Atletico Madrid 2 – 0 Celtic: Gulf underlined in Spanish class

Neil Lennon opted for what is increasingly becoming regarded as the ‘Plan B’, as Atletico Madrid outclassed Celtic in the Europa League last night.

Celtic Selection

Celtic 4-2-3-1

With Anthony Stokes and Scott Brown added to the injury list already featuring Emilio Izaguirre and Thomas Rogne, Lennon was forced to shuffle the backline while setting up in the ‘tough away game’ formation, 4-2-3-1. Mark Wilson did indeed come into the squad, but not as suggested in the preview at left-back. His experience was preferred to Adam Matthews at right-back, with Charlie Mulgrew playing on the other side and Glenn Loovens starting alongside Kelvin Wilson.

Georgios Samaras’ inclusion in the team-sheet instigated discussion of Lennon’s strategy, would the Greek play alongside Gary Hooper, or would Hooper be deployed deeper in a 4-4-1-1 as thought by ESPN? Samaras actually played on the left, with Ki as the most advanced midfielder in the centre and James Forrest on the right. Joe Ledley and Beram Kayal would combine to make a double-pivot.

The selection was largely as expected considering what was available, although Hooper’s use as a lone striker was singularly the most contentious issue.

Atletico Madrid

Atletico 4-3-3

Atletico made a number of changes to the side that lost to Valencia at the weekend and it’s unclear whether this was to rotate a deep squad, rest key players in a packed fixture period or perhaps there was a sense of security considering the gulf in resources between the two sides. Regardless, the replacements were quality with Diego Ribas coming in for Adrian, Arda Turan for Jose Antonio Reyes, Koke for Tiago, and only Miranda survived the cull at the back with Antonio Lopez, Diego Godin and Luis Perea coming in.

The system itself was almost identical to the 4-3-3 used against Valencia, the difference subtly distinguished through individuals.

Soft concession undermines effort

For the second time in two important away Euro ties, Celtic have been fatally undone within the first couple of minutes. Whether this is coincidence or a suggestion of a complacent early mentality is a question worth asking. Casting an eye over previous season’s big games sees a guilty trend – under Mowbray, Nikica Jelavic managed to score in both Rapid Vienna fixtures before 3 minutes were on the clock. On Lennon’s watch, Jamie Ness scoring after 3 minutes in the ‘2-2’ Old Firm last season springs to mind, as does the early capitulation to Utrecht and latterly Daniel Majstorovic’s moment of madness against Sion.

Zonal Marking - at point corner is taken

The need to sharpen up in the early game aside, the goal was a damning example of the flaws of the Zonal Marking system, which Celtic first employed in earnest under Tony Mowbray and has remained since. Looking at the above image, it’s surprising (or not) that the goalscorer – Falcao – is the left-most player inside the Celtic box.

The crux of the system here is the roles of Kelvin Wilson, Glen Loovens and Georgios Samaras who are the three players (in order nearest the ball) who are employed along the 6 yard line. The main advantage (in theory) puts the best headers of the ball in the most important spacial area. On the same basis, it avoids “dummys” in the man-marking system, dragging your best headers towards insignificant areas of the box.

The main disadvantage was clearly demonstrated. Falcao – arguably the best in the air on the pitch – was given a free, unchecked run towards what ended up being a pin-point cross. Loovens didn’t shroud himself in glory considering the ball landed in his “zone”, and seemed to get caught under it slightly. But when a player of Falcao’s quality is allowed such a monstrous, unfettered run-up, the result wasn’t a surprise.

This is why managers often mix Zonal and Man-marking for corners, and it could be argued that a post-defender could’ve been better employed simply shielding Falcao from moving with impunity.

Square pegs round holes

With the quick-fire advantage, Atletico were happy to take their foot off the gas (slightly) and play a much more reactive game, and Celtic were able to attract more possession than they are perhaps used to in these circumstances. After fine work from Samaras, Celtic were very nearly back in it as Hooper and Kayal combined on the counter.

But undermining the whole battle-plan was the issue of square pegs in round holes, very briefly and in no particular order as follows: Gary Hooper is not at his best used as a targetman, Georgios Samaras is not at his best used as a left-winger and Ki Sung-Yeung is not at his best used as an attacking midfielder.

The 4-2-3-1 is a new system to the team and broadly Scotland, who in tactical flexibility are streets behind all but the lesser European leagues. Sion’s interesting take on diverging 3 and 4 at the back was testament to that. And Celtic it seems have been very slow in moving away from the simple 4-4-2. Not that the 4-4-2 itself is a problem, more the inflexibility, and it showed last night.

In particular, the midfield band of 3 struggled to adapt to the system and Lennon was seen to be trying to communicate via sign-language, to get that band of three higher up the park and more emphatically defined. Instead the 4-2-3-1 almost became in practice a 4-5-1 and Ki was largely the source of this frustration.

As fantastically technically gifted a player he is, and it seems he has some of the right attributes to play as a classic number 10 playmaker, it just isn’t his preference and his regista instincts tends to kick in. He suits having the pitch ahead of him and not playing with his back to goal.

The other main “square pegs” were Gary Hooper and Georgios Samaras, although admittedly there didn’t seem to be a genuine alternative on the left (although Kris Commons and Paddy McCourt may argue differently).

