Scotland and Griffiths – the height of the issue

leigh

Celtic may be flying high in the Scottish Premiership, but Leigh Griffiths has had to make do with fleeting substitute appearances for both club and country.

While the irrepressible Moussa Dembele keeps him out Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI, Scotland is a different matter altogether, with Chris Martin and then Steven Fletcher leading the line for a crestfallen campaign.

The prevailing argument is loud and clear – how can a striker who’s just come off a 40+ goal season, fail to start for his national team? It should be a simple case of banging him in the team shouldn’t it? Unfortunately not.

Headers matter

As much as swapping, say, Fletcher for Griffiths like-for-like sounds obvious on paper, the impact in defence is devastating for an already small team.

Height disadvantage vs Slovakia

Scale height disadvantage vs Slovakia (click to enlarge)

In other words – any football team has a minimum “headering” requirement. It cannot be stressed enough quite how important this is in set-piece organisation. For Scotland to swap out #2 in the above list, for a player who’d fit in at 3rd bottom, is unequivocally not an option.

To further put into context this “height crisis”, we can compare to – for example – the most notoriously vertically challenged team in the world, Spain. Scotland’s XI versus Slovakia limbered up at 181cm on average, the same as the Spaniards in the 2014 World Cup final, who incidentally struggled at set-pieces during that game. A straight swap between Fletcher and Griffiths, and Scotland would actually average a few centimetres smaller.

The common regurgitation is that this only reinforces a classic Scottish self-loathing trope, that the little guy – no matter how technically gifted – is always held back in favour of mindless brute-force. Generally speaking this may be the case, but not here.

Once this fact is accepted, we can consider the knock-on reasons that Strachan fails to pick Griffiths.

Important side-note (height =/= good at heading)

Another common straw-man is that height does not equal being strong in the air. This is true. The relatively small (176cm) Fabio Cannavaro was an accomplished header of the ball, while closer to home Erik Sviatchenko (185cm) is extraordinary in the air (going back to Scotland’s problem, even Sviatchenko would only be the 6th tallest person in that Slovakia team).

There are plenty of prolific goal-scoring headers who aren’t particularly tall – Henrik Larsson maybe the finest, who is indeed the same height as Griffiths.

Headed goals however are a different breed – using speed and intelligence to out-wit the defensive line and re-direct a favourable cross.

This is contrary to what happens defending set-pieces. You are fending off a bigger, stronger, stationary target. The reacting defender rarely gets a running start nor is it the kind of cross to tap into a net.

So to summarise, yes, you will find plenty of examples of goal-scoring headers – including Griffiths. But this has little-to-no bearing on a defensive aspect (evidenced by the a complete lack of examples within zonal defences). As a general rule, height is a reliable indicator, and if not position (centre-backs and target-men are bred to head).

This is also why you won’t see anyone less than 6 foot defending the 6-yard line at a corner.

Options

Again, it’s important to iterate that the problem is not the lack of Griffiths’ height per-se, it’s more the lack of strong defensive headers. In other words, if Griffiths were to come in, where would the aforementioned imperative height be found?

442

Flat-out 4-4-2’s aren’t particularly in favour these days, but some examples exist. France and especially Portugal has successful Euros, with Griezmann/Giroud and Nani/Ronaldo combinations respectively.

While Griezmann and Ronaldo have decent claims to be the best attackers in the world at the moment, it’s obvious why 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1 at times) suits.

Iceland are perhaps a better example of a limited 4-4-2 team maximising their capabilities, albeit – and forgive the height obsession – even their 2 strikers; Sigthorsson and Bodvarsson are taller players than anything Scotland’s XI has to offer.

4-4-2 openly cedes possession in favour of directness, which unfortunately goes against everything Strachan had been working towards with his 4-2-3-1. 3 years of grand planning sought to have a solid defensive base with tricky technical guys like Snodgrass, Ritchie and Burke pulling strings in midfield.

In hindsight, of course this never happened. But it would be folly to think a long-term strategy can be torn up due to one result against Slovakia.

