Celtic – Bayern – Tactical Analysis

Celtic 1-2 FC Bayern:
Bayern Win A Difficult Match

Celtic struggle to find central progression access through Bayern’s first line of press. Consequently, Brendan Rodgers’ boys often tried circulating the ball horizontally across the back line then using the goalie to find the high-positioned full back as the outlet from Bayern’s press. After the break, Celtic managed to make use the nature of the back three shape by isolating Bayern’s press to a certain side then switching to the far half space and progressing through the far side half back by accessing the free-man in the half space, in Bayern’s pocket defense.

Bayern, despite the 2-1 win, displayed some offensive weaknesses as they often suffered an ineffective attack as the consequence of suboptimal positional play, bad decision making, or bad technical execution. Also, to an extent, Boateng and co also weren’t able to play a clean build up as the home side’s press often forced long balls. In this regard, both Bayern and Celtic had the same problems. Most of the long balls and the resulting second balls didn’t benefit their attack as such plays often only resulted in throw ins or recoveries for the opponent (or were followed by another back pass).


1-Starting line up Celtic vs Bayern

Forced-long-balls as a consequence of the struggles in build up

Both sides obviously struggled during the constructive phase of possession thus, as the sub-title suggests, the end product was a lot of forced long balls. The visiting Bayern side found it hard to play through Celtic’s high-press as the first line always stuck to both Bayern’s center halves and Javi Martinez, at the six position. If the press managed to force a backward pass to Ulreich, Celtic’s near player pressed the goalie at speed with a specific motion, so he was able to isolate the passing option to the previous ball carrying center half. This was the root of the premature long balls forward. As expected, the long balls often took place in the wide corridor, to the full back. The problem for Bayern was Celtic’s ball side wing back was able to position himself properly because the temporal advantage gained, which in turn enabled him to challenge the receiving full back.

But, at times, Bayern’s build up managed to find a free man as they were able to access the free far full back capitalizing on the temporary space as the consequence of Celtic’s pressing orientation.

2-Bayern’s far-ball full back free

Sinclair’s pressing orientation had allowed space for Rafinha. On the other hand, Celtic’s back line was tied up to Bayern’s attacking trio since the configuration of the trio’s positioning made it possible for Rafinha and Tolisso to be free without adequate pressing. This then enabled Tolisso to take a supportive position on the near half space to help Rafinha escape from Celtic’s touchline trap. Another positioning move by Javi Martinez in the center area also made it easier for Bayern to switch to the weak side to the onrushing center half (Süle).

3-Progression through the far side center half

If clean access was not generated, the possession would be once again recirculated to the center or the opposite field as Bayern continuously searched for progression access. During this circulation, Bayern often immediately changed the possession speed by playing another aerial long diagonal ball to the other side. Initially, this sounded good, but, practically, it was far from ideal, specifically from a positional-structural standpoint, since Bayern haven’t established an ideal formation in terms of manipulating the defensive shape.

4-Issues with Bayern’s diagonal long passes

The lack of a strong overload and the dynamic around the ball sector made it easier for Celtic to establish a stable defensive formation since the equilibrium point received no disturbance. With a strong overload and dynamic, for instance, Bayern might attract more pressure onto the right side. More pressure to a certain area means the other area was weakened, thus it might have made it easier for the possession team to make a surprising switch from side to side. This is even more crucial given that Bayern faced a 5-man defensive chain which had an adequate cover to each of its flanks. This, actually, happened over and over and has been identified in Bayern’s previous matches as well.

The biggest problem here was the intention behind this strategy. This would have been OK, had Bayern purposely generated gegenpressing access through the second battle after such switches. But this was not the case since Bayern’s structure around the receiver also didn’t see them establish strong pressing formation for the second battle. Celtic often managed to generate numerical-superiority which made it easy for them to recover the loose balls.

There was a similar issue for Celtic as well. Against the Celtic build up, Bayern deployed man-orientation in the first line: both wide-men and both-8s alternately occupied Celtic’s half backs, depending on the positional advantage gained. It was obvious that Celtic struggled to overcome such a press. The majority of time, Celtic could only play it side to side without them being capable of finding easy and clean access through the center.

If there was a situation enabling Celtic to progress by finding a free man on the flanks, that situation was often from a throw in. When defending against Celtic’s throw ins, Bayern’s ball-orientation meant that they heavily squeezed the ball sector which enabled Celtic’s wing back on the far side to have more space compared to a more organized-phase. In their possession in the wide area, Celtic’s near central midfielder (McGregor) often acted as the support to escape from the opponent’s press. After a pass wide, for example, the near central midfielder (McGregor) made a horizontal shift to the ball side half space in order to establish a strong connection in order to by-pass Bayern’s touchline press. At the same time the near CM kept searching for the progression access or simply provided an outlet for another horizontal-ish circulation. When there was more proper intensity of wide circulation, the hosts, at times, managed to create a mini diamond wide, that saw the half back (Lustig), central midfielder (McGregor), wide man (Dembele), and wing back (Forrest) combining to create space on the flank.

