AS FOOTBALL fans, we have all lived through the age of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and have been blessed to do so.

The cult of personality has never been stronger in football and, arguably, life in general. It was refreshing, as a football purist (or snob, I suppose) to see Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid set up to frustrate Pep Guardiola’s mega-bucks Manchester City in Tuesday's Champions League quarter-final first leg.

Here was a side not short of attacking talent (Antoine Griezmann, Joao Felix, Koke) utterly sacrificing themselves for the good of the team, the shape and the plan. There was something quaintly egalitarian about it. Proper defending.

This wasn’t just a “park the bus” exercise, it made sound tactical sense. Manchester City are famed at probing and moving and passing, patiently waiting for a positional slip to exploit. Atletico are the masters of defensive concentration. It is as if defending is some ancient sporting ritual.

This, circuitously, brings us to Celtic and Sunday’s Glasgow Derby...

Postecoglou and the 'no Plan B' myth

Ange Postecoglou strode into Celtic Park on his own. He was the “man with no name” as far as the ignorant were concerned.

He is wise enough to know a little bit of mythologising does no harm. Here was the manager who dared to attack some of the best teams on the planet with a workmanlike Australia national team at a World Cup. He played attacking football because his dad would approve. His sides attacked and attacked and attacked again.

The fear at the time was “he sounds amazing, but I’m still scarred by watching Tommy Burn’s late 90s side fail gloriously”. 

It has been difficult to discern tactical nuance from starry-eyed romanticism at times. The Europa League campaign was thrilling but yielded more goals conceded than any other side in the competition. The old failing of being unable to unpick low SPFL blocks was still there too.

In recent weeks, however, with virtually a full squad of players finally available to choose from and some of them actually suited to the style of play demanded, we have started to see that nuance.

There were glimpses before. In the very first game at home to FC Midtjylland, on being a man down, Celtic switched to a 4-3-2 compact shape and mitigated the loss of Nir Bitton quite effectively. There have been gutsy away wins at Tynecastle and Pittodrie while low blocks have been dismantled in recent weeks against Livingston, St Mirren and Ross County.

Giakoumakis and Maeda

Some of this added nuance has been due to the variation allowed by the inclusion of Daizen Maeda and Giorgos Giakoumakis.

They offer a combination of pace and power, perpetual motion and penalty-box menace. Celtic have enough 'fancy Dans' with the ball to accommodate two players with little on ball flair, but plenty off-ball menace.

How fitting it was that, at full-time on Sunday, both forwards almost simultaneously collapsed to the turf in exhausted delight. Their synchronicity off the ball was a coda for how the match had unfurled.

READ MORE: Robson, Hartley and Celtic’s magnificent seven wins to grab three in a row and honour Tommy Burns

For that wasn’t a game for standout individual numbers. Well, all except one.

StatsBomb records the number of pressures per player. 'Pressure' is defined as “applying pressure to an opposing player who’s receiving, carrying or releasing the ball". Or, as they might say in Australia: “You’re being a bloody nuisance, mate”.

A look at the pressure stats across both sides reveals the astonishingly selfless contribution from the two Celtic forwards (and their running mate, Jota):

Celtic Way:

For context, Maeda averages 26.5 pressures per 90 minutes and Giakoumakis 17.2. This was an indication of the extent to which players were willing to implement the parts of Postecoglou’s supposedly naïve philosophy that we have yet to see fully formed.

It’s a team game and, as Postecoglou’s biographer Andy Harper said in an interview with a fan media outlet, it is all about winning.

Attacking & defensive output

Maeda only completed seven passes but two of those created chances. He touched the ball twice in the box and had no shots. Giakoumakis had one attempt at goal (a decent headed chance), also had two touches in the box and also created two chances from 10 completed passes.

Celtic Way:

Their attacking output was not poor in the context of the whole team; Maeda ranked first in expected assists and chances created, level with Giakoumakis in the latter category.

Yet it is in their respective defensive performances that the team ethic shone through.

Despite the paucity of possession and attacking opportunities, Maeda was involved in 14 challenges and interceptions. In the whole team, this number was only greater for one player – Giakoumakis with 17.

Celtic Way:

The sheer effort needed to execute team-leading defensive actions and apply pressure through sprinting to close down the opponents was phenomenal. There is no wider access to GPS data but it is not a stretch to suggest their distances covered would have far exceeded the normal 10-12km.

Their heatmaps show the extent to which they engaged the opponents in all parts of the field:

Celtic Way:

Legendary multi-skilled Dutchman Ruud Guillit used to talk about strikers conserving energy. He did not like to see them pressing too often or chasing lost causes. His reasoning was that a striker should keep his body, and therefore his mind, fresh to explode into life when a chance presented itself.

Football has changed, with the emphasis now on pressing in particular since the time of Guillit and predatory strikers like Gary Lineker.

What we saw on Sunday were two forwards following team orders to the letter. Defending from the front and unsettling their opponents. Diego Simeone would have been proud of them.