Wilson: Celtic should be celebrated

ESPNSTAR.com columnist Jonathan Wilson looks at Celtic's 2-1 UEFA Champions League win over Barcelona as anything but being "anti-football".

Football News: Lionel Messi.

By Jonathan Wilson

Good football does not have to be attacking football. The usual complaints were out after Celtic had beaten Barcelona in the Champions League accusing them of having played "anti-football", but let us not ignore the fact that defending is as vital a part of the game as attacking. Football is won by goals scored, not percentage of possession achieved: possession may be the means to the end but it is not the end in itself.

Celtic made only 166 of the 1121 passes in the game, had only 194 of 1286 touches (including crosses and corners), registered only five of 25 attempts on goal and held the ball - by Uefa's statistics - for 28% of the match. They were, by any statistical measure other than goals, outplayed. And this, of course, is where attempts to analyse the game statistically often fall down. There is no golden stat; goals aside, every statistic must be considered in relation to style.

Who is better, a player who completes 99% of passes or one who completes 80%? The figures are meaningless unless you know the type of passes he is attempting to play and the type of passes he is supposed to be playing. Liverpool's Joe Allen, for instance, should regularly score in the high nineties because his job is to rotate the ball, keep it moving and ensure possession isn't lost. When Zambia won the Cup of Nations, though, their central midfielders, Isaac Chansa and Nathan Sinkala, rarely averaged even 80% pass completion because their whole game plan was based on getting the ball forward quickly, accuracy being sacrificed for speed.

So to point out possession stats for Celtic's win over Barcelona is simply to point out that Barcelona had a lot of the ball, which was always likely and was surely always Celtic's game plan. There are still those who criticise Celtic's caution, as though they should have offered themselves up as lambs to the slaughter but, even if you take the view of the Russian theorist Lev Filatov that defensive football is "the right of the weak", it must be borne in mind that Barcelona's annual wage bill, according to sportingintelligence.com is £5.26million and Celtic's £1.07m per player.

It's been widely accepted - at least since USA beat Spain in the semi-final of the Confederations Cup in 2009 - that the best way to beat them is to cede the flanks and pack the centre. It's a gamble - as most tactical ploys are - but essentially a team reasons it can allow Barcelona (or Spain) to put crosses into the box as their central defenders are likely to have the beating of Lionel Messi, Pedro, Alexis Sanchez and David Villa (or Fernando Torres) in the air.

The danger of doing that is twofold. Firstly, vacating the flanks gives Barca's full-backs room in which to advance - which is, of course, how Barcelona scored their winner in the game at the Camp Nou.

And secondly, the risk is that teams end up encamped in their own penalty area as waves of Barcelona attacks pour forward at them. A tiny few survive; most, eventually, succumb to a lapse in concentration or a moment of unstoppable Barcelona brilliance.

Celtic mitigated that by leaving two men up front for most of the game. Georgios Samaras worked tirelessly, chasing clearances, holding the ball up, placing Barca's centre-backs under pressure. He is an oddly derided figure, but this was a lesson in leading the line in a defensive cause. Miku, buzzing just off him, was quick to offer support, while dropping in to be an auxiliary midfielder where necessary. Their effectiveness meant both that Barcelona always had to leave at least a couple of men back themselves, that there was always an outlet for Celtic to relieve pressure and that they always had a secondary objective: they never became bogged down by a bunker mentality and the midfield line, led magnificently by Victor Wanyama, never ended up too deep, on top of the defence.

Of course Celtic rode their luck to an extent - most sides who play so defensively do. Twice Barca hit the woodwork and the Celtic keeper Fraser Forster made a handful of outstanding saves. But that doesn't detract from Celtic's achievement. There is no tactical approach that brings a 100% chance of success; all that a coach can do is to manipulate the percentage chance of a positive result as far in his side's favour as possible. Neil Lennon reduced Barca's threat while retaining his win side's to the extent that it only took a couple of moments of fortune to go Celtic's way for them to win.

Should Barcelona, then, be worried? Does defeat to Celtic - who are, of course, only joint top of a Scottish Premier League denuded of Rangers - indicate major problems, particularly coming a fortnight after they only narrowly beat them at the Camp Nou? There must, of course, be a concern that the tactic of packing the middle and ceding the flanks again caused such problems.

Defensively, particularly in combatting set-plays and apparently long balls over the top, there are major flaws - although getting either Carles Puyol or Gerard Pique fit and playing consistently may ease that. Nor do they have the rhythm of previous seasons.

So the situation is far from perfect, but realistically this remains a formidable Barcelona side. It is still adapting to a change of coach and yet have enjoyed a record-breaking start to the domestic season, dropping just two points in their opening 10 games. Tito Vilanova has made them a touch more direct, has increased their verticality - it was noticeable that against Celtic they never fell into the trap they did against Chelsea last season, say, of endless horizontal passing.
It may even be that the increased verticality is enabling them to win games without having to find that mesmerising tempo.

For Barcelona, defeat in a group game is no great set-back: the key for them is ensuring that come March and April they have addressed their defensive issues and slipped into rhythm by the vital knockout games when a defeat would matter. For Celtic, meanwhile, this was a performance to equal any in the recent history of the club, based in determination, organisation and no little intelligence. It may lead to the knockout stages, it may not; really it deserves to be celebrated in and of itself.

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