One of the more intriguing fixtures to happen in this week’s Europa League round took place at Celtic Park. Marcelino’s Valencia travelled to Celtic Park to face Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic. The match that ensued saw Valencia heavily limit Celtic’s attack while they quickly pounced on counter-attack opportunities. Through analysing the patterns of this game, we will detail the tactical battle that saw Valencia run out 2-0 winners.
The Spanish side find themselves eighth in La Liga perhaps somewhat unfortunately. Marcelino’s men have performed significantly worse than their expected goal difference this year. Owning the second best xG difference in their league, Los Che can count themselves unlucky as far as results in the league go.
Celtic meanwhile continue to trounce the Scottish division. After a shocking defeat in the Old Firm in January, they went on to win their next five games. Even in an injury crisis, the Glaswegians look set to stroll to their eighth title in a row.
Celtic were struggling with a few injuries in the lead up to the game. Key players such as Kieran Tierney, Tom Rogic, Filip Benkovic and Oliver Ntcham missed out, while Odsonne Edouard could only make the bench. James Forrest was able to recover from a knock in time to feature in the cup demolition of St. Johnstone and kept his place again here.
Interestingly, Marcelino elected to take this opportunity to rest some key players. Regular starters Gaya, Rodrigo and Mina all stayed in Spain, while captain Dani Parejo was taken off at half time. Perhaps the Spaniard felt they should prioritise the league as it is probably their most likely route back to the Champions League.
Valencia’s defensive structure
Setting up in their regular 4-4-2 defensive shape, Valencia looked to force Celtic wide at all times. They operated mostly in a mid-block, utilising an aggressive press upon noticing certain triggers. Both Cheryshev and Sobrino would cut out the routes to the far-side CB and Brown, while Parejo and Kondogbia occupied the passing lanes to McGregor and Christie. Having forced the Scottish side wide, Los Che immediately press the ball. By cutting out all passing options of the Celtic full-back, they looked to create turnovers high up the pitch.
Celtic build up in the first stages of possession
In typical Rodgers fashion, Celtic looked to dominate possession in a 2-3-4-1 structure. Both wingers pushed high allowing the full-backs, Toljan and Izaguirre, to form a three centrally with Brown. Remaining midfielders McGregor and Christie would push high into the half-spaces, looking to receive through the lines.
The idea behind this structure was to ensure that they could circulate the ball between the CBs, FBs and Brown before looking for a penetrating pass when they neared the halfway line. As we can see from the passing sonar below, this circulation was a main feature of the game, but unfortunately, Celtic received very little joy for all their efforts. These scenarios would often fail to progress as it would naturally trigger the Valencian press.
Pressing problems for Celtic
Valencia, in general, were happy to concede the space until their strikers reached the halfway line. At which point they halted, set up in a mid-block and began to aggressively press any passes that tried to penetrate their blockade. Sobrino and Cheryshev flew into action once the CBs took a step forward with the ball looking for a pass centrally. Their inability to force openings meant that the ball simply continued to be circulated around the back-four until Valencia forced a turnover.
Brown, often unable to create an angle to receive, looked a fish out of water, whenever he did receive the ball, he would mostly just play a simple wall pass to the opposite CB. Thus, he never really threatened the first line of the Valencia defence as he was unable or unwilling to progress the ball further.
Static Celtic make it easy for Marcelino’s men
Continuing from their inability to progress the ball, their attackers did not make the task any easier for them. As the Hoops circulated the ball, the front-five; Sinclair, Christie, Burke, McGregor and Forrest, all stayed very structured in their movements. Very seldom was there any sign of positional interchange, and often it would seem these players were locked into their positions.
While it is crucial to positional play that players are spaced well for their build-up to make quick interplay possible, positional rotations are key to disrupting any style of block defence. It was very rare to see a Celtic attacker drop deep to receive while another moves into the vacated space in the first half. This allowed Valencia to keep compact in their movement as the ball was circulated around the defence. Therefore, Celtic made it significantly harder for themselves to force any openings centrally and were often forced into putting Forrest and Sinclair into 2v1 situations to try to swindle an opening.
Accidentally coming across a solution
Due to Celtic’s determination to play out from the back from virtually all goal-kicks, they stumbled upon a solution to their first-half build-up problems. With the CBs splitting and Brown dropping in to form a triangle, Valencia found it easy to press and cause turnovers. Parejo covered Brown while the strikers marked the CBs and Soler and Wass pressed Celtic’s FBs.
In reaction to this high press, McGregor dropped deeper to help play out of the situation. Thus, he gave Celtic a numerical advantage in the first phase and made it easy for Celtic to play out of the press.
Having realised this would help the Hoops in their regular build-up, he instructed McGregor to play deeper. Often dropping into the LCB position, similar to Frenkie de Jong for Ajax, he allowed Izaguirre to push further on. This along with Edouard’s introduction to the game and his tendency to play in the half-space gave Celtic a few situations in which they could get the Frenchman behind and 1v1 with Piccini. Unfortunately for Rodgers’ men, it was too little too late as Valencia were already comfortable in their two-goal lead by the time the changes were made.
Valencia’s devastating counter-attacks
Having won the ball back from their aggressive pressing, Valencia would often launch a lightning-quick counter-attack. A familiar pattern was to have one of their strikers drop to receive while the other filled the vacated space. As they matched Celtic’s CBs 2v2, they could create 1v1s as full-backs Izaguirre and Toljan struggled to recover.
Sobrino’s movement in these situations was one of note. During the goal, he utilised the blind side run to perfect effect. Realising he could escape Boyata in a simple movement, he bent his run to ensure the Belgian could no longer see the Spaniard, forcing Simunovic to cover. This allowed Cheryshev to continue his run unopposed while Izaguirre failed to push up with the offside trap, keeping both attackers onside.
Rodgers and his men now have a mountain to climb in the second leg. While absences such as Tierney and Rogic significantly stunted his team’s play, they were simply outclassed by their opposition. Burke offered little in the way of hold-up play and his passing was found lacking in transition moments. If they are to have any chance of a comeback, Timothy Weah needs to be involved from the start. The American was very lively and allowed the play to progress through his movement between the lines.
Valencia, on the other hand, are in an extremely strong position. With two away goals in the bank, it’s tough to envisage a situation where they don’t reign supreme. With their compact, high action defence and efficient attack, it’s not hard to see them going far in the competition.
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