England

Strachan rarely digresses from two very closely related variations of 4-3-3. He has a more attacking, conventional 4-2-3-1 with a jewel in the crown behind a big striker (e.g. Shaun Maloney, or latterly Snodgrass or Burke). And a more conservative 4-1-4-1, usually including Bannan in the midfield 3 to control possession and provide creativity from deep. Charlie Adam may have once suited this role, and despite getting column inches recently is barely 7th choice midfielder.

Premier League regulars Snodgrass and Ritchie are also heavily relied on to add spark and chip in with goals. The two were woeful against Slovakia, and Strachan is unlikely to go with the relatively green Burke, as precocious a talent he is.

Scott Brown should come into the side having been in impreious form for club. He may not be a goal-scorer, and his inclusion will prompt the usual eye-rolling at Strachan calling on another old-faithful, but he should be an improvement on the lacklustre showing in Trnava.

Similarly Charlie Mulgrew’s call-up is barely worth discussion given he’s backup for the backups.

Expected lineup

scoeng

Deila, David and Directors

Ronny Deila

The great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann once compared football management to being a lion-tamer: as soon as you show fear you are lost. It’s difficult not to recall Kris Commons’ unedifying rant in Molde, or Leigh Griffiths at Hampden just past. The cracks in Ronny Deila’s leadership were showing elsewhere too, with Scott Brown’s very public drunk and disorderly episode, and the protracted disagreement with Anthony Stokes.

The dressing room has been lost for months, and Deila struggled to keep favour with fans and the media alike. In these situations it’s still results that matter, yet the defeat to Rangers was the last of many big-game collapses. Despite certain in-game positives, the European record has been atrocious. A tactical inflexibility, lack of motivation and lack of defensive organisation has proven fatal.

Re-iterating an assessment of Moyes from the last blog post:

Gallingly, any composed, technical stuff on the ball has been undone by mental naivety and individual errors. It has been countless, stretching back to Legia. Red-cards, penalties and sucker-punches. A couple, throughout the many stick to mind in particular – the failure to see out a 3-1 scoreline to Malmo at home (casual late defending), the ludicrous defending of set-pieces (Malmo away and the closely followed game in Amsterdam). Efe Ambrose and Dedryck Boyata’s hospital passes, or Craig Gordon’s inexplicable, uncharacteristic (career-wise) suicide rushes (Inter, Fenerbahce).

Deila has never been able to extract more than the sum of the parts of his squad. There has been no unifying attacking performances or gritty escapes.

David Moyes

David Moyes is the bookies favourite to succeed Deila – a former Celt, Glaswegian, with plenty of experience at the highest level of management. So far, so good. But scratching the surface, he may not be the best fit.

Widely considered out of his depth at Man Utd, aside from a disappointing stint at Real Sociedad, Moyes created a legacy at Everton. There he experienced the lows of a relegation battle, and the highs of cracking the “big four” of the Premier League. His one foray in the Champions League was a dubiously referee’d defeat to Villareal in qualifying.

Moyes is known for being pragmatic – favouring 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 depending on how you look at it – which funnily enough is the same shape as Deila. One of the few times he deviated, his Manchester Utd team were eviscerated by their City rivals.

There are a number of players at Celtic who in theory fit in rather well. Leighton Baines flourished under Moyes who loves to use attacking full-backs, with Kieran Tierney an obvious parallel. Moyes likes midfielders who can sit and spray sideways passes and dictate play – think Nir Biton or even Scott Brown. Stefan Johansen has been used by Deila as an equivalent to Marouane Fellaini at Everton – a de facto second striker.

Moyes was criticised at Utd somewhat for focusing too much on crossing as opposed to deck football – which may ask questions of how he might use Leigh Griffiths, not known for his aerial ability. And finally Moyes has been known for energetic pressing – something Ewan Murray believes antagonised Deila’s players.

Moyes may improve Celtic’s lackadaisical defensive organisation and concentration in Europe, Deila’s biggest failure of all. But Celtic fans can be quite contradictory – a dependable defence is important but inventive attacking football is non-negotiable. The hugely successful Gordon Strachan struggled with the paradox from start to finish. Moyes wasn’t able to find the balance at Utd, whether he can do so in Scotland is another question.

