Cause for optimism after 4th win in 5 for Scotland

Scotland are on their best form since 2007 after landing a tough 1-0 victory in Warsaw. 4 wins and a draw over 5 matches (including 3 away victories) brings cause for optimism as Gordon Strachan has his side playing almost unrecognisably.

Lineups

scotland poland

There were two obvious names missing for Adam Nawałka’s side, with Dortmund duo Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Błaszczykowski absent through injury. That aside, this was a full-strength Poland, with young Augsburg striker Arkadiusz Milik getting the nod ahead of ex-Celt Pavel Browzek up front. The dangerman was number ten Ludovic Obraniak, famously mercurial in France and now plying his trade for German giants Werder Bremen.

Scotland lined up in an unmistakably ‘Strachan’ fashion – his ‘away Celtic’ system (if I can paraphrase, 4-4-2 while defending with 10) with a tinge of the German 4-2-3-1. Ross McCormack (in the absence of Shaun Maloney and Robert Snodgrass) was charged with the important role of linking Steven Fletcher to the robust two banks of 4.

Unrecognisable

The ideal that Strachan never managed when taking Celtic abroad, was the ability to hold on to the ball. He once said after crashing out of Europe to Aalborg ‘Until we get the away record sorted, these things can happen’ and so it is refreshing to see attempts by Scotland to play from the back.

After 10 minutes Scotland enjoyed more possession, with the back four content to pass amongst themselves as opposed to the previous custom of punting the ball long to the targetman.

On the flipside, however, by half-time the team hadn’t recorded a shot on or off goal, and Poland probably enjoyed the better chances. Certainly the left-foot of Obraniak was poking holes, and Milik is hard to deal with. Fletcher and McCormack could not be brought into play as Poland too defended resolutely.

It was an unrecognisable – continental, even – style of keeping the opposition at bay.

Naismith helps eke out win

Darren Fletcher’s return replacing James Morrison was a bonus in the lead up to the qualifiers. Less so was namesake Steven’s withdrawal after a very quiet first-half.

But the gamechanger was the less heralded introduction of Steven Naismith. Despite his history as a wide player or second striker and relatively short size, he continues to impress in a Steven Fletcher type, number 9 role.

Some good chances fell to both sides in the even balance of the match, with McCormack fluffing his lines with the goalmouth gaping and Kamil Glik heading wide from six yards. But it was Naismith who probably done most to carve out the winner after impressive strength to hold off a challenge and feed Anya on the right.

Charlie Adam (on in an advanced attacking midfield role for McCormack) contributed by challenging for a header which broke for Brown, whose left-footed rocket decided the match.

Scotland held on for the remaining ten minutes as Poland looked out of ideas. The return of Lewandowski and Błaszczykowski will undoubtedly inject attacking potency, which Scotland don’t really have equivalents for waiting in the wings.

Critics will rightly point out that Scotland are picking up these wins in almost meaningless situations. Zagreb, Skopje, Molde and now Warsaw have no bearing on qualification for France. But it’s the method in which the team is doing it. The 4 clean sheets and improving attack is nice, but it’s the keep-ball that is a far cry from Levein and Burley’s chaos, or even McLeish and Smith’s negativity.

The qualifiers are a different matter entirely, but surely optimism cannot be far away.

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Aberdeen 2-1 Celtic: Lennon defiant on and off the park after defeat

Fraser Forster’s clean-sheet record came to an end after 1256 minutes of football. Johnny Hayes’ stupendous strike was a fitting way of breaking down the great wall, but the real cause was Virgil Van Dijk’s 12th minute red card. Despite a hearty comeback, Celtic could only pull one goal back.

Lineups

both 1Neil Lennon made 3 changes to the side that suffered defeat to the same scoreline against Aberdeen in their previous Cup meeting in Glasgow. Stefan Johansen, Georgios Samaras and James Forrest were replaced by Nir Biton, Charlie Mulgrew and new signing Leigh Griffiths.

Lennon continued for the third match in a row with his relatively trusted 4-4-2 diamond / 4-3-3 that accommodates the mercurial talent of Commons, Stokes and Griffiths. In 4-3-3′s of old, Commons had often been the furthest forward attacker but he is now acclimatising back to playing ‘in the hole’.

Biton has very recently been trusted in a regista style role, having previously been used right of centre, while Mulgrew replaced Johansen like-for-like.

Derek McInnes made a subtle change to Aberdeen’s usual 4-2-3-1 shape, instead flattening out the midfield and using Niall McGinn, not only as a link between midfield and attack but in a defensive role sticking diligently (at least initially) to Biton, the playmaker.

Fiery opening produces red

Aside from the conditions, there were two main factors working against Celtic’s ball retention: Aberdeen’s energetic pressing and Celtic’s own open and ambitious formation. In fact looking at a couple of incidents below (for example), where Ambrose was forced to dribble under pressure given few options ahead, we can now say with hindsight that there was an accident waiting to happen.

press

Still, Celtic were probably the better side and able to carve out an early chance thanks to a fine ball from Mulgrew from deep, finding Brown and shortly after a free-kick in a very dangerous position.

