Ciftci, Scepovic and why Celtic should cease and desist from their never-ending search for a targetman

In a one-off special, and due to a lack of updates, Celtic fan and excellent football writer Scott Fleming (@sfcalcio) has stepped in to the breach to consider Celtic’s unremitting hunt for the next Chris Sutton.
You can debate things on forums, scroll up and down Twitter, pore over broadsheet newspaper articles and listen to phone-ins, but sometimes it takes the wee old man in the pub to really provide clarity on a particular issue.

I watched this season’s SPFL curtain raiser between Celtic and Ross County at Kelly’s Bar on the south side of Glasgow. 2-0 up and cruising, the champions broke upfield in search of a third. The ball zipped between the members of Celtic’s midfield, a unit in which almost every single individual seems to be playing superbly well right now. Green and white shirts fanned out across the Parkhead pitch in perfect synchronicity, the mouths of the flag day crowd creeping open in anticipation of another celebratory roar. But then the ball landed at the feet of striker Stefan Scepovic.

“Well, that’s that fucked,” deadpanned said wee old man, to laughter and murmurs of agreement. I can’t remember the specifics of how the move petered out, but suffice to say, the old yin wasn’t wrong.

Scepovic arrived at Celtic just under a year ago, and has spent most of that time looking like THE quintessential transfer flop. It didn’t help that he appeared to have snubbed the club in favour of a move to Getafe, only to suddenly change his mind, but before the big Serb had even     had time to pick out a peg in the Celtic Park dressing room he’d been gazumped in the hearts of the fans and the mind of manager Ronny Deila by fellow deadline day capture John Guidetti, who – with his Jack the lad persona, penchant for winding up those esteemed rivals from Govan and handy habit of, erm, actually scoring goals – proved a much easier player to love than the gawky, monosyllabic Scepovic. Even the moment that should have been his big breakthrough felt like a bit of a debacle, the £2.3m man netting his first goal for the Tic in a 2-1 Europa League win over Astra Giurgiu but missing an avalanche of other chances on the night.

By the midway stage of the campaign phoney Guidetti mania had bitten the dust (to paraphrase The Clash), but still Deila showed no inclination to pluck Scepovic from the Parkhead lost and found, instead entrusting the lone striker role in his beloved 4-2-3-1 system to Leigh Griffiths, who responded with a series of important goals and impressive performances.

Six goals in 24 appearances were the unflattering final statistics from Scepovic’s first season in Glasgow, but with a full pre-season behind him and reassuring talks held with Delia, many hoped that the former Sporting Gijon forward might finally come good this term, even with the increased competition provided by new arrival Nadir Ciftci to contend with.

I say ‘many’, what I mean is me and the handful of other oddballs like me who can be relatively unmoved by the deaths of majestic animals on nature documentaries, David Tennant’s report from an African hospital on Red Nose Day and all the other things that make normal people cry, yet find the sight of a professional footballer being a bit rubbish at his chosen profession unbearably sad. Watching Scepovic play for Celtic has at times felt like watching those videos people film of their cats doing goofy things like trying to leap through closed windows. Pitiful, yet strangely endearing.

The Ross County game was a case in point. With Griffiths going off injured early and Ciftci serving a six-game SPFL ban, Scepovic had a priceless opportunity. For 71 minutes plus stoppage time that precious lone striker position was his, with that wonderfully inspired five-man midfield to supply him with chances and 45,000 fans in attendance, brimming with new-season good cheer and ready to welcome the new Scepovic into their collective bosom. Only it wasn’t the new Scepovic, it was the same old one, with his knack for drifting through games anonymously and, when he does get involved in the play, killing hitherto promising moves stone dead.

