Tactical Analyis: Ange Postecoglou

by | May 15, 2022

Every revolution is born in order to change the status quo. And it is born out of a collective idea, a unique impression to unite the masses for eternity. For a revolution to become successful, you need to have not just the brains behind the idea but the brute strength to support that idea and bring everyone together. You need to have a Leader to make It possible, who knows how to connect on a mental level with the followers to put them on the same page and keep them motivated towards the fulfilment of the ultimate goal

The history will never forget the Greeks for what they achieved and their contribution to various fields will be unforgettable for time immemorial. In Sports, many thought that the Greek victory in Euros 2004 (article link) was the pinnacle. But what they didn’t know that this was just the beginning. While, the progress in football slowed down; the country progressed in other sports: especially basketball and tennis. Antentokounmpo brothers have taken the NBA by storm (the back story about their rise to the top can make even the most cold-hearted person shed a tear), Olympiakos and Panathinaikos has lit the brazier in EuroLeague. Stefanos Tsitsipas is breaking many records at a young age for a Greek tennis player. But it is the Greek export who has proved his doubters wrong (and as Jurgen Klopp once said: converted ‘doubters into believers’).

The man under the spotlight? Ange Postecoglou.

A relatively unknown football manager outside the Euro-bubble, the Australian-Greek manager has made a big name of himself in his native country and Japan over the years. Born in Athens, his family emigrated to Melbourne, Australia when the 1967 coup in Greece completely destroyed his father’s business. A move half-way around the world and the culture shock that comes with it is not easy to handle which the Postecoglou family also faced. It is these experiences which made a young Ange learn about humility and the value of hard-work (which he has shown in his entire professional career). People say they go to another country for a better life. My parents did not have a better life, they went to Australia to provide opportunities for me to have a better life.

Managerial profile

Ange had a modest playing career, playing in it’s entirety in Australia for his hometown team, South Melbourne; winning 2 league titles with them while also earning 4 caps for the Socceroos. He ventured into football management; eventually becoming the manager of South Melbourne in 1996. He led them to 2 consecutive league championships in 1997-98 and 1998-99 season and also winning the 1999 version of Oceania Club Championship, thus taking a tiny team from South of Melbourne to FIFA Club World Cup. His work as manager of South Melbourne didn’t go unnoticed and the Socceroos soon came with an offer of managing the U17 Australian side, a young side with it’s high coming a year before where they reached the finals of FIFA U17 World Cup, hosted by New Zealand- only to bow down to the mighty Brazilians in the final. He achieved a total domination in the OFC Championships, winning the 2001, 2003 and 2005 versions and even reached the quarter finals of the 2003 version of FIFA U17 World Cup.

He was then promoted to the U20s setup where he managed the likes of Robbie Kruse, Adam Federici and Danny Vukovic who went on to make a decent career in Europe. A victory in OFC U20 Championships was marred by failure to qualify for FIFA U20 World Cup due to poor display in the inaugural AFC U20 Championship saw Socceroos relieve Ange of his duties.

Ange then embarked on a new adventure, returning to his roots, to Greece. He took up his first ever job in Europe, as manager of 3rd division side Panachaiki. He kept the side in contention of promotion but a falling out with the directors led to his departure inside 9 months. A short break from management did him a great deed when he came back with a renewed vigour to take reigns at Brisbane Roar. 3 Trophy laden years at Brisbane saw him move further up with Melbourne Victory. His stay at Melbourne Victory was a short one when Socceroos approached him once again, this time to appoint him the manager of senior team.

Ange took the reigns of the remnants of the Golden Generation when Australia played at 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil; pitted against the previous edition finalists: Netherlands, defending champions Spain and South American champions Chile. It was a difficult group but Australia still delivered some respectable performances.

A thrilling AFC Asian Cup campaign in 2015 saw Australia lock horns with South Korea in the final, which Australia won 2-1 after extra time. Once, qualification for 2018 FIFA World Cup was confirmed, Postecoglou resigned from his position which shocked many Socceroos fans.

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

His next destination? Japan. Yokohama F Marinos approached him to take over as manager, a position which he did take over at the end of 2017. He guided the team to their maiden league title in 15 years once he settled down in Japan and moulded the team in the way he wanted them to play. There was an active interest from Greek national team to sway him away from his job at Marinos but he eventually signed a short-term extension to stay put in Japan.

