Scottish Cup Tactical Preview

 Kristoffer Ajer and Ryan Bowman courtesy of Ian MacNicol 

Kristoffer Ajer and Ryan Bowman courtesy of Ian MacNicol 

Written by Alex Lawrence @thetenspace

Celtic go into the final game of another remarkable season a victory away from a second consecutive domestic treble. Standing between Brendan Rodgers’ men and a historic feat of sustained excellence at Hampden on Saturday afternoon are Steve Robinson’s Motherwell, looking to avenge their League Cup final defeat to the same opponents.

A direct approach done properly

Motherwell have attracted praise and criticism in equal measure for their direct, intense, and at times abrasive style of play. Without any real emphasis on building possession, or breaking through with dribbles, the Steelmen instead play with a focus on long balls, simple combinations, and wing play. Teams who resort to long balls when their attempts at build-up play are unsuccessful usually do so in an unprepared manner, with the players not adjusting their positions from the typically wide-reaching spacing needed to build play. The result, therefore, is an unsupported long ball to an often isolated central striker, a loss of possession, and the ball coming straight back. 

Steve Robinson’s side, however, are a fine example of how to play effectively through direct passes and long balls. Playing in a 3-1-4-2, the two central strikers, Curtis Main and Ryan Bowman, are both more than capable of holding off opposing players to win the initial long ball, giving Motherwell a strong presence up top. Crucially, though, they are similarly adept at picking up knockdowns, mis-controls, and second balls. Pivotal in this regard is the support around the target man. Through the positioning of the central midfielders (lately Chris Cadden and Alan Campbell) Motherwell are able to regularly get three or four players close to Bowman or Main. The support players will typically stagger themselves at different ‘heights’ on the pitch along the ball’s path, as to give them the best access to where the ball is likely to drop. Similarly, by staying in touch with the strikers, these midfielders can make short runs into depth – difficult to track for opponents, yet easy to spot and play with for teammates.

The bombardment doesn’t stop there. With opponents narrowing their defensive line in response to the threat of Main and Bowman, Motherwell send one of their wingbacks (Elliott Frear or Richard Tait) into an advanced position to give them the opportunity to play in the new-found spaces on the flanks. Frear starts from a higher position and is typically more active on the left side than Tait is on the right, though the latter joins in just as enthusiastically when play is directed towards his wing.

Once established in their opponent’s half, Motherwell tend to look for the advanced wingback to kick-start their wing-play. While this is most likely seen after gaining control over a long ball, they are also capable of reaching the flank directly. In particular, Charles Dunne has shown a penchant for finding Frear in interesting spaces on the left side with long-range flat passes. Their wing-play is usually facilitated through simple combinations, with a central midfielder or two moving over to the flank to play with their winger, trying to create an opening for crossing opportunities.

Crosses and sustainable attacking

With crosses forming another pillar of Motherwell’s approach, it’s no surprise that they are similarly well organised. Just as they look to overwhelm their opponents through numbers and access from long balls, Steve Robinson’s side occupy the box with great numbers in an attempt to make the most of the crosses they create. It’s unusual to see this Motherwell team attack crosses with fewer than three players in the penalty area, usually four, sometimes even five. Again, the midfielders staying within reach of the forward line allows them to join in and make runs into the box, while the far-side wingback, having stayed closer to the defensive line while his counterpart on the opposite flank pushed forwards, tends to make a late entrance in at the back area. Though Motherwell use tight combinations to get their wide players in positions to cross, thus taking players involved away from the box, these are usually on quite a small scale, and involve two or three players at most.

Such a strong presence in the box can cause opponents great distress. Not only must defenders worry about contesting with players as aerially capable as Main and Bowman, but they must also be wary of the threat of losing out on second balls, especially when Motherwell are able to occupy the box with the same amount of players, if not more, than the defence.

This contributes greatly to Motherwell’s ability to sustain attacks. Part of what makes their approach so overwhelming and tiresome is how they can turn one attack into several attempts on goal by flooding the box, having access to rebounds, and pressuring clearances. However, while they are able to hold a strong presence in the box and facilitate simple combinations on the wing, the mechanisms used to do so and the behaviours of the defensive line behind them can sometimes leave them susceptible to counter attacks should the ball be cleared to the areas just outside the box. Some midfielders moving to the flank to play with the winger, others pouring into the box, far-side wingback sprinting to get in at the back post, all leave the top of the box sparsely occupied, particularly on the side behind the far wingback. Though this is one of many spaces systematically opened that Celtic would look to exploit, doing so in practice has been, and presumably will be, challenging.