Celtic are beginning to pride themselves on having 2 ball-playing centre-backs who like to take the ball forward, and so it seems incongruous to bemoan why the ball wasn’t booted into the air sooner. But the red-card transpired like this:

  • Griffiths’ played a difficult/bouncing back-pass to Ambrose
  • Ambrose controlled under pressure and played a short-pass to Mulgrew behind, who was not expecting the ball
  • The ball ran free to Rooney, who released Pawlett, who forced Van Dijk into a clumsy, probably unnecessary foul.

Some (like Lennon) hold the ref responsible and some scapegoat Ambrose. But in truth 4 players were at fault, undermined by some excellent Aberdeen pressing (Pawlett’s excellent acceleration is well established) and Celtic’s own inherent lack of numbers in defence and midfield.

Ambitious shuffle

post red

With options limited on the bench (a goalkeeper, 3 strikers, 2 brittle wingers and a young full-back) and so Mulgrew filled in for Van Dijk. If the defence and midfield weren’t wide open enough, the formation became a kind of 4-2-3, with Stokes dropping in to cover on the left.

The decision underlines how Lennon considers Commons strictly a forward with “established striker” Stokes the one dropping into midfield.

With barely 12 minutes on the clock, this obviously spelled disaster for Celtic, and it’s surprising that it took until the 41st minute for Aberdeen to properly expose an abandoned midfield.

Take for example, the first goal and observe that Celtic’s midfield are stuck in the furthestmost left quarter-width of the pitch!

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With Hayes (#11) in such space, it was impossible to apply pressure – resulting in a free-hit against Forster.

The second goal – again assisted by McGinn – was another incredible example of zero pressure. This time Stokes was instructed to mark McGinn out wide on Aberdeen’s right, but he kept 10 yards from the ball, allowing McGinn a free attempt to cross.

Mulgrew missed his header at the front post, allowing Rooney to (easily) evade Ambrose and attack the space in behind.

2nd half revival

Forrest was introduced to replace a flagging Commons, with Lennon more importantly solidifying midfield with a more traditional 4-4-1 shape. shape2

Aberdeen became more reticent, sitting back and allowing Celtic to do the work.

Forrest and Stokes were providing creativity when cutting in, while Biton and Brown were absolutely tireless in midfield.

Save for a few long-range efforts and a late chance for McGinn, Aberdeen seemed content defending a narrow advantage after Forrest pulled a goal back following sustained pressure.

So keen was McInnes to preserve the lead, he ended the match with 4 centre-backs on the pitch. On the contrary Celtic finished with a 2-4-3 formation having brought on Baldé.

The heroic attempt to retain the unbeaten record was ultimately undone by a defiant lack of action in the first-half. The midfield was left exposed too long when one of Stokes or Commons should’ve been sacrificed sooner.

While it’s not often that you’ll see a red card for Van Dijk’s challenge (indeed, Pawlett in the strictest sense was moving away from goal) it’s almost impossible to argue, yet Lennon was defiant again.

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Celtic 3-0 St Johnstone: Fresh faces hint at next campaign but Stokes decides match

Anthony Stokes scored 3 and Celtic’s forward play looked much more confident after a disappointing defeat to Aberdeen last week. A change to the formation and a first start for Leigh Griffiths elicited a great attacking response.

Lineups

both

 

 

Out went Georgios Samaras who was heavily criticised by support after the Scottish Cup exit (despite an assist and protestations from Neil Lennon), along with James Forrest and in came Nir Biton and Griffiths.

In his few appearances thus far Biton has featured predominantly right of centre (even when played in a three man midfield) but here he was finally handed a start as the deepest lying midfielder which suits his passing style.

The flat 4-4-2 shape was ditched in favour of a 4-4-2 diamond. Normally this is referred to on this blog as 4-3-3 as the front 3 are so dynamic and interchanging, but here the roles were clear. Kris Commons would play the number 10 role, with two straightforward strikers just ahead.

Tommy Wright made no step to mitigate Commons between the lines, and played a 4-4-1-1.

General play

A major criticism against Aberdeen was the tedious insistence of playing down the wings. While the Dons encouraged it, it makes no sense with such small strikers, so it made a refreshing change that Celtic were patient in playing through the middle today, at least after the first, drab, 10 minutes or so.

This was evidenced in Stokes’ opener, with Biton taking control of the situation in a deep area, feeding Van Dijk to take the ball forward centrally, Griffiths played a clever flick under pressure to Stokes who managed to work a shot away.

Such confidence on the ball was precisely what was absent against Aberdeen and a great advert for those 4 players involved, contrasting rather favourably against Samaras and Forrest who have a tendency to hang on to the ball.

After Emilio Izaguirre had to withdraw through injury, replaced by Darnell Fisher, the team had an unfamiliar air about it. Especially in midfield where Biton and Johansen are still fresh to the team.

The latter has lived up to the prediction on this blog as a natural replacement for Joe Ledley, having spent every minute of his Celtic career in the Welshman’s trademark left centre-midfield position.

Stylistically they are different, with Johansen tending to come deeper for the ball and more expressive with his passing – suiting the central run of play today.

Biton is more reminiscent of Ki Sung-Yeung, or perhaps a more famous comparison is Nemanja Matic at Chelsea. Someone who operates almost between the centre-backs, taking responsibility to start moves and recycling possession (which ended at 66% in Celtic’s favour by the 90th minute).

