To think that Celtic – who were mauled this season by the unimpressive (albeit fraudulent) FC Sion – could go on to match a team at the peak of Serie A would once have required some wishful thinking. But with both fixtures against Udinese in the Europa League ending in 1-1 draws, perhaps Celtic have come further than they might think.
The climax to the group was high-pressurein that Celtic required a win in Italy to progress. A poor continental record away from home is now ingrained in the modern era, but this campaign has seen Celtic improve with every match.
Slow improvement is one thing, improving enough in time to qualify is another: and that early-season defensive calamity (which permeated domestically) has undermined a promising campaign from a relatively young squad.
As Neil Lennon pointed out, it was Gary Hooper’s late conceding of a penalty against Udinese in September that ultimately proved fatal; but it wouldn’t be fair to single out that moment. There has been opportunity to take more from almost every European encounter this season, with Thursday’s performance no exception.
With numerous key defenders not fit to start, most notably the long-term Emilio Izaguirre and recent first-choices Glen Loovens and Kelvin Wilson, Charlie Mulgrew was deployed at left-back with Victor Wanyama in the centre of defence.
Faced against Udinese’s expected 3-5-1-1, Lennon’s tactical reaction was (initially) identical to the previous largely successful encounter, which Celtic should’ve won. Previously the system was 4-1-2-1-2 with Wanyama just ahead of the back four and here saw Beram Kayal as the anchorman with Ki Sung-Yeung and Scott Brown either side.
Georgios Samaras – excelling of late high up on the left pushed even higher making for a front 2, and James Forrest started in the hole between the strikers.
Though Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin doesn’t see the Europa League as a priority, at least a draw was still required to progress and therefore celebrated striker Antonio Di Natale, who might’ve been rested, started up front.
Just behind, Guidolin has used numerous players in support, with perhaps the cup-tied Gabriel Torje thought of as the first-choice. His replacement therefore here was Almen Abdi, providing the link between Di Natale and midfield.
The only other real headache was the use of defender Mehdi Benatia, who had recently been involved in a car-accident. He proved however, fit to start.
Positive Celtic start
Celtic started brightly, with Samaras and Forrest standing out. The two linked fluidly with Hooper looking to force three on three situations with the Udinese defence. When they succeeded, the centre-backs were reluctant to rush out and make a challenge (for fear of allowing a 3 v 2) and so the two Celtic attackers had plenty time on the ball – albeit perhaps too far away from goal to really threaten.
The system was largely helped out by the three versus three in the middle of the park, with Brown and Kayal in particular pushing their weight around.
It was an “up and at them” approach that garnered the upper hand initially, but Celtic’s problems in Europe this season have always stemmed from individual mistakes; and so Brown and Kayal were each fortunate to get away with some suicidal defending. Di Natale uncharacteristically squandering the first after a sloppy square-pass from Brown, and then Kayal almost robbed in the box after dallying.
Celtic’s own best chance came due to the aforementioned time and space between the central lines of three that Samaras was allowed, patiently waiting on the edge of the box long enough to thread Hooper on to a one-on-one with Handanovic. But the shot went guiltily wide.
Udinese were most productive on the counter, with Celtic increasingly reliant on the offside trap to keep Di Natale as far away from goal as possible.
First half success undone
While the centre of the Udinese defence was admittedly congested, Samaras was otherwise effective bursting into the space behind the right wing-back. One of the features of the systems in place, is that the opposing wing/full-backs were effectively the sole responsibility of their opposite number (the same to lesser degrees, all over the park).
This lends the opportunity for attackers to roam and exploit space or create two-on-ones. For the goal, Samaras burst into the space vacated by the right wing-back Basta and seemingly, into no-mans-land. But his powerful whipped cross cannoned between Handanovic and his defender, before falling fortuitously at the feet of the prowling Hooper.
As difficult a time as Ki had, having been asked to perform more of a ball-winning role (as part of the central three) than a creative, playmaking role, unsurprisingly his main positive contribution to this match was in starting off the move for the goal. Intelligently seeing Samaras on the left (i.e. in Ki’s ‘attacking’ position) Ki drifted inside for possession, getting the ball rolling for the opener.
