After Celtic’s tough defeat to Sporting Braga in the Champions League qualifying round, every Celtic fan was hoping for an easier route into the Europa League group stage. But it was not to be, as FC Utrecht’s name came out of the hat.
An unknown quantity to many who do not follow the Eredivisie, there is much to learn about a team that could knock Celtic out of European football, in what would be a disastrous start to Neil Lennon’s season.
Last season Utrecht finished the league in seventh position, qualifying for the subsequent play-off tournament to win the last Europa league place. In the first round they beat FC Groningen 5-1 on aggregate, 3-1 at home and then an impressive 2-0 victory away, with Ricky van Wolfswinkel scoring two goals in the two games.
In the games against Roda JC for the Europa League place, another great away victory was followed by a 4-1 victory at home. Yet Utrecht had only scored 39 games in the regular season but managed to score 11 in four play-off games, demonstrating they are a team not to be messed with in a two leg system.
During the regular season they were a very up and down team, with only two defeats at home conceding 12 goals, eight wins and seven draws. Their away form let them down at times, six wins, four draws and seven defeats, and with no away wins against any of the “big” teams. However they did beat Ajax and AZ Alkmaar at their home 25,000 Galgenwaard Stadium.
Ton du Chatinier is the man at the helm for his first big job, moving up from the post of assistant in 2008 having played 235 games for Utrecht from 1977 to 1987 as a defender. The man he replaced, Foeke Booy, moved upstairs and is now Technical Director. Ex-Rangers coach Jan Wouters is his assistant.
The last trophy Utrecht managed to win was the KNVB cup in 2004, they also won it in 2003, beating FC Twente 1-0 in the final in 2004, MLS veteran Dave van der Bergh with the only goal. In 2003 they beat Feyenoord 4-1 in the final, with now Liverpool and ex-Feyenoord forward Dirk Kuyt, listed as Kuijt back then, scoring the fourth goal.
To gain an understanding of how Utrecht play and what kind of threat they will bring, a look at their second leg victory in the Europa League against FC Luzern and the opening game of the Eredivisie season away to Feyenoord were two good games to watch.
Utrecht managed an impressive 3-1 victory in Luzern, showing what a dangerous attacking force they can be. Then against Feyenoord after starting well, they were unlucky to be on the losing side of a 3-1 defeat. Du Chatinier played the same XI in both games. Barring injury, it seemed a very stable selection and all the players looked comfortable with each other, something Celtic as of yet have not looked.
In both games the line-up remained the same starting with what looks like a basic 4-4-2 formation, however once the game starts there is nothing basic about it, when Utrecht don’t have the ball the positioning looks more like 4-2-2-2 with Lensky and Silberbauer dropping deep to cover the back four, and Mertens and Asare playing very narrow, primarily to keep the midfield tight, make the opposition play wide.
Against Luzern the ball was played diagonally into their box where Schut and Wuytens had no trouble clearing the danger. Then, when they regained possession, it turned quickly more into a 4-1-3-2 and Silberbauer was happy to hold his position, allowing Lensky to push on through the middle and Asare and Mertens provide the width.
The first goal versus Luzern came from a great piece of football, Striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel chased back into the midfield and won the ball back. (1) Lensky and (2) Silberbauer were happy to sit and slow down the fast break, allowing (3) van Wolfswinkel to win the ball back. He then played a simple ball to Mertens who had drifted into the space between midfield and defence, with no Luzern player tracking his run.
This allowed (4) Asare and (5) Mulenga to find the space, Mulenga playing right on the defensive line keeps both the centre back and full back occupied, in turn drawing the other centre back (6) towards the ball, allowing Asare to attack the space. Mertens then played an easy ball in front of Asare and he showed his ability with both feet to finish on his left foot.
A very simple goal but it showed a great understanding from Utrecht of where the space was on the pitch. Mertens occupied the area van Wolfswinkel would usually be, Mulenga drifted wide on the left and Asare got in behind.
Nine minutes later, Utrecht were 2-0 up again and it was a case of players being intelligent and doing the simple things well. It wasn’t the prettiest build up with goalkeeper Vorm launching the ball forward.
From the picture, you can see the midfield set up in the four with Asare tucking inside. However this goal is mostly down to Mulenga’s physical threat and van Wolfswinkel’s anticipation. Mulenga (1) challenges with both centre backs, he doesn’t win the ball, however it flicks off the head of a defender and (2) van Wolfswinkel is the first to react. With no defenders anywhere near him, he has the simple task of putting the ball past the Luzern keeper, which he does with a touch of class, a little dink, lovely football.
The goal that wrapped up the game doesn’t take much analysis; Silberbauer picked up the ball 45 yards from goal, charges past four Luzern defenders and lofts the ball over the goalkeeper. Yet another lovely piece of individual skill but very poor defending.
Luzern did manage to peg one goal back in the second half and it comes from an area that could be a weakness of the Utrecht side. The attack made it’s way to the left side of Utrecht’s defence, Nesu failed to close the ball down, the cross came in and the ball was flicked to the back post, a lovely header, but too little too late for the Swiss side.
Going forward Utrecht are a very talented side, however they do have weaknesses in defence. Holding a 1-0 lead and keeping out wave after wave of Feyenoord attack, they were finally broken down on the 52nd minute. Wijnaldum found fullback de Vrij flying down the right, his cross could only be turned into the net by Utrecht’s Schut and this seemed to open the floodgates.
The second goal was a disaster defensively. Smolov made a great run forward and draws both (1) centre backs towards him, (2) Silberbauer, Lensky and Asare make no effort to work back and defend, Cornelisse playing at right back is also drawn towards the ball, a goal was inevitable with Cabral (3) free on the left. As an option it was the trailing Luigi Bruins (4) that provided the finish as the ball broke to him on the edge of the box with no one near him, and he was able to pick his spot and fire the ball past Vorm.