Peter Lawwell

There’s a ceaseless idea within some sections of supporters that Peter Lawwell is not only overpaid, but selfishly interfering with footballing matters. There is little evidence to support this, with Deila himself coming out to say there wasn’t a transfer he didn’t ratify.

To start with the good – Lawwell takes Celtic to the highest board tables. He’s an ECA Executive Board member along with the likes of Bayern’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Barcelona’s Josip Bartomeu, and on the SFA board. It is a fair question to ask – how exactly do Celtic benefit? It’s a tricky question, and the answer is ultimately intangible. But it stands to reason that it’d be preferable to be mixing with the 14 biggest clubs in the world, than not. This is exactly what Celtic pay the additional wages for. Meeker Chief Executives simply don’t have the contacts or acumen to make these connections.

This blog has spoken in-depth about Lawwell’s so-called Moneyball (here and revisited here) and is of the opinion that his transfer strategy on the whole has been an inarguable success. Fans consider down-sizing to be optional, and it outrageous that Celtic have landed up with the likes of Nadir Ciftci, Derk Boerrigter and Stefan Scepovic, to name but a few.

But elsewhere Celtic have had inarguable transfer success – with the likes of Fraser Forster, Virgil Van Dijk and Victor Wanyama moving on for 8 figure sums.

Strikers remain the problem, and can be evidenced across Europe in terms of costs. Av average young striker like Conor Wickham can transfer for £9m. Or someone who might traditionally have been a Celtic target like Ross McCormack or Jordan Rhodes attract similar prices.

The Elite European clubs continue to hoover up the most talented forwards, with the likes of Chelsea having a staggering 28 players out on loan.

In short, Lawwell’s interfering in football matters is a fallacy. Not only based on the success of previous player development, but by the fact he has helped supply a squad that undoubtedly should be dominating the SPL, or beating Malmo to reach the Champions League group stages.

The bad

Lawwell is not perfect – as mentioned before, it’s not clear to stakeholders exactly what his exorbitant salary is bringing. Worst of all at a time that the Celtic board, to their shame, cannot offer the living wage to all employees, and at a time of much financial insecurity for the wider public.

There are other matters central to Celtic supporters that Lawwell has appeared weak or conflicted. Fans are unrepentant that the Rangers entity should be held accountable for past misdemeanors. The Chief Executive should be the leader of a companies culture, and while there are obvious marketing reasons that Lawwell is conflicted with Rangers, he should answer to the wants of the club and supporters as opposed to money. How Ian Bankier and Lord Livingstone remain on the board is a mystery.

A special mention to Resolution 12 which again, is a shirked matter.

Being unable to source an alternative striker to (the utterly excellent) Leigh Griffiths is one thing, but Lawwell’s biggest fault has been his patience in Deila. The Norwegian has long lost his players and fans, and has stumbled at every major hurdle. He could’ve been dismissed at any time since the summer.

Deila has always been seen as the cheap option, further adding to the penny-pinching bonus-grabbing reputation that Lawwell has attracted. It was likely more an extension of the moneyball idea – which clearly works for players. Find an up-and-coming talent and profit from his rising stock.

The gamble on Deila backfired and should’ve been abandoned earlier. But the idea is an attractive one, with some fans still hopeful that an underrated, exciting, attacking manager is out there.

 

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.

 

AC Milan: Tactical report

Having thought long and hard about the direction of this blog, I thought I’d take a different approach and produce a super-compact “scout report” in the format you might imagine a genuine example might contain. Furthermore, please take into account that this was produced before last night’s dramatic 2-2 draw with Torino (and ignores Kaka’s return!) but having since taken in that match, I’m still happy with the findings of the report.

Milan preview 140913

New things to consider is the Italian’s injury “crisis”, with Kaka, Ricardo Montolivo, Stephan El Shaarawy, Ignazio Abate, M’Baye Niang, Giampaolo Pazzini, Daniele Bonera and Matias Silvestre all out injured.

The first 3 are crucial, with Montolivo normally playing ‘in the hole’ between the two main strikers. Kaka played here without success against Torino – see his first half passes made in the final third..

