Anyone from FC Midtjylland looking to analyse Celtic by looking at last season’s performances is likely to be wasting their time. Not only has there been managerial change, the personnel and the system of play has altered greatly. Should the opposition choose to look at recent friendly encounters it is difficult to see where any further insight might be gleaned. The analysts may work out a formation but the intricacies of how Celtic’s new manager wishes to play won’t be guaranteed.
Celtic after all have used over 30 players in pre-season and many have shifted in position over four friendly encounters, so deciding on who is likely to start the game and which position they will take up is no easy task to decipher.
There are however parallels when it comes to FC Midtjylland and Celtic that make it nigh on as impossible for Celtic to interpret just how our Danish opponents will line up and play too. It’s a game where Celtic will have to find an edge from somewhere to win this encounter, yet a comparable level of difficulties in a shift handover at management level and shop floor indicate there is an opportunity for Celtic.
Much like Celtic, FC Midtjylland are under new management. Bo Henriksen has taken charge and be it through injuries or disgruntled players with an eye on the exit door, not everyone has bought into the revolution and it is taking time to get the message across. As such despite Celtic’s patchy pre-season and slow recruitment, it may well be advantageous to realise our opponents are in a similar state of flux to ourselves.
Had Celtic been playing the well-established FC Midtjylland of last season against our currently undercooked squad I’d be writing this article advising we had little to no hope over two legs, now however we certainly have a chance. Not only have they their own set of wantaways, they also like Celtic, have injury concerns also.
Frank Onyeka, the Nigerian international central midfielder, knows he is heading to Brentford and his head is turned, Rennes have unsettled Jens-Lys Cajuste, striker Sory Kaba is allegedly refusing to pull on his boots and Danish player of the year and left sided central defender Alexander Scholz has jumped ship for Japan for a pittance. This has ripped out the guts of the Danes spine and has led to disjointed pre-season performances under the guidance of a manager with little top flight experience.
FC Midtjylland are ahead in their preparations however confidence is low and hoped for momentum by way of an early win ahead of this Champions league qualifier has been impacted as they started their league campaign with a surprising 2-1 home defeat to Odense, one that is likely to have hit the confidence early doors. Yet Celtic will still have to find some sort of togetherness and cobble together a First XI that can take advantage, that is no easy task in itself but if we do there are opportunities.
The Danes are likely to line up in a 4-3-3 formation, they also to play with two number eights and both those players are likely to stick close to our own. As such expect both David Turnbull and Callum McGregor to have shadows all night.
Their main orchestrator in midfield however will be the Brazilian Evander. When this game goes to a second leg Evander is likely to play as a number 10, however you’d assume he will play a deeper role tonight given it’s an away tie. However, if Evander does play the advanced role, you’ll see just how confident FC Midtjylland and Bo Henriksen are that Celtic are there for the taking or whether their own teething problems around their rebuild will see Henriksen adopt a more cautious approach.
The big worry for Celtic however will be away from the spine of their side as the strength of the Danes comes down their left-hand side as Pione Sisto, the Danes goalscorer at the weekend, and the Brazilian Paulinho are very tight down that flank and have a good understanding. Sadly, for Celtic with no new signing having materialised so far and our only recognised right back being Tony Ralston, that pits our opponent’s strongest area of the team against arguably our weakest, particularly with the previously self-isolating James Forrest having had little preparation time to be risked as a supporting influence ahead of Ralston.
The squad released by UEFA yesterday also omitted new signing Liel Abada, however that squad will have been submitted by the club by Thursday’s registration deadline, with two wildcards that could be added up to last night’s deadline there is still a chance Abada could start and give some genuine width, balance and attacking threat to occupy Paulinho and assist Ralston defensively. Although a proviso should be made that there is nothing in Abada’s stats to suggest defensive discipline is a trait he has in his armoury.
Despite this there is hope on the opposite side that Celtic could find some joy and a weakness to exploit. Right back Henrik Dalsgaard, signed after being discarded by Brentford ahead of their first season in the English Premier league, is now 31, was already showing signs of waning last season in the Championship and clearly wasn’t going to be exposed to Premier League football.
I’ve watched a fair bit of Dalsgaard over the last few seasons as I continue to follow the fortunes of the West London club, I watched while living in London. Dalsgaard is a functional defender however he isn’t the quickest to react and is susceptible when he is cut inside on and forced onto his left foot. With Erik Sviatchenko the right sided central defender, a wily performer but also not the paciest of players, there is an opportunity for Celtic to target the gap between the two players.
Celtic though have to have someone to take advantage of the lack of mobility of both defenders. With Mikey Johnston the ideal candidate unlikely to be fit, it is hard to see a player in the squad from the wide players at our disposal who could carry out the task. There may however be a wildcard of our own we could play.
Odsonne Edouard has made the squad, yet Albian Ajeti seems first choice in a central position. As such there is scope to play Edouard off the left side and encourage him to cut across Dalsgaard onto Sviatchenko and also his stronger right foot. The Danes don’t appear so positionally adept or disciplined on that side and whether it is to link with Ajeti or strike for goal there could be merit to fitting both players into the team. When being countered that would mean Greg Taylor could be exposed a little but there is scope for Callum McGregor to add some extra cover as and when required.
In truth defensive cover for both our full backs will be essential. This Midtjylland team are fairly direct, particularly down the flanks and early cross balls are their main source of attack. They do still carry some threat centrally as Evander carries the ball well but the majority of the threat comes from wide areas.
As such, with Celtic’s somewhat problematic ability to defend cross balls continuing to be evident even in pre-season, cutting off crosses at source will be essential. Ralston in particular will need help but our central defenders need to be disciplined and not vacate central positions given our weakness in aerial duels, so support from either Turnbull dropping deep, something he has shown in recent friendlies, to assist or Ismaila Soro providing back up could be essential.
Soro is also going to have to be sharp to picking up second balls at the edge of the area because as much as we struggle to defend cross balls it is often that second phase of play where Celtic are picked off.
Celtic have an excellent midfield three in Soro, McGregor and Turnbull, some of the link up play in attack between the two more advanced midfielders has been particularly promising of late and winning that midfield ground will be vital if Celtic are to win tonight. As such having Soro fit to play and patrolling behind them will be vital as the insurance policy when they go forward and link with Ajeti or our wide players. Celtic will also have to find a way to counter a high press from the opposition, but if we can play through that and get the ball wide quickly to the wings, we can target both full backs of Midtjylland who are encouraged to also go forward.
It would be understandable for many of us to think this game has come too early for Celtic and there is clear merit in that argument, but our opponents have concerns of their own, are also in transition and look on paper to be weaker than the side who performed admirably in Europe last season.
There are parallels evident both on and off the field between the two clubs that probably leave this encounter in the 50/50 category. As such it may take something leftfield to grab an advantage in this encounter.
Playing Odsonne Edouard but doing so in a left sided role may be a move that can target a weakness in the opposition and eke out a first leg advantage for Celtic. It is something our opponents are unlikely to expect and, in a game, where we need to find an edge, it may well be worth the risk.
Taking a win to Denmark is going to be vital, it will be a shot in the arm for Celtic and maybe enough to put a transitional opponent into a crisis of confidence ahead of the second leg.