Celtic 2 – 0 Dunfermline: Pars do well to keep score down

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.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic's nominal and 'practical' formation

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.

Dunfermline lineup

Dunfermline's nominal 4-1-4-1 and it's shape in practice

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.

One-way traffic

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.

Celtic's 4-2-2-2 after the first two substitutions

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?

Conclusion

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.

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Hibernian 0 – 5 Celtic: Fenlon’s risk back-fires as Celtic run riot

To close Rangers FC’s darkest ever week, Celtic stretched the gap at the top of the league to 17 points thanks to a hard-fought win over Hibernian. The hosts started aggressively, employing a tight man-marking system all over the park, but the clinical firepower of Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper was the clearest difference. The drubbing leaves Hibs perilously close to the relegation spot.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 4-4-2

Neil Lennon had just about a full-strength side to pick from. Long-term absentee Beram Kayal the only actual casualty, with Thomas Rogne, Daniel Majstorovic, Emilio Izaguirre and Mikael Lustig all returning to availability from a range of travails.

Lennon continued his preferred flexible 4-4-2 system, with Anthony Stokes and Rogne the only changes from last week’s win over Inverness CT. Georgios Samaras and Majstorovic, respectively, dropped to the bench.

Hibs Lineup

Hibs 4-4-2

A trio of players return to the starting 11 for Hibs, with Leigh Griffiths, Paul Hanlon and James McPake available again. Tom Soares, Callum Booth, Danny Galbraith and Ian Murray remain sidelined, while Gary O’Connor wasn’t quite fit enough to start.

This was Pat Fenlon’s first attempt at taking on Celtic, though like his predecessor Colin Calderwood, set out ambitiously – matching Lennon’s 4-4-2.

Scrappy Start

Fenlon’s entire gameplan centred on denying Celtic time on the ball, with every one of his players accountable for a specific opposite number. This led to an uncomfortable opening for Celtic, who tend to have a spare man at the back against teams employing a sole striker.

Distribution was therefore long and hopeful, at least initially. The classic problem with the Hooper/Stokes partnership reared it’s head again, as neither enjoy receiving high balls, and serves to at least partly explain why Samaras frequently breaks up the partnership.

The flip-side from a defensive point-of-view, is that a single slip-up can quickly lead to an overlap. The key to avoiding such slip-ups is concentration and energy – and it takes a well organised, in-form side to maintain that over 90 minutes.

Fenlon’s side initially stuck to the task with their best spell in the first ten minutes or so, with Celtic mainly restricted to the aforementioned long-balls from the back. But after only 14 minutes Stokes broke the deadlock. Hibs defended poorly from a Mulgrew corner (with the goalkeeper kept at bay by Hooper), leaving the onrushing Stokes free to nod in.

Realising defeat

The risk of Hibs’ adventurous approach saw them caught out again on the attack, and Stokes and Hooper were again ruthless in exploiting the gaps. When marking, space is everything, and with the two centre-backs exposed on the half-way line, it was basically a free-rush back to goal. Stokes dragged the centre-backs one way, revealing space for Hooper to receive a pass and ultimately deliver the killer second. It was a move clearly underlining the danger of leaving Celtic’s strikers man-for-man, especially with swathes of space to attack.

Despite the setback, Hibs stuck to the game-plan coming close with arguably their best chance. Demonstrating the benefits of the high-press man-marking system, Adam Matthews was caught under the pressure of Lewis Stephenson, with no easy out-ball. The Hibs winger nudged him aside, but couldn’t finish.

With that chance gone, Hibs were 2 down, just 30 or so minutes into the match and sinking fast. The gamble had back-fired, and the concern for Fenlon was that a system depending on high energy levels and concentration would only deteriorate as the match wore on.

The dilemma is that when trailing 2 goals you can’t make a defensive change and try to get something from the match, and so the capitulation begun.

Capitulation

The second half proved therefore to be a mix of a showcase of Celtic’s attacking talents, an opportunity for Lennon to rotate his squad, and Hibs worsening resolve. The dithering Matt Doherty was removed at half-time, partly due to a blood injury but mainly due to performance. Immediately after the restart Mulgrew fired in a free-kick on Graham Stack’s side – and the ‘keeper should’ve done better.

Hooper grabbed his second when Hibs once again were caught on the attack.  Mulgrew’s ball from the back on the counter released James Forrest (now employed on the left-flank). The ball was eventually worked to Hooper on the side edge of the box, who managed to curl a low shot over the arm of the disappointing Stack.