Kaka passing - first 45 minutes vs Torino

Kaka passing – first 45 minutes vs Torino

Without Montolivo and El Shaarawy, Milan’s front 3 is probably limited to Robinho, star player Balotelli and familiar face Alessandro Matri. The rest of the side should be as per the report, except with Cristian Zaccardo at right-back.

Another extra underlined in the Torino match was the importance of equalising hero Mario Balotelli as shown in the below “passes received” chart, contrasted with Robinho’s underneath for comparison. He is utterly central to Milan’s attack, moreso with the ongoing injury situation.

balo received2

 

robinho received

Preview looking at Celtic’s options will be published tomorrow…

 

 

Fürth 6-2 Celtic: Stark reminders as home side go Fürther

What started as quite an entertaining friendly turned sour for Celtic, as Fürth ran away with a deserved 6-2 win. It would be unfair to put this down as a full strength Celtic, already tired from an intensive pre-season schedule and truly depleted by the end of the game. Yet the ease in which the Germans cut through (what was initially) a fairly full-strength, if unfamiliar, defence setup is a worry, while the final 15 minutes were calamitous.

Celtic 3-5-2 vs Furth 4-4-2

Celtic 3-5-2 vs Furth 4-4-2

Having stuck to 4-men defences in the previous two friendlies, here was Neil Lennon’s chance to exercise the new faces in one of his favoured formations: 3-5-2. Normally the outside centre-backs have been more flexible players, such as Charlie Mulgrew, Efe Ambrose and Mikael Lustig, with the centre-most of the 3 being a more “traditional” defender. But here the arrangement was flipped, with the less technically sound players on the outside and the ball-playing Virgil Van Dijk in the middle.

The idea was to get Van Dijk drifting between the back and midfield in order to showcase his passing ability – a role popularised and perfected by Sergio Busquets, only Fürth had other ideas. Celtic’s two outside centre-backs weren’t really able to provide the width in possession, which wasn’t a surprise seeing as Mouyokolo and Wilson are strictly traditional centre-backs. It’s a reminder of how fluid the 3-5-2 has to be and reaffirms the need for more mobile players on the outside,

Still, Georgios Samaras’ quality was showing up front, relatively fresh compared to other team-mates and he got on the end of a good move involving a great ball from Charlie Mulgrew, and a cut-back from Mikael Lustig – the right wing-back getting into the 6-yard box well.

Elsewhere Emilio Izaguirre impressed on the attack (at least in the first half), clipping in some excellent crosses from the left. Unfortunately, as per his general weakness, he struggled defensively – although the same could be side for the whole side. Anthony Stokes also looked sharp, linking well with Samaras if perhaps drifting out of proceedings too frequently.

Celtic didn’t take advantage of an apparent numerical advantage in midfield, mainly because of Tim Sparv and Goran Sukalo in Fürth’s centre. They stuck to pretty well defined dual-roles of firstly protecting the back four, while also breaking forward at the right time. Celtic’s 3 were ill-disciplined by comparison, with Tom Rogic especially unable to get into the game. His glaring ineffectiveness here will be a worry for Lennon who sees him as competition for Kris Commons’ number 10 role, though worth bearing in mind the young Aussie is fresh back from injury.

Even more prominent a first-half failure was the dynamic of the back three defenders who easily gave up 3, albeit the third a bogus penalty. Too much width was afforded to the opposition and not enough organisation and understanding vertically.The roaming nature of Van Dijk probably didn’t help, with Lennon eventually reverting to a damage-limitating back 4.

Simply put Fürth easily found ways both around the side (as per the first two goals) and through the centre (most goals thereafter). Their attacks – particularly through Zoltán Stieber and Nikola Đurđić were quick and incisive, and a reminder that 1st/2nd tier German sides aren’t to be sniffed at.

Too much emphasis will be put on the scoreline, despite the salt-rubbing 4th, 5th and 6th goals being incurred by a super depleted backline, and both penalties being completely unwarranted. A ramshackle final defence containing Callum Waters, Wilson, Lustig and Dylan McGeouch were truly overwhelmed, with the latter really struggling. Again it’s a shame to consider that he once shared parallels with Aiden McGeady and now only makes awkward cameos in the centre of midfield or at right-back.

