Having beaten the Belgian side 3-0 away from home, the Scottish champions knew that anything better than an equally hefty loss would send them into continental football beyond Christmas. That was secured, but only after a nervy 90 minutes in which Brendan Rodgers’ side were bested tactically.
Anderlecht threatened early on and Craig Gordon had to make a vital stop to prevent Celtic from going 1-0 behind. However, even after negotiating a tense opening 15 minutes, they couldn’t build momentum.
Changes were made at half-time as Rodgers looked to provide greater defensive solidity, but they remained under pressure and went 1-0 down when Jozo Šimunović found his own net after a Dennis Appiah cross.
But Celtic managed to hold on and limit the damage, guaranteeing themselves third place in Group B and a spot in the Europa League to look forward to in 2018. Here we at Football Whispers analyse the major insights from Tuesday night’s game.
ANDERLECHT HIGH PRESS WORKS
Anderlecht knew that they had to start fast to have any chance of overturning their home defeat to Celtic and overtaking their Scottish hosts to seal third place in the group and continue on in Europe. With this in mind, they took an extremely active approach defensively.
The Belgian side deployed a high press and moved to cut off their hosts’ passing options from the back. At the top of their 4-3-3 shape, the wide men – Henry Onyekuru and Pieter Gerkens – were responsible for occupying the vertical channels between Celtic’s centre-backs and full-backs, while Sofiane Hanni pushed up to press Celtic’s centre-backs and goalkeeper.
The front three were then supported by the midfield trio of Sven Kums, Leander Dendoncker and Adrien Trebel, who worked incessantly to restrict and intercept.
With Anderlecht pressing the ball high up the pitch, Celtic opted against their usual approach of patient build-up from within their own defensive third. Instead, Gordon would often look to go long – 23 of his 34 passes were direct – but this only led to giving the ball away further up the pitch.
CELTIC DEFEND DEEP
Throughout the match, Celtic operated a midfield press, only really applying pressure whenever Anderlecht threatened to enter their half. However for much of the first half Rodgers’ side sat far too deep and were overly conservative.
This stance enabled the away side to not only grow in confidence with unchallenged possession, but also allowed them to progress the ball into the middle third and beyond with relative ease.
This only added to the pressure placed on the Scottish champions’ back line. It also had the negative effect of making it difficult to counter-attack, with Moussa Dembélé often lacking nearby support in attacking transitions.
Scott Sinclair has been visibly lacking in confidence at times this season, and the clash with Anderlecht highlighted this. The Englishman, renowned for his pace and directness on the ball, was unable to go past his opposite man, failing to complete one single dribble on the night.
On top of his hesitancy to attack, the former Manchester City man failed to combine well with team-mates. His 66.7 per cent pass accuracy was only better than that achieved by Dembélé, who suffered due to an aforementioned lack of support.
Rodgers reacted to Anderlecht’s strong start by bringing Sinclair in from the left wing to act more centrally in the defensive phase, where he could keep tabs on Dendoncker, who was crucial to the visitors’ build-up.
This was a smart move, but it wasn’t enough to keep the winger on the pitch. At half-time he was substituted and replaced by Tom Rogic, who was more able to keep hold of possession.
SECOND HALF CHANGES
As well as replacing Sinclair with Rogic, Rodgers took off Stuart Armstrong for Olivier Ntcham. The changes provided an injection of energy, though his biggest change was more to do with strategy than personnel.
The former Liverpool boss modified his team’s shape, switching from a 4-5-1 to a 3-6-1, which has worked well in recent matches and caused Bayern Munich plenty of problems. The result of this was a Celtic setup with numerical superiority in the centre, meaning they had better access to their opposition and were able to press more effectively.
With three central defenders, three central midfielders and one attacking midfielder, they were much harder for Anderlecht to play through.
CELTIC WING-BACKS KEY
James Forrest has been in exceptional form this season, occasionally operating as a right wing-back and doing so very effectively.
He was asked to undertake this same role in the second half against Anderlecht, moving deeper after starting on the wing.
While this change came about with primarily defensive motivations – as discussed above, Celtic needed to stop Anderlecht from playing through the centre so easily – it also had some positive side-effects in build-up situations.
The away side remained determined to press high and disrupt early on, but with the wing-backs on either side of a back three Rodgers’ men were in a much stronger position to play out safely. If the centre-backs were forced wide, they had two obvious outlets for passes.
Celtic have switched shapes several times this season, but there is no doubt that the 3-6-1 suits them for occasions like this one.
With pressure ratcheting up due to Anderlecht’s pressing and the home crowd’s desperation, the wing-backs were crucial out-balls.