Angel-ball 2.0? : The changes made by Ange Postecoglou to take Celtic to the next level

Although there is very little new in football tactics – and it may look like a giant game of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ – innovation comes through the renewal of old ideas which are improved or modified in new ways. one way or another.

Pressing is one of those tactical characteristics that are very present in modern football. Arguably the emphasis on this was most often found in the German game, but it is now a regular feature of many European teams.

Pressing is the elimination of space and time by the team not in possession of the ball by quick and immediate action.

The objective is to recover the ball as quickly as possible, therefore to take possession of it against a relatively organized defensive form. Also, it stops the opposition’s control and momentum.

Defenders have always done that and when I was growing up Liverpool striker Ian Rush was a master of front pressing. At the time, this would have been simply called “closing”.

When we talk about pressing here, we are referring to a more systemic, team-wide phenomenon, as opposed to the pressure exerted on wingers by the full-back, for example.

That is, it is pressing by design. A decision taken at team level and integral to the tactics of the day.

This has become more prevalent mainly due to the high degree of defensive control teams can now implement – ​​how do you introduce maximum disruption? For example, at the international level, even lower ranked minnows can be trained to guard a low, closed block that is difficult to penetrate.

Second, with each passing year, increased ability in sports science has led to fitter players able to implement more sprints and play with greater intensity.

Pre-season priority

Pressing is the cornerstone of “Ange-ball” and the first pre-season friendlies have shown a certain focus on this. It seemed – especially in the Rapid Vienna game (it was very hot so less against Banik Ostrava) – that pressing strategies were of paramount importance in this game.

Indeed, Celtic’s third goal came when David Turnbull collected the ball high and into the back right corner, giving Kyogo Furuhashi a great chance which he finished.

Using this example, we see the extent to which Celtic forwards are playing in unison to restrict Rapid’s ability to play.

The ‘trigger’ here is that the ball is trapped near the sideline on their right. This limits (by 50%) the open angles to get the ball out. Celtic forwards are limiting space at pace and, with no player open, Turnbull is able to collect the ball and feed the isolated Furuhashi in the box.

Why it’s hard to press

The disadvantage of pressing was also evident in this game. When the press is evaded then the team is stretched defensively and you often find yourself with many teammates in front of the ball (also known as ‘tacked’) leaving the defense exposed. Rapid had a few chances in such situations.

Not only is the pressure physically demanding — it requires lots of intense sprints — but it’s also mentally challenging. Players must constantly make decisions about positioning, spacing from teammates, and then if and when to “go” (i.e. sprint to perform a press) and where. That’s a lot of decisions.

The teams are working on “triggers” to help them. When the opposition with the ball is in the following scenarios, it should result in a press being triggered. These could be:

  • the ball stuck near the touchline (as above) – limited passing options
  • Receiver with back to goal – cannot see forward pass
  • An opponent receives the ball on their weaker foot – think Carl Starfelt on their left
  • The receiver takes a wrong key – then there will be “heads down” and seconds to get it back under control
  • A poor pass in the direction of direction or pace (e.g. under or over) – this can result in time to close in on the opponent or, if too fast, poor control
  • If the opposing player shows hesitation – it’s time to force an error

All of the above requires great concentration. In addition, each team member must recognize the trigger within a millisecond and react. Is the team ready to respond? How far are the pressers? Would it be easy to play because the right winger didn’t go far enough down the field, leaving an easy exit?

Communication, understanding, spacing, anticipation, concentration… then the energy to actually respond.

The above people are all very difficult to train at the team level. Think of pressing’s most famous performer, Jurgen Klopp. At Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool, with expensive and talented players, it took about three years for his teams to really succeed.

This was partly due to the time and patience needed to coach and implement pressing effectively.

How is Ange Postecoglou?

We know last season that Postecoglou inherited a bin-fire from a workforce management situation. Summer was the time to bring in the bodies and take out the scraps. Winter was the first small step towards building a team. Celtic are still far from an optimally configured squad.

