Scotland and Griffiths – the height of the issue

leigh

Celtic may be flying high in the Scottish Premiership, but Leigh Griffiths has had to make do with fleeting substitute appearances for both club and country.

While the irrepressible Moussa Dembele keeps him out Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI, Scotland is a different matter altogether, with Chris Martin and then Steven Fletcher leading the line for a crestfallen campaign.

The prevailing argument is loud and clear – how can a striker who’s just come off a 40+ goal season, fail to start for his national team? It should be a simple case of banging him in the team shouldn’t it? Unfortunately not.

Headers matter

As much as swapping, say, Fletcher for Griffiths like-for-like sounds obvious on paper, the impact in defence is devastating for an already small team.

Height disadvantage vs Slovakia

Scale height disadvantage vs Slovakia (click to enlarge)

In other words – any football team has a minimum “headering” requirement. It cannot be stressed enough quite how important this is in set-piece organisation. For Scotland to swap out #2 in the above list, for a player who’d fit in at 3rd bottom, is unequivocally not an option.

To further put into context this “height crisis”, we can compare to – for example – the most notoriously vertically challenged team in the world, Spain. Scotland’s XI versus Slovakia limbered up at 181cm on average, the same as the Spaniards in the 2014 World Cup final, who incidentally struggled at set-pieces during that game. A straight swap between Fletcher and Griffiths, and Scotland would actually average a few centimetres smaller.

The common regurgitation is that this only reinforces a classic Scottish self-loathing trope, that the little guy – no matter how technically gifted – is always held back in favour of mindless brute-force. Generally speaking this may be the case, but not here.

Once this fact is accepted, we can consider the knock-on reasons that Strachan fails to pick Griffiths.

Important side-note (height =/= good at heading)

Another common straw-man is that height does not equal being strong in the air. This is true. The relatively small (176cm) Fabio Cannavaro was an accomplished header of the ball, while closer to home Erik Sviatchenko (185cm) is extraordinary in the air (going back to Scotland’s problem, even Sviatchenko would only be the 6th tallest person in that Slovakia team).

There are plenty of prolific goal-scoring headers who aren’t particularly tall – Henrik Larsson maybe the finest, who is indeed the same height as Griffiths.

Headed goals however are a different breed – using speed and intelligence to out-wit the defensive line and re-direct a favourable cross.

This is contrary to what happens defending set-pieces. You are fending off a bigger, stronger, stationary target. The reacting defender rarely gets a running start nor is it the kind of cross to tap into a net.

So to summarise, yes, you will find plenty of examples of goal-scoring headers – including Griffiths. But this has little-to-no bearing on a defensive aspect (evidenced by the a complete lack of examples within zonal defences). As a general rule, height is a reliable indicator, and if not position (centre-backs and target-men are bred to head).

This is also why you won’t see anyone less than 6 foot defending the 6-yard line at a corner.

Options

Again, it’s important to iterate that the problem is not the lack of Griffiths’ height per-se, it’s more the lack of strong defensive headers. In other words, if Griffiths were to come in, where would the aforementioned imperative height be found?

442

Flat-out 4-4-2’s aren’t particularly in favour these days, but some examples exist. France and especially Portugal has successful Euros, with Griezmann/Giroud and Nani/Ronaldo combinations respectively.

While Griezmann and Ronaldo have decent claims to be the best attackers in the world at the moment, it’s obvious why 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1 at times) suits.

Iceland are perhaps a better example of a limited 4-4-2 team maximising their capabilities, albeit – and forgive the height obsession – even their 2 strikers; Sigthorsson and Bodvarsson are taller players than anything Scotland’s XI has to offer.

4-4-2 openly cedes possession in favour of directness, which unfortunately goes against everything Strachan had been working towards with his 4-2-3-1. 3 years of grand planning sought to have a solid defensive base with tricky technical guys like Snodgrass, Ritchie and Burke pulling strings in midfield.

In hindsight, of course this never happened. But it would be folly to think a long-term strategy can be torn up due to one result against Slovakia.

England

Strachan rarely digresses from two very closely related variations of 4-3-3. He has a more attacking, conventional 4-2-3-1 with a jewel in the crown behind a big striker (e.g. Shaun Maloney, or latterly Snodgrass or Burke). And a more conservative 4-1-4-1, usually including Bannan in the midfield 3 to control possession and provide creativity from deep. Charlie Adam may have once suited this role, and despite getting column inches recently is barely 7th choice midfielder.

Premier League regulars Snodgrass and Ritchie are also heavily relied on to add spark and chip in with goals. The two were woeful against Slovakia, and Strachan is unlikely to go with the relatively green Burke, as precocious a talent he is.

Scott Brown should come into the side having been in impreious form for club. He may not be a goal-scorer, and his inclusion will prompt the usual eye-rolling at Strachan calling on another old-faithful, but he should be an improvement on the lacklustre showing in Trnava.

Similarly Charlie Mulgrew’s call-up is barely worth discussion given he’s backup for the backups.

Expected lineup

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End of the road for indignant Strachan

After scraping a draw with Lithuania on Saturday, tonight was meant to be an opportunity not just to make amends, but to justify Gordon Strachan’s obstinacy. Not just tactically, sticking steadfastly to the 4-2-3-1 ushered in against Estonia, his first match in charge back in February 2013. But an equal bullheadedness in opting for experience over youth. Tried and tested over ambition. Fear over hope.

While it’s another argument entirely quite how Scotland have ended up with such poor defensive players (save for extraordinary depth at left-back). Grant Hanley was largely responsible for the goal conceded on Saturday, spraying a hospital pass to the touchline and then losing concentration. And he’s been consistently poor. The best thing said about Russell Martin is he isn’t noticeably awful, while Callum Patterson – despite being young and likely to improve – is clearly out of his depth.

Defence – especially central defence – has historically been a Scottish forte, so the SFA must look inwards as to why the country cannot produce another McLeish, Hansen or even Hendry.

The same can be said between the goalposts – there are no obvious heirs to Craig Gordon (33) and David Marshall (31).

