Celtic 2-1 Barcelona: a famous victory
Little possession for long periods – then a set-piece opener followed by a second on the break – a classic underdog victory.
Neil Lennon was forced into a few changes from the side he used at the weekend, but kept to a 4-4-1-1ish formation. Adam Matthews played at left-back despite being right-sided, Kris Commons moved to the right of midfield, and Miku linked up with Georgios Samaras upfront.
Tito Vilanova picked roughly his expected side – Cesc Fabregas was only on the bench (he’s been a regular this season) and Marc Bartra started at the back. Alex Song was in the holding role.
Yes, Celtic spent most of the game in their own half, and rode their luck at times – but they didn’t simply park the bus. They retained an attacking threat throughout the game, while changing their usual strategy to suit the task at hand.
Celtic’s strategy was relatively basic. Two sitting mdifielders protected the defence, but rather than focusing upon keeping it tight between the lines (in fact, often the space in that zone was surprisingly large) they concentrated on Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. Victor Wanyama played a little deeper on Iniesta, while Joe Ledley started off pressuring Xavi – albeit not constantly, so he didn’t tire.
The home side’s full-backs stuck tightly to their man. Matthews is extremely quick, so was happy to be pulled out of position by Pedro, preventing an easy pass into feet, confident he’d be able to win the race if forced to sprint back to his left-back zone. On the other side, Alexis Sanchez focused more on getting into the box, so Mikael Lustig was narrower.
Narrowness was unquestionably the most obvious thing about Celtic’s strategy. Essentially it’s the standard way to play against Barcelona – they don’t have tall players that thrive on crosses, so opponents pack the centre of the pitch to deny the creative central players space, and concede ground out wide.
But this was something more extreme – Charlie Mulgrew and Kris Commons basically played as central midfielders, and only moved towards Jordi Alba and Dani Alves when they received possession, which meant an awful lot of lateral running. Both full-backs were always available for a pass, and both crossed the ball regularly – Alves usually with whipped crosses, Alba with neater, lower balls into the box.
Pedro hit the woodwork in the first half following an Alves cross, indicating that this wasn’t a strategy entirely without risk – but you’d probably rather Barcelona are creating chances in that respect, rather than say, through Iniesta, who only created two chances compared to three apiece from the full-backs.
At some point towards the end of the first half, Lionel Messi realised that Celtic were playing extremely narrow. Although Lennon left a fair amount of space in the ‘red zone’, one centre-back usually followed Messi out, so to get away from that attention, he drifted to the right of the pitch where he was given too much space. Giving Alves and Alba time on the ball is one thing, allowing Messi that freedom is something different entirely. One curled shot towards the far post drew a fine save from Fraser Forster, while a couple of excellent through-pass created chances for others. In fact, Messi’s stoppage time consolation goal was a good example of his positioning – he was wider than every Celtic player at the far post, with no-one in a position to stop him. He also moved frequently towards the right in Barcelona’s previous Champions League away match, at Benfica.
They spent the vast majority of the match without the ball, but Celtic retained a commitment to attack. Miku played as a half-forward, picking up Alex Song when Barcelona had the ball, but quickly sprinting past him, generally in wider positions, at transitions.
This was hugely effective – Song picked up an early booking for a rash tackle, and was fortunate to get away with two further fouls. He was clearly Barcelona’s weak link, and it’s difficult to imagine that Miku would have done so well against Sergio Busquets, who remains vastly superior in the holding midfield role. (Song also hampered Barcelona’s midfield play – there was no rotation of position and Barcelona were surprisingly static in the centre of the pitch. Song became something of a playmaker at Arsenal last season with sudden midfield runs and chips over the defence, but at Barcelona he’s given less freedom than Busquets).
The fouls were significant, because they have Celtic the chance to whip the ball into the box. They’d gone ahead at the Nou Camp after a free-kick, and it’s interesting that the foul statistics in this match were 11-8 – a fairly minimal difference considering the possession statistics were 16%-84%; Barcelona were genuinely scared of Celtic’s quick breaks, and had to resort to cynical fouls.
It was a corner rather than a set-piece that got the breakthrough, with 6′2 Wanyama towering over 5′7 Alba – a simple goal, but a fine example of Celtic maximising their area of strength.
The game continued in a predictable fashion – Barcelona dominating the ball, Celtic sitting back and breaking with two upfront.
Despite Barcelona having far, far greater strength in depth, it was Lennon that used his bench more effectively. Vilanova’s first two switches were straight swaps – David Villa for Sanchez, then Gerard Pique for Bartra. His third change was more attacking, introducing Fabregas in place of Song for more attacking drive, with Xavi going to the holding midfield position, still broadly in a 4-3-3 shape.
Lennon had to remove right-back Lustig through injury, but was brave enough to introduce Tony Watt, an 18-year-old striker who’d had a big role in Celtic’s weekend game. This meant some reorganisation at the back – Charlie Mulgrew went to centre-back with Efe Ambrose moving to right-back, and the midfield shuffled across. Biram Kayal soon replaced Samaras to retain a fourth midfielder.
But the key impact was Watt’s sheer pace upfront. He terrified the Barca back four, particularly Javier Mascherano – and after he scored the second goal (following a mistake by Xavi in the deep midfield role he dislikes playing), Mascherano could have been dismissed for a tackle as the last defender when Watt outsprinted him.
Granted, Lennon’s options on the bench were sparse, but he had more defensive-minded (or experienced) players than Watt. Showing faith in the youngster was a bold move, but it restored Celtic’s threat on the break, and turned out to be a key factor in the victory.
Barcelona had vastly more possession and considerably more shots – but Celtic didn’t concede many clear-cut chances, and created a couple for themselves. The defensive approach was narrowness, attacking strategy was to counter through pace, and exploit Barcelona’s lack of height.
The victory wouldn’t have been possible without a fine goalkeeping performance from Forster, but it’s not unreasonable for upcoming opponents to consider this a template for beating Vilanova’s side – even if a similar approach won’t work on a consistent basis, it’s still the way to go against Barcelona.
Barcelona weren’t terrible, but unquestionably missed strong, reliable players in defensive areas. A defensive ‘triangle’ of Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol and Sergio Busquets wouldn’t have allowed Celtic to break so dangerously, and would have made Barcelona less vulnerable at set-pieces. It’s another game when their refusal to sign a standard centre-back looks dodgy, with Song still yet to convince.
It’s easy to question their lack of a plan B, a tall central striker – but after some excellent late rallies this season by sticking to their short passing approach, it’s an unreasonable criticism. Instead, they simply didn’t play their own style well enough - it’s one of those matches where Iniesta, while extraordinarily able to come up with key contributions on the biggest occasions, didn’t show his class against individually inferior opponents. Pedro couldn’t get past his full-back regularly enough to receive balls in behind the defence, and while Messi was very dangerous with his use of the space near the right, Celtic were happy to see him there, rather than on the edge of the box.
Celtic 2-1 Barcelona: a famous victory