Weight off Commons

While the midfield had a new dynamic to it, the attack was also far different from normal. Against Aberdeen (and for most of the season) Commons has been operating as a number 9, hence the extraordinary amount of goals – especially in the box.

It was said on this blog that Commons is Celtic’s best No.10 and best No.9 – but can’t do both at once.

With a proven SPL scorer in Griffiths, in theory Commons can stick to the one role. And sure enough Griffiths’ sprightly movement and enthusiasm helped open up gaps. Without a holding midfielder for St Johnstone, Commons was causing damage on the edge of the D, spraying passes and getting shots on goal.

Funnily enough, it was Stokes who got the goals and it was the liveliest he’s been all season – maybe even for the past 2. Whether it’s the shot in the arm that a rival striker brings, or the space being created, Stokes was getting his feet on the ball.

The second was another well worked move – this time involving Matthews and Brown. The latter’s looping cross from inside the box, was taken down expertly by Stokes, totally killing the drop of the ball. His second touch put the ball low and hard into the corner.

Finally, for the hat-trick it was classic Stokes – casually dragging the ball in from the left one-on-one with the full-back to smash in a right-footed daisy cutter. As typical a ‘Stokes’ goal as you’re likely to see (and Fisher’s dummy run to keep another defender busy was crucial).

Conclusion

At the other end Fraser Forster’s 12th straight clean sheet required only one real – crucial – piece of work, after substitute Nigel Hasselbaink’s powerful shot was deflected, requiring cat-like reflexes to turn the ball away.

Celtic have been prone to sloppy matches of late – most infamously in Cup competition, but also in league matches. Against St Mirren, for example Celtic were a little fortunate to record a narrow 1-0 win after a poorly defended goal.

Griffiths, Johansen and Biton demonstrated yet another iteration of Lennon’s Celtic along with new breaths of life for Stokes, Brown et al. While the win was satisfying, the timing is a shame given that competitively the campaign is effectively over. It appears that the burden has been lifted from Commons somewhat, as preparations for next season begin.

 

 

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Leigh Griffiths is the new 999

For all the wrong reasons, Leigh Griffiths reputation precedes him after being unveiled as Celtic’s second and final signing of the January transfer window. The first thing to address is that Griffiths has apologised and been punished for previous slights, and we can surely move on.

Seeing as this is a football blog, let’s focus on the football: What kind of player has Neil Lennon sanctioned a £1m transfer?

The right profile

Since Gary Hooper’s exit, Celtic fans have bemoaned the lack of a number 9; a true goalscorer. The ‘Goldilocks’ post here recently addressed the difficulties in attracting (for want of a better word) proven goal-scorers, citing the requirements for “the right quality, at the right price, with the right reputation from the right league”.

The latter 3 points are unmistakably SPFL material – a fairly cheap Scot with a poor reputation. The financial giants South of the border are hardly swarming around a player who has only operated at the level of SPFL and the third tier of England.

The question therefore is one of quality: can Griffiths be that goal-getter that fans are so vocally desperate for?

Number 9 (plus)

Hooper has rightly been held as an example of how to be Celtic’s number 9, and in his final season (2012/13) he managed 19 goals in 30 SPL starts – not his best record but excellent nonetheless. That same year at Hibs, Griffiths managed a similar goals-per-game:

griffiths

2012/13 season

If that’s not enough to convince that Griffiths can lead scoring charts in the SPFL, then nothing will!

The caveat is that 5 of these goals were penalties (as opposed to Hooper’s zero). To be fair, this does detract from the record somewhat, albeit a good sign for Celtic who are historically terrible at penalties.

Let’s further break down the goals: griffiths2

Griffiths’ set-piece taking is frequently praised, yet as Hibernian’s main taker the record isn’t that great (despite quite a fortunate goal direct from a corner against Kilmarnock).

The other thing to take is that 4 out of his 5 penalties were struck towards the goalkeeper’s left – about midriff height – although funnily enough the fifth and final penalty went the other way.

Finally – no headers! Though he’s lead the line for Hibs in the past, he’s unlikely to fulfil a lone role at Celtic.

Positioning

corner view

 

view2Both images show the same thing – where Griffith’s scored his goals from. In the first image the flight/direction of the ball is shown and the second shows a clearer picture of his  shot position.

Griffiths’ range of goals is excellent. There are two main types of “in-box” goals – the first is the “one-touch” finish, such as here against Dundee Utd. He has a propensity to drift into the back-post unannounced and turn the ball goalwards with good technique.

The other is the “dribble into”, as per here against St Mirren. Griffiths’ is good at taking the ball down on the run, taking on a player – and in any case rifling a shot into the goalkeeper’s bottom left. The vast majority of goals are aimed towards that side.

It might be suitable to compare Griffith’s scoring positioning to Gary Hooper’s first season at Celtic – who was definitely a box goal-scorer…

Gary Hooper – Season 2010/11

The main difference therefore is range – Griffiths’ 7 goals scored from outside the box is not to be sniffed at, and probably more prolific from range than Anthony Stokes. This free-kick against Hearts in the Edinburgh derby is a fine example.

