Edit – it appears that Sion have lost their appeal, so fears of the relevance of this article have been allayed!
Celtic’s unexpected return to Europa League football sees them clamber into an extremely testing group, at the expense of FC Sion whose hopes of successfully appealing are fading fast. The first match (as currently scheduled) is against AtleticoMadridin the Spanish Capital, and like Neil Lennon, who didn’t get the chance to go toValenciato sizeup the opposition, Tictactic has been poring over Atleti’s 1-0 defeat on video instead.
After a delayed start to the season over a La Liga-wide strike concerning a pay dispute, this was only Spain’s second round of games of the season, and therefore they may be slightly less prepared than they would want to be at this point in the year.
It’s also very early doors in terms of Atletico’s transformation process, having lost absolute pillars of the team in club hero Kun Aguero, Uruguayan powerhouse Diego Forlan, and goalkeeper David De Gea who Sir Alex Ferguson rates high enough to class as Edwin Van Der Saar’s successor. To a lesser extent, replacements were also required for Brazilian midfielder Elias, who the excellent Madrid Atleticos explains had to leave as the squad contained too many non-EU players, and experienced full back Tomas Ujfalusi.
But Atletico wasted no time in making up for the losses, most notably in the big money signings of Portuguese full-back Silvio (€8m), Turkish wonderkid Arda Turan (€12m – Turkey’s most expensive ever export) and grandest of all, Colombian striker Falcao for a whopping €45m. The latter will be most recognisable for his free-scoring at the tip of Porto’s attacking trident in recent times. His form was central to Andre Villa Boas’ side winning the competition last term.
The signing of Diego on-loan from Werder Bremen is the cherry on top, and the Brazilian playmaker will be looking to recapture the form shown in his first spell inGermany. Perhaps a flop at Porto and Juventus, and certainly a prickly personality (his falling out with Felix Magath precipitated the move to Spain), he’s still making headway in the Atleti squad, trying to regain fitness and match sharpness.
Atletico 4-4-2 / 4-3-3
Gregorio Manzano made only one change to the side held to a goalless draw by Osasuna back in August, with new signing Miranda coming in for stalwart Luis Perea. The tall Brazilian has broken up a successful and dependable centre-back pairing in Dominguez and Perea, who until this match had kept a clean sheet for an incredible 421 minutes of football. Considering the 27 year old Miranda was sent off on his debut in the Europa League against Stromsgodset, despite this error it suggests Manzano has faith in his new free signing.
Another contentious selection choice was Thibaut Courtois between the sticks. The 19 year old Belgian not only has big boots to fill following De Gea’s exit, but seems to have jumped the queue for the number one jersey. Well thought of ‘keeper Joel Robles and up and coming Sergio Asenjo were expecting a straight-up fight for a starting place, yet Courtois usurped them both jumping in to number one.
The formation of choice is a Manzano vintage, with the line blurred between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 – not unlike Neil Lennon’s own preference.
Manzano’s side though have a much higher tendency to work via the flanks with two very attacking full-backs and a significant creative responsibility resting on the shoulders of ex-Arsenal winger Jose Antonio Reyes.
The graphic below shows Atleti’s attacking tendencies over the past 2 La Liga matches, and clearly Reyes and Silvio are important figures.
Data based on 2 La Liga matches
Aside from the two forward thinking full-backs, the next 5 players (the two centre-backs and the three central midfielders) are the foundation on which attacks are based. Mario Suarez in particular is the shield ahead of the defence, and Tiago (formerly of Chelsea) is key in terms of recycling possession and orchestrating attacks. Gabi, another new face, is tasked with shuttling out to the left-flank from his central berth, where his left-back is mostly exposed.
Also chipping in on the left is peculiar attacker Adrian Lopez. Not quite a creator, not a poacher (criticised in Spain for his lack of goal-scoring) and not really a left-winger, against Valencia he popped up in each of these areas. Perhaps nominally starting on the left of the front three, he didn’t spend that much time there. But his freedom and the variety he provided kept the opposition guessing.
This didn’t suit superstar frontman Falcao, who thrives on quality delivery from both sides. Not really knowing where Adrian was going to turn up next, and shorn of ammunition coming from the left-hand side, a great part of Falcao’s game as a targetman was denied.
Los Che played a conventional 4-2-3-1 with an exciting, creative front 4. Pablo Piatti, Jonas, and Pablo Hernandez interchanged at will, trying to get beyond frontman (and ultimately the goalscorer) Roberto Soldado and the Atleti defence struggled to keep tabs on all four.
Like with Celtic breaking down Motherwell, Valencia were finding the most success when the midfield band of three burst from deep, keeping the ball on the deck and linking up intelligently. Piatti was unlucky to have a goal chopped off for offside in such a delicate move and Atletico’s defenders seemed lumbering in comparison.