I did start to wonder, however, as I watched him lumber around disconsolately, whether this really was a situation unique to Scepovic, and not part of a much more long-running problem at Celtic that he just so happens to be the latest victim of. Because he’s far from the only centre-forward we’ve seen looking – if you’ll pardon my French – like a bit of a spare prick at Paradise in recent years. In fact, the ‘sad striker shuffle’ has become something of a Celtic trademark. We’ve seen it modelled by Morten Rasmussen, Miku, Mo Bangura, Amido Balde and Teemu Pukki, to name but a few.

Now, the wisdom, or lack thereof, of the Celtic board’s policy when it comes to spending £1.5m or £2m on strikers from the continent has been debated at length elsewhere and is not something I intend to explore here, but it is interesting to note the physical characteristics these striking flops share. Almost all of them are 6ft or taller.

Celtic have had plenty of popular, successful targetmen on their books over the years. Even in the relatively short span of time I’ve been watching them play there’s been Chris Sutton, who managed 86 goals for the Hoops before going on to become the punditry equivalent of Vlad the Impaler, John Hartson, who bagged a whopping 101, and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink. OK, big JVoH looked like a petrified tree in the middle of the penalty box during his third and final season in the east end, but maintained a respectable strike rate in the first two and played a key role in the come-from-behind title win of 2007-08.

During the Mogga, Lenny and Ronny eras that have followed though? None. And not for the lack of trying. One of Lennon’s most frequent press conference discussion topics was his squad’s lack of a commanding centre forward, an issue he tried and failed to remedy by recruiting Miku, Lassad, Balde, Pawel Brozek and Daryl Murphy. It’s an obsession, and a fruitless quest, that Deila seems to have inherited.

The presence of six-footers Scepovic and Ciftci in the squad hasn’t stopped Celtic being linked this summer with the likes of Michiel Kramer and Milan Djuric, strikers so tall you could reach down from the top row of the Jock Stein stand and slap them on the head if they fluffed a chance. Kramer, who scored 17 goals for ADO Den Haag in the Eredivisie last season, is 6ft 5, whilst Djuric, who netted only two for a woefully out-of-their-depth Cesena in Serie A, is 6ft 6.

But even if one of these targets was to agree to join Celtic and settled in better than the likes of Scepovic – two pretty big ifs – would there really be a place for him in a side as dynamic as Deila’s long term?

For some years now Celtic have been a passing side, not adverse to scoring from set-pieces and swinging the occasional cross into the box, but happier working the ball through midfield. That was the preferred style during Lennon’s tenure and there’s been even more of an emphasis placed on keeping the ball on the deck under Deila. Expecting a big lump of a centre forward to go into a streamlined young side like that and hit the ground running is like expecting a 200lb wrestler to be the star performer in a ballet troupe.

And that’s why signing Ciftci and picking him ahead of Griffiths in the Champions League qualifiers might not be as bad an idea as it seems. There are plenty of sceptics – myself included – who have doubts about Ciftci’s attitude and temperament, not to mention wider concerns about the ability of any striker bought from a fellow SPFL club to deliver at Champions League level (Tony Stokes, looking at you…), but there’s no doubting the Turk’s ability and intelligence, attributes that mark him out as a more well-rounded player than Scepovic, even though they’re exactly the same height. Yes, he’s big and strong, but with his awareness and confident use of the ball, Ciftci is arguably the closest thing to a conventional targetman that Celtic can afford to field without compromising their fluidity.

Celtic being Celtic, there are always going to be what ifs and ‘grass is greener’ scenarios, especially with no genuine competition for the SPFL title to speak of and no Old Firm derbies to distract ourselves with. And who’s to say what might happen before the transfer window closes, especially if Delia’s side secure the financial windfall that comes with negotiating the Champions League play-off round. But the myth of the tall, dark striker that’s going to sweep in and save the day has been a red herring for too long. For the sake of the manager’s sanity, the fans’ viewing pleasure and the self-esteem of poor sods like Scepovic, it’s best for the Hoops to knock their never-ending search for a targetman on the head, and move on.

