Celtic have been giving a tough task in Europe up against Bayern Munich, PSG and Anderlecht, but in Ntcham they have a veritable upgrade and one which, if the synergy between himself and Brown continues, will certainly ensure that the likes of Verratti and Tolisso don’t have it all their way.