Yesterday, Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal lined up against Chelsea with a familiar formation; the 4-2-3-1 we have been watching at Parkhead for the last six or so years, under three different managers.
I have written plenty on that system, about how effective it was and how ineffectual it had become. When I saw Ange intended to be the fourth manager to utilise it I was dismayed.
Jonathon Liew, in The Guardian this morning, offer a searing critique of Arteta’s tactics, lamenting a setup designed for stretching a defence but which nevertheless “looked entirely devoid of natural width”.
It’s a fair assessment, and a problem with certain variations of the 4-2-3-1 approach. But the opposite problem applies to other variants of the same setup; a dearth of football through the middle, which was the Lennon issue in a nutshell.
It was not difficult to understand why teams found it easy to halt our attacks under Lennon’s 4-2-3-1. We played the ball wide all the time. We relied on crosses into the box, without a striker capable of capitalising on them. Lennon and the scouts went looking for an answer to that, and they apparently came up with Charlie Wyke, then of Sunderland.
It was, at least, an attempt to fix a critical problem but we’ll never know if it would have been effective because Lennon is no longer at the club and Ange personally vetoed the Wyke deal. But its potential utility is at least debatable. The same weaknesses would have applied, and having a penalty box player might not necessarily have solved them.
The Celtic team right now is just as capable of playing with width as Lennon’s team.
Two of our big money signings were players in wide roles.
Whilst Kyogo is obviously a much scarier prospect for teams when played through the middle, he is perfectly capable of playing on the left and snaking into the box. He was unlucky a couple of times at the weekend, and made crucial contributions to a few of the goals.
Abada on the right has been a revelation out there.
The difference is that whilst we’re a powerhouse side down the wings, we’ve also added a potent threat through the middle. Our players no longer hit and hope into penalty areas loaded down with the opposition’s footballers. Most of our wide play now involves cut backs and lay-offs to players hovering in and around their defensive zone.
There are often as many Celtic players in the opposition penalty area these days as there are defensive ones. The era of the hopeful cross ball is over.
Looking at the setup now, it’s as if we play an aggressive 4-3-3 rather than a 4-2-3-1, although in certain phases of the play we clearly switch to something that looks very like it.
Ange has hit on the modern football magic formula; he’s got us playing football with width and penetration at the same time.
Our wide players are capable of drawing out defenders, as well as getting in those killer crosses. Our central midfielders flood the area around the penalty box, making defenders come out to meet them. And into that space, others move freely.
We have movement off the ball. We prefer to run at defenders rather than hit the ball in the general direction of a lone striker, and hope to capitalise on a mistake. You’ve seen the results.
Opposition defenders hate nothing more than being run at by a skilled player and if you’ve got one guy running to your left and another to your right as well as the guy coming towards you with the ball, who do you focus on? Who do you move to counter?
Look at some of the football we’ve played in the last few weeks.
Look at some of the goals. More than a few are the simple results of one player running at the defence, another moving and looking for space and defenders not knowing who to mark.
Even a disciplined team which keeps it tight will struggle to match so many runners and players constantly probing for a chink in the armour. And whereas Lennon’s team was used to moving the ball slowly, methodically, even passing it backwards when there were no obvious opportunities, this constant movement opens up space everywhere, and so we’re always moving forward and, perhaps most importantly, always at speed.
The combination has been devastating.
The style of the team has undergone radical surgery. My frequent lament was that our slow build-up play too often allowed defences to regroup after we’d won the ball. You’d see their players actually running back and assuming their shape even as we passed the ball from side-to-side and front-to-back as if it were an exercise in a public park.
Ange’s team plays it forward, always.
The speed of the approach, and its aggressiveness disorients the opposition.
When they make a mistake and give us possession Celtic’s players are running forward and assuming attacking positions before the opposition can respond. Instead of having all the time in the world to get into their own tactical shape they have to look around at our guys and decide who needs marking … and that decision has to be made in a microsecond.
Michael Stewart said at the weekend that teams will eventually come to understand what Celtic is doing and counter it.
Understanding it is simple. If someone like me can see the differences in how we play now to how we did under Lennon it’s not hard to work out … stopping it, countering it, is a much more difficult task and even if you are able to come up with a tactical set-up which is theoretically capable of doing it, you still need to have the tools to make it work.
Nobody is comparing this Celtic team to Barcelona, but Barcelona played a similar type of football and what made it devastating was that their players were capable of executing their roles and they were better than those tasked with stopping them.
The changes at Celtic are not simply reflected in terms of personnel and coaching.
The style of football has been transformed.
That’s why fans are buzzing.
That’s why we’re happier with what we’re watching than at any time in my recent memory.
Even with last season’s players this system would have had transformative effects the team’s form.
Ange really does know his business.
From being an avowed sceptic I’m now a complete convert.
Keevins and others can dismiss this as frivolity as they like; you can see that something radical has changed here though, and this is just the beginning.