Gary Mackay-Steven and James Forrest – tales from the wing

both

Celtic’s 2-1 victory over Hearts on May 15th 2010 marked not only the final match of the 2009-10 season, but also Aiden McGeady’s final match for his boyhood club. It wasn’t yet known if the precocious talent – arguably Celtic’s best youth product since Paul McStay – would be staying or going. The caretaker manager at the time, Neil Lennon, had just clocked up 8 straight SPL wins – clawing back a modicum of respect following Tony Mowbray’s damaging reign; yet his future too, was uncertain.

Amidst all the excited tabloid gossip about the summer, a significant change went under the radar – McGeady was replaced on the 92nd minute by an 18 year-old James Forrest. Another home-grown youth graduate, it wasn’t until the following season, 2010-11, that Forrest really staked a claim for being ‘the next’ McGeady.

As one exciting Scottish winger’s career was on the ascendency, another’s, meanwhile, was heading in the opposite direction. Gary Mackay-Steven made headlines when snapped up from Ross County by English giants Liverpool, and almost by association became highly rated. However, thanks to a plague of injuries, by the time James Forrest was lighting up Celtic Park, Mackay-Steven had found himself at Airdrie – a club that barely survived relegation to the Second Division the season prior.

These timings make for a convenient base for comparison, albeit Mackay-Steven, as a January signing, was only available for 50% of Airdrie’s 2010-11 matches giving Forrest a sizeable head-start.

Stat vs Stat and injuries

James Forrest

James Forrest

The first place for logical comparison is via game-time and goals, and the severity of Forrest’s injury problems become clear. Despite the half-season advantage, he’s only managed (according to wikipedia) 6 more matches. After his breakthrough 2011-12 SFWA and PFA Young Player of the Year season, where he featured in a whopping 43 matches, the exertion took its toll and the niggles began.

His ailments have baffled medical staff, having suffered acute groin, hip, thigh and calf injuries, along with a more chronic problem with his sciatic nerve. The latter is probably the last thing a pacey winger wants, and the end-result has seen a gradual decline in acceleration over the past few seasons.

Mackay-Steven

Mackay-Steven

Mackay-Steven has had a cleaner bill of health during this time, with knee-surgery in 2012 taking down the “matches played” figure in that year, but otherwise has had a fine bill of health.

His problem, therefore, had been in sustaining his level of performance for Dundee Utd. Competition on the wings or behind the striker was severe, with the likes of Johnny Russell, Stuart Armstrong, David Goodwillie and Ryan Gauld amongst others, vying for a place.

Finally, the goals scored figures are quite interesting considering – it is fair to assume – that Mackay-Steven has worked with lesser quality team-mates and more difficult teams (i.e. matches against Celtic).

Contrasting Styles

Both are burdened in height (they are both 5ft 9) with Mackay-Steven perhaps a couple of weight-divisions lower, something that influences managers (especially in Scotland) no matter what they claim. Aside from the defensive aspect, there’s the problem of dealing with Scotland’s ugliest, with both players being targeted for some pretty industrial treatment over the years, no doubt contributing to some rest days.

Despite the age, height and positional similarities, the two are at opposite ends of the “winger” style. Mackay-Steven is tricky and flamboyant, with this move at Kilmarnock being the most famous example. He beats defenders with technique and by using his intelligence to compensate for size.

Forrest on the other hand is an old-school “knock it past” winger, dependant hugely on explosive pace. Bringing us on to his recent decline. Of any player in Scotland, Forrest is the one who would suffer the most without pace. His technique and control has never been outstanding, and he doesn’t have either the brains or brawn to operate elsewhere. But – when he’s on his game, he is unplayable, and reminiscent of McGeady in the sense that any defender on earth would be ill at ease.

Both have operated just off the striker, and though seeming to suit the attributes of both, neither have appeared comfortable.

Ronny Deila

Much has been made of Ronny Deila’s new system, preferring inverted wingers who can score and create as opposed to old-fashioned by-line hitters. Then there’s the defensive aspect – the relentless pressing and physical demands that this youthful Celtic team have been asked to meet. Mackay-Steven’s enthusiasm and energy largely accounts for his seamless fit on the right wing.