In front of the defence sat a wilted Darren Fletcher, commendably battling back from serious illness recently, but surely not anywhere near the same player, evidenced by slack passing and being at fault for Slovakia’s opener.

Still, these individuals have a decent reputation at their clubs, plying their trade at decent levels. The responsibility falls on the manager for failing to galvanise what on paper appears to be a reasonably competent set of players.

Forward lack of ambition

Before the match, Strachan felt Oliver Burke – a glimmer of light against Lithuania with his direct and powerful running –  too inexperienced to play away from home. He instead opted for Matt Ritchie and Robert Snodgrass on the wings. Normally dependable players, but hardly direct and dynamic compared to Burke. The two in fact had their worst performances in a Scotland jersey, further emphasising the question of how a player in James Forrest’s form couldn’t start either match.

Most predictable of all in this “experienced” lineup, was the use of a targetman, but instead of Chris Martin the manager selected Steven Fletcher, someone who again featured in Strachan’s first match in charge. Plus ca change!

The decision relegated Leigh Griffiths – Scotland’s in-form striker – to a role Jordan Rhodes has been grudgingly familiar with – that of a last-ditch game-chaser. Strachan has an unshaking commitment to the system over the individual; the idea that the team cannot operate without a big and strong player up top to hold up the ball.

Ronny Deila fell into a similar trap with Celtic, having failed to find a suitable targetman, he eventually admitted defeat and used Griffiths alone up front. The proof was in the eating of the pudding, with Griffiths scoring 41 goals in 50 matches – contradicting the idea that you need to be big to work as a lone striker.

Stubborn

When making such bold and unpopular team selections, you will live or die by results. The prickliness with the media exacerbated this further, and echoed his time at Middlesbrough and Celtic. At Celtic, Strachan had the luxury of results to back up his controversial team selections. Things like playing Gary Caldwell in midfield, persisting with “favourites” like Paul Telfer, or going with Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink as a lone striker in Europe. How familiar.

But for Scotland, these unpopular decisions have been underpinned by bad results. In the campaign for Euro 2016, there were undoubted elements of misfortune. But in the dour showings against Malta, Lithuania and Slovakia we’ve been shown a stubbornness that’s continuing to cost dear.

In the last two matches we’ve seen the conservative approach yield early goals conceded (14 and 18 minutes respectively). The system isn’t designed to chase games so early, and the flatness is tangible.

 

When Strachan took over, he sought to mimic Germany’s style – a sharp, dynamic 4-2-3-1, getting clever players between the lines, inside forwards cutting in and creating chances. But, as time wore on, we’ve leaned heavier and heavier on ageing players and erred towards the conservative.

Prospects like Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney and Oliver Burke suggests that there might be an exciting, attacking future ahead yet, but a future surely without Strachan. In the face of such poor results and performances, his infamous indignance leaves him in an untenable position.

 

Tactical preview ahead of Lincoln Red Imps

With Brendan Rodgers widely being hailed as Scottish football’s most ambitious managerial appointment since Martin O’Neill, pre-season has given us an opportunity to see how his plans are coming together ahead of their Champions League 2nd round qualifier against Lincoln Red Imps.

In terms of personnel, Rodgers quickly set about trimming the bloated squad, with 4 forwards departing – Anthony Stokes, Stefan Scepovic, Colin Kazim-Richards and Carlton Cole. Moussa Dembele replaces them, while Kristoffer Ajer and (effectively) Ryan Christie and Liam Henderson are the other additions.

There’s no doubt that Rodgers has money available, but for the moment it is largely the same set of players that Ronny Deila underwhelmed with.

fixtures july

NK Celje and Sturm Graz were more or less fitness exercises, with 22 Celts featuring per match, using generic 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 systems to wet the whistle.

Potential 4-1-2-3 with current players

Initial predicted formation and first choice XI following Rodgers’ appointment

It wasn’t until Ljubljana and Saturday’s match in Maribor that a clearer tactical picture developed.

The tictactic insight into potential systems identified Rodgers’ first choice as a 4-1-2-3, with, what he calls a “controlling” emphasis on the holding midfielder, or regista. Indeed, for the latter two friendlies, this has been the primary system on show.

Muddled midfield

With Jozo Simunovic injured, Efe Ambrose is expected to start on Tuesday at the back; although it should also be noted that Kristopher Ajer has reasonably impressed there with fans eager to see what he’s capable of. Having featured as a central midfielder and even striker for his former club, it’s interesting to see him used as a ball-playing defender.

Rodgers seems keen on using both Scott Brown and Stefan Johansen deployed of Biton, and as previously stated in this blog, this probably sits uneasy in the manager’s thoughts. The two are similar midfield scrappers, but the midfield really needs a bit of guile in the final third – evidenced with the lack of created chances vs Maribor, who sat back with eleven behind the ball. Underdogs the Red Imps, and your typical SPFL sides will likely function in a similarly reactive manner. Getting the right attacking balance between the three centre-midfielders, therefore is paramount.

It’s interesting that Calum McGregor was introduced after just 20 minutes vs Maribor. It was a drab game, with far too many sideways passing to penetrate the opposition deep block. Serial transfer rumour subject Johansen went off early injured, perhaps, and McGregor provided a more forward thrust. Interestingly, for the last 30 minutes vs Maribor, Stuart Armstrong played here, another with more vertical intent than Brown or Johansen and a more central position that many fans are keen to see Armstrong feature in.

Shifting a 40-goal striker

But Dembele’s arrival – seen as a real coup in the face of strong English Premiership interest – is the biggest conundrum for a manager who prefers using a sole central striker. Leigh Griffiths took almost single-handed goalscoring responsibility last season in that central position, but in pre-season has found himself wide right to accommodate the newcomer.