Tactical setup

Postecoglou’s success in the A-League with Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory led to him getting the Australia job. He took the national team to the 2014 World Cup, playing an attack first oriented 4-2-3-1. Wide forwards and full backs were the key to modest success as Socceroos boss. Mile Jedinak and his partner in the midfield stay put so that fullbacks could bomb forward and the wide forwards came in-field to play in between the lines. When the central midfielders got on the ball in deep positions, they either looked to play direct balls up to Cahill, or targeted the wide midfielders.

(Credits: The Coaches’ Voice)

He used 4-3-3 as well which provided the team with more balance and extra cover in the centre of the pitch and Postecoglou evolved to put more emphasis on keeping a structured possession system instead of just playing on transitions. Ange even used a 3-4-2-1 while keeping the tactical skeleton same, complex rotations in order to isolate the opposition in various zones on the pitch.

But it is at Yokohama F. Marinos where he perfected his system; which eventually led him to another league title in his budding career and Japanese club’s first major honour in 15 years. At Marinos, he used a 4-3-3 but instead of bombarding full backs and narrow wide forwards, he chopped the system. Instead, he used fullbacks in a more unconventional way. Instead of making just overlapping runs, Ange instructed them to make more underlapping runs into the central channels. Instead, wingers stayed wide instead of being narrow and central midfield became very fluid to accommodate the inverting full backs, with one of the #8s going wide to press back the opposition and carve out an opening using either a cut back or by pinging a pass into the opposite half space. Postecoglou selected wide forwards who could beat an opponent and could therefore occupy two defenders, which would then free up another player elsewhere.

Coaching Philosophy

Ange Postecoglou is very flexible when it comes to management. He puts equal emphasis on the coaching aspect and well the management aspect of dealing with the emotions. He has a set tactical philosophy and he likes the player recruitment to complement his coaching style but he is flexible in chopping up systems according to changing situations. He has always been a performance first manager. Results can be churned out but in long term, you need to prefer the performances. According to him, good performances will eventually lead to consistently good results.

He likes to integrate youth with experience, always ready to give younger players a chance; not just giving minutes to youth for the sake of it but phasing them in favourable surroundings which don’t hamper their development and destroy their confidence. These are 2 very important aspects to maximize the output from younger players.

His man-management style has been moulded from his experiences as a Greek immigrant growing up in Australia, learning the value of hard-work and humility from his family and instilling the same at the clubs where he has managed. He is very direct, honest person and has a way with his words when it comes to presenting his ideas, improving not just the playing attributes of his players but also emphasizing on the human element of his players as well, striving for them to not only become a better player but a better human being as well.

Ange was always attracted to the Australian rules football from a young age and he found his motivation to become a professional player (and afterwards) manager because of his love for the game and his father, “My motivation,” he would say when he’d become a football manager, “is always to produce teams [my] dad would enjoy watching.”

(Ange with his father)

Formed by Brother Walfrid as a means to help curb the poverty among the Irish immigrants living in East End of Glasgow, Celtic Football Club was eventually set up as a private limited company with a select few families seeing their descendants taking their place in the board of directors. Even after seeing success come their way over the years, this family dynasty at the club was making it run on fumes. Jock Stein and his ‘Lisbon Lions’ made history but they were often underpaid in comparison to their counterparts at Rangers (and even the Edinburgh based clubs: Hearts and Hibernian).

(Jock Stein with his ‘Lisbon Lions’: a team built from local Glasgow players who defeated Inter Milan in Lisbon in order to win Champions League)

The club was less than 24 hours of going bankrupt in 1990s when it was sold to a Canadian-Scot businessman: Fergus McCann who bought the club for 9 million and ensured that club can ‘modernize’ with the changing times: funding the major re-development of ‘The Paradise’: Celtic Park and also re-structuring the way club was run: changing it into a public listed company and even offering the fan led coalition to become the major share-holder after 5 years of his ownership.

With this re-structuring, 90s was for Rangers to enjoy but the appointment of Martin O’Neil turned a new chapter in Celtic’s history. Led by the mercurial Henrik Larsson, a club which was looking at getting erased from history was lining up in sunny Seville for a major European final in less than 10 years. Though, McCann owned the club for just 5 years but he sold his share for a profit of 40 million to the next biggest share-holder: Dermot Desmond (ironically it was Dermot who sold his share in Manchester United which ensured that the Glazers family became the principal owners of the club in 2005).