Still the 4-1-2-1-2 / 4-3-1-2 formation for all it’s attacking success, didn’t seem “connected” defensively. The bands of four, three and then a further forward three appeared disjointed. Uncharacteristically for Celtic, the full-backs were not attacking outlets but almost exclusively defenders on the same line as the two centre-backs.
In fairness, it’s a rare system to see and may not have had much to do with the fatal equaliser. It fell more, under the “blunder” bracket, with Udinese overloading the Celtic box on the counter-attack, Cha Du Ri under duress unconvincingly headed the ball into the path of the wrong man. Di Natale made no mistake, on the stroke of half-time.
Udinese tweak to improve / Cha’s downfall
Throughout the first-half, Celtic fought to look as likely – if not more likely – to score than the hosts. So the question is, what happened in the second-half? One notable difference from the majority of Celtic’s 28 matches this season is just how open the game was. With respect to some SPL sides; this wasn’t an exercise in breaking down a 4-1-4-1 side crammed into a low-block. Udinese’s lines were spread apart, with two forwards permanently stationed up high, industrious midfielders insistent on careering up the pitch and wing-backs (in the second-half) playing more like wingers.
Coupled with Celtic’s own clearly separated bands, this made for quick vertical passes, quick possession turnover and long balls into space asking a lot from the attack. To paraphrase Gordon Strachan – in Europe you always defend with nine – and yet with Samaras and Forrest so disengaged from defensive duty, Celtic in the second half rarely defended with more than seven outfield players.
The fall-guy was Cha Du Ri. Already under question for the goal, his (individual) performance was on the wane. But Udinese’s subtle changed use of Armero on the left put Cha into further difficulties – and in fairness the two second-half systems were destined to exploit his positioning.
Guidolin, under the realisation that Cha wasn’t used in an attacking sense at all, asked Armero to started playing deeper – i.e. far enough away from Celtic’s back four that his marker wouldn’t dare follow. Besides, when matched against a player of Armero’s pace, it’s never wise (at least in a one-on-one situation) to mark tightly and high up the park, as a simple through ball would be ruinous.
And so Armero, free from both the deep Cha and Celtic’s narrow midfield, was gifted all the time in the world acting as a safe route of attack (to a lesser extent, Basta had similar experience on the other side). See the title diagram for graphic representation.
Some might point to Brown’s ability to support as the right-most midfielder – but the midfield too were faced with either 3v3, 4v3 or at worst 5v3. The more exhausted Samaras and Forrest became, the more exaggerated the room.
It’s strange then that Lennon’s 4-1-2-1-2 / 4-3-1-2 became a more pronounced narrow 4-3-3. It certainly didn’t help. Most ambitious of all was changing Anthony Stokes for Kayal with 25 minutes to go – bizarrely making Forrest the left-most midfielder in an already overrun three.
It’s also a typical Lennon change – in that pro-active (over-eager?) attacking changes are preferred at times when keeping within touching distance could’ve been more sensible. E.g. introducing a winger to a central 3 that’s already overrun, could’ve put an end to whatever hope remained.
Udinese therefore, dominated the second-half in chances created, and in fairness to Lennon, didn’t find another goal. But the more attacking change if anything stretched Celtic to breaking point and counter-productively limited their potential on the attack.
Save for a few desperate set-pieces as the competition slipped away, Celtic didn’t look like scoring. Cha (of all people) came closest with a hopeful long-range volley which cannoned off the post. But it’s not all doom and gloom, and although Cha was hugely exposed (almost conceding and almost being sent-off!) the defence were largely impressive.
It is a shame then that a battling 1-1 draw with a top Italian side couldn’t be more appreciated. Going back to the opening paragraphs, the damage had already been done via varying levels of mistake. As far back as Majstorovic’s red-card against Sion, Hooper’s foul against Udinese, Cha’s own-goal against Rennes and (not so culpably) Kayal’s missed header against Atletico.
With so few points to play for, the negative effect is extenuated. While the European campaign is again over by Christmas, the worry is now that the same damaging period doesn’t undermine the SPL challenge in a similar fashion – or at least – the same rate of improvement is maintained through to May.