This does of course make sense, considering Griffiths doesn’t really have the ideal attributes to play the lone role – despite the obvious scoring record. Most managers insist on using a proper “target” man, and we can look at a former Celtic manager for a case in point. Gordon Strachan has controversially and stubbornly refused to use goal-getter Jordan Rhodes as a lone striker, citing his lack of attributes for the position. Right or wrong (and many commentators are absolutely adamant that it’s wrong) it’s a common theme throughout football management – smaller guys aren’t cut out for the position.

The move to the right may prove to be a masterstroke. Against Ljubljana, Griffiths cut in, on to his favoured left-foot to score both goals. Elsewhere in football the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi prove that you don’t need to play central to score, so it will be a real test for both Rodgers and Griffiths to see if something that wasn’t necessarily broke, can be fixed.

Knock-on effect

Then there is a knock-on conundrum – what to do with Patrick Roberts and Tom Rogic. Both were respective breaths of fresh air last season, with a creativity and attacking vigour hitherto lacking under Deila.

Rogic seems at home only behind a striker in a 4-2-3-1 – and while Rodgers has used this formation in pre-season, he hasn’t to the same extent as the featured 4-1-2-3. One should also add that it’s an incredibly in-demand position, with the likes of Scott Allan (who has really impressed in close-season), Kris Commons and Ryan Christie amongst others, vying for the spot.

Griffiths’ move to the right also muscles in on Roberts’ territory. He didn’t play a second anywhere else during these friendlies, so presumably at this stage it’s a straight choice between Leigh and Patrick.

Many won’t mind, perhaps not being fully convinced with a player Celtic have taken on to develop for a richer team. But his performances and trickery in the second half of last season were beyond reproach. Could Rodgers try and squeeze him (or Griffiths) in elsewhere?

Lefty loosey

With Roberts and Griffiths currently untested on the left, there appears to be a number of players competing to start there on Tuesday. Stuart Armstrong has reently been first-choice, mainly for his engine, though Christie seems to have the edge going by the friendlies where he pressed aggressively, got into scoring positions and created too. Fringers Henderson and Forrest also featured in the last few weeks, while Gary Mackay-Steven and Kris Commons will seek to make a claim, making it another hugely in-demand position without a clear first choice.

Conclusion

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Expected lineup vs Red Imps

Rodgers won’t take the Imps lightly, given recent and historic managerial debuts in Europe. This coincides with his arguably more conservative 4-1-2-3 formation suited for an away tie and featuring a holding midfielder protecting the defence and two battlers wresting for control.

Anything other than this or the 4-2-3-1 would be a surprise – albeit the latter being more attacking, and affording the likes of Rogic to do damage.

The major personnel questions revolve around whether a more creative player can feature instead of Brown/Johansen, and who to start on the left-side.

 

 

Moussa Dembele – long-awaited target-man?

Celtic sign Moussa Dembele for a nominal development fee, a major coup for Brendan Rodgers in a historically difficult position.

The French U20 striker almost moved to a top-4 English side in the summer, and reportedly turned down further big-money offers in order to linkup with Rodgers.

While the new manager is undoubtedly a draw, it’s a typical Celtic signing – young, cheap, and bags of potential.

10….9….

Many will be wondering how Dembele will fit into Rodgers’ side (indeed, how Rodgers will setup at all). Celtic have long been in the hunt for a targetman to complement Griffiths or even replace him where a lone striker is required – is he that kind of player?

Others have suggested a role out wide, with Virgo above citing pace as an outstanding part of his game. Having baggsed squad number 10, is he a creative second striker like the shirt suggests?

The scout report – Queens Park Rangers 1-3 Fulham, 13th February 2016

fulham

Fulham went into this game having not won in 14 Championship attempts, which gives you a feel for a) their relative ability/performance and b) how they may have ended up going for a 3-5-2. Rather astonishingly, on the way to finishing 20th, Fulham managed to score 3 goals more than 2nd-placed Middlesbrough, highlighting a problem in defence.

With an eye on Dembele, what was immediately striking was his utilisation as a target-man at every opportunity due to aerial strength. So coming short for every throw-in (no matter side or position up park), the target for long-balls from the back, the target for corners, and while defending set-pieces was tasked with man-marking QPR’s number 1 header, Nedum Onuoha.

But aside from these duties in what you can call the “first” phase of play, in open-play Dembele is a lot more dynamic. He continuously switched sides with Ross McCormack, or took turns dropping deeper or playing off the shoulder. It’s this fluidity that makes the lineup graphic above a little moot, but in this game at least he may be considered a deep targetman with license to roam.

One such common move, is dropping deep to meet the first ball, play a short pass to the likes of McCormack or Cairney, who then have the patience and guile to wait for a late, piercing run into the boxto provide a return. Dembele clearly demonstrated a sharpness of mind to get forward into goalscoring positions, breaking between lines.

What he isn’t

It was apparent from this match that Dembele has a surprising depth to his game for a 19 year-old – as comfortable with his back to goal as running into the channels or dropping deep to win the first ball.

For all the positives – and this shouldn’t be considered a negative – it’s difficult to envisage him playing a concerted wide role because he’s simply too much of a striker (although this clip from 1m 30 in may hint otherwise). Similarly, he isn’t renowned for long-range passing, crossing or the kind of clever lock-picking made famous by say, Kris Commons or Shunsuke Nakamura.

But before we assign him the busy “targetman” label, let us consider his goals and assists last season….

Goals –  2015/16 (Championship only)

fball pitch

Positions collated by tictactic via highlights

dembele stats

The 15 Championship goals are emphatically, consistently close range, with a sole exception being his latest – just within the box yet still a relatively straightforward one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Speculative goals from range have not been his thing.

Aside from a single example (a dribble and shot against Leeds in October), Dembele’s efforts are almost exclusively one-touch, right-foot finishes. So the picture we’re getting is a solid targetman with that elusive poacher’s ability to be in the right place at the right time – something sorely lacking from the numerous big strikers that have been in and out since perhaps Jan Vennegoor.

