In the last game of the 2010-11 season, Neil Lennon’s remarkable and eventful first full campaign was rewarded with the Scottish Cup at Hampden. A fabulous strike from Ki Sung-Yeung, a deflected Mark Wilson effort (credited to Stephen Craigan) and a thunderbolt free-kick from Charlie Mulgrew sealed an impeccable performance and Celtic’s first Scottish Cup since Jean-Joël Perrier-Doumbé’s goal took the trophy in 2007.
Neil Lennon’s preferred formation, favoured XI and pecking order thereafter has by now become crystal clear, and his selection for the final duly corresponds. Gary Hooper and Georgios Samaras continue up front, the latter consistently being preferred over Anthony Stokes for the big games (possibly due to experience in big competition) but also in his favour is his “difference” to first choice Hooper. Hooper and Stokes are both wee poacher-cum-creators but playing a compact, physical game can nullify both. Samaras offers the alternative possibility of route one.
Making up the trademark 3 central midfielders, skewed to the left is Mulgrew, Ki and Scott Brown. Kris Commons is the only change from the 4-0 league victory against the same side last week, coming in for James Forrest on the right.
Player of the year Emilio Izaguirre, Daniel Majstorovic, Glen Loovens and Mark Wilson are the current first pick back four, with Frazer Forster in goals featuring in a Celtic shirt for perhaps the last time.
With only 5 substitutes able to be named (under silly SFA rules), Lennon made sure to include match-changers on the bench: James Forrest (probably the sub with the biggest argument to start), Anthony Stokes, “ultimate sub” Paddy McCourt, defender Cha Du Ri and ‘keeper Lukasz Zaluska.
Stuart McCall made 5 changes to the side that lost at Celtic Park last week, having rested some key players ahead of Motherwell’s first Cup Final since they won it 20 years ago. Top scorer John Sutton, Motherwell Supporter Association’s Player of the year 2011 Keith Lasley, Jamie Murphy, Steve Jennings and Darren Randolph returned to the starting eleven.
While in the meaningless (for Motherwell) SPL match last week the formation was a reasonably ambitious 4-4-2, with so much at stake McCall resorted to a more defensively sound 4-1-4-1. The general consensus on these occasions for smaller teams against the Old Firm is that the first 20 minutes or so are crucial. Keeping a clean sheet for this period can frustrate, so McCall surely made the right decision here.
Impetuous players sees ref set precedent
While pre-match Neil Lennon described the condition of the pitch as “perfect”, it was certainly a sodden day in Glasgow, with the surface extremely slick. As a result, the “up for it” challenges of an impetuous nature led to monstrous sliding lunges. The first deemed to be punishable by Calum Murray was a dreadful tackle by Majstorovic, and were it not so early in the game (9 minutes) could’ve warranted a red. Quickly after, Lasley meted out vigilante justice by hacking down Loovens, blurring the line between red and yellow in similar fashion. But with the precedent set, more bookings were to follow and the rain became a hindrance, forcing the ref and players alike to carefully consider every sliding tackle.
The 4-1-4-1 neutered Celtic initially in a number of ways. It is an ideal formation to use against a team that heavily favours the flanks because it’s difficult to be outnumbered. Similar to the way Aiden McGeady used to be doubled up on, Commons was clearly identified as the dangerman and was largely snuffed from the game – thanks to Gunning starting from a deep position, and Murphy dropping deep in front of him. Essentially 2 players in the final third for Commons to circumvent, which had the knock on effect of squeezing out Wilson too.
The other flank was a similar story, if executed differently. Humphrey pressed high up on the right incessantly which gave Izaguirre two options . He could stay back even with his side in possession to prevent counter-attacks. With only one striker to worry about Majstorovic would normally shuttle over and cover Izaguirre, but John Sutton made a point of occupying Majstorovic as close to the centre as possible (trying his best to leave Loovens free). The second option (and with Emilio being Emilio) was to press forward in possession regardless and make use of Humphrey playing so far up.