While the family dynasty at Celtic was a thing of past but the way they ran the club, was very much evident under Desmond’s stewardship as well. In 2012, it was Rangers who faced the similar fate which was hanging on Celtic’s head in 1990s. In this case, there was no one to save their parent company from getting liquidated and the club staring at rock bottom: 4th tier of Scottish football pyramid. And there was absolutely no one to give competition to Celtic due to disparity of funds distributed in Scottish football (and football in general nowadays). Despite the mismanagement, Celtic did find success come relatively easy with Rangers out of the picture, starting in 4th tier of Scottish Football.

Neil Lennon, Ronny Delia and Brendan Rodgers brought about a domination at domestic level but Celtic was lacking success at European stage (partly due to no direction in running the club and partly due to poor distribution of funds at European level, rich becoming richer scenario).

While Rangers, starting from absolute bottom learnt from their past mistakes and came back to Premiership in 4 years, but this time they had a direction, a plan to reach the heights of the past. A direction in how they want to play, how they want to recruit, how they want to grow at European stage.

All of that happened under Steven Gerrard’s reign: deep runs into Europa League and eventually winning the Premiership, bringing in 55th Championship in club’s history (or 1st as many hardcore Bhoys will say). Not only did Rangers win the league but they stopped the dream of a 10th consecutive title for Celtic (just like they did when they stopped Jock Stein from winning a 10th league title in a row). And there are a lot of parallels in these.

A Rangers team with renewed strategy to progress as a club, Celtic marred with complacency and mismanagement, a team bereft of any direction. Disconnect between fans and club ever growing. And again, to mention: your arch rivals looking ready to dominate the domestic scene and even having the tools to have modest success at European stage.

Whoever was going to be the next Celtic manager had a MASSIVE task on his hands. And that’s where the protagonist of our article comes in.

Ange Postecoglou and Celtic: a bond meant to be  

When Brendan Rodgers was poached away by Leicester City, Celtic turned their heads to then Hibernian manager Neil Lennon to once again take over as Celtic Manager. Pitting him against Steven Gerrard and first major managerial role. Gerrard used a patient possession-based system which brought the best out of the long serving full back James Tavernier. While Lennon relied on playing a transitional based brand of football with more emphasis on individual brilliance at times. This was reflected in Celtic’s recruitment as well, buying individuals for the sake of it, without any planning. While Rangers filled the holes in their squad with some thought process behind it, Celtic did the exact opposite. Not only Celtic had no clear direction in their player recruitment, they also didn’t know when to cash out on players at right time, also costing a lot of money at times after under-selling a lot of their assets by keeping them for too long. Rangers went on an upward trajectory while Celtic went on a downward trajectory, silly mistakes from everyone costing a 10th consecutive title and fans and the team growing apart day by day.

In order to select the next manager, club tried to look at various profiles: some at board level wanted to tackle this possession-based approach used by Steven Gerrard at Rangers with the anti-dote: direct and aggressive brand of transition-based football: hence looking at coaches who had experience in Germany and Austria- Jesse Marsch was one on the shortlist (but a pipe dream), Valerien Ismael was also looked at one stage but he was already employed by Barnsley- taking them very close to a promotion to Premier League. While some in the board wanted to go with more British, man-management oriented approach. Again, club started looking at almost unattainable names: Eddie Howe being one in this kind of approach.

When the board had exhumed all their possible shortlist options (almost every name in that list being unattainable in first place), Celtic turned their heads to Japan- specifically to Yokohama where Ange was managing Marinos. A completely unknown name, an ‘outsider’ taking reigns of a club as revered as Celtic in such a delicate situation, many fans were discontent with the appointment and Ange had a massive task to not only coach the team in his philosophy but also win the approval of fans and repair this breaking relationship with the fanbase.

So, he packed his bags and came to Glasgow, without any coaching staff of his own and even at one stage, UEFA making extra background checks whether his coaching badges would make him eligible to manage in Europe or not. Once, all of this bureaucratic stuff was sorted; Ange took the reigns of the club on a one year rolling contract.

