How are Celtic closing the gap in the Champions League?

How are Celtic closing the gap in the Champions League?

Celtic’s campaign ended with a 5–1 defeat against Real Madrid

Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou said he was “disappointed” but not “disheartened” as his side ended their Champions League campaign with a sobering defeat at the Bernabeu.

The same themes were evident in the 5-1 loss to Real Madrid who have been there in each of their six unbeaten group stage matches. Chances created. Missed chances. The chances were dropped. Made chances.

“Bridging that gap is not huge but it’s the hardest thing to get,” Postecoglou said afterwards. “You talk about scoring goals at this level, which is not the easiest thing to do.”

But how can Celtic improve? If the Scottish champions defend their title and return to the Champions League next year, what must they do to go one better?

Take some of their many chances

The story of Celtic’s campaign has revolved around taking chances or rather squandering them. And while it’s not quite as simple as saying: “if only they’d been more clinical, they’d have scored more”, it certainly helped.

The statistics are stark and show that Celtic created about as many goalscoring chances as they conceded. But the difference was that the resistance was much more clinical.

Postecoglou’s side had 80 shots in the six games – 30 of which were on target – but they scored just four goals. They conceded 79 shots – 32 of which hit the target – but 15 ended up in the back of the net.

Celtic’s conversion rate was under 5% – a terrible return. Had they been more lethal in front of goal, they would have at least managed to get a win, especially in the matches against Shakhtar.

But overall, their expected goals rating was 9.85, while their expected goals against was 11.45. So while converting chances was a big problem, conceding chances was also a big problem.

Changes the playstyle a bit

Postecoglou has been clear that he will not change his approach, but is a bit more pragmatism needed within that?

That doesn’t mean suddenly becoming a defensive team, it just might mean adjusting things. It also means strengthening the side, especially in central defense and midfield.

Injuries in this campaign, particularly to captain and midfield general Callum McGregor, didn’t help but generally Celtic were too open in the middle of the pitch.

Against Real you can see the average positions of the midfield three are very high, along with the full backs.

Average positions against Real Madrid
Celtic (purple) were caught with plenty of bodies going forward against Real Madrid

Taking that risk requires either total precision with the ball in attack to progress, or defenders who are extremely good at defending in wide areas and in one-on-one situations to stop counter-attacks. Or they could commit fewer bodies forward.

“In this competition you get exposed if you don’t adapt,” former Celtic goalkeeper Pat Bonner said on Sportsound.

“Nobody says he [Postecoglou] must compromise his attacking style and build his way through the back three. But they must learn to stay in the game against top opposition.

“Maybe make the players think a bit differently. Instead of taking 80% risk to run forward, maybe they should sit a bit and help their colleague in the midfield.

“They play with inverted full-backs not in a defensive role, but more to be in as a player who can get on the ball and take risks. They leave themselves a bit exposed.”

Gain – or recruit – more experience

Another factor Postecoglou pointed to is his team’s inexperience. Of the regular starters, only McGregor and Joe Hart had played significant minutes in the Champions League group stage before this season.

Playing at high speed in packed arenas on the biggest stage for the first time helps partly explain the lack of composure in moments, with and without the ball. The latter has been a problem, with Celtic’s frenetic pressing often picked off.

Having a year of learning will certainly help if they can return next season, but it will likely require smart transfer dealing and player retention, as well as better quality signings.

Players proven at this level are likely to be out of Celtic’s price range, meaning the current group will have to learn, and even then that doesn’t guarantee better results.

Clubs like Club Bruges, who reached the round of 16 this season, have proven that you can improve through experience in the Champions League. But experience is only part of the equation.

Investment, and a good dose of damage luck is also required. It is a daunting task.

“I don’t think it’s one of those things where you get better every year you’re in,” Postecoglou admitted. “That’s not how it works at this level. There are some pretty good football clubs that haven’t qualified for the next round this year.

“I have no doubt that our first job is to qualify next year and if we are in I think we will have more of an impact but that doesn’t mean it will be a big step. But I don’t think not that it needs to be.”

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