As I keep banging on, in this game it is performance first, second and third.

As we saw against Lazio, the outcome was disappointing (a 1-2 home reverse) against what looks like the weakest side in the section, yet ultimately it came down to about six inches. Firstly, Daizen Maeda getting a leg hair to a loose ball sending Luis Palma three inches offside and denying Celtic a late goal. Secondly, Matt O’Riley playing Pedro onside for the late winner by the width of a chewing gum wrapper. For the sake of a few inches, an entirely different set of narratives emerge. Yet, the performances are almost identical whatever way those calls go. So, to another two dropped points at home to Atletico Madrid.

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What was most pleasing is that Celtic are building a run of consistently solid Champions League performances and arguably this was the best yet against the toughest of opponents. Atletico Madrid – at the time of writing - are a game in hand from going top of La Liga. Their six-match winning run included a 3-1 dismantling of Real Madrid and 16 goals had been racked up. They are one of Europe’s form teams.

How did Celtic match them? The tweaks tactically by Brendan Rodgers compared to his predecessor Ange Postecoglou have been seemingly minor, but nevertheless hugely impactful (at least on performance if not overall points on the board).


The first half against Feyenoord and again here versus Atletico saw Celtic being more circumspect with the ball than under the aggressively vertically-minded Australian. This may not be as thrilling to watch, but an element of risk is much reduced. Simply: the opposition cannot score if you have the ball. Resting or defending with the ball is a Rodgers feature.

Postecoglou struck almost the perfect balance in domestic football between aggressive, front-foot attacking intent allied to dominance of the football. That was a much harder trick to pull off in Europe. Losing the ball more often led Celtic to conceding one of the highest xG’s against in the group stages (8th percentile) as well as 37th percentile for conceding counterattack xG.

This season Celtic are remarkably 88th percentile for overall xG conceded and 87th for counter-attacking xG conceded. Yet, the outcome is six goals lost in three matches. Why? Seemingly every individual error is punished and sometimes, as against Lazio, you are just unlucky.

However, by controlling the ball, even passively, Celtic are staying in the game. Lower-seeded teams coming up against top-five league behemoths like Atletico need to keep the game tight and low-scoring to gain an edge at the margins of luck or the type of occasional brilliance shown by the opening Celtic goal. Celtic had 58 per cent possession at the end of that excellent first half on Wednesday. No wonder Diego Simeone was so frustrated.


There has been no radical overhaul of Celtic’s basic line-up. As with the last two seasons, Rodgers has largely stuck with 4-3-3 converting to 4-4-2 out of possession. All standard stuff. But spacing is all important.

Celtic are more compact than last season. Postecoglou had the defence on average Around 48 metres from goal – some thought that a crazy high line given the relative lack of pace in the Celtic defence allied to Joe Hart not being the quickest off his marks to play sweeper-keeper. Yet Rodgers has Celtic another two metres up the pitch on average and has further squeezed the play.

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Additionally, rather than have the second-best presser pushed up with Kyogo Furuhashi (Matt O’Riley), the Danish midfielder is asked to drop back to support Callum McGregor out of possession. This makes perfect sense as O’Riley is by some distance Celtic’s best defensive midfielder. Also, by pushing Reo Hatate up as one of the two with Kyogo, you have arguably Celtic’s least capable defensive midfielder as far from danger as possible.

Note how based on the Sofascore average position map, O’Riley is tucked in beside McGregor. Observe how compacted the team is and in touch with each other.

In the second half, despite a furious start from the visitors, Celtic had the full-backs slightly further forward, the centre-backs held the line, and O’Riley was, on average, deeper than McGregor providing more of a screen to the back line.

Under Postecoglou, that would have been more of a 2-3-5 shape with the central midfield pushed on. It isn’t a huge amount of change from Rodgers but again it serves to solidify the crucial midfield area.

Pressing intelligence

Postecoglou’s simplified vision of football (that’s a compliment) included relentless pressing of the opponent. Any opponent.

I posit this did not scale well to Champions League football, and 13 goals conceded to Real Madrid and RB Leipzig is a testament to that. Again, Rodgers is cut from a very similar philosophy but honed and refined through three years of keeping Leicester City near the top of the English Premier League and reaching a Europa Conference Semi-Final.

Celtic hounded Atletico aggressively, especially in the first half. But when it was appropriate to do so rather than at all times. Because of the quality deficit, Celtic gave up 15.46 passes per defensive action last season, and 14.77 this – both near the bottom of the Champions League teams. This means that despite their pressing, opponents are completing many passes around and through Celtic. For context in the SPFL, that value is around half at 7.23 passes per defensive action.

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Therefore Rodgers was right to press as Atletico gave the ball up in their own defensive third 13 times (eight in the first half) compared to only six times by Celtic. But, by rationing the pressing, and remember, whether Celtic press or not, they are still bottom of the league for limiting opponents passing through defensive actions, Celtic were more intelligent and focussed about it.

Celtic may have found a new pressing monster in Paolo Bernardo. He out-Maeda’d Maeda. A remarkable 44 pressures in the game were three more than the Japanese pressing machine.

However, as we saw, despite this, Celtic still tired badly in the second half as they did in all the Champions League matches last season. Because playing against opponents the quality of Koke (31) and Antoine Griezmann (32) is exhausting. They simply do not give the ball away often and their movement and control are world-class.

That is a conundrum Celtic will always be up against. Expecting 22-year-old O’Riley and 21-year-old Bernardo to match that quality is a big stretch. This is Rodgers’ big challenge and why the tweaks we are seeing are necessary to keep Celtic in these games as long as possible.