Conclusion

Despite the inarguable success in Scotland, there’s still a complaint that Griffiths’ hasn’t been proven at a higher level. Celtic fans are eager for a striker that can take the team to the next level in the Champions League.

His own appearance at such a level was probably the start against Croatia in the surprise 1-0 win back in June. Unfortunately he toiled in the so-called graveyard shift. Working hard and bereft of decent service. It is simply impossible to tell how Griffiths’ would perform in Europe, and he should surely be judged on the matches that he has played, as opposed to those in the future.

Griffiths is an essential signing to take the goal-scoring load from Kris Commons – at the very least domestically. Currently there is no player (not even Anthony Stokes with just 6 SPL goals this season in 17 appearances) who can pick up the slack. Football-wise Griffiths is a no-brainer, even if not the elite signing that everybody had hoped for. Personality-wise, the qualms are legitimate – but here’s what Gordon Strachan had to say about that:

‘Leigh Griffiths has been so easy to manage, it’s incredible. He keeps himself to himself, but when you speak to him he’s always attentive, which is good. I’ ve enjoyed his company.

‘All the lads are different in their own way. But it’s when you get onto the football field, that’s when your true character comes out. Whatever you do off the field doesn’t matter. It’s only when you get on the football field that your true character clicks in.’

 

 

 

 

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Hibernian 0-4 Celtic: Visitors weather storm to rout Hibs

Kris Commons provided the obligatory opener, but it took 75 minutes for Celtic to truly become comfortable thanks to a sensational Virgil Van Dijk free-kick. Substitute Teemu Pukki added a third while who else but Commons completed the rout from the penalty spot.

Lineups

With James Forrest injured and Anthony Stokes out, Neil Lennon brought in Nir Biton and Georgios Samaras. The shortage of attacking midfielders meant for a narrow 4-3-3 formation, with Commons (as discussed in length last week) leading the line.

both template

Terry Butcher made 4 changes to the side that lost 3-2 to St Mirren recently, with Ryan McGivern, Scott Robertson, Paul Cairney and Jason Cummings missing out. In came Alex Harris, Tom Taiwo, Abdellah Zoubir and Sam Stanton.

Commons people

In atrocious weather conditions, it took just 9 minutes for Commons to open the scoring (for the 12th time this season!). Hibs two centre-backs dealt poorly with a long-ball and it was Commons who was playing off the shoulder, waiting to pounce. His anticipation paid off, slotting past Ben Williams coolly.

Though frequently using 4-4-2-type formations, without options out wide Lennon opted for 4-3-3. Scott Brown immediately stood out as a little bit of a square peg in a round hole – not really able to float in between the lines, thus leaving Samaras and Commons a little short of ammunition.

The result was a little bit of a numerical mismatch – with 4/5 Hibernian midfielders taking on Celtic’s 3. This made it difficult for Celtic to comfortably hold possession in deep areas, forcing them to go long and desperate – and in these conditions that is never a good idea.

Though Hibs grew substantially into the game, they had little to show for it by half-time.

2nd half – weathering the storm

Lennon’s response to Hibs’ growth was to tweak the formation. Biton was removed after a quiet game for Teemu Pukki. Perhaps the main reason was bringing Brown deeper into midfield where he is most effective, and getting another attacker into the front 3.

Mulgrew and Commons also found themselves wider – probably in response to Hibs strength on the flanks, afforded by Celtic’s original super-narrow formation.

2

Yet the same problems continued. Outnumbering in midfield and a propensity to launch the ball towards Samaras (who didn’t have his best game). Pukki, also, looks decreasingly like a target despite how he normally lines up for Finland.

Celtic’s 8 consecutive clean sheets looked under threat, requiring outstanding stuff from Fraser Forster (and later, Izaguirre) to deny Zoubir and Stanton. The 2 Hibees were causing real problems on the edge of Celtic’s 18, with Celtic’s back four all guilty of unforced errors.

The equaliser never came, but until the 77th minute Celtic were poor going forward. Commons’ importance was summed up in one incident where he threaded a superb through ball into Brown, who could not finish. Commons is Celtic’s best striker and most creative midfielder, but he can’t do both at once.

Van-Dijk

The lively Pukki won a free-kick about 22 yards from goal. Previously Commons and Mulgrew had poor efforts block from a similar range, but up stepped Van Dijk to curl into Williams’ top-right corner.

It was powerful, precise and confident – exactly what the attack had been missing until that point. Hibs’ revival was over.

Soon after, Pukki was given too much space on the right and powered a shot through Williams, while Commons added a penalty at the end.

Summary

The raison d’etre of forcing a 4-3-3 is surely squeezing 3 quality forwards into the same side (providing the midfield 3 can cope). But with just one (in Commons), the shape made little sense and heaped pressure on a defence and midfield not able to keep the ball – credit to Hibs’ pressing here.

The half-time move to more of a 4-4-2-ish shape, helped alleviate this, though the confidence (or attitude?) of the players continued to undermine. The amount of unforced errors across the park was extraordinary. The normally reliable Efe Ambrose was subject to an inordinate amount of tellings off from Lennon.

New signing Stefan Johansen was given 5 minutes. His first action after replacing Mulgrew was to tell Ledley to move out to left-wing. It was expected in this blog that left centre-mid was Johansen’s position, and today’s showing suggests the same.