Utrecht’s main weakness it seems is on their left side. As fantastic an attacker Dries Mertens seems to be, he is not interested in helping Nesu with his defensive duties. This leaves the Romanian very isolated and with two players working together at times he is left stranded, over the two games, three of the four goals they conceded came from poor defending on the left.
These same principles will also apply to Celtic’s left hand side. Utrecht’s full back Tim Cornelisse can be seen at times covering the centre backs pulling himself out of position, the diagram above shows Cornelisse being drawn towards the ball, and the Feyenoord left winger Cabral is in acres of space on the left.
This is another area Celtic could take advantage of. Against Sporting Braga at home, Samaras played on the left but as he is not a natural winger, very often he wandered inside taking away the option of width on the left. When he was given the ball, his first thought was not to deliver a cross but to come inside and try to create something.
Celtic could benefit from either playing a more natural left-footed player like Joe Ledley or the youthful energy of 19-year-old James Forrest against the 32-year-old full back. The discipline in maintaining width on each flank could be of paramount importance to how successful Celtic can be over the two legs.
Cha Du-Ri could also be a very important player for Celtic over the two legs, despite the defensive frailties he has shown. He has already shown a desire to get forward and his ability to get balls into the box and this could be Celtic’s best route to goal.
Celtic’s midfield will need to play very smart. When Cha makes his runs forward, Juarez, Brown or whomever Lennon picks need to be very wary of Mertens and make sure he is covered, as their first goal against Luzern showed they are very capable of hitting on the counter attack.
Against Inverness on Saturday as Celtic began to dominate the second half Cha Du-Ri’s attacking instincts were very apparent. In the move shown above, Fortune is happy to hold up the ball as Cha makes the overlapping run (1), The midfielder can’t keep up with the full back (2) Cha, who then uses the Inverness defender (3) as a shield to attack the byline.
The three defenders in the centre can only watch as Cha whips in the cross, unfortunately in this attack Maloney’s shot was saved and went behind for a corner. This is a great example of how given a two-on-one match-up, the full backs are very important.
It is not just in the wide areas that Celtic could take advantage. With Utrecht playing with only two natural central midfielders, Lennon’s 4-2-3-1 formation should give Celtic an extra player in the middle of the park. Not only will this be important in the Scottish club retaining possession, the extra player will have space to make forward runs either to link up with the lone front man, but also to put himself on the end of any crosses into the box.
Luigi Bruins was able to score Feyenoord’s second goal because Utrecht’s defence was pulled out of position and he found that pocket of space between defence and midfield, an area where Maloney, Juarez or Ledley could find very fruitful.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Dries Mertens is an exciting young player, only 23 years old after being released by Anderlecht as a youngster he has gone through he Dutch ranks winning player of the season in the Dutch 2nd Division for AGOVV, made his debut for Utrecht in 2009 and went on to score 6 goals in 36 games, a very talented attacking midfielder.
Plays mostly on the left, and as happens in modern football these days he is very right footed, loves to cut inside, a hard player to track and he loves to drift around the pitch finding space to pick up the ball and cause teams problem, there is a touch of the Mesut Oezil about him, good passer of the ball, great ball control, has the ability to rip a defence apart all on his own.
Another exciting young talent for Utrecht is Ricky van Wolfswinkel, in 17 games for Utrecht last year he scored 8 goals and has been rewarded with a call up to the Dutch friendly against the Ukraine later this month, scored 8 goals in his season at Vitesse and looks to be a player to look for in the present not just the future.
He has already scored 3 goals in 2 games in the league and a goal against Luzern in the Europa League he is a player Celtic will need to watch closely, runs the channels well to create space for Mertens and Lensky, also drops deep to collect the ball, for such a young player he is a calm finisher, doesn’t lack confidence in anyway, a very talented striker.
A few players in their team that I recognise Michel Vorm is their goalkeeper the 26 year old has 4 Dutch caps, his first competitive game coming at Hampden Park against Scotland in a World Cup qualifier, he was part of van Marwijk’s World Cup squad although never saw any minutes.
Danish midfielder Michael Silberbauer is another player Celtic fans might remember he play for FC Copenhagen for 4 years; he played in the 3-1 victory of Celtic in 2006 and the earlier 1-0 defeat at Celtic Park.
Jacob Lensky is a name a few Celtic fans may remember, I was at Celtic Park when he was brought out at half-time as the next youth prospect the 16 year old would spend 3 years in the academy never playing for the first team, and eventually left to sign his first professional contract with Feyenoord, only ever playing 1 game in 2007, he then quit football in 2008, 4 months later he was training again with 2011 MLS expansion team the Vancouver Whitecaps, he declined a trial with the Seattle Sounders, then in 2009 he signed a one year deal that was then extended with FC Utrecht, he has gone on to play 29 games, he looks to have grown up from his year in Utrecht, reminds me a little of Paul Scholes, not just the colour of his hair, he is able to sit deep and defend however picks his runs well, breaking into the box and causing a threat, also like Scholes he is not afraid to throw in a tackle.
Obviously to retire at 19 and come back you have to question his mentality, when picked for Canada he was asked about the link with the Czech Republic to which he responded.
“Yeah, I love Canada, but in truth soccer is soccer to me. It’s all pretty much the same, so if the Czech team came and asked me – maybe, sure. But they didn’t, so I’m going to the call up just focussing on it and playing my game. Some people don’t like it and that’s ok.”
Not exactly showing full commitment to a countries cause, no surprise he changed his mind, a talented player but a troubled mind.
Although not full of top names, they are a young team with lots of potential, the pundits will make Celtic favourites to win, however both ties will have to be treated with caution if the Glasgow giants want to play European football past August this season.