It was Ange Postecoglou, the Australian whose reputation was built on his success in his home country and in Japan, Celtic turned to when finally conceding defeat in their attempts to appoint Eddie Howe as Neil Lennon’s permanent successor. The success of Steven Gerrard in leading Rangers to the Scottish Premiership title in 2020/21, and therefore in denying Celtic a 10th successive title, made their latest managerial appointment their most important since Martin O’Neill’s in 2000.
Postecoglou’s previous experience of European football amounts to nine months with Panachaiki of Greece’s third division, but there have been titles in Australia, and his success in leading his national team to the 2014 World Cup. His compatriot Tom Rogic played for him for Australia before being joined by him at Celtic Park, and detects similarities between Postecoglou, 55 when he was recruited in June 2021, and Brendan Rodgers, who previously brought Celtic such success. “It’s almost a bit of a similar feel as I see the managers being a little bit similar in ways,” he said. “Both quite positive and both quite intense to work under.”
Postecoglou’s success in the Australian A League with Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory led to him being recruited to coach Australia, who he took to the 2014 World Cup playing an attacking 4-2-3-1. His wide forwards favoured direct attacks with which they dribbled through and rotated from between the lines as they broke forwards, and Tim Cahill provided their focal point as their striker. Their wider build-up was directed towards his aerial ability – Mathew Leckie’s potential to create and dribble around opposing defences complemented Cahill, and Mark Bresciano and Tommy Oar supported Leckie via the rotations they offered.
Mile Jedinak was similarly influential because of his ability, from the base of their midfield, to ensure they remained organised. Matt McKay regularly featured alongside him; on the rare occasions their full-backs advanced, Jedinak and McKay provided cover from behind them, and in so doing offered potential alternative combinations that ultimately targeted Cahill and those around him. Both midfielders also withdrew into deeper territory to receive possession from those same full-backs, at which point they played direct balls into their wide forwards.
Postecoglou then led Australia to their first ever Asia Cup trophy in 2015, and by organising them into a 4-3-3 (above) that featured a solitary defensive midfielder. Their increased grasp of possession contributed to them offering more complex rotations; their full-backs – Jason Davidson was particularly effective towards the left – regularly advanced, and both attacking central midfielders attacked at the same time to offer penetrations alongside their wide forwards.
The balanced attack achieved by both full-backs and wide forwards Leckie and Robbie Kruse, either side of the particularly effective forward runs made by Massimo Luongo, meant that Cahill or Tomi Juric had increased support. That support, regardless, existed towards only one side of the pitch; while both attacking central midfielders remained advanced, their full-backs alternated in making attacking runs so that their sole defensive midfielder didn’t become stretched.
Further structures – particularly a back three that meant that they attacked with a 3-4-2-1 – were used during the 2017 Confederations Cup and while attempting to qualify for Russia 2018. Two number 10s operated around their leading attacker – and in similar territory to the attacking central midfielders in their previous 4-3-3 – and their wing-backs provided their width either side of their double pivot. In Aaron Mooy, Jackson Irvine, Rogic and Luongo, they also had increased quality supporting Cahill and Juric.
Postecoglou’s next position took him to Yokohama F Marinos of Japan, where he mostly again favoured a 4-3-3, and who in 2019 he led to their first league title in 15 years. What was a particularly expansive 4-3-3 involved both wide forwards remaining as wide as possible outside of an extremely fluid midfield three that just as regularly featured one attacking midfielder as it did two. Yokohama’s full-backs advanced accordingly – depending on the movements of those three midfielders – to, most commonly, offer underlaps and therefore an additional number in the inside channel and support for the relevant wide forward.
There were also occasions when one of their three central midfielders withdrew into defence to encourage their full-backs to advance at an earlier stage of an attack – potentially to capitalise on switches of play. Their wide forwards’ ability to contribute both goals and assists meant opponents often committing increased numbers to the wide areas of the pitch, which meant Postecoglou’s chosen full-backs and central midfielders receiving possession under reduced pressure, and then potentially creating a goalscoring opportunity for a wide player or their striker.