In the end Fürth missed a glut of even more chances to top off a dreadful Celtic performance. But as a training exercise this was a useful reality check for certain hopefuls.

Motherwell 3-1 Celtic: Déjà vu as weakened Celtic capitulate

It was a bad case of déjà vu for Neil Lennon as his weakened lineup capitulated to 2nd place Motherwell. Celtic took a first-half advantage without really excelling, only for the home side led by a lively Henrik Ojamaa to grow into a turnaround.

Unique formations

Motherwell 3-5-2 against Celtic 4-3-3

Motherwell 3-5-2 against Celtic 4-3-3

Celtic lined up in perhaps the “preferred” 4-3-3 that’s intrigued this season, but Stuart McCall was more surprising, going for a bespoke 3-5-2 as opposed to his standard 4-4-1-1.

Its design centred on out-numbering Celtic’s front 3, which makes sense given Celtic’s reliance on Gary Hooper, Georgios Samaras and increasingly Kris Commons this season. The in-form latter didn’t play however, with Tony Watt getting a chance to put forward his credentials.

The numerics worked like this: back 3 vs front 3 with the support of Tom Hateley as a sitting midfielder (picking up Celtic’s dropping forward), further supplemented by Chris Humphrey as a kind of wing-back.

Michael Higdon was left up front occupying Celtic’s 2 centre-backs in his POTY, literally smashing way, asking questions of Charlie Mulgrew and Thomas Rogne – defenders not noted for coping that well physically against robust forwards.

Luck’s fine line

Spacially the contending systems opened gaps for a player on each side. Particularly the left Celtic forward – normally Tony Watt though the front 3 were so fluid and interchanging as to make the above diagram almost worthless. Shaun Hutchinson’s early yellow-card for a foul on Samaras compounded the problem for Motherwell, with Celtic able to get in behind that left channel with surprising frequency.

The second player finding space – especially as the match wore on – was Ojamaa. Peeling off the targetman Higdon to pickup second balls, as Celtic’s anchorman was drawn into the busy midfield stramash.

Perhaps a special mention to new signing Tom Rogic at this point, for showing some glimpses of tricky bursts forward and intelligent, thoughtful passing, at least early on.

Watt took great advantage of this space on two occasions, the first in crossing for Hooper at the back post, who’s shot was saved at point-blank – a bit of misfortune for Celtic’s 88. Soon after in similar circumstance Watt’s cross was (eventually) put in by Hooper, with that space on Motherwell’s right glaring.

The relative fortune continued for Motherwell – having a stodgy half – managed to pull a goal from absolutely nowhere. Rogne’s weakness in rushing out and challenging was highlighted again as Keith Lasley collected the ball and played in Ojamaa. The Estonian’s first touch was excellent, but his finish even better, beating Fraser Forster at his near post with an exceptionally precise shot.

Capitulation

Also worth addressing Motherwell’s “penalty claim” after Ojamaa’s first-half shot hit Rogne’s arm on the way out. The rules are specific in that the defender’s actions must be deliberate – it’s a puzzle that fans, papers and pundits alike see contact with the arm in the box as an insta-penalty. In this case was it was clearly not deliberate – similar to Samaras’ “hand-ball” against St Mirren which was also correctly turned away.

Celtic’s capitulation henceforth was a demonstration in poor motivation compared to Motherwell’s growing confidence – and there was more misfortune to come. The second came from a soft penalty (albeit the correct decision) and the third saw Higdon clearly offside before Mikael Lustig headed into his own goal.

By the third, luck could no longer be used as an excuse, with Celtic downright poor. And Lennon’s substitutions did not help. First Paddy McCourt came on for Rogne, pushing Wanyama into defence.

Then McGeoch came on at right-back for Rogic pushing Lustig into defence and Mulgrew into midfield, making for the strange situation where a player starting in midfield moved into defence (Wanyama) while a player starting in defence moved into midfield (Mulgrew).