Assists

Assist can further tell us about Dembele’s style during open play. Below is a rough chart detailing what were registered as his 6 assists in the Championship.

dem assists

Positions collated by tictactic via highlights

Sticking with the previous theme – red for foot, blue for head. The finest assist being a chip through ball in a 2-1 win over Cardiff, but otherwise there isn’t too much to be given away. From the few examples we can see a cut-back having gotten behind the defence, and a couple of through balls, again hinting at his range. He was unlucky not to get an assist against QPR, given that after hitting the post from a tight-angle, the rebound was knocked in by a colleague.

Conclusion and role at Celtic

It is still slightly astonishing that a player seemingly destined for Tottenham Hotspur has been snapped up for next to nothing. Such was his perceived out-of-range value that he never even made the illustrious tictactic strikers to watch list.

At just 19, 15 goals in the Championship is an incredible achievement, but one wonders if he is squeezed into the team anywhere else other than centre-forward, if he can continue or improve on that rate.

option1

Square pegs?

Which leads to the Griffiths conundrum. It had previously been thought that a 4-1-2-3 would be Rodgers’ most likely formation – and we may get clues tonight against NK Celje, but neither Griffiths or Dembele are suited out wide (and while this doesn’t rule out Rodgers trying, it is a case of square pegs and round holes).

Griffiths shed further light on the debate this morning:

“I feel versatile enough to play in whatever system he wants. He went with three strikers at Liverpool and would suit me.

“I’d be confident of playing left, centre or right in that formation,

“What one would I be? Suarez, Sturridge or Sterling? I’ll let people work that one out for themselves.

A possible alternative would be to play both in a system like Fulham’s. Rodgers has been known to use 3-5-2 for Liverpool, and this would suit certain players.

A 3-5-2 to more easily accommodate 2 strikers plus Roberts

A 3-5-2 to more naturally accommodate 2 strikers plus Roberts

The final set of options is the various incarnations of 4-4-2. The simplest (and given Rodgers’ history, perhaps least likely) is the Gordon Strachan 4-4-2, with 2 inverted wingers, and a Scott McDonald/Hessellink analogue ahead. Width provided by full-backs.

4-4-2

Effectively a front four – this is something none of Tony Mowbray, Neil Lennon or Ronny Deila were at all comfortable with. Lennon eventually found a lop-sided system, using a third central midfielder out wide (usually Scott Brown) before evolving to 4-3-3. Deila stuck ardently to variants of 4-3-3.

Liverpool under Rodgers were always most successful with the first graphic above – a 4-3-3 which lets the front trio run riot, and it is the most straightforward solution here with Celtic. It will be interesting to see how a tinkerer like Rodgers sets up – and this all without really considering other wide players like Calum McGregor, James Forrest, Ryan Christie, Gary Mackay-Steven, Stuart Armstrong, Kris Commons and to an extent Scott Allan and Tom Rogic.

 

*edit – some quotes from Rodgers via CQN

Striking the right note

A recurring theme on this blog is that signing strikers is a perilous endeavour, impossible even, for various reasons. Whether it’s simply supply and demand (strikers of course being the most in-demand position), the logistical closeness to the billions of England, that £6m these days can’t get you a John Hartson, or that club-by-club, scouting networks have improved exponentially across Europe in recent years…

There’s also the fallacy that it’s a first-come first-served market. No, players and agents are much savvier (read: greedier) than that. Acting quickly has its advantages, but nothing would stop, say, Aron Johannsen moving to an elite level once discovered.

While Celtic have made fantastic business in other areas of the pitch (Virgil Van Dijk, Victor Wanyama, etc) forwards are a whole different kettle of fish, with the sorry record including Marc-Antoine Fortune, Mo Bangura, Amido Balde, Daryl Murphy… enough said.

Celtic have attempted various ploys to get the right man. The signings tend to fall into familiar categories:

  • “Try-before-you-buy” – Georgios Samaras, Pavel Brozek, John Guidetti, Miku
  • “Costly established” – Fortune, Gary Hooper, Teemu Pukki, Stefan Scepovic
  • “Cheap gambles” – Hólmbert Friðjónsson, Tony Watt, Lassad Nouioui, Balde

Alas, even the costly established players (barring Hooper) tended to have mild scoring records. The other exceptions are Anthony Stokes and Leigh Griffiths. This makes for a conspicuous pattern – that strikers who scored before Celtic, tended to continue scoring at Celtic. This could also be applied to the likes of Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Scott McDonald.

Finding the goalscorers (at whatever level) is one thing. Being able to attract them is another – as found in the previous piece on strikers, China has emerged as a richer and aggressive rival to teams in non-elite countries.

The class of 2015/16

As usual, the stipulations are the same – players under 25, with the best scoring record based in less-favourable (but not completely obscure) competitions. So the likes of Scandinavia, the lower tiers of England, Spain, Germany, and the main leagues of most smaller European countries, the USA and Australia.

And remember – if you don’t like baseless (pointless) transfer discussion, then put down the newspaper and close your web browser as these things are not for you.

p3

 

Standouts

Of course it’s impossible to determine whether any of these players are within Celtic’s budget. We can take an educated guess on many (for example, Jason Cummings) while one or two may plainly be off-limits. Having scored regularly in the top tier of France and being a big strong forward, Sebastian Heller already appears set for a bigger club (Ajax have been suggested).

Jamie MacLaren and Cyle Larin have fabulous scoring records in increasingly competitive leagues, both barely 22, and may be at the right price-point.

The demand at this level of player is apparent, with, for example Lukas Spalvis and Simeone Ganz (son of Maurizio Ganz) already being snapped up.

In terms of alternatives in style to Griffiths, Leon De Kogel and Rangelo Janga – both 6′ 4″  and scoring well in a league perhaps on a par with the Scottish Premier league – would  be interesting prospects.

Conclusion

There are young goalscorers at a decent enough level out there. Whether in practice they are within budget, good enough, or indeed on Celtic’s radar is another matter.

The suggestion of Danny Graham (in rumour columns) seems uninspiring, given most poor-goalscorers tend to perpetuate that form in Scotland. And those forwards who score less by design – the Fortune style “bring others into the game” – don’t tend to last long at Celtic.

