Celtic put in one of the most dominating performances of the season against a deeply entrenched Dunfermline- and despite a glut of chances Celtic only mustered two goals. Though Jim McIntyre’s tactics were overtly negative, it was a sound defensive exercise that could have conceivably yielded a return.
Neil Lennon was able to choose from an almost full-strength squad of players. Mikael Lustig was back in training, but not fit enough to feature and four changes were made to the side that demolished Hibernian 5-0 at the weekend.
Emilio Izaguirre came in at left-back to allow Charlie Mulgrew to shift central in place of Thomas Rogne. Adam Matthews and Victor Wanyama were rested with the Koreans, Cha Du Ri and Ki Sung-Yeung coming in respectively. Finally, Kris Commons replaced James Forrest.
The formation started off as a clear ‘lop-sided’ 4-4-2, but due to the excessive freedom on offer, in practice, the formation became a little moot.
McIntyre’s choice was hampered by injury, with Nicky Phinn, Jordan McMillan, Mark Kerr, Iain Turner, Steven Bell and Andrew Barrowman all crocked.
Andy Kirk, who featured in the weekend’s draw with Inverness CTwas replaced by Liam Buchanan, while Ryan Thomson came in for Gary Mason, Andy Dowie covered for the injured McMillan and Paul Burns was preferred to Martin Hardie in the centre of the park.
It was a classic 4-1-4-1 defensive, counter-attacking formation, although a particularly negative brand.
Sizing up the opposition
For the bottom side facing the top side,Dunfermline’s approach wasn’t surprising. Generally in football, there are two separate ways of dealing with a ‘superior’ opponent. Hibernian – equal with Dunfermline on points and equally desperate to escape with something – employed the first ‘method’. That is, pressing the opposition high and aggressively, keeping them as far away from goal as possible and attempting offside traps.
On the continent, Marcelo Bielsa (of Atletico Bilbao) is a notable proponent. Hibs were punished 5-0 however, with the enthusiastic pressing tending to provide space for savvy attackers.
Dunfermlineby contrast took the polar opposite route. Defend deep, narrow, with as many bodies as possible in central areas. Happily relinquish possession in less dangerous areas of the pitch (giving the opponent somewhere between 50% and 75% of the space) and hit on the break with pace.
This depends on reliable, well-organised defenders, and perhaps the expectation that the opposition isn’t comfortable with the ‘route one’ approach – crossing and/or long-shots. This is the Jose Mourinho method, and luck and gamesmanship have their part to play.
If Hibs went ‘Biesla’ then Dunfermline went ‘Mou’, although the way McIntyre’s side defended made Internazionale’s almost apologetic robbery of Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League semi-finals look positively samba.
From the outset Celtic were given the freedom of the park right up to Dunfermline’s 18-yard, with the visitors unwittingly on the verge of inventing a revolutionary ‘6-3-1’ formation – the wide midfielders Cardle and Graham squeezing in seemingly as additional wing-backs.
Destroying the parked bus
With such freedom, Lennon was quick to amend the starting lopsided 4-4-2. Celtic matched Dunfermline’s centre 3 by pushing Commons forward, with the system becoming looking like a squashed 4-4-2 diamond.
Cha Du Ri and Izaguirre pressed on as high as they could get away with, and the deepest midfielder – Ki – operated in deep areas with impunity. His distribution all game was expert, greasing the wheels of his sides persistent waves of attack.
With no early goal forthcoming, the dreaded doubt started to creep in. How exactly to negotiate 10 men crammed into the penalty box? As suggested earlier, the Achilles heel of ‘the Mou’ (apart from conceding!) is crosses or long-shots. The former is not one of Celtic’s strengths – particularly with Cha’s delivery, Izaguirre’s rustyness and Stokes/Hooper’s aerial disadvantage, and so long-shots became a tempting route to goal, with Ki or Commons the biggest threat.
A more tricky method is working a way through the tightly-packed bodies – something Stokes, Hooper and Commons sometimes favour. But against such a dense, dedicated defence, the final ball was frustratingly lacking.
Lennon was aware of the aerial disadvantage, instructing to play the raft of corners short, working along the edge of the box for a shot.
It took over 30 minutes for the deadlock to be broken – with Mulgrew responsible. McIntyre will be disappointed that his forward (Buchanan) was occupied with Kelvin Wilson during open-play. Mulgrew had the freedom to burst forward and let loose, which shouldn’t have been allowed to happen.
While Dunfermline were resolute, the match had a feel of ‘attack versus defence’ about it, and if anything the Celtic players frustrated each other with an inability to score.
Encouragingly, Celtic were doing everything right – switching the ball from side to side (via Ki) trying to develop an opening. Cha’s running down the right was also impressive, having the total beating of Cardle. Such a shame that the delivery was consistently lacking.
Hooper (early-on) and Stokes (in the second-half) were probably the most guilty of squandering respective one-on-ones, and the most likely route of attack continued to be long-shots, corners, Cha on the right and less frequently tiki-taka through the middle.
Dunfermline brief reply
It’s very easy to criticise lower-end teams coming to Celtic Park and defending to the extreme. It’s not popular with the fans or many pundits, but the tactic is perfectly viable. In fact, until the second goal on the 75th minute, in a way it was a success. Hibs using the other approach by that point were five down.
Most significant of all, was the fact that on the 60th minute at 1-0, Pars midfielder Thomson had a header cleared off the line by Izaguirre. What a tactical masterstroke were that to go in!
Alas, the onslaught continued with Dunfermline never erring from the super-deep 4-1-4-1. Ledley came close with a header, and Brown’s volley after excellent work by Ki was unlucky.
It took a change from Lennon to eke out the second. James Forrest came on for Izaguirre after 67 minutes and Ledley went to left-back. At the same time Georgios Samaras replaced Stokes, initially making for a 4-2-2-2 with Forrest and Commons on either side.
Goalkeeper Chris Smith, who had been the hero for Dunfermline was arguably at fault for the second, as Hooper’s low-ish cross from the right made it through the 6-yard box unhindered, and Forrest turned it in.
After 77 minutes the attacking changes continued with Pawel Brozek came on for Scott Brown. This meant Commons played ahead of Ki in the centre of midfield, Samaras on the left, Forrest on the right and Brozek and Hooper up front. A very attacking formation but why not, when practically unchallenged in midfield?
A significant number of supporters will be frustrated by Dunfermline’s negative tactics, Celtic’s profligacy in front of goal, or both. Yet neither grievance is valid. Visiting teams have no golden obligation to play the way that suits our demands, and Celtic created more than enough chances. The only thing keeping the scoreline down to 2 (only 2?) was luck.
As long as Celtic are dominating matches, keeping a clean sheet and creating chances, Lennon’s job is an exceptional one. No matter who you are, or how fantastic your technique in attack, there will come a time when the goals simply don’t come. It’s also to the manager’s credit that he continues to make ad-hoc tactical changes in reaction to the opposition, ramping up the attacking pressure as and when required.
All in all, it was a commanding display which included good performances from rotated players. It would be a shame if Dunfermline’s honest and full-blooded attempt at stealing a point in their bid for survival is scoffed at, and likewise a shame of Celtic’s performance is belittled for not yielding more than just two goals.