Atletico lethal

That deals with Celtic’s problems from a pro-active point of view, but re-actively there was a gigantic problem going by the name of Diego – and his positioning was taking supreme advantage of the 4-2-3-1. Like Adrian against Valencia, Diego nominally started on the left but had the freedom to come inside and was more incisive than his Spanish team-mate. Conversely to Ki who was thrust reluctantly into the number 10 area, Diego was desperate to get there, and with Wilson unwilling to track inside too often and Celtic’s band of 2 naturally leaving a gap ahead of the defence, Diego was ruthless and hungry – at times allowed space to shoot where ideally an anchorman would be marshaling.

Second half shuffle

Diego’s desire for the number 10 position was rewarded when Gregorio Manzano simply moved him there, taking off Koke for Reyes.

It’s no surprise that the change very quickly resulted in a goal, with the movement of Arda and especially Diego between the lines a (bitter) pleasure to watch. It was Arda (now on the left) who done the hard-work, and Diego exploiting the space that he had earned for himself, who scored the killer second.


It was still a very positive performance from Celtic – a big change from the “rabbit in the headlights” approach to European games of recent times. There is that obvious slack opening problem that needs to be quickly addressed, and of course the ‘Plan B’ needs finetuning.

It could be time to forget Ki as an advanced playmaker and leave him deep where he’s at his best. Commons (on form) would’ve been a more suitable candidate, or even Scott Brown who came on 2 years ago against Moscow to great effect. Another who once played the role was Paddy McCourt (Rangers 2-0, January 2011) and his continued omission is frustrating to see unfold.

The loss was expected, but the minimum requirement was a decent performance, and at least on that note the team delivered.


About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
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5 Responses to Atletico Madrid 2 – 0 Celtic: Gulf underlined in Spanish class

  1. paranoiandroid says:

    Good article. You’ve made a lot of good points as usual. You mentioned last nights formation being Celtics plan B, or a more defensive formation for use in Europe. However, I think there’s also a problem in that a lot of the players dont really seem to know what’s required of them when we lose the ball. In all the really good attacking teams like Barcelona, every player knows his defensive role just as well as he knows his attacking one. They all work like Trojans to defend and cover for each other. I dont think we do that well enough or systematically enough. We should be practicing this type of defending every week, even in easy games.

    Just another quick point. Has anyone ever seen any team in the whole history of football look as petrified as we did during the line up before the game ? I thought a few of our players were going to pass out in sheer terror. I also thought we were going to get killed at that point ( so well done to the players for growing in confidence ). However, I think we badly need some character and experience in the team.

    Oh ! and why the bleep is Juarez out on loan ? I think he’s better than Kayal, and only needed time to settle in to Scottish football.( Or Scottish non-football as it’s becoming more and more every season). Giving a Mexican three games to adjust to our football is madness.

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  3. LeBron+Wade says:

    This is the sound of a hammer firmly connecting with accuracy onto the head of a nail:

    “The 4-2-3-1 is a new system to the team and broadly Scotland, who in tactical flexibility are streets behind all but the lesser European leagues”

    Your point about Ki is an apt one, interestingly, for Korea he plays as part of the 2 in the 4-2-3-1 formation, in a more defensive role (when I have seen him) though from that position he can be utilised as a dee-lying playmaker like Pirlo. I think deploying him in that role in games such as this would see us getting the best of him. As you say, he seems to prefer to see more of the field and this would give him more options when pushing the ball forward.

    However, I think the team performed well and the initial system chosen by Lennon was functional. My gripe would have been that when we were in the ascendency around the hour mark, we should have introduced a new wrinkle to force Atletico to cope with a different threat. As it was around this time they reacted and made changes (thouh they never led directly to their goal) and we were unable to capitalise on the abnormally large amounts of posession we had.

    I felt that of the eleven on the pitch, Hooper was performing to the lowest standard (in his defence it was in a role he is, at the moment at least, not suited to, however, if he cannot develop more flexibility into his repertoire then Celtic or lower level in England maybe his ceiling: relying on being part of the front two in the dated 4-4-2 won’t see him move up I don’t feel. He can certainly improve as his link-up play is generally very good but there are some holding-up and awareness nuances he has to hone to become top-rate – in my opinion). Alas, Hooper is by far the biggest goal threat we carry so taking him off would probably harm our chances of scoring. I’m a big fan of Sami but his lack of goals lately is a deterrent to what I felt would have possibel change in putting Commons on in place of Hooper, pushing Samaras up front and having Commons left of a more obvious 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1. At that time Kayal and Ki were bossing the middle so I would have been confident they could continue that, and with Commons we would offer more ingenue going forward.

    If not that change, then maybe Commons for Forrest in a straight switch, or dare I say it reverting to our comfortable 4-4-2.

    I was a bit disappointed Neil never made a change when the game was still there, especially after a similar situation in Sion. Also a slight frustration is his constant reluctance to remove Hooper no matter how effective/in-effective he is in the game (See CIS Cup Final). I understand that Gary is our best finisher by far but I don’t think he should be exempt from being taken off.

    In these euro games I always feel that we lack genuine creativity, indeed I would say that even going back to O’Neill’s time this was a major weakness. Many goals back then and just about all the european goals these days take extreme graft. This in turn puts pressure on our defence as a goal for the opposition invariably spells doom, leading to panicky, unsure performances.

    All in, a really good game for us to be involved, will aid our development. I’m really glad we’re in the Europa League, and once agian great work on your analysis – keep it up!

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