A Tactical Look: What Celtic got wrong against Sparta Prague, and how to fix it

By Euan Davidson

November 27, 2020

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”

You might’ve just about calmed down after last night’s slaughtering at the hands of Sparta Prague.

Personally, I thought our first 4-1 defeat to the Czech table-toppers was an aberration rather than a sign of deeper flaws. Nobody in the Celtic team looked at it, but these results happen sometimes. Right?

Wrong.

Last night was almost a carbon copy of what went wrong in Parkhead. Sloppy goals, very little efficiency further up the park and an overall sense of dread whenever our opponents had possession.

Let’s dive into the autopsy, then. Warning: contains gore.

Odsonne Edouard / (Photo by RUSSELL CHEYNE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Edouard couldn’t find the right positions

Despite his breathtaking goal, which served to give Celtic supporters false hope, Odsonne Edouard painted a frustrated figure last night.

The Frenchman found opportunities hard to come by, and looked unprepared receiving the ball in advanced positions.

Celtic didn’t take any shots from within the 6-yard box last night with half our the team’s efforts coming from outside the box entirely.

It would’ve taken several acts of heroism from the likes of Edouard, Christie and Elyounoussi to score with regularity from outside the box last night.

Sparta looked well-drilled and prepared defensively. A couple of unpunished slip-ups from their goalkeeper aside, we couldn’t do the basics right up top. A striker like Edouard can’t do everything, and relying on moments of magic from half-chances outside the 18-yard box doesn’t win games.

Julis, mate: stop it./  (Photo by MICHAL CIZEK/AFP via Getty Images)

Set pieces. Again.

This is urgent appeal on behalf of Celtic supporters everywhere.

For just £600+ a year, you can help struggling adult men stand in the right position.

Your money will go into defensive coaching, duct tape and video footage that will go a long way to helping these unfortunate defenders.

It’ll fund projects, like having a man on the back post, clearing a header beyond 2 metres, and education to inspire these poor men to know where they need to be when a corner comes in.

Over the last 5 years, we’ve seen your donations pour in, rinsing you for every penny, and we can’t thank you enough. But by buying another season ticket, you’ll give a real chance to a club that needs to understand basic, basic instructions like “watch that man” and “clear the ball”.

Give kindly. Thank you.

Hatem Elhamed: in no hurry / (Photo by Rob Casey/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Marking: an alien concept

Speaking personally, I’m a big Hatem Ebd Elhamed guy, which is why it was so disappointing to see him ignore Sparta Prague’s Julis, who has now scored 5 in 2 games against the Scottish Champions.

Our second goal would’ve been funny if it was any other football team. A speculative pass goes right past Kristoffer Ajer, evades the outstretched legs of Christopher Jullien and finds Julis unmarked to tap it in.

Scott Bain went for it and you can argue whether or not he should’ve been more commanding (spoiler alert, I’m about to), but it’s poor from the entire defence.

If it happened on Football Manager, you’d be checking in your laptop for urgent repairs the next day.

Marking should be a top responsibility for every one of our players but we let Sparta Prague advance the ball far too often for fear of being caught short, and it didn’t work.

Scott Bain (Photo by Craig Foy/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Scott Bain needs dropped

If Scott Bain is the answer, the question is flawed.

Scott Bain is many things. He’s a good shot-stopper, an annoyance to Neil McCann and, when push comes to shove, a decent back-up.

A first-choice keeper for a team competing in Europe? Not so much.

Bain’s lack of command was palpable and he has never inspired confidence between the sticks for Celtic. We’ve already spoken about the 2nd goal but if that was avoidable, I’ve no words to describe the fourth.

A lot of our players can take the blame. Ntcham’s refusal to track back effectively was problematic and I’m not entirely sure where any of our defenders were.

Bain’s rush out to stop the inevitable epitomised the team performance last night. Rash, unprepared and caught out.

Craig Gordon, as good as he was, loved a bit of the Goalie Running Out banter, and Bain’s crazy call last night was reminiscent of the Hearts custodian’s lesser-enjoyed antics.

Our defensive lapses proved many things, but foremost of those is that Barkas has done very little wrong. The fact that he’s been dropped and made an early scapegoat for an underperforming side is baffling, especially considering what was paid for him.

We only lose 2-1 last night if Barkas is in goals, I’m certain of it. It’s still not good, but it’s less bad, and “less bad” would be better.

Confusion reigns. / (Photo by MICHAL CIZEK/AFP via Getty Images)

Olivier Ntcham is not a CAM

There’s a lot to enjoy about Olivier Ntcham’s game in general. For the record, I thought he played some neat stuff, and lacked the tunnel vision shown by his colleagues at times last night.

Spraying the ball out to the flanks would’ve been fruitful in normal circumstances, and by gum, did he try to do that.

Nonetheless, he toiled in an advanced role last night, and he should have been playing in the middle ahead of Scott Brown, who by now I’m guessing has dirt on members of the board. We’ll get to him.

Much like the game against Hibs, Ryan Christie was played on the flank to allow Ntcham to slot in as a 10.

Once again: RYAN. CHRISTIE. IS. NOT. A. WINGER.

It meant that you had situations where the Frenchman was playing much deeper than prescribed in order to let Ryan Christie cut in from the right, but Christie wasn’t cutting in from the right: he was trying to play through the middle, because that’s what he does.

There doesn’t look like a cohesive plan of attack for Celtic currently, other than giving the ball to Elyounoussi and hoping for the best. Ntcham at CAM is not the answer.

Scott Brown needs a rest / (Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Let Scott Brown sit out

At this point, I don’t know what it would take for Scott Brown to get dropped again. Alien invasion? The total banning of ball games?

Lennon left Scott Brown out of the game against St. Johnstone earlier in the season and yes, we struggled without him. When he was eventually brought on, he changed the game. But maybe that’s not a justification of Brown starting rather than it is evidence that he works best for us in small doses.

We have at least three midfielders on the bench or the fringes of the squad who would walk into most Premiership teams, and with Brown struggling, we need to start using them. At least, that is, in domestic games.

If Lennon wanted to keep his captain starting for the big matches, that would be understandable. He’s an incredible leader and a massive influence on our success over the last decade. I love Broony, and I think he’s a tremendous footballer.

Our number 8 looks absolutely exhausted though, and it’s only November. Sit him out now and then if you want the best from him.

He gave away possession needlessly, looked hurried on the ball and in general, wasn’t able to do all the things he normally does well, namely tackling, passing and driving the team forward.

From a leadership point of view, his body language was all wrong, and I don’t think that’s down to effort or motivation, it’s down to exhaustion and disillusionment.

 


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