It’s here that Forrest loses ground. His infamous fitness record doesn’t lend well with such a dynamic system, evidenced by his laboured performance against St Mirren at the weekend. If that electric pace doesn’t return, the future looks grim.

Hence, it appears easy to write Forrest off – just as easy to forget how devastatingly effective he was in 2011/12. Taking a leaf out of Kris Commons’ book, he was best cutting in from the right to become a goal-threat – not inverted as Deila may prefer, but serving the same purpose.

Though the similarities between the two are great, the differences are equally so. They are stylishly very different, while their rise and fall are inversely proportionate. We know what Forrest can do, it’s a question of whether he can do it again. Mackay-Steven has always flirted with greatness, and once hit rock-bottom – whether he can build on his current form and reach his undoubted potential, remains to be seen.

At their age it may be too late to replace McGeady, but it is possible to pick up where he left.

 

Celtic 3-3 Inter Milan – Faith in Deila’s system eventually rewarded

As Christian Wulff neatly observed on twitter:

cwulff

 

Celtic’s issue was casting away the shackles of self-doubt, with the opening fifteen minutes reminiscent of certain 90’s/00’s Celtic-in-Europe sides – overawed and panicky in the face of more illustrious opposition. Xherdan Shaqiri opened the scoring early thanks to the first of three main defensive catastrophes (with Craig Gordon, uncharacteristically, responsible for goals 1 and 3).

The early shock rattled Celtic, and Inter were able to pass the ball around swift and purposefully. Where was the youthful, energetic, Klopp-esque relentless closing down? Where was the patient and confident keep-ball normally initiated by the technically proficient Virgil Van Dijk and Jason Denayer?

There was no coherent shape – the back four initially garnering most of the blame – but Ronny Deila’s system doesn’t categorise the defence so divisively. His concept of “defence” is especially involving of the midfield and forwards with focus on shape, pressing and stamina, hence the immediate success of fresh signings and starters Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong.

Adam Matthews helps turn the tide

It would be wrong to say Celtic survived the early onslaught, with plenty writing off the tie as over at 2-0, and even then Inter were extremely dangerous on the break. But after 15-20 minutes, Celtic came to a sudden realisation – that rather than being overawed by Inter’s World-Cup laden midfield, they had real technical ability of their own.

Celtic 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3

Celtic 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3

Nir Biton is the new Ki Sung-Yeung – his calm and deliberate presence in midfield contrasting nicely with Scott Brown’s blood and thunder (and dare it be said – previously under-appreciated.) Sitting deeper, playing as what Roberto Mancini might call a regista, he was instrumental in taking the ball under difficulty and linking the back four in order to work Inter’s front 3.

This was the area that Celtic were able to take advantage of, with poacher Rodrigo Palacio uncomfortably stationed on the left. Mancini had used a 3-5-2 earlier this season but seems determined to keep the 4-3-3 going, perhaps at the expense of some players – namely Palacio (allowing Mauro Icardi to play central) and the immensely talented Mateo Kovacic, who doesn’t really fit in a 4-3-3 at all.

At 33, Palacio had his work cut out keeping tabs on the sprightly Adam Matthews – arguably only in the side due to Mikael Lustig’s absence. Matthews enjoyed the best game of his season and was constantly finding room down the right flank. With the inverted winger Mackay-Steven cutting inside and Brown barging around that area, Inter were exposed.

The problem was always whether Matthews could deliver the final ball, and thankfully he did after breezing past David Santon to receive Stefan Johansen’s through-ball. Matthew’s held his nerve to find Armstrong free, who scored to give Celtic a lifeline. What emphasised Matthew’s part in this goal, is that he started the move way back in his own third – in true Deila style, while under pressure making sure to play the ball out of defence rather than booting up the field.

