One of the most noticeable aspects of Brendan Rodgers’ management has been his willingness, and ability, to tinker. Tactically, few other coaches in the United Kingdom are as able to spot a change in shape that could provide new opportunities.
This trait first came to the fore prior to his appointment as Celtic boss. While in charge of Liverpool he consistently adapted his system in order to maximise the quality of players available to him. The most obvious example of his openness in this respect came following a Champions League clash with Basel.
The Swiss side visited Anfield and picked up a point. Rodgers took note of their system, a rough 3-4-3, and implemented something similar with his own team a mere five days later. A 3-0 defeat to Manchester United wasn’t the most confident of starts, but he persisted with the system.
With Celtic, Rodgers has had even greater license to experiment. In a league dominated by the Glaswegian giants in recent years, he has been able to tinker without the same fear of defeat that existed during his time in the Premier League with Liverpool and Swansea City.
An unsurprising consequence of this is that he has chopped and changed formation on a number of occasions, tailoring his strategy – while keeping the same tactical ideals – to the next opponent and/or the situation.
Formations, as concepts, have gone down in the estimations of many in recent years. Pep Guardiola dismissed them, and when Pep Guardiola dismisses something, many people listen. But formations are not to be completely written off; they remain important as basic frameworks for the team and the individuals within it.
Rodgers, much like the Manchester City man, understands that, while the shape is not all there is to a football match, altering it can change the vista of a game. Hence his use of four different basic systems so far this season. But which one is best for Celtic?
In terms of both quality and quantity, the strongest area of Celtic’s squad is midfield. In Scott Brown, Nir Bitton and Eboue Kouassi they have three proficient holding players, but the real abundance lies in their more creative talents.
Stuart Armstrong, Callum McGregor and Olivier Ntcham can make things happen from deep or drive forward to support attacks, while Tom Rogic likes to play closer to the strikers. Kundai Benyu can play in multiple different roles, while Patrick Roberts, James Forrest, Jonny Hayes and Scott Sinclair ensure pace and skill in the wider areas.
Thanks to the options and different possible combinations these players provide, Celtic are able to shape up in a variety of ways. Whether Rodgers’ opts for a classic flat four, a central three with two wingers, a diamond, or a two-man midfield with three more attacking players in front, he has the individuals to fill each role twice over.
This depth is balanced out in the back line, however, where there is a paucity of central defensive choices. Jozo Šimunović is the team’s best centre-back, but Erik Sviatchenko and Dedryck Boyata haven’t always convinced and Kristoffer Ajer lacks experience.
This, along with injuries, had led to Bitton, Mikael Lustig and Kieran Tierney being tried out in the centre of a back three or four at different stages of this season, each with varying degrees of success.
Up front, the loan signing of Odsonne Édouard was a necessity to provide genuine quality competition for places. Before his arrival, Moussa Dembélé and Leigh Griffiths were Rodgers’ only natural striking options. Even with the youngster’s signing, he doesn’t have the depth to trust in a two-man strike partnership for a full season.
With the depth in midfield combined with a central defensive and striking shortage, it makes sense that Celtic have tended to favour the 4-2-3-1 formation. But do the numbers back up this decision?
WHAT THE NUMBERS TELL US
Last season, the systems Rodgers turned to most were the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3. Celtic won 32 of 39 games in all competitions using the former, earning a win percentage of 82.1 per cent. In the latter, they won nine of 11, earning a win percentage of 81.8 per cent.
Unsurprisingly based on those statistics, the former Liverpool boss has, generally, stuck by the 4-2-3-1 this season. In nine matches within the system, his side have won seven times, scoring 28 goals and conceding 11.
Favourable win percentages have been accrued in other shapes, namely the 4-3-3 and the 3-4-3 (66.7 per cent and 100 per cent) but the real alternative to emerge is the 3-5-2. One of the main tactical benefits of this system is that it allows Rodgers to add an extra attacking player to the line-up while at the same time enhancing his team’s build-up.
Within the back three, the outer central defenders are tasked with driving forward with the ball at feet and picking penetrative passes. Essentially, they attack the opposition, drawing them out and creating space behind to be exploited by Celtic’s midfield and attack.
With this intent, Tierney, a technically gifted and intelligent left-back, has looked good when selected on the left side of a back three.
The 3-5-2 has been deployed three times this term, resulting in two wins and one draw. The most exciting numbers are the goals scored and conceded while using this formation. Rodgers’ side have scored 3.3 per game and let in a mere 0.7 per game in the 3-5-2; thus it produces more goals and allows fewer than the 4-2-3-1.
Rodgers need not tinker much further, however. His 4-2-3-1 gets the best out his personnel and, one 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain aside, it has a good record. With this in mind, below is how he could line his team up for this weekend’s clash with Dundee.