Regardless, the priority for new manager Brendan Rodgers is dependable competition for Griffiths, and it’s unclear if Anthony Stokes is considered in this brackets. Jack Aitchison famously broke records on his debut last week, but at 16 is unlikely to be in first team plans.

Brendan Rodgers: Hold your head up high

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David Moyes was favourite, and some bookies stopped taking bets on Roy Keane, but replacing the disappointing Ronny Deila is Brendan Rodgers. An extraordinary signing, not just from a financial point of view. Rodgers is the “outstanding candidate” for his football credentials.

His coaching history goes from Spain to Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, and as manager is most famous for putting together hugely entertaining Swansea and Liverpool teams based on possession.

I will leave the biographies and profiles to the likes of this (utterly excellent) 8by8mag piece. But tactically, what can we expect at Celtic?

4-3-3 – hold your head up high

4-2-3-1 has recently been in vogue throughout Europe, but Rodgers preference is 4-3-3 (or perhaps more accurately 4-1-2-3), putting an emphasis on the ‘1’ sitting. As explained in a revealing interview with the Liverpool ‘Redmen’ TV channel:

[..the holding 1] dictates rythm and tempo. The 2 need to have the capacity to control – but also run. And get forward and get back in. So if they don’t have that, it’s very difficult to function.

The [1] controller dictates, dominates, and commands the game from behind, and these two can join in. But as the team moves up the pitch these two need to move with it. But I also say don’t run forward if you can’t run back.”

Nir Biton immediately springs to mind for this role, despite a relatively poor season. He’s not a box-to-box scrapper, and clearly enjoys sitting deep and controlling the game. Rodgers previous long-term go-to was Joe Allan  (also utilised at Swansea) and also Leon Britton. These 2 are hardly comparable in style however, to Biton. Both barely scrape 5’6″ and are quick, technical and agile.

Joe Allan HAS to play there because he knows how I work. He’s even better further forward, he can give an extra 50%(!)

This is an interesting quote because it shows how important the sitting player is – even with Allan better in a higher position, clearly getting the right holding player is essential.

The 2

Rodgers' midfield 3

Rodgers’ midfield 1-2

Referring to the other 2 midfielders: “they need to play in that corridor to have the capacity to get back in again. If they can’t do that it becomes difficult .This is the situation where you’d then maybe switch to a [4-2-3-1]. If you play in a [4-2-3-1] the 2 play more side to side, controlling from behind, then this guy [the #10] is more the one joining in [the attack].

The side-to-side comment is interesting because we saw it so much under Deila’s 4-2-3-1. Players like Stefan Johansen and Callum McGregor, so effective higher up the park suffered as water-carriers, playing sideways possession passes. Biton too suffered here.

Who at Celtic would suit playing in a 2 of the 4-1-2-3? It might give Johansen and McGregor better opportunity to get forward – both attacking players with the engine capacity to get back in line. Stuart Armstrong would definitely benefit, while Ryan Christie and Scott Allan, with their creative technique, might have a claim. Along with Brown suffering, this doesn’t bode well for Tom Rogic, arguably too languid to act in a box-to-box midfield.

Finally, though Rodgers has his preferred system, unlike Deila he is far from inflexible. Liverpool had mixed success with a 3-4-3, while at both Liverpool and Swansea, 4-2-3-1 was not out of the question.

Possession

The emphasis in using a sitting midfielder (or two if required) is clearly designed to keep the ball. “I like to control games. I like to be responsible for our own destiny. If you are better than your opponent with the ball you have a 79 per cent chance of winning the game. For me it is quite logical. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are, if you don’t have the ball you can’t score.”

Rodgers extends the possession game as far back as choosing a goalkeeper, as noted by Michael Cox of zonal markingzm rodgers gk

 

 

 

Rodgers also added: “When we have the football everybody’s a player. The difference with us is that when we have the ball we play with 11 men, other teams play with 10 and a goalkeeper.

One thing to say about Craig Gordon is that he’s hardly known for his ability with the ball at his feet. An outstanding goalkeeper otherwise, and much-maligned last season, it would be a surprise if Rodgers dipped into the high-demand low-supply market of top class ball-playing goalkeepers. Is a loan for Valdes (who spent a season as second choice at Standard Liege) out of the question?

Case for the defence

The other benefit of a deep-lying midfielder is taking the strain of play-making off of Celtic’s beleaguered defence. Virgil Van Dijk was a master at it, but too often last season Dedryk Boyata was the man starting off moves and was deeply uncomfortable doing so.

Neil Lennon was particularly keen to use ball-playing centre-backs. Aside from Van Dijk, Charlie Mulgrew had a hugely successful season at centre-back, while Efe Ambrose was also employed for this role, and to be fair wasn’t bad at it (the defending on the other hand…)

But Rodgers has never focused too much in this area. The centre-backs don’t need to be particularly exceptional on the ball, as evidenced by the signing of Dejan Lovren – now deemed to be a poor signing – and the continued use of limited defenders Martin Sktrel and Kolo Toure.

Good news therefore for Boyata, Jozo Šimunović and to a lesser extent Erik Sviatchenko, who is excellent with the ball. Mulgrew would arguably make up 4th choice centre-back, but Celtic will surely have an eye on adding another.

Transfer activity

Liverpool’s infamous transfer “committee” garnered blame for Rodgers’ Anfield demise, consisting of him, Ian Ayre, Chief Executive; Dave Fallows, Head of Recruitment; Barry Hunter, Chief Scout and Michael Edwards, Director of Technical Performance. Between them spending £290m~ on a mixed bag.

There were similar rumours at Celtic – that Deila was not responsible (varying from zero responsibility to signing-off, depending on what you read). In reality, most, if not all big clubs have committees of some form. Barcelona for example have Ariedo Braida, Josep Maria Bartomeu, Carles Rexach and manager Luis Enrique.

