Celtic return to domestic action on Sunday with a trip to McDiarmid Park to face St Johnstone. Brendan Rodgers’ side will be hoping to get back on track in the Scottish Premiership after last weekend’s disappointing 1-1 draw with Motherwell at Celtic Park.

Despite being awarded two second-half penalties in that match, the Hoops laboured for large spells as they struggled to play through a disciplined Motherwell outfit’s low block.

Here, we break down Celtic’s inability to overcome the Steelmen’s tactical plan last weekend and also highlight what they will need to do to avoid a repeat against St Johnstone this Sunday, a side that has already stifled them in a 0-0 draw earlier this season with a similar approach.

Lineup v Motherwell

Celtic Way:

Celtic lined up in their usual 4-3-3 last weekend with Rodgers making just one change from the starting 11 that thrashed Aberdeen 6-0 before the international break as Anthony Ralston came in for Canadian international Alistair Johnston at right-back.

Stuart Kettlewell set his Well side up, on paper, in a 3-5-2 formation. However, out of possession, as they were for 80 per cent of the time the ball was in play, they shaped up as a 5-3-2/5-3-1-1.

Motherwell’s low block

Motherwell’s low-block was structured with wing-backs Stephen O’Donnell and Brodie Spencer tucking in to form a back five, often across their 18-yard line, alongside three centre-backs Dan Casey, Bevis Mugabi and Shane Blaney. Ahead of them, three central midfielders, Callum Slattery, Calum Butcher and Harry Paton, screened the back five with forwards Blair Spittal and Mika Biereth in front of them.

At times Spittal would drop a bit deeper than Biereth but both made sure they stayed central to restrict Celtic from progressing the ball through the middle of the pitch. Below we can see an early example of their strategy without the ball.  

Celtic Way:

Happy for Celtic’s two centre-backs to travel with the ball well into their half, Motherwell’s flat midfield three were tight and compact. When the ball was fed into the full-backs, in this example out to Greg Taylor from Liam Scales, the Steelmen’s outside central midfielders were quick to get out and apply pressure on Celtic’s full-backs while the other two shuffled across to maintain their structure and close gaps for Celtic’s two advanced eights, Odin Thiago Holm and Matt O’Riley, to operate in.  

Celtic Way:

In this early example, Taylor does get his pass inside to Holm away, who runs off the back of middle central midfielder Butcher. However, right centre-mid Slattery exerted enough pressure to rush Taylor. With Holm not quite set to receive either, Motherwell’s right centre-back Casey was able to come out and aggressively press the young Norwegian midfielder.

Although the loose ball made its way out to Luis Palma, the move then broke down as the Honduran winger forced a ball to the advancing Callum McGregor, a pass that was then cleared by Mugabe.

Celtic Way:

Protected by the midfield three, and with only Kyogo to contend with, Motherwell’s towering centre-backs were able to step up and apply pressure on the two eights/tens like this as the game went on.

More effective wing play

This effectiveness at restricting progression centrally continually saw Celtic forced to filter the ball into wider areas throughout the match last weekend, where they struggled to make much progress, often taking on crosses from less-than-optimal areas.

Not the most effective method of chance creation in itself, especially from wider, deeper areas, there was a real lack of quality in deliveries into the box. Only 11 of 41 crosses – the most they have attempted in a league game this season (Wyscout) – found a hooped jersey.

Celtic Way:

Although, due to Motherwell’s structure, the creative burden fell to them more often than not, Celtic’s wingers were guilty of this as much as anyone. Palma did have some dangerous moments, registering 0.23 xA according to Wyscout, but he looked jaded after his exploits for Honduras over the international break. Cutting into the congested midfield area too often, he was replaced after 70 minutes.

On the right, Yang saw plenty of the ball, he and Ralston clocked the highest passing combination of the game (42 passes). However, the young South Korean attacker struggled to link play as effectively as he had done in his previous outing against Aberdeen when he scored his first goal for the club. An example of his lack of cohesion with his teammates, which summed up his day, came in the second half when O’Riley looked to play a one-two with him only for Yang to check his run and the ball to trickle out of play.

Celtic Way:

There was some nice footwork on show from Yang again at times but the visitors’ left wing-back Spencer did a decent job of keeping tabs on him in the main. On the few occasions when he did get the opportunity to deliver, his final ball was poor, finding a Celtic player with just two of his ten crosses (Wyscout) and registering a paltry 0.02 xA throughout his 90-minute plus outing. He also passed up his one big chance, heading wide from a Mikey Johnston cross in the second half.

If Celtic do indeed face a similar challenge at McDiarmid Park this weekend, and the wingers see plenty of the ball again, then whoever occupies the positions will need to bring more quality to the game than Palma and Yang managed against Motherwell.

Greater penetration from midfielders

As much as the level of quality in the wide areas was poor last Saturday, Rodgers’ central midfielders could also have done more to try and disrupt Motherwell’s low block.

McGregor’s run beyond in the example of Motherwell’s low block earlier was something they didn’t do nearly enough of as the game played out. As disciplined and compact as the Steelmen were, Celtic’s midfield three were often too rigid in their positioning and didn’t stretch the game by going beyond enough.

StatsBomb’s OBV (on-ball-value) metric, which assesses ball progression value by estimating how much an event improves (or reduces) the team's expected goal difference, highlights the lack of impact on the game by Celtic’s central midfielders.

Celtic Way:

Only Yang posted a lower OBV score than Celtic’s two starting advanced central midfielders, Holm (-0.14 from 24 passes) and O’Riley (-0.17 from 37 passes). Holm, handed his second consecutive start, failed to grasp his opportunity to impress in the ongoing absence of Reo Hatate while O’Riley failed to match his usual high standards.  

Substitute David Turnbull and Kyogo, who dropped in behind Oh at the start of the second after Holm was replaced by the South Korean centre-forward only fared slightly better in the advanced central midfield areas.

Hoops captain Callum McGregor struggled to make much of a positive impact on proceedings too, registering a value of just 0.08 despite making over 80 passes from his usual single pivot role at the base of the Celtic engine room.

By no means the only culprits in green and white last weekend, the Celtic midfield was guilty of too many safe, lateral passes. When passes did hit their mark, they were often not played with enough pace or not in front of players where they could then step onto with. Again, this is something that could be levelled at the whole team in fairness, not just the midfield.

Whether through passing, dribbling or runs beyond, the central midfielders need to do a bit more to penetrate compact defensive lines, such as the one deployed by Motherwell.


The return of key players in the wide areas and midfield, Hatate in particular, would likely help overcome some of Celtic’s issues when facing a low block. However, no matter the personnel, there is no doubt a more dynamic approach will be required in the weeks and months ahead.

Whether that is players taking more risks with their passes, better movement off-the-ball, or simply injecting a bit more zip into periods of possession, if Celtic are to keep themselves on track in the Scottish Premiership then Rodgers will have to find a way of making his side more effective at breaking down low blocks as they will inevitably continue to face them, starting again this weekend in Perth.