That their wide forwards provided their width meant that direct runs in behind were regularly attempted, and contributed to the extent to which Yokohama penetrated around their opposing full-backs. Erik, Teruhito Nakagawa and Keita Endo posed a goalscoring threat from those wide positions, and complemented that that existed throught the centre of the pitch via Marcos Júnior, Koji Miyoshi and Edigar Junio. Their full-backs’ movements infield also gave their central midfielders increased freedom to link with their striker and to attempt an increased number of penetrative passes through the inside channels; the potential to then form a double pivot provided transitional cover if possession was lost, and to further their dominance of the centre of the pitch by creating a similar shape to the 3-4-2-1 used by Australia.
Defending and pressing
The 4-2-3-1 first used with Australia (above) was complemented by them defending with low and mid-blocks, particularly against their strongest opposition. It was towards the right that they pressed with greater aggression; their wide forward advanced to alongside Cahill, and behind him one of their defensive midfielders drifted wide to cover if the right-back had remained withdrawn to maintain the overload that existed against the opposition’s front three. When it was instead necessary for their defensive midfielders to prioritise the central areas of the pitch – perhaps when a more cautious defensive block was required – and if the press being applied by Cahill, their right-sided forward and their number 10 was beaten or they struggled to force possession towards the left, Australia were vulnerable towards the right. Regardless, when their right-back advanced, a defensive midfielder withdrew into defence and those alongside him adjusted their positioning to preserve their back four.
When regains were made via their mid-block, their compactness towards the left encouraged Davidson to advance further forwards from left-back, and to attempt to mirror the penetrative threat provided by Leckie from the right. When Postecoglou later adopted a 4-3-3, both wide forwards were likelier to lead their press from in front of the flatter, deeper midfield three that existed, and which proved more effective at covering wide territory. They also pressed from further forwards; Cahill or Juric screened access to their opposing central defenders instead of aggressively pressing, and their wide players contributed to their efforts to force possession to one side of the pitch and then provided the leading element of that press. The closest two midfielders also moved to towards the ball and the third remained braced for a potential switch of play to his opposing full-back, strengthening Postecoglou’s preference for versatile, combative players in midfield.
His preference to, later, use three central defenders (above) meant Australia defending with a back five from behind a double pivot and a narrow front three that worked to cover central access and force the ball wide, and in which the widest player also pressed backwards to assist the wing-back behind him in keeping the ball towards the touchline. Opponents instinctively sought to build around the 5-2-3 mid-block that was often used, so when they progressed beyond Australia’s front three, the relevant wing-backs advanced to take the opposing full-back and their remaining four defenders adjusted to operate as a back four. With their double pivot prioritising the central areas in their defensive half and covering the inside channels and the spaces between their three central defenders, they consistently defended with numbers.
It was towards the right where they demonstrated a greater willingness to press in wider territory and where individuals were likelier to advance out of position to press. A more attacking player was likelier to feature at right wing-back than at left wing-back – a natural full-back was preferred on the left – to enhance their potential on the counter, given both wide forwards withdrew into deeper positions. Their wider central defenders pressed out through the inside channels to defend against opposing wide forwards when the wing-backs outside of them remained withdrawn to instead prioritise their opposing full-back, and their double pivot, if required, withdrew into deeper territory to provide further cover.
Yokohoma defended with both a 4-2-3-1 (above) and 4-1-4-1. The positioning of their central midfielders heavily influenced their defensive approach; there were occasions when Júnior drifted from his position as their starting 10 to defend the right inside channel as they adopted a 4-1-4-1 defensive block, but when they were without possession for lengthier periods he would remain more central, and potentially even advance to alongside their striker in what was a 4-2-3-1. Both shapes were built on a relatively high defensive line that encouraged both a mid-block and the ability to defend in advanced territory for lengthier periods, and therefore on mobile defenders capable of defending the spaces in behind them when direct passes were attempted.
The numbers they offered through the centre of the pitch meant that they had the potential to apply an aggressive counter-press in midfield, in front of the defensive line that was encouraged to either advance or to remain advanced for as long as possible and therefore to further reduce space in midfield. Regardless of Yokahama’s defensive strategy, Postecoglou ensured that they were consistently compact through those central spaces, and therefore that spaces between the lines were minimal and that opponents regularly had to instead attempt to attack around them.