The fifth and final goal exposed another weakness in Hibernian’s plans, and also the usefulness of a ‘number 10′. Hooper by now was replaced by Kris Commons, who operated behind Stokes in a 4-4-1-1. This begged the question of the Hibs defence – who should mark Commons? Previously Hooper was picked up by a centre-back. But by this stage, Commons was allowed space between the lines, and on retrieving the ball in such a position, set Stokes free down the left.

The ball was worked back to Commons in the box, who thrashed a cross-cum-shot fortuitously in off the shin of Ki Sung Yeung. Such luck was the icing on the cake of a momentous week in Scottish football.

Conclusion

5-0 is a damaging result for a side facing relegation, but Fenlon should at least be applauded for taking a positive approach that at least initially held it’s own. For a bottom half club facing Celtic, the options tend to be either ‘have a go’ or ‘park the bus’. The early goals crushed the purpose of the system.

The other football trend when a side goes ‘mano-a-mano’ in terms of formation, is that generally the stronger, higher quality side will prevail and tactics take a back-seat. In this respect Celtic were diligent – depending on passing, movement under pressure and putting trust in their own ability under pressure. It was also important for Scott Brown - targeted for some rough-handed treatment – to keep his cool when the tackles crunched his way.

With the eyes of the media, considering Rangers’ demise expectant of a slip-up, there was more pressure on Celtic than is normal. In that respect it was a hugely impressive victory, from the coach down to the players.

 

 

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Hearts 0 – 4 Celtic: Lennon takes Sergio’s 5-4-1 to task

Just when you thought that news of Fabio Capello’sEnglandresignation might overshadow Celtic’s visit to Tynecastle, a remarkable, explosive opening period preceded a fascinating tactical battle.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 4-4-2

Neil Lennon made a single change to the side that beat Caley Thistle 2-0 last week, with the underwhelming (but improving) Kris Commons making way for James Forrest. Though performing similar functions in Lennon’s trademark 4-4-2, Forrest prefers the right hand side, meaning Joe Ledley was asked to play on the left.

Georgios Samaras keeps Anthony Stokes out of the starting eleven, with the perceived fear in ‘big’ matches, that the Hooper/Stokes combination can be too fragile, with the Greek’s athletic ability often preferred.

Pawel Brozek made the bench, while fellow January signings Rabiu Ibrahim (not yet unregistered) and Mikael Lustig (hip) couldn’t make the squad. Emilio Izaguirre missed out as his rehabilitation continues and Daniel Majstorovic is ready again after injury.

Hearts Lineup

Hearts 5-4-1

 

Paulo Sergio had a bit of a selection headache, with Marian Kello dropped following a bust-up with the board, Ian Black suspended and Kevin Kyle (long-term) and David Templeton injured.

 

Positive news was the return of Danny Grainger, who featured at left wing-back. It’s never easy classifying systems involving a back three, and one take might refer to the lineup as 3-4-3.  But with the wing-backs performing mostly a defensive function, and Mehdi Taouil and Andrew Driver essentially wide midfielders, Sergio lined up with an approximate  5-4-1.

The first 2 minutes

The contest was blown wide open when Celtic, under an early kosh, managed to turn a goalmouth scare into a goal of their own. Driver’s corner was met by the unmitigated Stephen Elliot, whose header appeared to cross the line. Fraser Forster clawed it away brilliantly, enough to convince the linesman that the ball hadn’t fully crossed the line.

33 seconds later Celtic had torn up the park to snatch the lead. Hearts gave away possession cheaply, Forrest was released frantically on the right, his drilled cross eventually turned in by Brown for his fourth goal in as many matches.

Picking through the bones of the goal hinted early-on at the flaws in Sergio’s system. Grainger, the left wing-back was drawn centrally towards Brown, leaving Forrest with acres of space to exploit, and in a back 3/5, that is a critical error.

Grainger’s marking of Forrest was subsequently more diligent, and what marked Celtic’s 4-4-2 out more than anything was Brown’s desire to push forward and join the attack. Against Hearts’ flimsy looking central 2, he had every right to. But seeing Sergio’s unorthodox formation, Lennon decided to make a familiar change.

The ‘Udinese’ approach

For better or for worse, Lennon has a well planned counter to a team playing with 3 at the back. First utilised against Udinese back in September, the switch to a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond (again) makes use of the flexibility of Celtic’s midfielders.

Celtic 4-1-2-1-2

In defence, the contemporary theory (derived from Total Football) is to employ one more defender than there are attackers, making for example, a 3-5-2 particularly useful against 4-4-2 (3 v 2).

The text-book response to a back 3 introduces 3 attackers, removing the defenders numerical advantage. Celtic’s defence, in contrast, outnumbered Elliot 2 to 1, and also enjoyed the extra man in the centre of midfield.

