Brendan Rodgers has a strategy. His style of choice is similar to the positional play approach seen in many of Europe’s top teams. “My template for everything is organisation,” he said in 2012. “With the ball you have to know the movement patterns, the rotation, the fluidity and positioning of the team.”
Anyone who has watched Celtic over the last two-and-a-half years will have witnessed the aforementioned movements, rotations and positioning in action. Generally, Scottish Premiership teams have struggled to cope with it, which is why Rodgers has picked up consecutive domestic trebles.
But his success isn’t just built on a philosophy; he changes tactics from week to week, sometimes even modifying his system during games. Our friends at Football Whispers take a look.
This adaptability has often come to the fore in the biggest domestic games, and they don’t come much bigger than against fierce city rivals Rangers at home. In that match, only four games into the season in early September, Rodgers led his players to a crucial 1-0 victory courtesy of supreme tactical decision-making.
Ostensibly his system on the day looked like a classic 4-2-3-1, but it quickly transformed into a 3-2-4-1 as left-back Kieran Tierney pushed forward on the left flank while right-back Mikael Lustig stayed closer to the two central defenders. Up against Steven Gerrard’s preferred 4-3-3, this generated advantages all over the pitch for Celtic.
Their four-man midfield square of Scott Brown, Olivier Ntcham, Tom Rogic and Callum McGregor numerically overloaded Rangers’ midfield trio, helping to establish control of possession. Out wide, meanwhile, James Forrest and Kieran Tierney regularly got into 1v1 situations against their opposite men which, with their superior mobility and dribbling skill, gave them the upper hand.
Gerrard has made Rangers a more organised and balanced defensive force since his arrival in June, and his team were able to resist Celtic for much of this particular derby clash. However, at no point did they have control of the game. Rodgers’ side had over twice as many shots, over four times as many shots on target, enjoyed the majority of possession and dominated territorially.
Getting to (another) League Cup final
Following on from that, the latest evidence of the 45-year-old’s astute tactical tinkering in big domestic matches came in last weekend’s 3-0 League Cup semi-final win over current Scottish Premiership table-toppers Heart of Midlothian.
Hearts learnt from Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock, who used a zonal defensive system to help them to a 2-1 win over Celtic earlier in the season. Craig Levein’s men used a similar style and it started off working well.
For the first 45 minutes, Hearts stayed in a compact 4-4-2, shifting from side to side without leaving gaps in the channels or between the lines for their opponents to play through. The result was a pretty boring contest, and Rodgers was in no mood to wait when it came to spicing things up.
After 26 minutes, he took off Eboue Kouassi – his chosen defensive midfielder in the absence of Brown – and brought on Scott Sinclair, a pacey winger or support striker. In turn, McGregor dropped from the left of midfield to occupy the No.6 position. This wasn’t the first time Rodgers had made this change, using it in the thrilling 4-2 league win over Hibernian.
Then, at the start of the second half, the Celtic boss decided to replace the injured Ntcham with Ryan Christie. While more a change of player profile than a change of shape, this substitution once again underlined Rodgers’ attacking intent and willingness to take risks to open up organised defensive rivals, as a natural No.10 was introduced for a more withdrawn operator.
Rodgers the result-getter
These decisions had a tangible impact upon the match, as the subs had a direct hand in all three of Celtic’s goals.
Firstly, Christie won a penalty which Sinclair converted to open the scoring. Then, Christie’s spilled shot fell to James Forrest to double his team’s advantage. The win was then sealed with a beautiful placed effort from the former Aberdeen creator.
However, the substitutions also had subtler tactical effects that swung the game in Rodgers’ favour.
Sinclair’s arrival helped to stretch the Hearts back four, as he constantly looked to get one on one versus Michael Smith, utilising his pace and skill to attack his opposite man. As for Christie, he increased the tempo of his team’s pressing and possession – both critical factors when faced with a compact defensive block.
It was unsurprising, given the tweaks outlined above, that Celtic began to open up their opposition more consistently in the second half. And, while their first two goals involved some luck in the form of a relatively soft penalty award and a bad goalkeeping mistake, nobody could argue against them winning by the margin they ultimately did.
This season’s Scottish Premiership so far has been one of the most open-ended in years. Hearts, Hibs and Kilmarnock have all improved, upping the ante on the Old Firm and giving rise to the most outlandish of ideas: that someone else might just win the title this time around.
Rodgers has always been lauded for his vision of football but, in an increasingly competitive domestic landscape, it is his tactical awareness that will help Celtic stay on top.
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