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An uncommon problem

In January 2011, just hours after signing Kris Commons had already provided his first surprise: a delicate, floated chip over Jamie Langfield’s head of the nuanced type that Shunsuke Nakamura or Lubomir Moravcik might once have produced – but not anyone available to Neil Lennon at that time.

The problem is that a full 3 years later, nobody has managed to help pick up the creative slack. The most prolific attackers – Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes – have been at their best inside the box. Midfielders like Scott Brown and Joe Ledley rely on power over guile while the mercurial James Forrest and Georgios Samaras out wide also depend on physical traits to make things happen.

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Commons immediately became (and still is) the biggest influence on Lennon’s tactical setup. He started on the left of a bespoke, lop-sided 4-4-2 cutting in to dangerous areas but teams grew wise. A 4-4-2 diamond (and 3-5-2) was attempted, with Commons behind two strikers but the ubiquitous SPL anchorman tended to stifle. Lennon has continually moved Commons higher and higher up, freer and freer, and he now resides as the main striker in either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 (though some, erroneously consider him a midfielder).

Example "lop-sided" 4-4-2

Example “lop-sided” 4-4-2

This movement is partly in response to the Gary Hooper problem. Stokes is not as ruthless, Samaras is not truly a striker and the likes of Mo Bangura, Miku Fedor, Tony Watt, Paweł Brożek and latterly Teemu Pukki have not been prolific enough.

Whether the question is finding a replacement number 9 or 10, Lennon has struggled. During Commons’ wilderness second season (2011/12), he managed just 1 goal with questions about his weight and motivation filling the tabloids. This drop in form prompted the hunt for another number 10 – whether internally (Ki Sung-Yeung, Paddy McCourt, Forrest) or through gambles on some unfancied European names like Rabiu Ibrahim, or the ageing Freddie Ljungberg, Olivier Kapo, and the unsuccessful look at Bolo Zenden. Finally Tom Rogic was plucked in hope from the other side of the world and has already departed.

This season Commons’ relentless brilliance has only emphasised the problem. He has already equalled last season’s scoring tally, he has double the goals of Celtic’s next best scorer and has been Celtic’s first scorer in an amazing 10 matches out of the team’s 35 played.

3 years, 53 goals and 41 assists later, things have become real for Lennon and Peter Lawwell. They know that Commons is now past 30, can’t resist injury forever and creatively the team will not be able to cope. The general ‘moneyball’ rule of thumb of buying cheap has not delivered, and so Benfica’s young number 10 Filip Đuričić is being considered. The Serbian has managed just 4 league games since signing for €6 million and Benfica are likely to expect a small profit.

Resorting to potentially such expensive measures only brings to mind the initial outlay for Commons: some £300k. An astonishing bargain for a player that has come to define Neil Lennon’s Celtic.

 

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Is Stefan Johansen the next Joe Ledley?

As it stands, this possible transfer is still at the earliest of stages, but there is at least concrete interest and activity from Celtic. Neil Lennon told the Scotsman:  “I don’t know how far down the road we are, but maybe we could move on it this week. That’s all I can say on it. There is an interest there and we have made an enquiry for him, but that’s as far as it has gone.”

Having just turned 23 and plying his trade at little known Norweigan club Stromsgodset, Stefan Johansen ticks the usual ‘moneyball’ criteria that’s continually cited on this blog. But what kind of player has attracted interest from Roma, Everton and Aston Villa?

Still fresh to the international scene with 4 competitive caps, he came in to replace the injured Norwich City midfielder Alexander Tettey and hasn’t budged since. Norway normally play with 2 central midfielders, so Johansen is forming a partnership with Cardiff City’s latest signing Magnus Wolff Eikrem.

both template

The 2 make a good balance, with the slighter-built Eikrem more known for his technique and passing, with Johansen more energetic and more adept defensively.

That’s not to say that Johansen isn’t a passer himself. Against Slovenia in October for example, he ended up sharing with Eikrem the team’s creative responsibility – either in deeper areas picking up the ball from the defence and starting moves, or in picking passes just in front of the opposition box.

He also possesses a lot of power and quality with his left-foot, not only being one of Norway’s designated set-piece takers, but also a threat in open play from range (albeit with neither of his 25-yard blasts hitting Samir Handanović in Slovenia’s goal. A better example was evident in Johansen’s international debut against Sweden, when Tarik Elyounoussi laid the ball back, and Johansen let loose with a low, hard shot which took a deflection on the way in.

Johansen’s all-action work-rate, heavy left-sided bias and general all-round ability is going to draw inevitable comparisons to Joe Ledley, whose role and position, incidentally, he’d be most likely to take given that the Welshman looks set to leave in the summer. Johansen also happens to be the same age Ledley was when he signed.

It’s impossible to say whether Celtic targeted Johansen with this specific replacement job in mind, but regardless, Ledley’s imminent departure might be offset by a promising coup.

 

 

 

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10 for 2014 – Scottish SPFL players to watch

Scottish football has long been in a state of decay. Neil Doncaster’s league reconstruction is a small step away from our ingrained, infamous archaic bureaucracy, but the national team continues to tread water. Scotland were the first team in qualifying to be denied access to Brazil 2014, while fate has landed yet another tough group in lieu of France 2016.