Falcao at the other end was largely isolated, with Reyes part-concerned with Jeremey Mathieu’s positive running, and Adrien not providing a consistent level of support. With Reyes being a winger of the inverted type, again Falcao didn’t see the delivery that his ability in the air demands. Partly as a result, Atleti’s ball retention wasn’t great and Valencia could dictate play through Alberto Costa and especially David Albelda.
In the end it was a simple cross that Soldado out-maneuvered and out-jumped his marker to score. Here it was all about the accuracy of the cross and the movement of the striker, so when Celtic do get the opportunity to attack, it has to be clinical, as it’s likely to be rare. The “corridor of uncertainty” can clearly be seen in the below image for the goal, and that’s where every cross has to successfully land.
Apart from worrying about the incredible £40million signing Falcao, Celtic will have to be wary of Atleti’s tendency to attack down the right; through Reyes and the overlapping full-back Silvio.
The Atleti lineup is by no means certain. The immensly talented (if at a trough in his career) Brazilian playmaker Diego will be eager to get into a central midfield bereft somewhat of creativity, and Arda Turan is knocking at the door – probably at the expense of Adrian and likely used as a tricky left-winger which would give the team more balance and improved supply to Falcao.
And while the 421 minutes went without conceding until Soldado’s goal is an admirable record, Atleti will be worried by their inability to create many clear cut chances in two league fixtures on the trot. Interestingly, Falcao has been quoted saying the Celtic game should be a great opportunity to start banging in the goals, which is a slightly disrespectful statement, however correct he may be.
The win over Motherwell saw Celtic return to an expansive, attacking system – and a lot of this was down to personnel. James Forrest grabbed his chance with both hands to replace the (currently) poor and lethargic KrisCommons, while El Kaddouri made a stomping, dare I say Izaguirre-esque debut at left-back.
Lennon’s preferred 4-4-2
Joe Ledley also impressed getting forward, which is in contrast to Scott Brown whose ability in the final third isn’t anywhere near as cutting. Possibly for the first time, Ki and Kayal complemented each other superbly, rather than detract from each other’s subtly different style, with the two functioning in a modern double pivot.
But it can’t be a case of simply setting up in the same way as against Motherwell. The immediate issue, apart from quality of opposition (and venue) is that the impressive El Kaddouri is cup-tied and won’t feature. So the options are: moving Mulgrew back out wide (with Glenn Loovens returning), or simply putting Mark Wilson straight in.
It’s often argued that to counter inverted wingers, inverted full-backs can excel, defending on their favoured foot; so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the right-footed Mark Wilson used in a specifically defensive capacity against Jose Antonio Reyes. This would also avoid the need for depending on Loovens, whose only just returning from a spell no the sidelines. In a “siege” style situation however, the experience and instinct as a centre-back of Loovens, may be preferred to Mulgrew, who will no doubt feature somewhere on the park – either left-back, centre-back or as a defence minded left-midfielder.
Defensive midfield tweak?
Assuming a suitable back four is chosen, the biggest issue that Lennon will be toiling with is: is the lop-sided 4-4-2 too attacking, too open to exploitation? If there was pressure on James Forrest to be the central creative figure in the “Kris Commons” role, it will be exponentially more difficult in the heat of Madrid.
Most painful of all for fans, is the idea that Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes aren’t able to play together against the toughest, most attacking sides. To paraphrase Gordon Strachan, it doesn’t matter what system you play (regarding away ties in Europe) you always defend with ten players – and quite simply Hooper and perhaps more significantly Stokes cannot contribute enough defensively in a 4-4-2.
As previously discussed (re: alternatives to the 4-4-2), this inevitably entails shifting Stokes to another position or off the park entirely, leaving a lone striker. And if dropping Stokes would be unpopular, Gary Hooper too isn’t certain to play as the targetman. It’s a straight-up choice between Hooper and Georgios Samaras in this system (this is surely too soon for Bangura who looked rusty in his cameo debut), and strictly speaking it’s the Greek whose attributes are more suited to the role.
In midfield, the core of Joe Ledley, Ki Sung-Yeung and Beram Kayal is unlikely to change, with the biggest question marks hanging over Scott Brown’s fitness and whether Forrest should play after such a fine performance against Motherwell. Kris Commons is the more experienced player, when on-form the more complete player and established as a favourite of Lennon’s. And the manager may even opt for both, with Commons on the left and Forrest on the right.
The most cautious formation will require Brown to be fit, and is a return to the 4-4-1-1 which served so well against Rangers in January. Given the opposition and stakes, it may be where to put the smart money:
Given how poorly Atletico are reported to be in the air, this could be the best hope for getting something from the game. A hard-working, narrow 4-4-1-1 with Commons (or Forrest) and Samaras pushing out on the break, exploiting the higher Atleti defensive line. Meanwhile, emphasising attacking set-pieces, taking advantage of strength and height, and ultimately, hoping to strike lucky. What must be avoided, is an early Sion-style catastrophe.