Izaguirre wasn’t so succesful on the other side, having been accustomed to bombing up the flank at will against SPFL sides. The presence of Shaqiri kept him pegged back.

System in full swing

For spells, this was one of the most enjoyable Celtic performances in memory. It didn’t feel like Celtic were under the kosh and at the mercy of continental technical superiority. Despite the defensive blunders, Celtic were actually controlling moves. Playing out of defence – even under intense pressure – and having faith in their own technique to work the way out of trouble.

At turnovers the energy and enthusiasm was irrepressible. There was a stage where Mackay-Steven tricked his way up the park and fed on another. Rather than being satisfied and having a rest, he chased down a lost, threw himself at the ‘keeper and almost helped make a third. It was a passion and commitment that one might accuse some outgoing players of late, of having lost.

This system is an intensely demanding physical ask, and into the 2nd half while the tempo dropped, Celtic’s control didn’t. Aggrieved at squandering such a cheap goal just before half-time, the home team had the better chances, with perhaps Leigh Griffiths missing the best. The flow was best demonstrated by Mancini switching to a back 5, to protect his narrow advantage.

Could’ve and Should’ve

It took until late for substitute John Guidetti to claim the equaliser, and fully deserved for a Celtic team who will wonder what might’ve been. Were it not for the early nerves and unlucky goalkeeping, Celtic might’ve kept a clean sheet. They also created some golden chances, so could’ve, should’ve finished with more than 3.

It all hails back to the opening, disastrous, 15 minutes, where Celtic, for whatever reason just weren’t playing the Deila way. Age and experience could be a factor – the outfield players having an extraordinary average age of 21 (edit – actual av. age of outfield players is 24, apologies). Perhaps Delia himself could be singled out for blame as the question of motivation and organisation stops with him.

Instead what we were left with is a tantalising taste of what might be to come. This roadmap of gambling on young players, a young, adventurous manager orchestrating what Jurgen Klopp calls “fighting football”. With Celtic’s budget, the risk is always falling down the “opening fifteen minute” route, of unorganised naivety. Less talented, more clinical teams will take advantage. But the optimistic side is the explosive attacking and defending seen from about 20 minutes on. Though this was a shadow Inter side, there were still world-cup stars like Medel and Guarin, and two of the most highly rated young attackers in Icardi and Shaqiri. If this match has taught us anything, it’s that this young Celtic side don’t know their own strength, and in Milan anything will be possible with a bit of faith.

Celtic vs Inter Milan – tictactic preview

Nothing quite sums up Ronny Deila’s vision for Celtic than the opening goal at St Johnstone at the weekend. The hosts started with possession, and were immediately pressured by the front-line into conceding the ball. Celtic built confidently from the back, with Virgil Van Dijk, as always, pivotal, but the 8 out of 8 successful passes involved almost every outfield player.

Deila wants to dictate the game – even at the expense of risk taking at the back – the in vogue kind of system introduced latterly by Pep Guardiola. So urgent pressing in every position, high-energy, high-work-rate and the need for confident footballers. New signings Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong have introduced some youthful zest (at 24 and 22 respectively). Armstrong recently had some telling insight into Deila’s regime:

“I didn’t quite realise how hard the boys work until I came here” said Armstrong. “In training and the games it’s phenomenal the amount of work we put in. To get the ball back when we lose it so quickly is the way we are dominating games. It’s definitely not easy. It’s a lot of work and I was absolutely knackered after the game.”

It’s perhaps telling that some older heads have struggled to adapt. Kris Commons has had a relatively poor season (fitness and form) having only started in half of the possible games and is rated at 50/50 by John Collins for Inter. Anthony Stokes has taken great strides in fitness and application, but has never enjoyed playing wide.

Outside of the two new signings from Dundee Utd, Deila’s options in his trademark 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 seem limited. None of Stokes, Commons, Liam Henderson, James Forrest, Calum McGregor, Aleksander Tonev or Mubarek Wakaso can be described as in decent form.