The thick South Melbourne accent meets the Glaswegian accent. The ‘Straya’ meets the ‘fitbaw and patter’. A blend of 2 different worlds. A mini rebuild of sorts started at Celtic; but this time they weren’t targeting the ‘big name’ signing but signings suitable for the manager to build a team capable of challenging the rise of Rangers. A young lad from Israel by the name of Liel Abada came, Ange used his connections in Japan to bring Kyogo Furuhashi from Vissel Kobe to Celtic. He then turned his attention to Benfica to lure in once highly rated Jota to join on loan (with option to buy on a permanent basis). Celtic had been leaking a lot of goals under Lennon due to mis-profiling of centre backs Julien Stephen and Nir Bitton and also the Greek goalkeeper Vasilis Barkas. In order to fix the defensive issues on a personnel basis, Ange looked at Tottenham Hotspurs and picked up out of favour Cameron Carter Vickers (now a full time USA international) and Joe Hart. Josip Juranovic came from Polish club, Legia Warsaw. Celtic had a major gap to fill in the centre of the field with the fan favourite and a cult legend, leader and captain, Scott ‘Broony’ Brown leaving the club; creating a major leadership void to fill. Ange turned to Callum McGregor to take the arm band, fitting that a local lad from East Glasgow who has been a boyhood Celtic supporter and came from the youth ranks, also being one of the longest serving player in the current squad take up the duties of a captain.

When Ange had assembled his squad, he tried to implement his high risk-high reward approach right from scratch. It was unrealistic to completely change the squad in one window so he integrated many players from previous years, some from academy and reserves. Many players who looked underwhelming under previous manager, looked reborn; especially the fullbacks Anthony Ralston and Greg Taylor: adapting to the instructions of manager and completely taking a 180 degree from being line-hugging full-backs to inverting, underlapping full-backs; comfortable in possession. Joe Hart who was phased out of Manchester City under Pep Guardiola for not being comfortable in sweeping and distribution also looked reborn. At an age where Goalkeepers start peaking out, Joe Hart picked up these new skills with relative ease. Another player who responded well to the tactical instructions was the recent acquisition of Georgios Giakoumakis from Dutch club VVV Venlo. A typical archetype of journeyman physical centre forward, often mis-profiled as a target man due to his built. Ange identified his knack of playing of the shoulder of centre backs and breaking the offside traps. Kyogo Furuhashi was adept at dropping deep to become a +1 in possession while Giakoumakis was lethal inside the box, giving a lot of flexibility in terms of getting goals out of the strikers. The midfield was also instructed to follow the similar principles which the Australian used as a Socceroos and Marinos coach: a flexible and fluid midfield; with McGregor being the deepest among the 3 midfielders, taking extra defensive duties. David Turnbull and Tom Rogic being the ‘free no 8s’, depending on the direction from where game was being built up, one of the midfielders pressed the opposition by going into wider areas, operating in half-space in order to isolate the opposition and free up space in order to be exploited.

(Credits: The Coaches’ Voice)

Along with this, the narrow full-backs’ positions help Celtic dominate possession by overloading the centre of the pitch, while also providing the single pivot with support at defensive transitions. They will help to lock the ball in the opponent’s half and prevent counter-attacks when the number eights are beyond the ball. In terms of defending and counter-pressing, Ange has been more pro-active than before when it comes to setting up a defensive structure. They press aggressively, often high up the pitch after having lost the ball. The wingers have been instructed to press high up the pitch with centre forward, making in-ward runs in order to force the ball into centre of the pitch so that the no. 8s can also activate pressing triggers to completely choke the opposition, but this often leaves space on the flanks at times if teams know how to circumnavigate through the press.

Credits: The Coaches’ Voice)

After a very long time, it looked like there is a set direction, a plan to execute not just good performances but get good results which are sustainable in long run. But all of this didn’t happen overnight, it is quite natural and humane for anyone to take time to adapt to changing scenario and it was the exact case at Celtic as well. Squad took it’s sweet time, gelling in and getting acquainted with the manager and his tactical instructions.

Early losses to Hearts, Rangers and Livingston in the league did amplify the rusty nature of the team adapting to new set of instructions along with elimination from Champions League qualification rounds to FC Midtjylland, being forced to go through a lengthy Europa League qualification round: battling Jablonec and AZ Alkmaar to book a place in Group Stages of UEL. Europe has been an achilles heel of Celtic in last decade. It was the same case when Celtic were pitted against Real Betis, Bayer Leverkusen and Ferencvaros. Yet another difficult group.

This transition period and a tough UEL group also added to the misery of tackling many off the pitch criticism from the not only fans but from so called ‘pundits’ for not being ‘fit’ to lead such a prestigious club (because Ange was a completely unknown entity in this Euro-bubble of football).

Although, Celtic tried to play to it’s new found strengths in Europe and produced some scintillating moves in those matches, results didn’t go their way, with the weaknesses of the new system being exploited a lot. Meanwhile at domestic level, there was also a mixed bag of results in the initial months. Some commendable wins but that rustiness was still there to see. But Ange stuck to his principles and eventually results also started flooding in.