5-Celtic’s wide attack. A vertical (or on occasions, diagonal) pass followed by a lateral pass to the near wide man

Bayern were slightly better because of the free man

Generally speaking, despite the struggle during the first phase of possession, Bayern were slightly better. The key here was the way they managed to create a free man. In most of Bayern’s possessions out of the back, particularly in their side to side circulation, the full back was used to receive the horizontally long switch. Usually, during a horizontally focused circulation the defending team’s ball orientation often squeezes a certain area, thus creating a strong side on one side and a weaker one on another.

The attacking team could capitalize on such an orientation, particularly when they have a free man. For example, a midfield three (in 4-3-3 or 5-3-2) against a 4-4-2 or 5-4-1 in which the central midfield consists of two midfielders. Bayern, in this regards, were able to benefit, as they were able to break down Celtic’s defense apart by occupying the midfield and back line. Robben and James occupied the advanced half spaces and flanks had been occupying Celtic’s left half back (Bitton) and wing back (Tierney). On the deeper flank, Rafinha (the full back) engaged with Sinclair (Celtic’s wide man). Should the receiving full back be able to receive comfortably and make a quick connection with the spare midfielder in the ball side half space, Bayern would be able to ruin the opponent’s spatial balance as well as provide more temporal advantage to progress through the wide area.

6-Tolisso as the free man

Less dynamism = fewer entries into the box

But again, the issue remained. After a progression into the middle, for example, Bayern often lost the required dynamism as they looked too static. For a tiny example, let’s look at the aerial diagonal ball from the half space into the far flank. There was no diagonal/lateral run to the opposite direction from the nearest player to the far flank as it might have pulled out one or two opponents from their respective positions.

On other occasions, it was the excessive off the ball runs that ruined the spatial advantage instead of creating more space for box entries. There was ambivalence within Bayern’s overload. As we can see in a lot of scenes, Bayern’s wide attack was started by a triangle created between the 9, the wide man, and the full back. The initial problem was these three players were often positioned too close to each other, which provided easy defensive access for the home side. When the ball was about to shift into the center, two players from the far side only made everything go from bad to worse, as they ran into the same location and brought more opponents to block the progression access.

The lack of dynamism also ruined Bayern’s space occupation. For example, A wide move by Tolisso wasn’t followed by a balance occupation in the near half space by Robben. This even had been an issue because when Tolisso started his wide-run, as Robben and Rafinha were static in the flank corridor. The main issue was this: the triple-occupation on the flank was not intended to ruin the horizontal compactness, but was then followed by a supportive movement in the near half space from the 4th player. Such a positional structure also saw them losing vertical depth, as it might provide them more of an alternative to penetration into the opponent’s box. Here’s the scene in question:

But it wasn’t only just Bayern who struggled on occasion in progression. In fact,t here were similar issues on both sides that eliminated the progression chance on their possession. This was one of them for Celtic:

7-Brown’s bad first touch

After a wide pass to Forrest, McGregor ran forward towards the final third. A pass from Forrest to Brown should have opened the chance for Celtic to access McGregor. The chance was good because Alaba was dragged toward the ball, which created a huge space on the left side of Niklas Süle. Unfortunately for Celtic, Brown’s bad first touch changed the direction as it had made the captain to face the left side instead of having a good view to McGregor. Celtic lost their valuable chance and continued the possession horizontally to the left side.

Bayern also suffered from their own issues. There were a lot of scenes that saw Coman losing control on his first touch.  

Coman lead all Bayern players in bad touches

Another time we saw Tolisso move out of the opponent’s block although he initially had positional superiority in the space between Celtic’s press. Another problem was, as explained earlier, the lack of adequate collective support within Bayern’s switches. After all, it seemed to me that Bayern’s two matches against Leipzig had a negative effect on the level of their performance and energy.

Celtic’s diagonality in progression

There was slight improvement in Celtic’s progression; namely the diagonality. Often instead of directly accessing the upper half space Celtic would create a more secure triangle structure. Such a triangle consisted of a half back in the lower half space, a six in the middle line, and a wide man in the upper half space. This triangle was also strengthened by the occupation in the wide area, diagonally and higher to the said player in the upper half space. This was usually followed by different chance creation characteristics between the left and the right side. On the left we often saw Celtic deliver an early floated cross into the far post while from the right flank, Forrest was given more license to roam from the flank toward the center. Celtic’s equalizer, for instance was indirectly triggered by Forrest’s diagonal run.

Final words

Bayern earned three points and along with PSG, they qualified into the next round. But this hard fought game also saw them unable to create many dangerous attacks in the final third because of the passivity within the possession. Some gegenpressing problems combined with other tactical issues might have been the effect of having played two intense games against Leipzig in a week. On the other hand, with their performance, Celtic might have high hopes for their next campaign in the Europa League….

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Ryan Tank is crazy about football tactics and crazy insightful when writing about them. Check out Ryan's site, ryantank100.wordpress.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ryantank100.

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