Celtic may dominate domestically and comfortably play the slickest football in the Scottish Premier League but in Europe it’s a different story altogether.
The way the Bhoys play under Brendan Rodgers is easy on the eye. It’s football played the right way and the former Liverpool manager has really showcased his tactical flexibility in the way he’s set his side up.
They have the players to go from being heavily possession based to quickly transition into a counter attacking side. They also have the ability to invite pressure onto them or press the opposition high up in their own half.
They’re well rounded, extremely organised and, most importantly, efficient.
However, Europe is a completely different playing field. They’re no longer the dominant side – at least in the majority of matches – and they’re unable to dictate and control key areas of the pitch.
Rodgers doesn’t have the technical players at his disposal to outplay many of those teams they come up against in Europe, and last season he didn’t have the athletes to bully his opponents.
While the former remains the same, and will do for quite some time, they went about addressing the latter by recruiting high energy, powerful midfielders this summer.
Eboue Kouassi arrived in January from Krasnador in a deal worth £3million. He was eased into life in Scotland and made just one appearance, coming on as a substitute against St.Mirren in the Scottish Cup quarter-finals.
It would be easy to categorise him as simply a defensive-midfield destroyer, capable of breaking up play and stifling opponents before handing possession over to a more technically gifted team-mate.
But, although he has demonstrated phenomenal positional awareness and proven himself adept at shielding the back four, Kouassi has much more to his game that.
He played as the deepest midfielder for Krasnador but his strength and dribbling skills make him an ideal profile to play a box-to-box midfield role.
In many respects, his style more mirrors that of Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira than a Claude Makelele-esque defensive midfielder — though Kouassi certainly has plenty of developing to do before he reaches the level of either.
Celtic recently added Olivier Nchtam to their side after parting with £4.5million to tempt Manchester City in selling. And like Kouassi, he’s a player who can dominate the middle third.
He’s often lauded for his ability on the ball, and rightly so, but it’s what he does off it that will make him valuable to Rodgers’ side this season.
He’s defensively switched on, he reads the game well and his clever positioning means he’s able to operate as part of an organised high press.
Both Ntcham and Kouassi are transitional players. They win the ball back during the defensive phase and are able to be part of the transition from defence to attack. It’s this which could be key in those European fixtures next season.
Many teams in Europe like to play out from the back, and if you allow them, they can do the most damage that way. But as Celtic showed during the 3-3 draw with Man City at Parkhead, if you get in their face and disrupt their rhythm the gulf in quality makes no difference.
This is exactly what the new midfield pair have the potential to do.
In the stills above you see Nice looking to play out from defence in their Europa League match against Kouassi’s Krasnador. The man in midfield for the Ligue 1 side drops deep to receive the ball and ‘bypass’ the press from the away side.
But Kouassi makes up the ground to not only put him under pressure, he dispossesses him and get’s the Russian side onto the attack. They eventually score and it all stems from his work to retrieve the ball initially.
If Celtic are clever and look to use the high press then the second wave of pressers – more often than not the deeper midfielders – will be key to this. It plays right into Kouassi’s strengths as a player.
Likewise with Ntcham, who showed during the pre-season friendly against Lyon that he has the tools to be part of what could be a synchronised press from Rodgers’ side.
In the pictures above you see Ntcham putting the Lyon man under pressure and, unlike some who only press to a certain area before dropping off back into shape, the Celtic midfielder harasses him as he drops deeper into his own half.
He’s unfortunate to give away a free-kick in this scenario but had he won the ball back fairly, Celtic had two men in close proximity to spring an attack and get at the Ligue 1 side.
It’s somewhat similar to Rodgers’ Liverpool team during the 2014/15 season. He used Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson as box-to-box midfielders and both got in the face of opposition, looked to break up play but also had the ability to do damage when in possession.They blitzed plenty in their path on their way to a second place finish in the Premier League.
Celtic are unlikely to do a Monaco in next year’s competition but don’t bet against them getting out of the Champions League group stages with their new-look midfield.