In practice this is utilising – to coin another term from Why England Lose, by Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski – the wisdom of the crowd. Drawing from a wider depth of knowledge, contacts and experience. Whether Rodgers will be comfortable working with the likes of Peter Lawwell and John Park, or whether he negotiated complete autonomy, is another question.

Going back to Lawwell’s moneyball, Rodgers has spoken on the subject regarding Liverpool – i.e. the burning question of signing ready-made players or buying cheap, developing and selling high:

The club needs to look at it and decide whether they want a business model or a winning model. A winning model would mean trying to get the best possible players that you can, at whatever age they are, it doesn’t matter. 

“Other clubs will be in the market to just buy the top talents, irrespective of what age they are, in order to look to win. I think the best clubs must get the balance between both [models].”

Conclusion

Potential 4-1-2-3 with current players

Potential 4-1-2-3 with current players

A possession based 4-1-2-3 but flexible to change. A dynamic front-3 with no particular preference for inverted wingers or a big striker. A huge reliance on the right sitting midfielder. Attacking wing-backs. Centre-backs whose priority is to defend as opposed to build.

Outgoing, Celtic have a swathe of players to move on, though Rodgers will surely give every player a chance to impress. Anthony Stokes, is a case-in-point. Frozen out by Deila, but stunning in the Scottish Cup final cutting in from the left-hand side.

In terms of transfers in, there can be improvements made everywhere. An attacking right-back and left-winger is a must. Elsewhere Rodgers will be carefully considering who fits the philosophy or not – a truly momentous summer to look forward to.

Deila, David and Directors

Ronny Deila

The great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann once compared football management to being a lion-tamer: as soon as you show fear you are lost. It’s difficult not to recall Kris Commons’ unedifying rant in Molde, or Leigh Griffiths at Hampden just past. The cracks in Ronny Deila’s leadership were showing elsewhere too, with Scott Brown’s very public drunk and disorderly episode, and the protracted disagreement with Anthony Stokes.

The dressing room has been lost for months, and Deila struggled to keep favour with fans and the media alike. In these situations it’s still results that matter, yet the defeat to Rangers was the last of many big-game collapses. Despite certain in-game positives, the European record has been atrocious. A tactical inflexibility, lack of motivation and lack of defensive organisation has proven fatal.

Re-iterating an assessment of Moyes from the last blog post:

Gallingly, any composed, technical stuff on the ball has been undone by mental naivety and individual errors. It has been countless, stretching back to Legia. Red-cards, penalties and sucker-punches. A couple, throughout the many stick to mind in particular – the failure to see out a 3-1 scoreline to Malmo at home (casual late defending), the ludicrous defending of set-pieces (Malmo away and the closely followed game in Amsterdam). Efe Ambrose and Dedryck Boyata’s hospital passes, or Craig Gordon’s inexplicable, uncharacteristic (career-wise) suicide rushes (Inter, Fenerbahce).

Deila has never been able to extract more than the sum of the parts of his squad. There has been no unifying attacking performances or gritty escapes.

David Moyes

David Moyes is the bookies favourite to succeed Deila – a former Celt, Glaswegian, with plenty of experience at the highest level of management. So far, so good. But scratching the surface, he may not be the best fit.

Widely considered out of his depth at Man Utd, aside from a disappointing stint at Real Sociedad, Moyes created a legacy at Everton. There he experienced the lows of a relegation battle, and the highs of cracking the “big four” of the Premier League. His one foray in the Champions League was a dubiously referee’d defeat to Villareal in qualifying.

Moyes is known for being pragmatic – favouring 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 depending on how you look at it – which funnily enough is the same shape as Deila. One of the few times he deviated, his Manchester Utd team were eviscerated by their City rivals.

There are a number of players at Celtic who in theory fit in rather well. Leighton Baines flourished under Moyes who loves to use attacking full-backs, with Kieran Tierney an obvious parallel. Moyes likes midfielders who can sit and spray sideways passes and dictate play – think Nir Biton or even Scott Brown. Stefan Johansen has been used by Deila as an equivalent to Marouane Fellaini at Everton – a de facto second striker.

Moyes was criticised at Utd somewhat for focusing too much on crossing as opposed to deck football – which may ask questions of how he might use Leigh Griffiths, not known for his aerial ability. And finally Moyes has been known for energetic pressing – something Ewan Murray believes antagonised Deila’s players.

Moyes may improve Celtic’s lackadaisical defensive organisation and concentration in Europe, Deila’s biggest failure of all. But Celtic fans can be quite contradictory – a dependable defence is important but inventive attacking football is non-negotiable. The hugely successful Gordon Strachan struggled with the paradox from start to finish. Moyes wasn’t able to find the balance at Utd, whether he can do so in Scotland is another question.

Peter Lawwell

There’s a ceaseless idea within some sections of supporters that Peter Lawwell is not only overpaid, but selfishly interfering with footballing matters. There is little evidence to support this, with Deila himself coming out to say there wasn’t a transfer he didn’t ratify.

To start with the good – Lawwell takes Celtic to the highest board tables. He’s an ECA Executive Board member along with the likes of Bayern’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Barcelona’s Josip Bartomeu, and on the SFA board. It is a fair question to ask – how exactly do Celtic benefit? It’s a tricky question, and the answer is ultimately intangible. But it stands to reason that it’d be preferable to be mixing with the 14 biggest clubs in the world, than not. This is exactly what Celtic pay the additional wages for. Meeker Chief Executives simply don’t have the contacts or acumen to make these connections.

This blog has spoken in-depth about Lawwell’s so-called Moneyball (here and revisited here) and is of the opinion that his transfer strategy on the whole has been an inarguable success. Fans consider down-sizing to be optional, and it outrageous that Celtic have landed up with the likes of Nadir Ciftci, Derk Boerrigter and Stefan Scepovic, to name but a few.

But elsewhere Celtic have had inarguable transfer success – with the likes of Fraser Forster, Virgil Van Dijk and Victor Wanyama moving on for 8 figure sums.

Strikers remain the problem, and can be evidenced across Europe in terms of costs. Av average young striker like Conor Wickham can transfer for £9m. Or someone who might traditionally have been a Celtic target like Ross McCormack or Jordan Rhodes attract similar prices.