McCourt added some trickery without end-product (the expectation for him to come on as a sub and score everytime seems unfair) which Anthony Stokes’ replacing of Samaras came too late to make a difference.

Motherwell took advantage of the shuffling and uncertainty, spraying passes around with glee, looking like a far more composed and organised side despite the formational shuffling of their own.

Lennon’s post-match comments could’ve been lifted from the previous defeat:

“I’m raging. I made changes with games in mind but still put a strong team out. People keep coming to me looking to play – they got the opportunity and didn’t play. It seems to me if I leave Hooper out the team then we suffer. We were very, very poor going forward in the first half.”

This time, however, the emphasis is on the missing Kris Commons with Celtic lacking spark and creation without him. Rogic and McCourt addressed this to varying degrees, but  though the two formations made for an interesting tactical duel, it was sloppy individuals to blame for this lazy late-season defeat.

Zheng Zhi – Brief Profile

This post has been done as  a request, so strictly speaking wouldn’t normally have been available. Written basically in 10 minutes and off the top of my head, I’d appreciate any corrections or any views you might add. Cheers.

Towards the end of the noughties, the Asian market for players had proven to be a mixed bag for Celtic. Highly rated young Japanese winger Koki Mizuno never had the guile to usurp Shunsuke Nakamura as chief creative genius. South Korean internationalist Ki Sung-Yeung was (and is) considered a success, yet former China Captain Du Wei was an embarrassing disaster.

All, to varying extents were signed with marketing in mind, yet the only real disappointments – Mizuno and Du Wei – cost next to nothing. A low-cost gamble.

Tony Mowbray’s signing of Zheng Zhi back in September 2009, therefore, hardly set the imagination of fans on fire. An English Championship toiler signed on a free, there was also this damaging suspicion of being merely a shirt-selling device.

Mowbray was quick to dismiss such cynicism, pointing out that Celtic’s commercial employees had never heard of Zhi, that he was signed because “he’s a good football player”. And with respect, it’s difficult to imagine such an unfashionable, old-fashioned style player would have such a money-spinning following abroad. Charlton certainly didn’t feel that way.

Furthermore, Mowbray had tried to signed Zhi for £2 million back during his time with West Bromwich Albion. So what is it that Zhi brings to a side?

His debut for Celtic was a baptism of fire – the first Old Firm derby of the season that Celtic lost 2-1 at Ibrox. Somehow, in his first match for the club, he had shrugged off the challenge of team-mates Georgios Samaras and fan favourites Marc Crosas and Paddy McCourt to start as the fifth midfielder, playing behind the striker.

Tactically, it made perfect sense. The Glasgow Derby tends to bring out the more conservative styles of managers, and Mowbray needed somebody to bridge the gap between midfield and attack, while also offering defensive sensibility.

As the freest Celtic player, he was also revealed as the player central to most possession moves, and his energy and willingness to make space was invaluable – arguably Celtic’s best performer. Indeed, it was an ambitious burst forward into the Rangers penalty area that forced an illegal challenge, winning a penalty that Aiden McGeady tucked away.

He was withdrawn after 70 minutes, with his side 2-1 down, in favour of a more eccentric, attack-minded midfielder in Paddy McCourt. This trait of being more function and hassling energy over attacking flair turned out to be decisive in Zhi’s remaining days in Glasgow.

Mowbray’s Celtic quickly lost pace in the Scottish Premier League, with most matches being an exercise in gradually ramping up the attacking options in order to chase matches. An extraordinary 4-2-4 system became the norm – with up to 4 strikers on the pitch, though usually 3 with McGeady.

This left the more cautious, defence minded Zhi in a difficult situation – even with club Captain Scott Brown out injured for much of the season, Zhi could only muster 16 appearances with Landry N’Guemo, Barry Robson and Marc Crosas further ahead in the pecking order.

Zhi came to Celtic and justified his reputation as being tactically flexible. Though he only played either as a second striker or in midfield, he can apparently play in any position barring goalkeeper. His lack of appearances fuels the aforementioned cynical “marketing” suspicion, but as backup, he was never likely to feature heavily. It would be fairer to recall his time at the club as simply a mature, experienced backup to what turned out to be a disappointing squad.

