Every football team has a preferred style of attack. Some look to the long ball. Others focus on set pieces. Many look to start the play out wide, before coming central, while many more focus on packing the centre of the park with as many bodies as possible and building from there.
However, as we enter the era of data and analysis, it’s no longer enough for teams to have one specific style to score goals. It can be taken for granted that in most leagues in most countries, the opposition will have watched your last few games. They’ll know how you like to attack and which players you look to when you’re in trouble.
Therefore, the best teams are the ones who can create goals from as many different sources as possible.
In a record breaking 2016/17 season, Celtic finished the Scottish Premiership without losing a single game. They were so dominant that in a season that lasts 3,420 minutes, they were only ever trailing their opponents for 124 of those. Indeed, they went through their last 14 matches without going behind for a single second.
While many of the plaudits have gone to attackers like Moussa Dembele, Scott Sinclair and Stuart Armstrong, Celtic were able to look all over their team to contribute going forwards over the course of the season. This article will specifically focus on how Brendan Rodgers used his fullbacks to create dangerous attacking situations.
In possession, the role of the fullbacks remained fairly constant: push high and stay wide. They were effectively more a part of the midfield than they were the defence:
This width forces your opposition into a catch 22. If you go out to mark the wide players, you create more space in your own defensive structure that Celtic’s central players can exploit. However, if you don’t mark the wide men, then you permit them time and space to attack the penalty box from these wide areas.
Consider the following two situations:
Here, Tierney is left alone by a Hearts defence looking to keep their team compact, with as short a distance between each of their players as possible. This allows Tierney the freedom to make an overlapping run and place a ball into the centre for an easy goal.
Now look at what happens when teams try the opposite tactic; bringing bodies to the player out wide:
In this clip, Tierney draws the attention of three Hearts defenders, which results in Stuart Armstrong being given all the time and space in the world to pick his spot.
It must be said that not every team in the world could do this. Keeping fullbacks high and wide means that there are vulnerabilities in behind them should the opposition counter quickly. Therefore, the success of this system relies on two things.
First, the fullbacks themselves must have the passing and crossing ability to actually be a threat in the final third. If not, the opposition will just ignore them. The second reason merits its own section in this article: it requires intelligent pressing from the attacking players to win the ball back, as well as intelligent positioning from the defenders, should a long ball be quickly launched to a physically able striker.
Effective pressing results in either winning the ball back, or sufficiently disrupting the opposition attack so that you have enough time to regain your defensive shape. As Celtic play their fullbacks higher up the pitch, it is therefore necessary that they join in the press upon losing the ball.
At the start of the season, the press wasn’t as effective as it could have been. Look at what happens here when Lustig steps up despite the presence of an oncoming runner:
As the season progressed, however, Celtic started conceding fewer and fewer opportunities like this. This can be attributed to three main factors. One is that the team gelled more, meaning the players became more aware of their the tactical nuances of each other’s game. This meant that there were fewer situations like the above where unmarked runners could cause havoc.
Secondly, as teams became more and more wary of Celtic’s attacking threat, more and more players were played deeper and more central. This left any attackers isolated, like in the below picture. Hearts win the ball back, but because they are sitting so deep, they have no options to counter.
The final reason lies with Scott Brown. Of the 61 fouls he committed in the league this season, just 10 took place past the centre circle in Celtic’s half. The Celtic midfielder is a specialist in stopping the opposition from getting close to his team’s goal, by means fair or foul.
This provides cover to the fullbacks, allowing them the freedom to join the attack. It also means they can push up and make interceptions like this, without the risk of leaving space in behind:
The Celtic fullbacks were directly involved in creating or scoring 28 goals over the course of the 2016/17 season. That’s probably as valuable as playing with another striker. Brendan Rodgers was able to achieve this through creating a structure where the fullbacks were free to roam high and wide up the park, and in doing so create space for either themselves or their team mates.
This environment was made possible by a team intelligent and aggressive enough in its pressing to leave the fullbacks exposed as little as possible. Furthermore, it relied upon the technical capacities of players like Tierney and Lustig to be able to effectively join in the attack.