THIS was the first match where Celtic looked truly comfortable playing the style of football that new boss Ronny Deila wants to impose, but their composed and confident performance was aided by a self-sabotaging Dundee United side who set up well to attack Celtic before failing to execute the basics.
They conceded four goals from set-pieces. The delivery from Anthony Stokes for two of them in particular was top-class, but there are always mistakes made when any team concedes direct from a set play.
It was actually quite a shame. We’ve come to expect excellence from United and this season they were supposed to be reinforced by an improved defence. For those tuning in to see a potential upset, their expectations could not have been more wrong.
The threat of Callum McGregor
Celtic started in their usual 4-2-3-1 with Anthony Stokes leading the attack ahead of Kris Commons. New signing Jo Inge Berget was given another chance to impress on the left, while Callum McGregor took up residence on the right.
The youngster came within a couple of inches of giving Celtic a first minute lead. McGregor drifted in from the right and almost profited when a coming together between John Rankin and the referee opened up some space in front of the back four. McGregor’s low drive hit the base of the post and bounced away.
The 21-year-old could be a hugely important player for Celtic in the Scottish Premiership this season, and it became evident within five Saturday afternoon minutes why he’s been preferred to James Forrest on the right of midfield.
His excellent shooting ability makes him a dual threat. Forrest is better at taking on his marker, but is also more one-dimensional. When teams like Dundee United load up in the centre of the park – as they did with Paul Paton and John Rankin playing holding roles – McGregor drifting inside poses another threat and, in turn, opens up more space for Kris Commons to impact the game from the No.10 role.
Too many options to defend
McGregor’s not afraid to run at the full-back either, and he demonstrated this during the build-up to the first goal. When facing off against Celtic it’s almost unfair how many threats there are to deal with - United wanted to crowd the centre to deny the hosts an easy route to goal, but that left full-back Conor Townsend on an island against McGregor.
Ryan Dow was too high up the park to cover and Townsend struggled to stop the Celtic man from cutting inside and getting a shot away that was deflected for a corner. From the resulting set-piece, United touched the ball twice before their opponents, and yet it was Jason Denayer who got the decisive contribution to put Celtic ahead.
Dundee United’s threat
Even before the fifth minute goal, the visitors had already demonstrated their threat on the counter attack. Stuart Armstrong showed the physical attributes he has in addition to his terrific technical abilities by shrugging off Efe Ambrose before playing an inch-perfect pass for Gary Mackay-Steven who lifted the ball wide of the far post.
Armstrong started in the No.10 role behind Nadir Ciftci. The 22-year old played everywhere across the attacking midfield trio in United’s 4-2-3-1 last season, but following the departure of Ryan Gauld he’s expected to feature “in the hole” throughout this campaign. Behind him were Paul Paton and John Rankin. The grafting duo hoped to minimise Kris Commons’s impact on the game.
United were a little more direct in their approach than normal, an approach borne out of necessity considering Celtic’s pressing and expected territorial dominance. In the 16th minute another ball aimed in behind Emilio Izaguirre for Mackay-Steven to run onto would have created a goal, were it not for a last second intervention from Virgil van Dijk.
United may have been sitting deep but they attacked with numbers when they could establish possession in the final third. Ciftci, who spearheaded the attack, drifted out left before clipping in a ball across the box that almost found left-back Townsend running in from deep at the back post.
Celtic’s patient passing
Where Celtic really showed their class was the period between the first and third goals. United’s gameplan was to keep Celtic in front of them and dare them to pass through a compressed area. This in turn, they hoped, would begin to frustrate the home crowd, which would affect the players. Of course, the latter part of that plan was inadmissible the second Jason Denayer gave Celtic the lead. With that insurance the hosts patiently stroked the ball around the defence and midfield, probing at the opposition, looking for an opening.
Celtic have been especially difficult to defeat in recent years due to their centre backs’ ability, along with Charlie Mulgrew in front, to carry the ball forward from defence. Buying centre backs with such capabilities in Scottish football seems almost ostentatious on the surface, but it really does make Celtic the complete attacking unit that they are. It allows them to easily control possession in a match and further strengthens their territorial stranglehold. The centre backs are basically starting the attacks themselves by dribbling the ball up to within 40 yards of goal. United could pressure Denayer and Virgil Van Dijk, but to do so effectively you need to squeeze the game and play with a high line. And nobody wants to do that against the champions, especially at Celtic Park.
By dominating that territorial battle, Celtic were able to do some effective pressing of their own. In the 26th minute United tried to pass the ball out from the back but quickly ran into trouble. On exactly 25.34 they relinquished possession. They touched the ball three times in the next 93 seconds, then lost another goal. Again it was a set-piece, though it came about because of patient passing and movement from Celtic. A few minutes prior Stokes had attempted a shot from the right, 25 yards from goal. Stokes took up space in an unexpected area, illustrating the versatility of Celtic’s players and showing that Ronny Deila’s vision of a free-flowing team could become a reality, domestically at least.
United walk it out
A couple of minutes after the second goal United almost created an opportunity for themselves, with Dow cutting inside from the left on a counter attack. He found Armstrong in the centre and the midfielder had options either side of him before seeing his shot blocked by Denayer. It demonstrated Celtic’s aggressiveness and a desire to get the game finished with as quickly as possible – they were still leaving gaps at the back. For United that represented further opportunities if they could continue to sit in, not concede a third goal, and play in the direct style which had almost brought a goal on two occasions.
Yet despite it leading to the second goal, United went back to the pass-it-out-from-the-back style they are know for, when there was just no space to do so. Celtic were camped in their opponents’ half, and they hunted down and devoured Paul Paton after he received an ill-advised pass from Jarosław Fojut. Stefan Johansen won the ball and he slipped it past Cierzniak for the third goal. Game over.
From that point forward we saw more of the same from Celtic, who were by now playing with real confidence in front of their own support, against a side who were just trying to avoid being embarrassed. As the 6-1 scoreline shows, United failed in that objective.