Celtic 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3

Celtic 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3


Up front should prove the most difficult dilemma, with Leigh Griffiths scoring 4 goals in his last 5 appearances, up against the highly rated John Guidetti, whose season has stalled. The fact Griffiths was withdrawn at 2-0, suggests he is likely to start. Elsewhere the team should pick itself depending on availability.

Delia’s energetic and pro-active system has fared well of late in Scotland. But Internazionale – as per any Italian side faced by Celtic recently – will be more astute on the ball, making Celtic’s pressure less effective. This is the polar opposite approach to Neil Lennon’s method against European heavyweights – preferring a deep and reactive approach.

Energy won’t be the only problem, as highlighted at times against St Johnstone. Emilio Izaguirre’s slack pass at the back almost resulted in Chris Kane equalising in the first half. His supplier in that instance Michael O’Halloran, did pull one back thanks to more meek surrendering of possession and this time by the opposite full-back. Adam Matthew’s throw was too hopeful, but Craig Gordon will rightly shoulder most of the blame for a fumbled block.

Overall, tactically, if not in personnel, Deila’s Celtic is massively different to Lennon’s. Samaras had been so important as an outlet – with Armstrong being the nearest equivalent operating on the left. Deila prefers two wrong-footed inside-forwards and no real number 10 or second striker. Johansen has been more box-to-box, more Joe Ledley than Kris Commons.

The one similarity is how much improved Celtic have been in keeping the ball, in contrast to Mowbray, Strachan and even O’Neill. Lennon started that rolling, but in Denayer and Van Dijk, Deila has taken it even further. Whether this stubborn attachment to open and expansive football can break the Italians, will be the biggest test of Deila’s seemingly improving formula.

Inter Milan

Looking at Inter’s squad it’s easy to anticipate some big-name former English Premiership players having a key part. Yet ex-Man Utd Nemanja Vidic hasn’t been playing of late, while ex-Arsenal Lukasz Podolski (who cannot feature against Celtic) has had a quiet two matches out wide on the left.

Other big names – the Brazilian Hernanes and €14m Croatian prospect Mateo Kovacic have also not been a part of Inter’s recent mini-revival. Though they’ve won the last 2 matches, the lost they 3 prior and lie 9th in Serie A.

Inter 4-3-3 vs Atalanta

Inter 4-3-3 vs Atalanta


Roberto Mancini was coy on Kovacic’s chances on Thursday, and it’s unclear how the attacker can fit into the current 4-3-3. He compared the Croat to Andrea Pirlo, which is perhaps a deeper position than anybody expects. Meanwhile Kovacic has been coming off the bench to replace winger Xherdan Shaqiri on the right.

Currently Inter are reliant on the tenacity of Gary Medel, the range of Freddy Guarin and the pace and trickery of Shaqiri. But most of all it’s another highly rated youngster – Mauro Icardi who has been dominating headlines. The top scorer has garnered controversy after a spat with Ultras, refusing to celebrate goals, and a general dip in form. Mancini says of him: “A classic striker is about more than just scoring goals, and there are certain facets of his game he can improve”

He seems likely to replace Rodrigo Palacio, who scored a bizarre deflected goal in the 4-1 win over Atalanta at the weekend. That game highlighted the dependency on Guarin and Shaqiri for creativity, with the former in particular scoring twice and setting up the fourth. It will be interesting to see if Ronny Deila reacts to Inter’s right-hand bias – it may make sense using Mulgrew or Johansen on the left to help temper that threat.

Inter are not a possession based side, with Atalanta allowed much of the ball. And the counter-attacks are not lightning-quick. It’s probably better to describe their counters as composed, with the intelligence and technique of their attacking players, it recalls the situation against Udinese a few years ago, which was a masterclass in purposeful counter-attacking.