One place largely exempt from blame for this situation is Scotland’s up and coming youngsters, showcased weekly in the SPFL. The following is a light-hearted summary of some of the brightest talents (outside of Celtic) looking to make the next step in 2014.

The age has arbitrarily been set at 22 for the first eleven, though on the bench there are one or two edging over this limit. The goalkeeper is a conspicuous absentee – considering Scotland’s history there is a strange shortage of top class young goalkeepers at the moment. None of the Scotland under-21 goalkeepers play in Scotland, albeit it’s the nature of the position that players develop and mature at a later age.

The youngest first-choice goalkeeper in the SPFL (outside of Fraser Forster) is former Celt Scott Fox of Partick (26) and Jamie MacDonald of Hearts is 27. In the Championship, there are younger ‘keepers like Alloa’s Scott Bain and Livingstone’s Darren Jamieson, and elsewhereTottenham have Jordan Archer (20). By virtue of having never seen any of these players in action, the spot is up for debate in the comments!

Here is the tictactic young team:

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Left-back

Aaron Taylor-Sinclair – 22, Partick Thistle

Jags manager Alan Archibald is already resigned to losing Taylor-Sinclair in January, with the left-back’s contract up in the summer. As Partick’s most capped player this season with 22 appearances, it’s a huge blow for Archibald.

For this exercise the left-back spot is hotly contested with Graeme Shinnie of Inverness and Andrew Robertson of Dundee Utd also two of the players with the most club appearances this season.

But Taylor-Sinclair gets the nod – at 6’0″ a more able defender perhaps than either Shinnie or Robertson and possessing a decent left-foot. But as the oldest of the 3, 2014 will be a key year for the man who might not be at Partick for much longer.

Right-back

Joe Shaughnessey – 21, Aberdeen FC.

If left-back is the most hotly contested area, then right-back is the opposite. Joe Shaughnessey’s form hasn’t been exceptional of late, with some Dons fans hoping that someone like young Craig Murray can bring competition.

Honourable mention to Aberdeen team-mate Ryan Jack (21) who played right-back under Craig Brown and for the national under-21s, and Dundee Utd’s Keith Watson, who is 24.

Shaughnessey himself is a centre-back turned full-back, though doesn’t necessarily have the physique to suggest a preference to either position. This history partly explains his lack of assists, managing just the 1 in all competition in the past 2 seasons.

At 21 Shaughnessey  remains one of the SPFL’s most promising full-backs, and with Aberdeen enjoying an excellent season his form should return to his early-season best.

Centre-backs

Danny Wilson – 22, Heart of Midlothian

24 appearances for the old Rangers, SPFA and Football Writers’ Young Player of the Year 2010, a lucrative move to Liverpool and spells at Blackpool, Bristol and now Hearts. It’s amazing to think that Danny Wilson only just turned 22. This experience is starting to tell, Captaining a devastated Hearts side, and despite the set-backs a huge future lies ahead.

John Souttar – 17, Dundee Utd

Making his debut at 16 years and 99 days, John Souttar is Dundee Utd’s youngest ever first-team player. What makes this more surprising is that he’s a centre-back – a position normally associated with experience and composure – so this underlines the regard ‘Soapy’ holds with the Utd management team.

Like Danny Wilson, he’s not the tallest centre-back but makes up to an extent with his positioning and timing. His main assets are strength and pace, and reminiscent of Virgil Van Dijk or Efe Ambrose at Celtic, looks to play the ball from the back and take steps forward if nothing is on.

The question is whether Souttar can hold his own defensively, but at only 17, Utd’s first-choice centre-back and with Sunderland and Everton already interested, he appears to have the brightest of futures.

Defensive Midfield

John McGinn – 19, St Mirren

Keeping the likes of Gary Mackay-Steven (23), Callum Paterson (19) and team-mate Kenny McLean (21) out of the side, John McGinn’s place is fully justified.

A tenacious and energetic midfielder, McGinn has come through the ranks at St Mirren to establish a starting place in the first team. His manager Danny Lennon succinctly explains McGinn’s strengths speaking to the Telegraph: “He’s brave on the ball and you saw that with the ball he slid in for our first goal. I’ve watched the kid in reserve fixtures and I’m sitting in the stand so I see the full picture. I’ll maybe see the pass I think is the right one but he sees something better.

“That’s happened on two or three occasions this season and he not only recognises the pass, he delivers it as well.”

Central midfielders

Peter Pawlett – 22, Aberdeen FC

In his own words he doesn’t classify himself as a young player, and having just passed 100 games for Aberdeen it’s amazing that Pawlett is just 22. An unsuccessful loan at St Johnstone and a spate of injuries curtailed his development

When he first emerged as a youngster at Pittodre his main asset was pace, and was duly deployed on the wing. But since, and this season in particularly he’s excelled in the centre of the park. Picking up the ball in pockets of space his acceleration takes him into dangerous areas of the pitch which helps set up others for the attack.

Aberdeen’s last match is the perfect example, with Pawlett winning a free-kick on the edge of the area after a sharp turn of pace which Nicky Low converted to secure 3 points, and also winning an unconverted penalty with a similar trick.