Ange’s camaraderie and his down to earth attitude eventually started winning the approval of not just the players but even the fans as well. And when results also started going their way with an up-turn in performances, even the most critical of fans swallowed the bitter pill of being ‘wrong’ and started to back the manager unconditionally.

Winter window came and in came a host of signings, with skillsets tailor made to suit the Australian’s coaching style. Reo Hatate came from Kawasaki Frontale, Daizen Maeda got reunited with Ange, playing under him at Yokohama F. Marinos and Yosuke Ideguchi came from Gamba Osaka. This was his 2nd venture into Europe. Initially picked up by Leeds United as a youngster from Gamba Osaka only but a series of underwhelming loan spells at Cultural Leonesa and Greuther Furth along with a feeling of home sickness prompted him to return back to Japan.

Reo Hatate’s versatility to play a variety of roles in centre midfield, left wing and even left back: especially in the inverted fullback role was one of the reasons why Ange wanted to go for his signature. Daizen Maeda’s off the ball ability to counter press the opposition and Celtic’s poor depth in wings was also ticked off with this signature.

Callum McGregor had been playing non-stop and there was no suitable player to play his role in the team (Ideguchi slots right in this scenario). But crème de la crème of the winter signings has to be that of English/Danish youngster Matt O’Riley from MK Dons who usurped the role of Tom Rogic and completely provided a fresh breath of air to Celtic’s midfield.

The new recruits from Japan and Ange again faced the wrath from the conservative sections of British media with some racially driven reporting being done around the new recruits. The Australian did step in to defend his players and taking a right stand, which he has done a lot of times in a short span of time in Scotland: completely aligning with the ethos on which the club was founded.

(L to R: Yosuke Ideguchi, Daizen Maeda, Reo Hatate)

Now, with a replenished squad full of jolly good characters, Ange’s ability to attach to every player closely on a mental level and a team responding well to the manager’s instructions saw the team go on a massive 31 match unbeaten run in the league with a few upsets coming in Europe and Scottish Cup. Highlight of this unbeaten run has been the complete annihilation of their Old Firm rivals: Rangers on 2 occasions. A 3-0 drubbing at Celtic Park, preceded by one of the best atmospheres seen at Celtic Park in recent times, coming after such a difficult time when world came to it’s knees in front of the Covid pandemic and it’s effects on society and 1-2 win, away at Ibrox Stadium.

Celtic did get some help from Rangers as well in this period, who saw their manager Steven Gerrard leave his post in middle of the season to take up the vacant seat at Aston Villa. His replacement? Giovanni Van Bronckhorst. An ex-Rangers manager with a similar tactical setup to Gerrard eased the pain of losing Stevie G midway into the season. While Celtic went in a complete domination stage at domestic stage, Rangers had a memorable run in Europe; reaching the finals of UEL in a dramatic style, annihilating teams in their path.

When Ange had taken over the vacant seat at Celtic, no one could have thought that he would achieved a lot in such a short time for someone who had no experience in Europe and not only achieve great results through some exquisite performances but make the team feel connected with the fanbase again. Who would have thought that a bunch of Gaijins (a derogatory term in Japanese, meaning outsiders– also used by a certain you shall not be named newspaper in Britain in the context of Ange and the Japanese players at Celtic) will play a massive role in bringing a cultural shift at the club, which was lacking such an atmosphere in the dressing room for a long time? This world is full of talented people. If you have an open mindset, you will always find under-appreciated and under-valued gems. Ange and his Bhoys are one such example that if you want to find a niche, you have to broaden your horizon, break open from stereotypes and think out of the box in order to perfect this new found niche.

The onset of aggression from Russia on Ukraine has resulted in Russian football teams barred from playing in European competition. With Russian League out of the picture, the winner of Scottish Premiership will get a direct place in group stages of UEFA Champions League. Now, with Celtic winning the league and Rangers in the finals of UEFA Europa League, potentially we can see both the teams play against the elites in UCL next season, high time the Scottish football and arguably 2 of the best teams in terms of prestige in Europe get back to where they belong, while they usher into a new era and continue with their rivalry, free from any shoddy Sectarian elements which marred the Old Firm teams whenever they locked horns in the past

Celtic is a football club which has been deeply engrossed with it’s Irish roots and it was fitting that they needed a revolutionary character, someone who can lead them to new heights. In Ange Postecoglou, they have got the perfect character who can steer them into a new era. Long may the revolution continue. Viva la Posteglucion!

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