The Elite European clubs continue to hoover up the most talented forwards, with the likes of Chelsea having a staggering 28 players out on loan.

In short, Lawwell’s interfering in football matters is a fallacy. Not only based on the success of previous player development, but by the fact he has helped supply a squad that undoubtedly should be dominating the SPL, or beating Malmo to reach the Champions League group stages.

The bad

Lawwell is not perfect – as mentioned before, it’s not clear to stakeholders exactly what his exorbitant salary is bringing. Worst of all at a time that the Celtic board, to their shame, cannot offer the living wage to all employees, and at a time of much financial insecurity for the wider public.

There are other matters central to Celtic supporters that Lawwell has appeared weak or conflicted. Fans are unrepentant that the Rangers entity should be held accountable for past misdemeanors. The Chief Executive should be the leader of a companies culture, and while there are obvious marketing reasons that Lawwell is conflicted with Rangers, he should answer to the wants of the club and supporters as opposed to money. How Ian Bankier and Lord Livingstone remain on the board is a mystery.

A special mention to Resolution 12 which again, is a shirked matter.

Being unable to source an alternative striker to (the utterly excellent) Leigh Griffiths is one thing, but Lawwell’s biggest fault has been his patience in Deila. The Norwegian has long lost his players and fans, and has stumbled at every major hurdle. He could’ve been dismissed at any time since the summer.

Deila has always been seen as the cheap option, further adding to the penny-pinching bonus-grabbing reputation that Lawwell has attracted. It was likely more an extension of the moneyball idea – which clearly works for players. Find an up-and-coming talent and profit from his rising stock.

The gamble on Deila backfired and should’ve been abandoned earlier. But the idea is an attractive one, with some fans still hopeful that an underrated, exciting, attacking manager is out there.

 

Ronny Deila – gonna have to be a different man

An online petition setup to oust Ronny Deila, has irked those at Celtic and tickled the Scottish media. While 142 signatures is the tiniest fraction of fans, the furore around its existence is symptomatic of a growing wider opinion.

Deila is unique among Celtic managers in that a key performance indicator has been removed – performance against (what in recent decades was found to be) a Rangers that duped and cheated on an institutional scale. Rangers Mark II, Sevco, or whatever they are referred to continue to be lauded in the press and Deila put down, but interestingly their record in respective leagues this season are near identical – wins, goals, conceded, etc.

While this is just a lesson in the power of image (and the MSM), there are genuine criticisms of Deila’s Celtic, which lurches towards a domestic treble.

Europe

Without the aforementioned competition of old, the true yard-stick of current Celtic is performance in Europe. In short, it is everything – financially, in terms of attracting players and in terms of capturing the imagination of fans. Here, it has not been good enough.

Nothing can be more informative than the plain old results:

Europe record

The record is all the more dreadful if you take away the early qualifying rounds. In the Europa group-stages in 2 attempts / 12 matches, Celtic have managed a single clean-sheet. No wins in 10 group stage attempts. 21 conceded in 12 group matches. Finally, of course, in each of the 2 “do-or-die” qualifiers (against Maribor and Malmo respectively) Celtic crumbled.

Yet staggeringly, almost inconceivably, there have been times that Celtic have looked as comfortable as ever in Europe. In contrast to the more pragmatic styles of Gordon Strachan and later Neil Lennon sides, possession was kept relatively well and there were never really any backs-to-the-wall, 90 minutes of desperate defending, panicked clearances type performances.

Gallingly, any composed, technical stuff on the ball has been undone by mental naivety and individual errors. It has been countless, stretching back to Legia. Red-cards, penalties and sucker-punches. A couple, throughout the many stick to mind in particular – the failure to see out a 3-1 scoreline to Malmo at home (casual late defending), the ludicrous defending of set-pieces (Malmo away and the closely followed game in Amsterdam). Efe Ambrose and Dedryck Boyata’s hospital passes, or Craig Gordon’s inexplicable, uncharacteristic (career-wise) suicide rushes (Inter, Fenerbahce).

Collectively individual

The argument stands that Deila cannot be held responsible for individual error. How can he stop an infamous Ambrose lapse? How can he be blamed for a Gordon howler?

But there are two responses: such calamity is happening with such regularity that somebody has to be accountable, and what is being done to mitigate these occurrences?

The ardent, unyielding belief in an attacking 4-2-3-1 continues to baffle. In their darkest times, O’Neill, Strachan and Lennon adjusted. O’Neill abandoned abandoned his famously successful 3-5-2, Strachan used Caldwell as a holding enforcer in midfield, and Lennon went through all manner of systems to find a cohesive defensive shape.

You can recall Strachan, struggling with defensive errors committed to sorting the problems out. “We were poor at set-pieces and we needed to deal with that. They scored from a throw-in, a free-kick and a corner,” He vowed “Rest assured I know the problems and I will sort them out – don’t worry about that” The team proceeded to shut-out AC Milan in the following match and progress from the group stages the following season.

A similar stubbornness cost Tony Mowbray and John Barnes their jobs – zealously dedicated to their expansive 4-2-2-2 systems – both infamous for poor defensive records.

There is no shame in shutting out games – as those watching 1st vs 2nd in the English Premiership will testify. Arsene Wenger took off perhaps the best number 10 in world football at the moment for a left-back, to hold on against Manchester City and claim a vital 3 points.

Off the moneyboil

Deficiencies in Europe over the past few seasons have financially been mitigated by selling key assets. Ki Sung-Yeung, Fraser Forster, Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and latterly Virgil Van Dijk have hauled in astronomical numbers. Testament to the “buy-cheap, sell-high” maxim that Lennon so effectively managed.

