How Ange Postecoglou could set up fresh new Celtic defence this season

By Euan Davidson

July 14, 2021

While Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou is heralded as an attacking, high-intensity coach, it’s the defence that needs the most surgery for 21-22.

The Bhoys are on the cusp of losing Kristoffer Ajer, and don’t have a first-choice right-back. We’ve lost, to some relief admittedly, Shane Duffy and Jonjoe Kenny, two loan deals that absolutely didn’t work. Yet, it’s a bit scary that our backline is arguably worse now than it was at the end of 20-21.

That’s because, broadly speaking, Celtic were horrendous at the back under Neil Lennon and John Kennedy. The set-piece issue is well-covered, but in open play, we didn’t look convincing either.

Scottish teams knew they could set up a low block, and hit us on the counter. The chronic lack of organisation and pace at the back left us vulnerable countless times. So, how will a manager like Ange Postecoglou fix this?

Well, we’ve already seen some encouraging signs. The first is that, even in friendlies, the back-line looks more organised. Even though Postecoglou sets his teams up with a high line, it is’t to say that makes us inherently vulnerable. Even though the parts were moving, with Ralston and Taylor occupying inside spaces, there was a consistent defensive structure against Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton Athletic.

Now, changing personnel on the fly (as is common in friendly matches) is going to affect that understanding and rhythm. That showed in the goals we conceded, but little matter – we won both games, and look good value to make it a hat-trick of victories against Bristol City.

So, let’s look at personnel and how they could be used next season.

Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

How Ange Postecoglou could look to set up his Celtic defence

Provided we’re able to get a deal done for a full-back like Soppy or Boey, and a centre-back with the attributes of Carl Starfelt, then there’s a competent defence in the making.

The right-back problem is obvious. Starfelt, though, is an interesting profile for a Celtic defender. His passing completion rate for Rubin Kazan last season was formidable, at 91% [WhoScored?]. From the evidence I’ve seen so far, his distribution is quite short and simple, and that works fine for what Celtic need.

Judging by the admittedly small sample of pre-season games, Starfelt could slot into a three-man centre-back system with one of Christopher Jullien and Stephen Welsh. Liam Shaw could be used in the middle, a ball-carrying defender that acts somewhere between a DM and a centre-back. Or, it could be Nir Bitton time.

Bitton, to my mind, has been misused over the last few seasons. Since Brendan Rodgers came in, the Israeli international has been sporadically used as a pure centre-back. However, his aerial ability and tackle success rate indicate that’s not the best way to use him.

This isn’t to say I know better than Brendan Rodgers or Neil Lennon. However, he was signed as a midfielder. And in an anchoring role to bridge the defence and the midfield, the veteran Celtic man could thrive.

Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images

A 3-5-2? 4-5-1? Something entirely different?

How this would work in terms of formation, it’s unclear. So far, Ange Postecoglou has set up his defence as both a back five (of sorts), or a back four. Vasilis Barkas was used as an extra defender in possession, distributing to full-backs in order to start moves.

So, in the role I’m proposing, Bitton would nominally act as a centre-back. But not in a traditional sense. Sure, he would be expected to carry out defensive duties, but his main responsibilities would be to provide numbers and coverage off the ball, and impetus on it.

It’s easy to forget now, but Bitton used to be a perfectively serviceable – good, even – defensive midfielder. Combining how he started at Celtic with how he’s been used in recent years could be a good move for Postecoglou.

Alternatively, Shaw offers similar attributes, with a bigger spark of energy than the Israeli. It might sound daft, but we’re essentially talking about a central defender with license to roam into space, carry the ball and, out of possession, help to co-ordinate the team’s high-line and press.

Either way, there are certainly options there. Much depends on the personnel Ange Postecoglou brings in over the next few weeks, of course. However, Postecoglou’s system could be tailor-made for an unconventional defensive role.

READ MORE: Talking of Nir Bitton, has the Israeli international had a hand in Celtic’s transfer policy?