With Charlie Mulgrew either tied up with Hateley or tucking into the (outnumbered) midfield, the duty lay with Majstorovic to cover Izaguirre.
This free-man situation was untenable, especially with Majstorovic on an early yellow and looking cumbersome bounding across. Perhaps Mulgrew could’ve played wider, and Ki helped to some extent in dropping back to fill the gaps. In previous games, this covering is something Beram Kayal hates to do and for all his qualities, when Izaguirre labours to get back it’s an evident weakness in the side.
The solution was to ensure the Honduran stayed back in such situations, and as a result his attacking impetus was thwarted in different fashion to Commons.
The other area where the 4-1-4-1 vs 4-4-2 is hugely successful, is in the centre where the holding midfield can put an end to any breaks from the likes of Scott Brown or Ki. At least, that’s the strength in theory and Jennings stuck to the task in tenacious fashion. However, the breakthrough came thanks to a lapse in judgement/concentration as Ki was allowed the space and time to cut inside and lineup a perfect strike. Normally sides are so good at denying the Korean a chance to shoot, because when he does it can be fatal.
In image 1, the moment it’s clear that Ki in space is going to receive the pass, note how far up the pitch Jennings is. Note in image 2 how Jennings has barely moved an inch forward, if at all. He’s shuffled sideways but where was the desperate closing down?
Following Gunning’s equally tremendous howitzer that cannoned off Forster’s bar, it was said that this was the difference (or hinted luck) between the sides. But in truth Celtic were the better and more positive side, and the 1-0 lead at half-time was thoroughly deserved.
‘Well worn down
Celtic were buoyed by the goal, and instead of a Motherwell fight-back, were able to maintain possession. The main reason throughout both halves, was that the Motherwell midfield centre 3 were so deep. Brown and Ki were given space and only closed down aggressively (goal aside) once the ball came to them. This meant lots of possession (a massive 62% overall) in safer areas, but also meant Motherwell were starved.
Having discussed the positives of the 4-1-4-1 versus 4-4-2, now the negative. In this deep incarnation, as mentioned above possession was squandered in favour of defensive stability. But the one lapse in concentration undermined it all. If you’re going to go down the “under-siege” route of Mourinho circa 09-10, concentration is everything.
Secondly, arguably their most potent player in John Sutton was relegated to the fringes, with little or no support for his flick-ons. As the pressure piled on, Mark Wilson found a little luck after his deflected shot went in, and McCall at 2 goals down was forced into changes.
Veteran midfielder Hammill was swapped with ‘Fox in the Box’ Francis Jeffers and Motherwell went for a straightforward 4-4-2. Unfortunately, having relinquished possession with the 5 man midfield, the 4 man midfield continued the trend and Motherwell’s fightback was muted. Given the level of players available, McCall’s strategy was sound and correct. But in the end the quality shone through, topped off with a superb Charlie Mulgrew free-kick.
You have to feel for Motherwell getting so far and defending resolutely, but Celtic were able to adapt quite easily to facing closed off flanks. Hooper was a constant menace, his sharpness made clear having hit the bar in the opening seconds (albeit while offside) and the introductions of James Forrest and Anthony Stokes added respective direct pace and guile to a side tiring in the heavy rain. In other squad related matters; strangely, were Joe Ledley and Beram Kayal to be fit, it’s unlikely that Mulgrew or Ki would feature; but they would make the dramatic difference.
Both sides came out with their best plan A, and Lennon’s was executed to a tee. What a fantastic victory for him given the events this year and what a time to be a Celtic supporter.
I’d like to thank everyone for reading and commenting this season. Although I only started in October or so, every match has been a pleasure and I hope everybody has enjoyed the blog as much as I have. I have a quiet week or two planned blog-wise, but watch out in the coming months for Player Profiles (the in-demand Izaguirre/Kayal), more Classic matches, transfer target thoughts and friendly reports. Thanks again for reading. Hail hail.