Stuart Armstrong – 21, Dundee Utd

Jackie McNamara argues that the best thing for his brood of upcoming talents is to stay at Dundee Utd for at least 100 games to develop. Stuart Armstrong had already passed that milestone and is probably the most accomplished player on this list.

Not only is he big (6 foot) and strong, he might also be the quickest player in the team. In this video, on 19 seconds he’s on the centre-spot and 7 seconds later is tapping in a goal. Often found higher up the park, looking to work into the box, his overall technique is excellent.

Currently Captaining Scotland’s under-21 side, some have suggested a move to England is on the cards and Celtic might see him as a like-for-like replacement for Joe Ledley, whose contract expires in the summer.

Wingers

Ryan Gauld – 18, Dundee Utd

The SPFL prospect everybody’s talking about, Ryan Gauld exploded onto the scene in the latter half of 2013.

Normally playing just off the striker, there are a number of parallels to the great player he’s been likened to with the nickname ‘baby-Messi’. He’s tiny, quick, left-footed and unexpected. While his dribbling is excellent, perhaps the stylistic difference with the real Messi is that he prefers being the starter rather than the all-in-one finisher.

His eye for a pass really is exquisite, threading through the pacy likes of Armstrong or Mackay-Steven to create rather than score.

Chris Johnston – 19, Kilmarnock

With the mainstream plaudits sailing Gauld’s way, Chris Johnston – a very similar kind of player – has quietly been on the rise. He’s usurped (another small and intelligent player) Rabiu Ibrahim to start 9 of the last 10 matches predominantly on the left, making use of a terrific left-foot which is dangerous both at set-pieces and open play.

Like Gauld, clearly the target for 2014 will be to work on his physical side if he intends to compete on a bigger stage, while reaching for another 10 goals this season would be a realistic, tangible target. His performance recently against Hearts (and majestic right-foot curler) was the perfect example of how he can beguile sides while cutting in from the flank.

Striker

Stevie May – 21, St Johnstone

Since breaking into the St Johnstone side in 2010, Stevie May’s football education has seen him scoring 19 goals in 22 for Alloa, 25 in 33 for Hamilton in the First Division, and now an impressive 11 goals in 19 for the Saints in the SPFL.

His all-action, hustle and bustle type performances have attracted interest from the relatively cash-rich Peterborough in England’s League 1.

May scored twice and set up 5 to win the November player of the Month award, and this December caught the eye against Celtic – who’ve suffered expensive striking problems of their own.

Despite the healthy goal return in seasons past, detractors still worry that May is more effort and action than goal-threat, so another fruitful half-season in 2014 will easily dispel that.

Subs

Jason Naismith – 19, St Mirren, DC

Shaun Hutchinson – 21, Motherwell, DC

Andrew Robertson – 19, Dundee Utd, DL

Graeme Shinnie – 22, Inverness CT, DL

Keith Watson – 24, Dundee Utd, DR

Ryan Jack – 21, Aberdeen, MC

Kenny McLean – 21, St Mirren, MC

Gary Mackay-Steven – 23, Dundee Utd, AMRL

Jamie Walker – 20, Hearts, AMRL

Aaron Doran – 22, Inverness CT, AMC

Alex Harris – 19, Hibernian, AMC

Callum Paterson – 19, Hearts, ST

 

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St Johnstone 0 – 1 Celtic: Deep and narrow Saints make life difficult for Celtic

Tommy Wright successfully set out St Johnstone in the archetypal way to play against Celtic: deep, narrow and fully physical. It took an extraordinary goal from Virgil Van Dijk to settle the game as Celtic’s imperious league campaign continues.

Celtic 4-4-2 vs St Johnstone 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2

Celtic 4-4-2 vs St Johnstone 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2

Neil Lennon made 2 changes to the side that toiled to beat Hearts 2-0 before Christmas. New boys Teemu Pukki and Nir Biton dropped out for Georgios Samaras and the recovering Adam Matthews. The shape was changed from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 (or 4-2-4), possibly taking into account that St Johnstone normally use two strikers.

Nigel Hasselbaink was nominally that second striker, but was used in a kind of free defensive role, dropping back down to either wing or into midfield depending on where the ball was going.

The deep and narrow shape with Hasselbaink and Stevie May buzzing around up front made for a congested battle in the middle of the park. Celtic’s route to goal primarily came down the flanks, with Emilio Izaguirre as per usual heavily involved in build-up down the left, and Matthews and Darnell Fisher reasonably successful on the right.

The problem was that St Johnstone weren’t troubled by the high balls – Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes aren’t only small, but actively struggle in the air.

This wasn’t too much of a problem initially thanks to Van Dijk’s wondergoal. He (and defensive partner Ambrose to an extent) have that fantastic confidence and technique on the ball to bring the ball out of defence, in a way that is traditionally impossible for centre-backs like, say, Thomas Rogne, Daniel Majstorovic or Glenn Loovens.

It was a fabulous run, but the two Gary’s – Miller and McDonald – will be disappointed that they allowed him through so effortlessly, by fair means or foul.