An intense midfield dynamic

One of the most striking aspects of Motherwell’s game is the intensity of their midfield out of possession. With the wide players in their 3-1-4-2 acting clearly as an extension of the defensive chain, pushing up on one side whilst the other tucks in, the midfield three are often left to cover the whole width of the pitch. They do so by shifting hard towards the side of the ball — Cadden and Campbell moving closely together, with Carl McHugh covering behind, marking central players between the lines if they appear.

Though this strong shifting of two of the most dynamic players in the league towards the ball contributes greatly to the intensity of Motherwell’s defending, it poses a number of challenges. By keeping such short distances between the midfield three, the area of the pitch they can cover is reduced, leaving a large space between them and the far wingback. However, their incredible dynamic generally prevent this from being an area that opponents can routinely exploit, forcing opponents’ actions to be well coordinated at a high speed. These spaces beside the midfield structure can also be protected by one of the centre backs stepping out, especially if an opponent moves there to receive, while from the other end, one of the strikers tends to back-press to further hurry the actions of the ball-carrier.

Motherwell’s general defensive strategy is not all too dissimilar from that of their play in possession, namely that they focus on trying to overwhelm the opposition with numbers and access. This is very evident in their wing defending, with the near-side wingback pushing all the way up to the forward line to press if necessary. With the central midfielders tilting heavily, the near side striker back-pressing while the far striker moves closer to the centre to be immediately available in case of a counter attack, and the nearest centre back also tilting to cover the wingback, Motherwell create an intensely compact area around the ball. Since so many players having access to the ball-carrier, nearby opponents, and the passing lanes between them, they can make it exceedingly difficult for the opposition to play their way out in a controlled way, and the physically strong defensive line is more than comfortable dealing with long balls hurled their way.

Hard work against the hard-working

Following their remarkable unbeaten season, few would have expected Celtic to reach the same levels as last year. Indeed, this season has been more challenging for Brendan Rodgers’ men, with four domestic defeats and a number of disappointing (however statistically improbable) draws. One contributing factor has been the tough time Celtic have had in playing deep-defending teams, who have been considerably better organised than those of last season. Their positional structures in possession don’t allow for the sharp combination play needed to break such teams down. Combined with an often slow circulation and a general lack of coordination (with Callum McGregor the exception), this gives their opponent the time they need to close dangerous spaces and get back into position.

The tactics they used last season aren’t as effective this year either. One such tactic they employ to crack open a tough position is to drag opposing markers away from their zone, giving their dynamic players more space to play in. The Stuart Armstrong/Scott Sinclair/Kieran Tierney left-sided axis of last season is a good example of this, With Armstrong pulling an opposing central midfielder away from the centre, opening up room for Scott Sinclair to move inside and take his fullback with him. Armstrong could then either sprint into the wing space vacated by Sinclair to receive behind the defensive line, where he is so dangerous, or leave it open for Tierney to burst in to deliver low crosses to onrushing forwards. Scott Brown is also adept at manipulating opponents who try to mark him out the game, by dragging them out to the full-back areas, where they can no longer affect their teammates’ defensive efforts.

However, against opponents who focus on defending with compactness as opposed to through man-marking, this tactic is somewhat ineffective. The most visible consequence of Celtic’s struggles to play through deep, compact blocks is U-shaped circulation. Without a strong enough positional structure to keep the ball centrally between the lines, players move outside the defensive shape of the opponent, further reducing their ability to make incisive passes. The result is a defensive block that doesn’t have to worry about anyone receiving inside it, and possession that can only go from one wing to the other through the centre backs.

Soft under the high ball?

One of the prevailing narratives around this Celtic team is that they are defensively suspect when dealing with long balls. At least some of this criticism might be unfair, especially considering that Kristoffer Ajer ranks among the league leaders in percentage of aerial duels won, while Boyata is 8th among centre backs in the same category. Against a Motherwell team, though, who push nearly a hundred aerial duels per game, this is certainly an area for scrutiny.

