“Qualifying for the Champions League is almost as good as winning a trophy as far as I’m concerned.” – Neil Lennon
Typically candid words from the Celtic boss were left ringing in his player’s ears as they were greeted by a raucous Bosnian crowd on Tuesday night. In the way of their next Champions League campaign stood FC Sarajevo, a tricky side who have seen a recent upturn in fortunes under Husref Musemić. Last season the Bordo-bijeli won their first domestic title in four years.
Despite the teams have never met in a competitive fixture, Musemić was familiar with the Scottish giants, playing for Hearts back in the late ’80s. A healthy respect and tactics to frustrate the treble winners were served to give Celtic an uncomfortable night. It nearly worked as the Hoops stuttered in the opening stages of the game, eventually grappling control of the tie by coming from behind to win 3-1 on the night. This tactical analysis looks at how Sarajevo frustrated Celtic in the opening phases and the tactics used by the Scottish champions to take a lead into the second leg.
Celtic started the game in a 4-2-3-1 formation, a system they used 45% of the time last season. New signing Boli Bolingoli started as an attacking left-back over the injured Kieran Tierney. Scott Brown and Callum McGregor acted as the double pivots in midfield, marshalling the ball through possessional rotations. Top scorer Odsonne Édouard started as the lone striker, with Ryan Christie offering support from the number 10 position.
Sarajevo started the game in a rigid 4-1-4-1 formation. Mirko Oremuš, deployed as the holding midfielder, stayed between the lines and disrupted Celtic’s attacking rhythm. The extra man in midfield also added protection to the back four by congesting the central zones and blocking passing lanes into the narrowly positioned Celtic forwards. Mersudin Ahmetovic who scored 20.6% of his side’s goals last season started upfront.
Almost from kick off the game fell into a recurring pattern. Sarajevo opted to drop off and operate from a low defensive block. They showed little intent to press the ball and instead used their tactical positioning to stifle their opponents. This meant Celtic dominated possession, having 72.9% of the ball. The Bosnian champions looked to frustrate Celtic by cutting off passing options in midfield by using an extra central midfielder.
The two wide midfielders for Sarajevo also tucked inside. Their aim was to prevent passes through the defensive structure, directly into Celtic’s forward payers. In doing so, the spaces opened up in the lateral spaces, which Celtic attempted to use as their method to develop attacks.
For the first 30 minutes, the home side’s plan worked. Celtic’s horizontal ball rotations were too slow, which meant Sarajevo’s defensive unit remained organised. As a result, Celtic were unable to find pockets of space within the rigidity of their opponent’s tactics.
A constant occurrence in the first half was Celtic attempting the develop attacks in the wide areas. Their 4-2-3-1 shape out of possession transitioned to a fluid 3-4-2-1 in offensive phases. Bolingoli and James Forrest advanced into wing-back positions and stayed wide, attempting to stretch Sarajevo’s defensive shape. The attacking three sat narrow looking to find passing lanes that opened up if defenders moved across to engage with the wing-backs. Ajer shifted from right-back to become a third centre-back, with the double pivot remaining constant in front of the newly formed back three.
Varying transition success
Sarajevo sacrificed possession by occupying a rigid low block meaning they were rarely exploitable in defensive transition. The opposite can be said for Celtic who were threatened by Sarajevo’s offensive transitions as they readjusted back into a 4-2-3-1 shape.
When Sarajevo recovered possession, often deep in their own half (64%), they looked to break quickly on an advanced Celtic unit. Above, six players are beyond the ball when Celtic lose possession. When the ball is lost, Bolingoli – who is used as an advanced wing-back in attack but a restricted full-back in defensive phases – is immediately out of position.
As the break develops, Bolingoli never recovers his position as Celtic attempt to reshape into 4-2-3-1. Sarajevo exploits the space between the centre-back and the out of position full-back to produce a chance through on goal. A lack of composure in front of goal saw the home side spurn good opportunities to punish Celtic’s tactics.
Solving the problem
After going in level at the break, Celtic came out with a slightly revised game plan. Instead of using the wider spaces afforded to them, they chose riskier direct passing into their front men.
To create passing lanes, Christie and Édouard used synchronised movement to open spaces between the tight-knit midfielders. Ignoring the option wide, the ballplayer waits for Christie’s dynamic movement to pull a midfielder out of their structure. In conjunction with this, Édouard moved into the vacated space, offering a passing lane to receive the pass.
By moving the ball into Édouard’s feet directly, Celtic built faster attacks and penetrated Sarajevo’s defensive unit. Édouard saw more of the ball and was a bigger threat to the opposition. In the first half the Frenchman didn’t register a shot on goal, but by the final whistle amassed an xG of 0.33 on his own. Eventually, Celtic’s dominance took hold and their half-time adjustment saw them score two more goals. They now take a healthy 3-1 lead into the second leg next week.
Despite the scoreline, Sarajevo will be pleased to have troubled their superior opponents. For the most part, they looked organised defensively and created problems in transition. They will believe there’s still an upset to be caused, and an early goal at Celtic Park might just be the catalyst.
Lennon took a chance with his pre-game comments, heaping pressure on what was already a tough away fixture. The sentiment held, however, and his players now have a lead to defend, which it is expected they will extend on home soil. After dominating so heavily in their recent domestic campaigns, Celtic are desperate to make an impact on the European stage. This result is a step in the right direction for the Scottish club to get their number in the hat for the group stages draw.
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