The disadvantage saw more pressure on Celtic’s full-backs, with overlaps on Mulgrew and Matthews a potential threat.

It was this tactical switch that, while initially appearing needless really ramped up the pressure – and Hearts utterly capitulated. The central midfield pairing of Scott Robinson and Adrian Mrowiec were particularly overrun, with Forrest able to exploit the gap between the lines from a number 10 position.

He then turned semi-provider again, with Wanyama stretching to control Forrest’s difficult cross before lashing in a second goal from 10 yards. With the pressure continuing, Celtic worked a third. Zaliukas gave away possession to Brown (with Zaliukas sloppy all match, and indeed guilty of a similar crime against Celtic in May), Samaras burst into the space behind the right wing-back, and his delicious cross was met by Ledley at the back post.

Sergio reacts

Hearts 4-4-2

With the back 3/5 shredded by Lennon’s clever 4-1-2-1-2 switch, Sergio responded himself. Driver, who toiled quietly, was removed in place of striker Gary Glen.

On seeing Sergio’s change to 4-4-2, Lennon returned to his initial system. Generally, where formations match, if the balance of power isn’t a stalemate, the team that comes out on top is the team with greater individual quality. Quite simply the ability to beat your opposite number (only in every position on the park).

3-0 up however, Celtic took their foot off the gas, allowing Hearts a lot of possession in the second half. But like the first-half, Celtic were potent on the break and dangerous with set-pieces. Hearts at times over-commited in attack, with Samaras’ pace a threat on the counter.

Seeing out the win

Another interesting avenue of attack explored by Celtic recently, is through the use of long-throws. Adam Matthews has the most impressive long-throw, probably in memory with Mulgrew on the other side decent as well. Akin to England’s Stoke City and Rory Delap, this adds an extra set-piece threat to the playbook.

Samaras went close with a thunderous drive and Ledley hit the post from close range, while Suso Santana had perhaps Hearts’ best chance of the second half, slicing Taouil’s lazily defended cut-back wide.

Mulgrew’s (and to a slightly lesser extent Forrest’s) corners and set-pieces were excellent throughout, with the fourth goal coming from such a corner. Wanyama headered the ball goalwards, with Hooper alert enough to prod the ball beyond the defender on the line.

There was time to see new signing Pawel Brozek in action, though with Celtic mostly containing and reactive, his priority was tracking back (particularly when Matthews left the pitch temporarily with a blood injury) and pressuring Hearts on the ball.

Conclusion

It was Celtic’s 13th consecutive league win, and Lennon considers it “probably” the best performance in his time as manager. The team performance was of such quality that it proved impossible to single out a Man of the Match, although a quick poll would suggest Scott Brown as the favourite.

And with a growing list with the likes of Stokes, Ki Sung-Yeung, Majstorovic, Izaguirre and Commons trying to break back into the side, Celtic’s squad hasn’t look so strong in years.

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January transfer window provides attacking options

Trabzonspor’s 3-0 Champions League Group B defeat to CSKA Moscow, 18th October 2011

January has been an eventful month for the two main football clubs of Glasgow – in vastly different ways. Aside from crashing out of the Scottish Cup to Dundee Utd, Rangers lurch ominously from one off-field bombshell to the next (as detailed by the superb Phil Mac Giolla Bhain  and RTC) Neil Lennon meanwhile has been quietly grappling with the transfer window. Patiently stroking transfer target after transfer target off the list, the constraints of competing in the international market is painfully clear.

This window especially, sees player values exaggerated, partly due to supply – who wants to lose anybody midway through the season? And so for a sensible purchaser – that is, a club operating within it’s capabilities – it’s the bargain basement loans and free signings where the greatest value is to be found.

Hot prospects Rabiu Ibrahim and Mikael Lustig were snapped up for free, and are fine examples of Lennon and Peter Lawwell’s long-term ‘moneyball’ style transfer policy. Cheap, young and work in progress – buy low sell high. The loan acquisition of 28-year-old Paweł Brożek also fits the policy, albeit in a different manner. The value here, is in landing an experienced player without risk – Lawwell has managed to negotiate into the terms of the half-season loan, a future fee.

Paweł Brożek - brief scout report

In the relative comfort of the Polish Ekstraklasa, Paweł finished top scorer in seasons 2008-09 and 2009-10 playing for Wisla Krakow. His goalscoring form earned Brozek, along with his twin brother (a left-back), a move to Turkish Süper Lig giants Trabzonspor for an undisclosed fee.

In Brozek’s first full season, by the time of facing CSKA Moscow in the Champions League group stage, he had only managed 3 league starts and 1 goal – overwhelmingly due to the form of Burak Yilmaz, who has yielded an astonishing 25 goals in 22 matches.