Aside from the successes out wide and number of crosses (and corners), the disappointment for Celtic was how poorly the attack linked up. There’s something not clicking between Stokes, Commons and Samaras that is normally partly obscured by Commons’ individual talent. Samaras historically doesn’t score many in the league, but one wonders how Stokes continues to get gametime ahead of Amido Baldé and arguably Teemu Pukki (who also has struggled).

These misfiring forwards contrasted with the all action performance of May at the other end. Ambrose and Van Dijk for the most part had him shepherded well, but the young striker still had the opportunity to showcase some impressive strength, pace and final ball.

Attacking inadequacy

Despite dominating for large spells, Celtic’s attacking inadequacies kept the door open for the Saints to get back into the game and prompted Lennon into tinkering. As a solution to all the unanswered crossing, Samaras and Commons swapped places around the half-time mark. Unfortunately the problem remained unsolved as Samaras never enjoyed much success either holding things up or using his head, partly to do with the quality of supply.

 

4-3-3

In the final third of the game or so, Biton replaced Samaras, changing the shape to a rough 4-3-3. Forrest occupied a central right position while Stokes and Commons continued up front. It is the latter who continues to remain a threat even if the goals aren’t coming, forcing Alan Mannus into a terrific reaction save that kept the scoreline 1-0.

Baldé was eventually given the token 6 minutes but didn’t have enough time to make an impact.

“We have never had it easy in my time here, but after an hour we had better control of the game after making some substitutions. St Johnstone came at us for 10-15 minutes and we had to weather a bit of a storm.” said Lennon, possibly giving the changes more credit than necessary.

In truth, St Johnstone hardly troubled Forster, testament to Celtic’s domination of possession. The attacking issue still remains – nobody has stepped up to replace Gary Hooper (who, as it happens, scored for his new club today) and this will continue to cause problems in the tougher games.

 

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Looking for Goldilocks

It’s almost a year to the day that Peter Lawwell’s moneyball was posted on this blog. It’s a big read, but one of the major points investigated is Celtic’s recruitment policy, which has come under a lot of scrutiny after a very disappointing Champions League campaign.

The “buy young, buy cheap, sell high” (to generalise to the extreme) has had its ups and downs. Take Adam Matthews, Mikel Lustig, Charlie Mulgrew, Joe Ledley (amongst others) bought for absolutely nothing. Or Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama purchased in their early twenties to be developed into a combined £20m worth of revenue.

These are inarguable success stories covering almost every area of the park. Almost every area, that is, apart from up front. Hooper and Kris Commons aside, Neil Lennon and co. have struggled to find a prolific 9 or the perfect 10.

Since his first full season in charge, Lennon has signed no less than 13 players who fall under this category, while also surveying the viability of internal graduates Tony Watt and Bahrudin Atajić

signings st

(all transfer values approximate)

The record is underwhelming. If we take away Hooper, Commons and Anthony Stokes (successes), c. £8m has been spent on 10 or so forwards with a combined return of 13 goals in 125 games.

There are a couple of convenient assumptions: either spend more on less, or simply, spend wiser. It all sounds great on paper – spend £5m of that aforementioned £8m on one quality poacher, he’ll happily sign on the dotted line, turn up in Glasgow and provide 30 goals a season.

But… the reality. Celtic have to identify said player first of all. Celtic have to draw his attention away from some 50-60 financially weightier clubs in Europe – a problem given that the player employs an agent specifically to drum up attention.

The club has to be willing to let go of an outstanding asset, while Celtic are expected to outbid rival suitors, and if this player really is of substantial quality, there will be a host of suitors. He needs to be young enough to offer sell-on potential, have a clean injury track record, and for a striker almost will certainly require a great goals per game ratio.

It’s only once all this is pulled together that you can appreciate how difficult it is to find this “goldilocks” player. The right quality, the right price, with the right reputation from the right league.

24 year-old Alfred Finnbogason is commonly held up as exhibit A in the case against a criminally frugal board. The Icelandic forward was on Celtic’s radar long before interest was noted in the mainstream media, after he narrowily missed playing against Celtic for his old club Helsingborgs: ”It is a bonus for us because he (Finnbogason) is a very good player and he was in good goalscoring form. I think a lot of Helsingborgs play went through him so he will be a loss to them.”

Bear in mind, that this comment was before any transfer rumours, so it’s fair to suggest that Celtic were interested, but the deal to go to Heerenveen was already agreed. After less than a year in Holland, Augsberg of Germany had a £4.5m bid rejected and Wgoldilocksest Ham United, Sunderland, Everton, Aston Villa and AC Milan registered interest.

For whatever reason, some continue to believe that Celtic were within a million or two of capturing Finnbogason, yet Heerenveen’s stubborn refusal to sell to anyone says otherwise.

The truth is out there

Celtic’s upper budget for a single player is not far from £5m. Wages tend to present more of a problem, as Celtic’s top pay (around £30k/week) is unlikely to attract that £5m showstopper.

The argument that “they are out there” is flimsy without actually putting forward any suggestion. It is therefore without further ado, that the following list of ‘goldilock’ players have been compiled. Here are Europe’s best goalscorers this season with a transfer value (according to transfermarket.de) of less than €5m and an age no higher than 24.

Please forward suggestions on to Peter Lawwell sanctioning tictactic’s all expenses travel and accommodation to scout each of these players over the next few months.

 

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