Even against teams who might dominate them in the air, Celtic tend to manage fairly well, in part down to their positioning in these moments. Much like Motherwell, Celtic best defend against long balls when they have a ‘layered’ positional structure along the path of the ball. Scott Brown will stay slightly ahead of the defensive line, sometimes with Olivier Ntcham alongside him, in order to battle for second balls. Given the individual qualities of these two players, these roles are ideally suited to them. This protection, along with the work of the wide defenders to maintain at least some sort of access, is vital to Celtic’s general control of long ball situations, and will likely factor into Brendan Rodgers’ team selection and choice of system.

Possible approaches

Despite using almost a different system every time they’ve played Celtic this season (not to mention their 10v11 set-ups), it’s difficult to imagine Motherwell employing anything other than the 3-1-4-2/5-1-2-2 with which they have finished the season. Bowman and Main will likely start up front, while the dynamism of Cadden and Campbell will no doubt be employed ahead of McHugh. Frear on the left side should offer Motherwell an attacking threat against the comparatively weak Celtic right side, with Tait more defensively minded on the right.

Motherwell will probably use their front players to direct Celtic’s build-up to the flanks, especially down their right side, though they will have to find a different scheme than they used in the sides’ last meeting. At Fir Park in the 0-0, through some relatively simple positional play in the centre, Celtic were able to move Bowman slightly into the middle, away from Jack Hendry, before giving the ball to the winter arrival from Dundee. With Frear pinned in the defensive line by the advanced Forrest, Hendry could dribble freely through the right flank.

Perhaps one of Steve Robinson’s side’s best avenues to attack Celtic other than the long ball will be through counter-attacks on the flanks. Hibs found great success using this approach in their win over Celtic in Edinburgh, and while Motherwell don’t possess forwards with the same degree of pace as the capital city side (nor do they use them the same way against the ball), the possibility shouldn’t be discounted. Wide runs from Cadden to the right flank would have to be well-timed and would only be possible upon winning the ball in the middle of the pitch given how deep Motherwell’s midfield defend in their own box, but could be used in conjunction with wide runs from Main or Frear on the opposite flank to create dangerous opportunities.

For Celtic, a successful approach will likely revolve around bringing the ball in good condition to the top of Motherwell’s penalty area, before looking for depth runs for close-range crosses, or taking long shots with a good sight of goal with their strong shooters. In possession they will almost certainly play with a back 3, though the structure ahead of that is less predictable. A 3-2-4-1 in possession with Tierney acting as the left winger, and Callum McGregor alongside Tom Rogic at attacking midfield is likely, though such a line-up with such players will play almost directly into the ultra-aggressive and man-oriented hands of the Motherwell back 5, who would have natural access to all 5 of Celtic’s forwards, with McHugh being free to double up where needed.

To remove this natural access, and to make life considerably more difficult for Motherwell, Celtic could instead build-up with a 3 -1 structure, whether that be with the 3-1-4-2 they have played against Hibs and Ross County this season, or the 3-Diamond-3 they utilised so excellently at home to Zenit St Petersburg. With Brown playing behind and between the Motherwell strikers, pushing the 8s wider, Celtic could effectively narrow their opponent’s midfield structure by playing into their captain, before quickly switching it out to one of the other midfielders – now in considerably more space to advance, and out of reach of the aggressive defensive line. From here, Celtic would have a multitude of options, able to play with the near winger or either of the two forwards.

If one of Cadden or Campbell moved in to mark Brown, the corresponding wide 8 would be completely free to receive directly from the back line. If McHugh stepped up to mark him, Brown could simply step aside slightly and allow Ajer to dribble straight through, as he did so well in the 5-1 game at Celtic Park. 

Conclusion

In Motherwell, Celtic must see off one of their most intense domestic opponents if they are going to complete the double treble. Steve Robinson’s men will no doubt make Saturday an uncomfortable affair for Celtic, with their well-organised direct play and stubborn defence. Brendan Rodgers has a range of options to choose from, both in terms of systems and personnel, but it will likely be the same old problems his players will need to overcome if they are to cement themselves into the history books.