Unfortunately, Halil Altintop and Paulo Henrique had been established as the next forwards in the pecking order. With the Champions League considered second fiddle to the Turkish Süper Lig (Trabzonspor were only involved due to Fenerbache’s match fixing scandal) Brozek was given a rare chance to stake a claim in the side.

With Yilmaz suspended, Brozek came on at half-time for off-form winger Alanzinho with CSKA already a goal ahead.

Playing style

The substitution saw starting striker Altintop move wider left, reminiscent of Georgios Samaras’ favoured position for Celtic. Brozek took on the responsibility of focal point of the attack.

It’s well documented that Neil Lennon has been after another physical presence up top to provide competition and a ‘plan B’. But his new manager appreciates that Brozek is not that sought after target-man. “Pawel is a bit like Gary Hooper” Lennon said. “sharp with good feet, 5ft 10in and he knows where the goal is. He’s a bit like Maciej Zurawski was when he first came.”

Identifying a new targetman will have to wait, but the addition of Brozek will provide much needed proven backup to Hooper and Anthony Stokes. Cynics will doubt the need for a fourth striker (fifth if you include the injured Mo Bangura – out for the season), but it’s a well-known adage that to challenge on three or more fronts, four top class strikers is a minimum requirement.

The Luzhniki defence proved to be frustrating adversaries for Brozek, who toiled in – as new team-mates Stokes and Hooper refer to it – the graveyard shift, or the lone striker role. The service just wasn’t provided. While the right-back Ondrej Celustka was getting forward and overlapping well and the main playmaker Adrian Mierzejewski posed a tricky threat, no service was forthcoming for the isolated Brozek.

The hosts sat back, hitting aggressively on the counter, leaving no space in behind for darting runs on goal. Brozek’s preference instead, was to drop off the defenders, between the lines attempting to link-up play. The move allowed space to receive an initial pass, and then, after off-loading the ball purposefully, an opportunity for a running start on the opposition centre-backs.

An accurate return pass, however never came, making for an unrewarding evening. Trabzonspor suffered a real smash and grab, with the pace of Seydou Doumbia and Vagner Love on the counter ultimately the deciding factor. Altintop late-on, was moved back up front after spending much of the second half out wide. An attempt to take the load off Brozek to an extent, but it was too little too late.

Despite the result, sufficient information could be gleaned on Celtic’s new recruit. Quite simply direct, experienced backup to Hooper and Stokes, as Lennon warns “if one of them gets injured or suspended, we could be a goalscorer short — and Pawel is a goalscorer.” At only 5’10” he won’t be considered a targetman. But, his upper-body strength and ability in the air is an improvement on those two. He therefore might be seen as a more ‘complementary’ partner for one or the other.

Lennon cites the European Championships inPolandas an additional motivation, but unfortunately for Brozek his chance of impressing for his temporary new employer isn’t in his hands.

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Inverness CT 0 – 2 Celtic: Lennon demonstrates flexibility and depth

Celtic overpowered a difficult Inverness CT side in the Highlands, to become the first name through to the quarter finals of the William Hill Scottish Cup. While the hosts were tough to break down throughout, they proved to be their own downfall with the defence culpable for both goals.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic lop-sided 4-4-2

There was no place for any of Celtic’s January signings in the squad that travelled to Inverness, with Lennon quoted as waiting until they are ready. With regards to injuries, Mo Bangura is out for the season, with Daniel Majstorovic returning from a fractured cheekbone. His normal deputy – Charlie Mulgrew – was shifted to left-back (in place of a not-quite-sharp-enough looking Emilio Izaguirre) allowing Joe Ledley to operate in midfield and Kelvin Wilson a long-awaited start at centre-back. Cha Du Ri was dropped in favour of Adam Matthews.

Elsewhere, James Forrest and Anthony Stokes were rotated/rested, allowing Georgios Samaras and Kris Commons a chance to stake a claim in the first eleven.

The formation therefore was a clear lop-sided 4-4-2, with Commons in his natural position high on the left, fleeting between forward and midfield.

Inverness CT

Inverness 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1. Hayes initially started up front with Tade on the left, but for the majority of the match Tade was the lone striker, supported dynamically by either Hayes or Shinnie.

Terry Butcher’s side had been in fine form, having not lost a match since the unlucky 2-1 defeat to Rangers back on the 17th of December. The only change from last week’s goalless draw with St Mirren was Graeme Shinnie coming in for Shane Sutherland, and Ryan Esson dropped for Jonathan Tuffey.

