Ignore those that claim Celtic’s 2012/13 season was anything less than a spectacular success. Reaching the last 16 of the Champions League, winning the SPL plus a domestic trophy is unquestionably the high end of modern expectation. Still, a number of sluggish performances irked a handful of supporters, like the 3-2 League Cup defeat to St Mirren, and you’d have to go back 13 years to find a worse SPL points total – made all the more curious by the absence for the first time of perennial title challengers Rangers.
Managers will universally agree that the end justifies the means, and so the spotlight should look back constructively rather than detractingly. This season saw tactical innovation, the crystallization of certain individual’s roles, and evidenced in Europe the frightening idea that Peter Lawwell’s and Neil Lennon’s transfer policy is managing to compete with the continent’s elite.
The right 4-4-2
A 4-0 pre-season humbling by Ajax blew the thought of a back 3 out the water, so Lennon reluctantly stuck to tried and tested variations of 4-4-2 for the first third or so of the season. The source of the reluctance was an uncertainty of what to do with the front 4. Should one of the wide midfielders play more central? (like Scott Brown in a lop-sided system). Or could a gung-ho 4-2-2-2 (with, say Georgios Samaras and James Forrest on each flank) really be trusted defensively?
Compromises emerged, particularly in Europe. Kris Commons was deployed as a 2nd striker – notably in the 2-0 home win over HJK, and then in the away qualifiers 4-5-1/4-3-3′s were deployed.
Slip-ups to Hibs and then St Johnstone posed questions about the 4-2-2-2, so the flatter 4-4-2 used successfully (at least defensively) against Benfica was the catalyst to a new approach to Europe.
Crucially, the two banks of 4 were rigid, with two strong central midfielders (and often an additional third used wide as above). The key was in leaving two striker up front, first of all to harass an opposition defence that against a single striker would have an easy time on the ball, but most importantly to work together in an attacking sense, preventing one from being left isolated while the rest of the side defend (as per traditional 4-5-1s)
Famously, this yielded two incredible feats against Barcelona – a narrow 2-1 defeat in the Camp Nou and then a 2-1 win in Glasgow. While it relinquished a tad too much of possession, making for exhausting defensive slogs: the system worked.
A special mention at this point for Kelvin Wilson and Efe Ambrose, the central defensive partnership for 5 of the 6 Champions League group stage matches. Much has been made of Lennon’s defensive chopping and changing, but these two managed a respectable 21 appearances together as a duo (a vast improvement on the season before, where the combo with the most appearances was Mulgrew/Rogne with 8 or Wilson/Rogne with 8).
More domestic firepower
For all the heroics on the continent, domestic results were undoubtedly slipping. The perception was that SPL sides were giving Celtic a taste of their own (European style) medicine – that is defending deep, energetically, and putting effort into counters.
If 4-4-2 was too predictable and 4-2-2-2 / 4-2-4 too risky, Lennon’s compromise was in between – a skewed 4-1-2-1-2 or simply 4-3-3. This provided numerical advantage in central areas, with width offered by the extraordinary full-backs Emilio Izaguirre, (and one of) Mikael Lustig and Adam Matthews.
This was a different 4-3-3 to what is normally seen in the U.K. – the ‘Jose Mourinho’ brand of 4-3-3 which is at times indistinguishable from 4-5-1. Lennon’s brand is far more attacking, with three genuine strikers as opposed to 1 targetman and 2 wingers.
It brought one of Lennon’s “favourites” – quite literally – back to the centre of attention. Commons had had a side built around him previously – the lop-sided 4-4-2 – and like that formation he was unshackled from defensive responsibility, the creative hub of the side. And still, with the exception perhaps of James Forrest there’s probably nobody in the side with the same guile in the final third. Lennon’s great number ten problem.
As the most central of three forwards, Commons excelled, and to be put into context, of the English Premiership number 10(s) of the Year Gareth Bale scored 21 and assisted 4 in 31 matches, while Juan Mata scored 12 assisting 12 in 31. Without getting into a debate about relative strength of leagues, bear in mind this is purely a reflection on the output in a league campaign of top players. Regardless, Commons scored 11, assisting 11 in just 25 matches, justifying Lennon’s decision to yet again shape the team around him.
N.B. over the Christmas period Lennon took another look at back-3 based systems, which didn’t prove successful.
Ambition makes the 4-3-3 pretty ugly
The 2012/13 tactical journey was halted by Juventus. Lennon had previously used a 4-1-2-1-2 / 4-3-3 to great effect against Italian opposition – or specifically a 3-5-2 Italian side. Though both matches ended 1-1, Celtic got the better of Udinese on those occasions.
Juventus in the last 16, would always be a tougher proposition. Celtic had a lot of the ball, made reasonable efforts on goal, but the Italians were so ruthless. Even in the second leg, 3-0 down in aggregate Celtic lined up with an ambitious 4-3-3 that was tricked forward and smashed on the counter.
By this stage, Celtic had exceeded European expectations. The overwhelming problem, is that most of the reasons that they made it that far – the star players – are now hot property. Fraser Forster was astonishing in goal, Victor Wanyama beastly in midfield. The Englishman Kelvin Wilson was strong and calm in defence, while Mikael Lustig was singled out by his manager as potentially player of the season.
Lennon was also compelled to highlight Gary Hooper and Kris Commons (on different occasions) as being pivotal to Celtic’s attack, that without them the team goes lacking. In truth there are some 10-15 players who should be targeted by wealthy English Premiership sides, whether they can persuade Lawwell or not is another matter.
The agenda for the meetings that take place before the pre-season starts in earnest will cover Lennon’s new contract (he reiterates that he will be staying despite paper-talk), but mainly how to retain the likes of Hooper, Forster and Wanyama. The manager told the Daily Record:
“There are some players I’d dearly love to stay and I’ll make that clear to Peter and Dermot.
“There will be a few players leaving and I’m sure we’ll get offers for a player or two, which you can’t do anything about.
“If it’s right for the club, if it gives us something we can build on, if you can replace the player, then they will go.
Long-term gaps in the team remain: a genuine contender for Commons’ creative license, a true targetman to give the side another option (possibly solved by the signing of Amido Baldé) and another versatile centre-back, taking into account the imminent departure of Rami Gershon and Thomas Rogne.
Inevitable departures will be the major driver, but expect signings for any position. If the player fits the right profile, they will be signed regardless of a spot in the squad or not.
Team of the season 2012/13