We’ve seen signs in pre-season that this is a priority area, so how will we measure progress? How do you know when it’s not working?

Celtic Way:

Passes per defensive action (PPDA)

PPDA is now a standard in the canon of advanced statistics for describing performance both against and when implementing the press.

It counts the number of successful passes by opposing defensive action (mainly tackles, interceptions and fouls).

Since 2018-19, here is Celtic’s overall performance:

Celtic Way:

On the plus side, Postecoglou’s men are the most press-resistant of recent Celtic sides. His team managed 8.45 assists per opposing defensive action compared to 7.6 during Brendan Rodgers’ midseason.

Unfortunately, Postecoglou’s side also allow the most passing passes per defensive action at 4.46 (compared to 3.3 under Rodgers). Again, the theme here is that small statistical differences lead to huge changes in perception.

This drop in press efficiency is amplified in European competition:

Celtic Way:

Neil Lennon’s 2019-20 European campaign coincided with the best (which in this case is the lowest) against PPDA in recent years. It is not a coincidence.

Postecoglou’s team allows one more assist per defensive action than Rodgers. In short, there is still a lot to do, particularly in Europe.

Packaging

Packing data allows us to see how many Celtic players, and defenders in particular, are knocked out of the game with forward passes.

Squeezing increases the risk of being “wrapped”. The team is pushed forward, there are more spaces to exploit and therefore it is easier to get around the pressers with control, vision, quick thinking and movement.

Celtic Way:

It shows Celtic had more players taken out of the game due to passing forwards last season than in any of the last four. Additionally, the average number of defenders knocked out of the game fell from 10 per 90 minutes to 12.

Once again, this weakness has been amplified in Europe:

Celtic Way:

The European opposition’s ability to get around Celtic players in general, and defenders in particular, has increased significantly under the Australian.

It won’t be entirely down to pressing inefficiency, but it’s a major contributor. High full-backs, wide wingers, pushing central midfielders… once Celtic lose possession in transition there are often big spaces for the opposition to exploit.

Counterattack Opportunities

The highest xG chances outside of penalties are usually quick break chances. In other words, in transition or on the counter-attack, the defense is generally stretched and disorganized. This means there are more spaces and opportunities to occupy good scoring positions.

Let’s look at the xGs conceded in such situations, which can be the result of ineffective pressing:

Celtic Way:

Postecoglou actually improved the amount of xGs conceded per 90 minutes from quick-breaking opportunities through Lennon’s successful 2019-20 season.

You’ll notice he hit 0.42 per 90 minutes during the nightmarish 2020-21 season. On Caucus Breakdown we repeatedly pointed out the ‘toxic combination’ of highly attacking full-backs (Jeremie Frimpong and Diego Laxalt) leaving Shane Duffy relatively immobile and Scott Brown regressing exposed on the counter. This is what it looks like over a season.

However, when we look at European games, we again see a trend.

Celtic Way:

xG per 90 minutes conceded in Europe from fast breaks has nearly tripled since under Rodgers. Postecoglou’s side is by far the most sensitive.

Higher quality teams are more ruthless in exploiting gaps and lack of coordination, leading to poorly executed pressing.

Summary

The pressing is clearly part of the Postecoglou model for the way the team plays.

The team focus on this in pre-season friendlies, with mixed results – and that’s okay, that’s what friendlies are for.

Rooting pressing is a very difficult training goal. It requires teamwork, understanding, coordination, and high-level collective decision-making skills. Plus, you need players with the ground speed, aggression, and mobility to apply it well.

Celtic are currently more exposed to counterattacks and players knocked out of play due to forward passes than at any time in the past five years.

This is due to the extremity of the new tactic and the time it takes to learn it. Plus, you need the right personnel – players like Daizen Maeda as opposed to Tom Rogic, for example.

This weakness is exacerbated in Europe against better quality opponents, while in Scotland, Celtic’s pressing is increasingly effective. But that doesn’t scale well against better teams.

Expect this to take a few more windows and personnel changes to perfect.