Beer-Sheva were not who we expected them to be
Those in the know were insistent. Celtic’s Champions League opponents were a hard team to beat; an opponent willing to put nine, ten men behind the ball and dare the other side to break them down. They were thoroughly organised, disciplined and resolute. That’s what enabled them to pull off a near 30-game unbeaten run on their way to the Israeli title and it’s what helped them eliminate Olympiacos.
Well, for 90 minutes at least, they were the complete opposite of all that.
Instead of the 5-4-1 everyone, including the BT Sport graphics department, assumed they’d start with, Beer-Sheva decided to go 3-5-2 formation, and a rather attacking one at that. The wing-backs were pushed forward and John Ogu - viewed as more of a playmaker than midfield spoiler - sat as the deepest of the midfield three.
This tactical alteration could barely have gone any worse for visiting boss Barak Bakhar. With the speed of James Forrest, Leigh Griffiths and Scott Sinclair, the hosts were able to continuously exploit the space in behind. Even Tom Rogic, one of the slower players in the Celtic XI, enjoyed a stellar 70 minutes on the field. He was able to do this because his supposed marker, Ogu, let him do as he pleased.
It wasn’t Ogu’s only blip. At the opening goal, not only did the Nigerian fail to do more to stop Griffiths dropping deep and executing an up-and-under for Sinclair, he then failed to track the advancing Rogic, who was all alone at the edge of the area to slot into the empty net after David Goresh had collided with Sinclair.
Goal No.2 came after Toure waltzed past Ogu with relative ease before the defender passed for Sinclair on the left. He fed Forrest who found Griffiths running in at the back post.
Though Ogu was not at fault for the third goal, it still highlighted the problem with Beer-Sheva’s system as a simple ball over the top drew a foul from Shir Tzedek. Griffiths then dispatched the ball into the top corner with a perfect free-kick.
Beer-Sheva are flexible
As good as Celtic were in the opening half, it felt as if most of their hard work had been erased in two second half minutes. Despite spending the majority of half-time slumped on the bench like a man devastated by life, Bakhar actually made a tactical alteration that helped bring his side back into the match.
Ovidiu Hoban was pushed forward into midfield as Beer-Sheva went to a 4-3-3 that had midfielder Maor Melikson taking up a false 9 role. The change had a hand in both goals as Celtic were slow to respond.
The first came on the counter attack with Hoban driving the ball forward. He played a one-two with striker Dickson Nwakaeme - now occupying space on the left - before releasing Lúcio Maranhão who drove past Craig Gordon at the keeper’s front post. Hoban fed Nwakaeme on the left once more 90 seconds later. This time the striker’s cross dropped for Melikson who fired in from the edge of the area.
Brendan Rodgers isn’t afraid to make attacking, tactical changes
Ronny Deila was a man loyal to one system. Some of the best managers are. They believe it is the best, and therefore only, way of playing. Rodgers does not.
With Parkhead flatter than the top of Rogic’s crew cut, Rodgers decided to withdraw his midfielder and introduce Moussa Dembele. Seven minutes earlier he’d brought on Saidy Janko for Mikael Lustig. The latter was a like-for-like swap, but Janko is the more attack-minded player. It gave Celtic two full-backs willing to bomb forward, allowing the two wide men (Sinclair and Forrest) to drift inside and join the, now, front-two of Griffiths and Dembele. The home side had basically gone 2-4-4 in attack and it worked to perfection, contributing heavily to goals four and five.
Janko’s advancing run on the right allowed Forrest to take up residence in the penalty area, and the winger was in the right spot to run on to the full back’s cross. When his shot was deflected for a corner, Griffiths swung in the ball from which Dembele restored the two-goal cushion.
Other managers would have moved the parts around at this point, looking to preserve the lead for the away leg. Not Rodgers. He kept the front four together and they contributed to the fifth and final goal. Three of them played a part in the attack which led to Scott Brown firing into the back of the net at the second attempt after drifting in undetected from midfield.
Kolo Toure will contribute to the Celtic attack this season
There was something in the Virgil van Dijk mould about Toure’s performance at Celtic Park. In the first half especially, he continued to step out from defence and would drift past attackers. Aside from his defensive qualities, this is what made van Dijk such a terrific player in Scotland, and one that gave his side an extra dimension. If you’re playing away at Celtic, especially if you’re having to defend for long stretches, the last thing you want is a centre back becoming a threat, because there’s only so many players you can stop. By charging into the opposing half it draws defenders out of position and gives space for the goalscorers to exploit. This is what happened at Celtic’s second goal and it’ll be far from the only time we see such an occurrence this season.
Leigh Griffiths is ready to be Scotland’s No.9
Griffiths progressed rapidly under Deila and he looks set to do so again under Rodgers. His performance against Beer-Sheva went against all criticism he’s had in the past whilst playing for Celtic in Europe, how he can’t hold up the ball properly, or link effectively with the midfield, or find the space in opposing penalty areas to repeat his league heroics against tougher sides. He did all of that, and more, despite playing as the lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 before Dembele’s introduction. Two goals and an assist doesn’t even tell the full story. Celtic may be a much better side for the signings of Sinclair and Toure, but for the meantime Griffiths remains the King of Parkhead. That he’ll be playing in the Champions League regularly this season will surely be enough to persuade Gordon Strachan the striker deserves a run of games as Scotland’s leading frontman.