The Anthony Ralston gamble didn’t pay off
The youngster can be commended for his determination, his willingness to continue fighting even when the game was long gone, and his commitment to the cause. At 18 years old, he’s got some great intangibles which should enable him to be a top defender for years to come, but this wasn’t the game for him.
After starting brightly, he was burned by Neymar for PSG’s opening goal. In fairness to the young defender, Adrien Rabiot did a great job of anticipating his body movement and using it against him. Just as Ralston turned his shoulders, the pass was released, and he was caught with the wrong body shape to catch Neymar, who was always going to be too quick in a one-on-one race.
There were also issues with the second goal (which we’ll get to) and the fourth. At the latter one he could be seen as a little unlucky, with the ball been driven across at pace by Julian Draxler. However, he failed to anticipate the cross and was caught a little flat-footed, allowing the ball to go past him where it struck the unsuspecting Mikael Lustig and rolled into the back of the net. He’s not the most nimble of defenders and would have been better suited to a scrappier contest, not trying to follow one of the most elusive forwards in world football.
PSG’s movement was too much to cope with
The second goal was like a choreographed routine.
It began with Neymar drifting in from the left to the centre to pick up possession. This drew Ralston over from right back. With Neymar entering his territory, Olivier Ntcham wandered off Marco Verratti in a bid to try and win the ball. Instead of staying in his position, Veratti moved into the open space down the right, which was vacant due to a combination of Scott Sinclair sticking close to Dani Alves, who’d already slung in a couple of threatening crosses from the right, and Kieran Tierney tracking Kylian Mbappe as the attacker, who start on the right, moved into the centre.
When Ntcham was too easily brushed off by Neymar, the Brazilian fed Verrati down the wing. He then turned back toward goal and sprinted into the penalty area, leaving Ralston in his dust. Incredibly, it is the striker who gets on the end of the looping cross at the back post. He’s free partially because Ralston couldn’t stick with him, and partially due to Edinson Cavani’s front post run, which dragged Mikael Lustig away.
When Neymar’s header back across is fluffed by Cavani, Mbappe is in perfect position to follow up. The 18-year-old roamed free of Tierney after the Celtic full-back was forced to break from his man to close down Verratti’s cross.
Une oeuvre d’art.
Signing another centre-back wouldn’t have helped much
BT Sport’s Chris Sutton was insistent this game highlighted Celtic’s failure to recruit another centre-back in the summer. While this observation might be borne out come the conclusion of their Champions League campaign, with five other games in which to work with what they have, it wouldn’t have made too much difference on Tuesday night.
Sure, Lustig playing in his natural right-back position probably would have meant a better production in that spot, but you only have to look at the struggles of his centre-back partner to know the mammoth task Celtic were facing.
Jozo Simunovic is arguably the best centre-back at the club and he was completely discombobulated by the PSG attack. So much so that he desperately wrapped his arms around Cavani to stop the striker getting to a cross, thus giving away a penalty, even though Layvin Kurzawa’s centre would likely have sailed over their heads. He didn’t cover himself in glory much at the fifth goal either.
It’s easy enough to say Celtic can improve on Simunovic, but getting a player of his talent - see his performances against Rosenborg and Astana - for the club’s wage budget would have been a tough ask. Even had Celtic had all their central defenders fit, with Boyata in there alongside Simunovic, they still would have been on a hiding to nothing.
Celtic were awestruck once more
This writer didn’t expect a thrashing because it seemed like this sort of lesson had already been learned.
Matchday one of last season’s Champions League group stage saw Celtic lose seven goals in Barcelona. While Lionel Messi and co were awesome that night, Celtic were complicit in their own downfall. They sat back and admired their opponents and let them waltz through untouched time and again.
There was something about the Barcelona performance in this latest humbling. Celtic seemed to be stuck between trying to press high and wondering whether to stay back, and ended up doing neither. The defenders were often left isolated against arguably the most potent attack in world football, simply because the midfielders didn’t do enough to stop the passes coming into their feet.
Things improved a little in the second half, but then PSG clearly took their foot off the gas - and still scored twice more.
The formation change didn’t work
Brendan Rodgers moved Celtic from the usual 4-2-3-1 to a 4-1-4-1, which often looked like a flat five in the middle of the park. Scott Brown’s display highlighted a number of issues with how this system matched up against PSG. As the natural defensive midfielder, you expected him to sit in front of the back four. However, as PSG were not playing with a natural No.10 - Rabiot was the most advanced of the three, though he tended to move out wide - it left Brown without an obvious opponent to mark. He would often step out to try and lead the team press, creating further gaps to exploit behind him, which also partially contributed to PSG’s second. The same goes for Ntcham, who was caught too high up the park trying to support the attack at the opener.
With Stuart Armstrong having a dreadful game alongside them, one can’t help but wonder if Celtic would have given a better account of themselves by having Ntcham and Brown sitting in front of the defence as an extra layer of protection, and Tom Rogic in the attacking midfield role. The Australian brings with him a certain presence, and this could have helped out the isolated Leigh Griffiths. Rogic didn’t do much when he came on, but he was asked to operate further back than you normally expect to see him.
This is all 20-20 hindsight. Who knows? They may have lost by ten if Rodgers went with the tried and trusted. It felt like PSG could have had any score they wanted.