Celtic's concerning European clean sheet stat - but Ange Postecoglou should double down on front-foot style

With Celtic returning to the Champions League group stages for the first time since 2017, a narrative quickly emerged. The question of whether Ange Postecoglou would tweak his attacking, front-foot approach for the tougher tests which are presented by Europe's premier club competition.

It was a question which was easily answered – Postecoglou is not for changing his beliefs for anyone. But one which was always going to be raised, debated and discussed as soon as the team were on the opposite end of a disappointing scoreline. Lo and behold, a 3-1 reverse to RB Leipzig in match-day three and it has been posed.

The popular view is the team is too open, that the Australian should rein in the full throttle approach in European competition. In essence, play more conservatively, take a safer approach, defend deeper and become stuffier. To some he is regarded as naive. Naive that he thinks he can take his Celtic side into the Champions League and play in the same manner as they do domestically.

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Would there be acceptance of that after the defeat? Postecoglou channelled Scottish comedian Limmy, ‘don’t back down, double down’.

"At this level if you play for survival... you never really get anywhere,” the Australian said afterwards.

It is safe to say the Celtic manager subscribes to the Johan Cruyff school of thought: “It is better to fall with your ideas than someone else's.” The sporting equivalent of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata's “it's better to die upon your feet than to live upon your knees!”

It is a belief which should be admired, not admonished.

The accordion

Celtic fell to a 3-1 defeat in Germany to RB Leipzig. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)Celtic fell to a 3-1 defeat in Germany to RB Leipzig. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
Celtic fell to a 3-1 defeat in Germany to RB Leipzig. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

Admittedly, Celtic could easily have been on the end of a far heavier defeat in Leipzig. Marco Rose’s side created numerous opportunities, four big chances to the visitors’ one. Their expected goals figure was 2.25 to the Scottish league leaders’ 0.92. There was the sense the hosts could and would score anytime they broke free, led by the electric pace and directness of Chelsea-bound Christopher Nkunku.

Celtic's positive approach made for an exhilarating encounter which, at times, resembled a accordion in the first half. Both teams pressed and squeezed, making the pitch very small. Once the press was broken the game stretched and the pitch became huge.

Celtic had chances but there were individual and collective issues.

Out of possession, Celtic were 4-4-2. Collectively, the space between the lines, especially the back four and midfield four was far too big. That was witnessed twice early in the first half. Firstly, five passes in seven seconds saw Leipzig go from their own box to Celtic’s. Later, a cross-field pass took out the entire visiting midfield, allowing the home side’s midfielders acres to gallop into. The opening 45 minutes finished with Matt O’Riley, who was with Kyogo Furuhashi in attack, turning around to see a Red Sea-like parting between him and the midfield. He gestured for the team to get higher up the pitch.

Ange Postecoglou was critical of his players after they equalised. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)Ange Postecoglou was critical of his players after they equalised. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
Ange Postecoglou was critical of his players after they equalised. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

Individually, Mortiz Jenz and Joe Hart were just two of the guilty parties who fluffed their lines with an easy pass trying to break the Leipzig press.

Not built to defend

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Postecoglou sought to address the collective problems rather than focus on individuals. He saw a team regress into survival mode, taking the easy way out, after Jota’s equaliser, which arrived after good pressure in the midfield. It is a mode which is not compatible with this Celtic team.

They don’t play in that manner domestically and changing that approach drastically for European competition is not like flicking a switch.

Jota scored Celtic's goal in Leipzig. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)Jota scored Celtic's goal in Leipzig. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
Jota scored Celtic's goal in Leipzig. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

This Celtic team is not one built to defend. You don’t sign Jota, Reo Hatate, Matt O’Reily, Liel Abada and Kyogo Furuhashi to sit in and defend. The last thing you want is someone like Jota doing doggy runs to track an opposing full-backs.

Look back to Celtic's last two appearances in the Champions League group stage. Under Brendan Rodgers the team fell to 7-0, 7-1 and 5-0 defeats. The Northern Irishman even played with a back five in a couple of those. That was also a team to play on the front foot and they got nowhere near the knockout rounds.

Front foot not survival

The quality Celtic face is not on another level, it is in another stratosphere. There is no perfect recipe therefore why should someone like Postecoglou make concessions that goes against the entertaining style instilled by the Australian since arriving in Glasgow, to the point Rose, in the build-up to the game, expressed his admiration for how much “fun” it is watching the team.

“Overall Celtic have a very exciting and clear game idea," he said. “Similar to us, they try to interpret football actively, to align the game offensively and to put the opponent under pressure.”

Having a “clear game idea”, an identity, does count for something. It can make a team more memorable, something which allows fans to engage and relate to.

Yes, Celtic need to be better on the European stage. After all, they are yet to keep a clean sheet on the road under Postecoglou, conceding 21 goals in nine games across two seasons. But being better doesn't mean changing styles or altering ideals. It can be achieved by committing to the beliefs instilled, being braver, more aggressive.

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The good news for the club’s Champions League hopes is that they have two winnable home fixtures up next in a group which can be progressed from. Postecoglou will hope the injury situation clears up but the best chance of qualification to the knockout stages is by ignoring the narrative, doubling down and sticking to the plan.

Celtic are a front foot, full throttle team, whether it is Real Madrid or Ross County, not one to enter survival mode.

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