The rule, however, is that a team must take in a replacement before selling. In the past, this has worked reasonably well, scouring the globe for bargains (especially in midfield) with Ki > Wanyama > Biton. Gordon lined up to replace Forster, Griffiths for Hooper etc. But there is a continuous pattern of dwindling scope and ambition – and not in the expenses sense.

signings1

The signings above are under Lennon’s watch. Highlighted are those signed “locally” (i.e. from UK). Players were unearthed from Australia to the Middle-East, and lower tiers of the likes of France, Spain and Belgium.

signings2

Compared to Deila’s signings, one has to wonder if the scouting department has been mothballed? Especially when considered, that the 4 “foreigners” arguably were found as an aside. For example, Wakaso and Scepovic may have been hangovers from the Miku/Nouioui “Spanish striker” assignment. Bailly plays for the same youth national team as Boyata (and Denayer) while Celtic went up against Simunovic in Deila’s time as manager.

The evidence goes against the likes of Peter Houston, who was quoted as scouting 14 countries in 8 months for Deila. Or David Moss, who revealed that Celtic have “6 full-time scouts including the Head of Scouting and myself based in Scotland and 9 part-time scouts strategically based in the UK and Europe.”

10 x 10…

David brings up an excellent point about the differences in Lennon and Deila’s approach for finding the elusive, game-changing number 10. Deila has reluctantly turned to Kris Commons, but has been stock-piling on alternative options. Vying with Commons for the shirt: Stuart Armstrong, Scott Allan, Tom Rogic, Ryan Christie, Stefan Johansen (and to a lesser extent) Anthony Stokes, James Forrest, Gary Mackay-Steven and Calum McGregor.

Where Strachan and Lennon looked for a very specific horse, for a very specific course, Deila has been more accommodating. Many still argue that Armstrong is played out of position on the left, Allan definitely is. Rogic finds himself at times deeper in midfield, while Johansen drops in and out of form.

Traditionally, attacking mavericks in this position are indulged – or the team built around. But none of the above have staked a convincing enough claim. The second central midfield spot alongside Biton remains understaffed, bringing a real imbalance to the team.

Ironically, Celtic – like anyone – will always be in the market for the next Lubo, so the burgeoning list of tens might be expanded by next season yet!

Finally..

Considering domestic form and despite the bitter tabloids, a treble is still on the cards for a side that – at least from the disappointment of Europe – can only improve. The league is a minimum requirement, and the cups a welcome, if, non-essential aside. The big question is whether Deila can improve defensively in Europe. Peter Lawwell – who remains a divisive figure – appears convinced.

The worry is that nothing changes – no additional defensive coaching staff to organise things properly, no tweaks to the team, or worse – Nir Biton is sold without replacement. And ominously there’s been no suggestion that anything will change. European failure next season is inconceivable – it will be terminal for Deila’s run as manager, and most important of all surely terminal for Lawwell’s extraordinary autocratic era.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ronny’s Celtic lose with a whimper

Kris Commons’ reaction to being withdrawn with Celtic trailing 3-1 embodied the crisis facing Ronny Deila. The outburst, caught in full view of BT cameras summed up what every Celtic fan was feeling at the time. Why take off the only goal threat? The goalscorer?

Deila responded after the game that he wanted two strikers – not the greatest excuse given Commons can play wide, but he was probably seen to be closer to an empty tank of gas than Stefan Johansen, who moved out right.

The blustery, futile row overshadows the increasingly obvious wider problem – that this Celtic team is poor. There are a couple of good individuals playing below themselves, and plenty average players that need a good manager to extract the required quality for the European stage.

Deila’s system is on the cusp of being a success – evidenced by promising performances against the likes of Malmo, Ajax, Fenerbache and earlier in the year Internazionale. These teasing performances were inevitably punctuated with catastrophic, fatal defending.

Recent Europa record

Recent Europa record

Lowlights include Jo Inge Berget’s late killer-goal, thanks to a meekly conceded free-kick, flimsily defended. Emilio Izaguirre’s damning red-card that everybody saw coming, conceding initiative to Ajax. THAT weak header back from Efe Ambrose to gift Fernandao, and Craig Gordon’s bizarre performance against Inter in Glasgow.

It emphasises the slim margins at this level. Celtic, under Deila at times have played an impressively concerted game of keep-ball, the opposite of the route-one stuff that drove fans crazy under Martin O’Neill, Gordon Strachan, Tony Mowbray, and at times Neil Lennon. Molde demonstrated how effective the less fashionable defensive style can be.

The aforementioned managers went through spells where clean-sheets were impossible, particularly in Europe. Down-sizing in response to money seeping out of Scotland and towards the elite, has had a slow and irresistible effect, and it has shown in the standard of player arriving at Celtic.

Strachan and Lennon mitigated by changing system. Strachan was less adventurous, switching to 4-1-4-1 and deploying Gary Caldwell in midfield. Lennon went through all manner of systems to arrive at a deep-set 4-4-2 which famously sucker-punched Barcelona this time 3 years ago, not unlike Molde tonight.

Deila has been unable to move away from the closely related 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 which has been deployed since day one. Unlike his predecessors, he has been unable to source the same quality of player, or unable to shape the team to protect defenders no better than Stephen McManus.

Celtic fans have been patient with Deila’s ardent philosophy in the face of continuing set-backs in Europe. There may not be the high-energy, high-pressing “heavy metal” football, that was promised, but there is a free-flowing attacking style in there. The reward is tantalisingly close – were it not for individual blunders and a couple of bad decisions, the picture would be very different. Indeed, with an (unlikely) win over Molde and Ajax and favourable results elsewhere, there’s still a fighting chance of qualification.

However, with the same mistakes being made by the same individuals, patience is at the ultimate nadir. Commons’ cathartic outburst represents the frustration of fans, who need change with or without Deila.

 

Looking for Goldilocks – 2014/15 and 2015/16

Given the failing of the original, for the sake of tradition here’s another bunch of goalscorers (this time covering the world instead of Europe).

Same rules – 24 or under (except one exception who snuck in), under £5m or so, and of course with a good enough goals-per-game to make the arbitrary list.

The first lot (with white background) covers the 2014-15 season, those in grey near the bottom represent a handful from 2015/16.

goldilocks 4