Goalkeeper Samir Handanović played in those ties, and is one to note as being of the highest quality.
Aside from the willingness to sit back, another potential weakness for Inter is at the back. Their captain Andrea Ranocchia’s meek missed header led to Atalanta’s equaliser, along with slack marking from Juan Jesus – which may make the case for a Vidic recall.

Of course, this blog more than any other wants to avoid the cliche of comparing this to 1967, but there are parallels. Deila is championing an attractive, high-energy game, while we can expect the usual mixture of clinical organisation, ruthless attack and obligatory gamesmanship from the Italians. Deila’s vision is coming together, yet the sense of youth and naivety in recent times couldn’t come up against bigger opposites in this competition.

Has Peter Lawell’s moneyball lost it’s lustre?

Before I get into this post, just a quick update. I am taking a hiatus from regular blogging due to work commitments. I really appreciate all the comments of support over the years – it has made all the hard-work worthwhile, and it’s regrettable that I’ll not be contributing to one of the most interesting times at Celtic in years. You can still catch me on twitter @tic_tac_tic and the odd blog post like the following. Thanks again.

There’s an irritating trend doing the rounds on social media right now of Celtic’s bad signings – or “clangers”. Following the embarrassing defeat to Legia in the European qualifiers, there’s also been a groundswell of ill-feeling towards the current transfer policy. In short, too much quality has left, and not enough has come in.

A very valid question is: where has all the money gone? Gary Hooper, Fraser Forster and Victor Wanyama raked in roughly £28m of transfer fees to go along with the exorbiant income from Champions League football. In return, this summer Celtic haven’t spent a dime on new signings – 3 loanees and a free goalkeeper.

signings since 2010

Celtic’s most expensive signing since 2010 is Virgil Van Dijk at a mere £2.6m and in this time Celtic have spent just shy of £30m compared with taking in over £61m.

Economics aside, the greatest concern is the ratio of quality to quantity, hence the list of clangers doing the rounds. 

Before we address this, it’s worth considering Lawwell’s so-called “moneyball” principles of late. Sign players with growth potential, recruit from under-appreciated areas and focus on a larger number of low-risk high-reward players as opposed to high-cost high-risk.

The table on the right shows many such examples. There have barely been any over 30’s – certainly not at a cost. There’s been a focus on the 19-23 bracket, allowing for development and profit. The nature of this business model is a relatively high number of “failures”.

It’s testament to the scouting setup that there has been such a high number of young internationals. Berget, Griffiths, Johansen, Pukki, Biton for example, have been snapped up for low fees yet are full internationals.

So in many respects, the policy has been a roaring success – on and off the park. Regular European football (bearing in mind, the upset against Legia would’ve resulted in Europa league football had Legia not cheated). The spend low, development policy has yielded frequent European football and regular league titles (though the quality of football has suffered at times).

Valid concern – a catch-22

Undoubtedly the greatest failure has been in attack. Number 9’s, 10’s and wingers – something Neil Lennon arguably never addressed in his 4 seasons, aside from the initial signings of Kris Commons and Hooper.

This sorry situation has been looked at here before – looking for goldilocks. To generalise: if a Champions League level striker were to become available, why would he choose to play in Scotland? Financially OR competitively there is simply no reason. Though Celtic have managed admirably to generate hefty transfer fees in other areas, it’s impossible to translate to wage-power. When a 2nd tier English side can spend £11m on a single attacker, it shows the difficulties that Celtic face, with lower Premiership teams with no hope of Europe frequently spending over the £10m on strikers.

It’s true that the forward positions have not been addressed (though every chance will be offered to Tonev and Berget) but not through want of trying. Some 17 attackers have been purchased since 2010, ranging from young potential (Rabiu Ibrahim, Amido Balde), seasoned top level pros (Miku, Teemu Pukki) to wily old veterans like Freddy Ljungberg or Olivier Kapo. So the golden question remains unanswered by Celtic and the critics alike – are the right strikers out there, and if so where?

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.

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!

goal111

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.

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.

 

 

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.’

 

 

 

 

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.