Caley Thistle continue to struggle with a lengthy casualty list - Andrew Shinnie, Owain Tudur Jones, Steve Williams, Aaron Doran, Roman Golobart and Chris Hogg all unavailable.

Cagey opening

It was a scrappy opening, with neither Celtic’s direct approach or the Highland’s wind and rain, conducive to quality football. With the extra man in midfield Inverness looked slightly more comfortable in possession, while Celtic were looking to get the ball forward as eagerly as possible.

The sharp mind of Gary Hooper looked most likely to exploit the rushed attacking and panicked defending, with the Inverness defence failing to clear their lines and the striker ghosting in behind. He was, unfortunately, pushed too far wide, and his back-heeled cut-back slightly unlucky not to make it beyond the goalkeeper’s outstretched leg.

While Caley Thistle started with Jonny Hayes in the lone striker role, he was interchanging with Shinnie (in the centre) and Gregory Tade (wide left) frequently – with the gimmick an attempt to open gaps, or unsettle the defence.

Lennon’s use of Scott Brown and Joe Ledley

In something of a regular occurence for Lennon, very early-on in the match he opted to alter the midfield. It was strange because Celtic’s attacks seemed only to be lacking a little bit of luck to prove fruitful.

Nevertheless, Lennon demonstrated the flexibility of his midfield by flipping the lop-sided midfield horizontally. Joe Ledley became the tucked in midfielder, Brown moved central and Commons moved over to the right hand side.

 

The switch also highlights how James Forrest might integrate into the side in the future – with Brown central and Ledley on the left.

The change unsettled Celtic’s rythm, and what briefly followed was Caley Thistle’s best spell of the match. Nick Ross came close having found room between the lines, and then Celtic survived a flurry of corners, and a half-hearted penalty appeal.

Stepping up a gear

As per pre-formation switch, Celtic’s direct approach was consistently a hair-breadth away from breaking the deadlock. Hooper was central, coming close with a well-worked volley, and then his cut-back saw Commons tantalisingly close to controlling the ball and lashing in a shot.

In the end, Inverness were the source of their own undoing, in a comical period of awful defending. Ross Tokeley – the chief offender – feebly letting Samaras to stride through and blast in the opener from a narrow angle. It’s difficult to say if the goalkeeper was culpable; perhaps being allowed the benefit of the doubt due to the confounding curve and power on the shot.

At one point a clearance struck the face of a Caley Thistle defender, going out for a corner. Truly shambolic.

The course of the match varied little from that point, with Inverness trying but failing to utilise the pace of Tade on the counter against a relatively high defensive line.

Testing a 4-3-3

The introduction of Forrest for the imprecise Commons on the hour also saw a change of tack from Lennon. Samaras moved wide-left, with Forrest going high up on the right. Ledley and Brown flanked Wanyama to make a flat 4-3-3.

Normally seen as an attacking formation, it actually served well to contain Caley Thistle’s more forward thinking players. Instead of Inverness having a spare man in midfield, the spare man was at the back – which is precisely where you didn’t want to bumbling Tokeley on the ball.

Unfortunately for Tokeley, he did find himself with possession having cleared up a long Celtic ball. Hooper read the woeful back-pass and raced through only to be knocked down by David Proctor. Scott Brown tucked away the penalty to secure the win.

The other subtlety of the 4-3-3, is that in defending the wide forwards track back more into a 4-5-1 shape. At this stage, when possession is turned over this leaves Samaras (and more significantly) Forrest, quite deep but also fairly open (with the full-backs either out of position or unwilling to track their opposite number into deeper areas). Forrest was therefore able to take a few running starts on the left-back – coming close to scoring in the process.

Conclusion

Lennon will be delighted to progress having travelled to a historically difficult venue (which you won’t be allowed to forget!), particularly without picking up any injuries. While Lennon along with the apoplectic Butcher, have heaped praise on Celtic’s performance, it’s worth holding back on the superlatives.

While the performance was very good, particularly at the back, and while it might be ‘glory-hunting’ or melodramatic to complain about lack of goals in a 2-0 victory, the goals were borne from defensive error rather than quality creation.

The exception was Hooper, whose linkup and desire to get attempts on goal was astounding. But elsewhere it’s difficult to distinguish another strong attacking performance. Given the result, the gripe is minor.

It’s a testing time therefore for Commons, whose trademark position in the lop-sided 4-4-2 is under threat not only from James Forrest but now new signing Rabiu Ibrahim. Samaras’ goal (and short-term signing of Pawel Brozek) is also a reminder to Anthony Stokes that his partnership with Hooper is not set in stone. The suggestion of course, is of a quality squad depth, which Lennon was able to successfully demonstrate this afternoon.

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