Brendan Rodgers is renowned for his systemic versatility. Since taking charge of Celtic in 2016 he has utilised an array of different shapes, often adapting to the situation or the opponent on a game-by-game basis. However, he may be wise to stick to his latest system.
Prior to the international break, the Scottish champions reasserted themselves with a 1-0 win over rivals Rangers in the first Old Firm derby of the season. While the one-goal differential suggested a close affair, in reality there was a sizeable gap between the two teams on the day.
This gap was down to Rodgers getting his tactics right once again. While his style, seemingly built on the principles of positional play, remained in place, the shape chosen was an unorthodox one. Initially, based purely on the starting line-up, it appeared to be a 4-2-3-1, though in fact it was a 3-2-4-1.
The system complemented the manager’s overarching tactical principles and worked extremely well. Not only did it help Celtic to create a multitude of good scoring chances, but it allowed them to effectively control the contest from start to finish. And if it works against Rangers, there is a case to be made for using it consistently against other domestic opposition.
3-2-4-1 suits the players
Rodgers’ latest system suits a number of his players, maximising their strengths and, in some cases, minimising their weaknesses. For instance, it allows Kieran Tierney to attack the left flank, while Mikael Lustig on the right tucks in more centrally. The former can thus make use of his dribbling skill, while the latter’s lack of real pace isn’t so much of an issue as he isn’t asked to constantly overlap, underlap or cover his entire flank.
In midfield, the system allows Callum McGregor to operate fluidly in and around the left inside channel, which is where he does a lot of his best work. He can also rotate with Tierney, while Olivier Ntcham can drop deep in the left inside channel to get a better view of the pitch and receive possession without having his back to goal.
On a more basic level, this shape allows Rodgers to use his full squad. With Filip Benković joining Kristoffer Ajer, Dedryck Boyata, Jozo Šimunović, Jack Hendry and Lustig, Celtic have a good number of central defenders to fill out a back three. Furthermore, with Tom Rogic, Ryan Christie, Lewis Morgan, Daniel Arzani, Mikey Johnston and McGregor, they possess a surplus of options to fill the attacking midfield roles.
Isolating Forrest and Tierney
James Forrest is one of the finest dribblers in Scotland’s top flight. Last season, only eight players to have played at least half of their team’s league games completed more than his 7.48 dribbles per 90 minutes. On the ball, the right winger is aggressive, always looking to beat his opposite man and often succeeding in this pursuit.
His early statistics this season are equally good – only three Scottish Premiership players have averaged more than his 9.13 successful dribbles per 90 minutes. Lingering just outside of the top ten in this particular category at the moment is Tierney, who has averaged 7.24 so far.
The 3-2-4-1 system Rodgers used against Rangers helped his side to dominate the centre of the pitch and control possession, which we will get on to in more detail shortly. At the same time, it allowed them to get Forrest and Tierney into one-v-one situations out wide.
Within tactical circles these situations are known as ‘qualitative superiority’ or, in layman’s terms, having one player up against one inferior opponent, or two players up against two inferior opponents, and so on. This is beneficial as the superior players – in Celtic’s case, Forrest and/or Tierney – can use their technical, tactical and physical advantages to beat their opposite men, eliminate at least one defender and advance the attack.
Dominating the centre
Within Rodgers’ 3-2-4-1 system situations of numerical superiority – having more players in an area than the opponent – tend to emerge. The first occurs in build-up, where the back three will often have a numerical advantage over one or two opposing forwards, helping them to create a free man and progress possession. Ajer, in particular, needs no second invitation to drive forward in these situations.
The second occurs in midfield, where the two central midfielders form a flexible square shape with the two attacking midfielders. Against Steven Gerrard’s rough 4-3-3 setup, this worked to give Celtic a four-against-three situation in the centre of the pitch. This caused a defensive headache for Rangers, whose midfielders had to carry out two difficult tasks at once: closing down Scott Brown and Ntcham whilst closing off the space behind for McGregor and Rogic, creators who love operating between the lines.
Having more players in the same area of the pitch isn’t always an advantage. Indeed, if the players’ collective positioning isn’t correct, it could very easily become a disadvantage, leading to cheap giveaways and dangerous opposition transitions into space elsewhere on the pitch.
Celtic’s 3-2-4-1 helps in this sense as it naturally allows for triangle and diamond shapes to appear. These shapes form between the centre-backs, the central midfielders, the wing-backs and the attacking midfielders, ensuring each player has at least two or three passing options on different lines and helping them to keep the ball.
Rodgers’ system works with his principles to help the Scottish champions retain possession and build through the centre. It also has the effect of dragging the opposition into the overloaded centre and subsequently freeing up space in the wider areas for Forrest and Tierney. And, as discussed earlier, anything that gets that duo into situations of isolation is a huge attacking weapon.
The 3-2-4-1 suits Celtic’s squad and helps to maximise the specific talents of their key players, whether it be Ajer’s willingness to push forward with the ball at feet, Forrest’s one-v-one ability in wider areas, or McGregor’s intelligence between the lines. Rodgers should go against his own tradition and stand by the system.