IN FOOTBALL, the end can always be said to justify the means. Norway’s most famous coach, Egil Olsen, was never praised for the artistic merit of his teams but his often agricultural style of play led his country to two World Cup finals tournaments and an all-time high Fifa ranking of second on the planet.
Ronny Deila, it’s fair to say, is not a disciple of Olsen. The game has moved on from those days dominated by the long ball and Deila’s philosophy is centred on sharper, shorter, pressing-based attacking football.
But while the Celtic manager won’t follow the example of his famous welly-boot wearing compatriot – “no, those were not good times” he says with a rueful grin – he is far from averse to utilising one of the most basic elements of football.
The set piece proved crucial to Deila’s team on Wednesday night as a sweetly struck corner from Kris Commons was headed home by Dedryck Boyata to earn them a 1-0 first leg lead in their Champions League third qualifying round tie against Qarabag.
The ability to make free-kicks and corner kicks count was a mainstay of the Celtic side under Martin O’Neill which reached the Uefa Cup final in 2003, with the aerial power of Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton, John Hartson, Bobo Balde, Joos Valgaeren and Johan Mjallby matched by the quality of delivery provided by Alan Thompson and Stiliyan Petrov.
As Deila seeks to make his own mark in Europe at the club, it is a part of the game he believes his current squad can use to their considerable advantage.
We have a lot of height in our team, we have power and good deliveriesRonny Deila
“Set pieces are very important and that is our strength,” said Deila. “Scottish football has always been physical and we have to use the strength of the Scottish players for set plays.
“We should be very dominant in every set play. Every time we have a set play, the opponents should be worried, every team we meet. The height and power we have in the team is very good.
“I remember Martin O’Neill’s team and every opponent was scared to give away corner kicks against them. That is a positive thing. We have a lot of height in our team, we have power and good deliveries. Kris had a great delivery on Wednesday and Stuart Armstrong has done a lot of good things on the other side as well.
“Something like 33 per cent of every goal scored in football comes from a set play. So it’s as important as counter attacks or offensive play. You have to be good at it and last year we had a very good record from set plays. I think we had something like 23 goals from set pieces and only lost two to them. That’s very, very good. It’s part of the game. There are a lot of World Cup finals and Champions League finals won by a set play.
“When there is a lot of tension like there was on Wednesday night, set plays are always very important. We train on them as much as we can. Our coach John Kennedy is very good at organising them together with the goalkeeping coach Stevie Woods. They do that side of it.
“I’m not an expert in set plays myself but there are things I am very into and think are right, so those things we do as well.
“Delivery is everything first and foremost. It is hard to score without a good one. Then it’s about movement and organisation, to get into the right areas and keep a goalkeeper on his line.”
Deila remains upbeat about Celtic’s prospects of finishing the job against Qarabag in Azerbaijan next Wednesday.
He is especially encouraged by what he has seen from the fledgling central defensive partnership of Virgil van Dijk and Boyata, albeit the former’s future at Celtic remains uncertain beyond the Champions League qualifiers. “Those two together are dynamite,” he said. “They look very, very good. Dedryck is starting the same way Jason Denayer did alongside Virgil last year and is also scoring goals. He is going to be an important player for us.
“Virgil is very calm about his situation, you could see that on Wednesday. We have good communication over these things. These games are important for him and also for us. I was very happy with his performance.
“It was a really disciplined performance overall defensively and that is going to be important in the second leg.
“We learned about that in the Inter Milan game last season. We attacked them but were too open to counter-attacks against us. On Wednesday, we attacked them but were much more organised in defence. Qarabag haven’t scored so many goals in Europe, although they did beat Valletta from Malta 4-0 in one game last season. But they have a good system offensively. We didn’t see that too much on Wednesday night because we had the ball a lot.
“They will be much more offensive in Baku but that will also give us more chances on the break, so it will be a totally different game over there.
“I am more confident about keeping a clean sheet away from home in Europe than I was last season. It’s about communication, discipline and that was good on Wednesday.
“If we can do the same in Baku as we did in Maribor last season, when we played a good tactical game there last year and created chances to win, we will be close to where we need to be.”