Ross County 0 – 2 Celtic: Celtic shrug off difficult first half

Neil Lennon demanded a positive response to Sunday’s poor effort at Ibrox before watching his eliminate Ross County from the Scottish League Cup. But the tenacious hosts along with the demanding weather made it a difficult ask, at least in the first half as Celtic ran out comfortable winners in the end.

Celtic Lineup

The big question was how Lennon would shuffle the back-line after Sunday’s poor defensive showing. He acknowledged the criticism that Celtic weren’t defending crosses acceptably, with all four conceded on Sunday and both against Atletico Madrid, originating from cross-balls.

“You can do a number of things – you can change the way you defend corners or you can change the personnel. We half-zonal and half man-mark which we have been doing since I’ve come in really. The system seemed to suit us, it just might be the personnel needs changing in that area”

Celtic 4-4-2

The personnel did change, though injuries played a significant part. Two of the three main “zonal” markers were withdrawn: Georgios Samaras who’s nursing damaged ribs and Glenn Loovens (dropped entirely), which saw Anthony Stokes and much maligned Daniel Majstorovic start. Another two new additions to the injury list – Scott Brown and Ki Sung-Yeung, made way for James Forrest and Joe Ledley respectively, while Adam Matthews deputised for the suspended Mark Wilson.

Injuries and suspensions aside, the most notable absentee was Kris Commons. Though he’s been struggling with a groin injury of late (at least officially), he’s voiced his discontent at missing out from the squad on Sunday via the medium of Twitter. Perhaps the injury flared up, or perhaps Lennon was doling out a reprimand for the outburst; either way Commons failed to make the squad.

It was a return to 4-4-2, with a strike-force statistically Celtic’s most productive and unlike Lennon’s usual system, the midfield rather than being tucked in on one side (which expectedly would’ve been Charlie Mulgrew) actually featured plenty of width on both sides in an attempt to open a claustrophobic park.

Ross County

Ross County 4-1-4-1

Ross County had injury worries of their own, with striker Steven Craig and full back Scott Morrison not fit enough to make the match squad.

The team featured a number of familiar faces, namely former Celts Rocco Quinn, Michael Gardyne and Paul Lawson: the latter coming in as anchorman in place of striker Steven Craig, and left winger Gardyne ousting Mark Corcoran from the starting eleven.

Lining up in a 4-1-4-1, the clear aim was to defend resolutely (at least early on), frustrate and antagonise a “wounded” Celtic side, and hit on the break, piling pressure especially on the notoriously flakey centre-backs and ‘keeper.

Fiesty opening

Antagonise they did, with the frequency of beefy challenges and strong tackles matching the petulant personal bickering. County were pushing quick and belligerently in the Celtic players’ faces, especially making use of the spare man in the centre to squeeze the available space.

Celtic’s main problem was using their superior possession effectively. With the long-ball option ruled out (presumably by Lennon, though the conditions demanded it), and the midfield outnumbered, the man with the most space and responsibility to start moves was Kelvin Wilson. But the centre-back looked uncomfortable, what with the monsoon conditions and the industrious Mcmenamin snapping at his heels.Wilson was therefore usually forced to play the ball along the back – Derek Adams’ plan all along.

County’s exploitation of a nervous back three wasn’t restricted to out of possession – in possession the first instinct was to produce long and high-balls, chucked in at every opportunity which Mcmenamin diligently competed for. It’s a classic approach to playing Celtic that hasn’t changed since the middle of the decade when the likes of Gary Caldwell and Stephen McManus were once exploited in a similar way.

Derek Adams’ plan only needed one more ingredient – to keep things level for enough time to panic Celtic and turn the away support, but Gary Hooper had other ideas. Ironically, it came from a Celtic corner which County couldn’t clear. Stokes’ secondary delivery was met by Joe Ledley and turned in by Hooper.

Search for a second

Though the lead was roughly deserved given the possession, County continued with the same strategy and questions were predictably asked of the centre-backs. Wilson and Majstorovic combined in bumbling fashion to mess up a headed clearance (with communication seemingly to blame), and Gardyne was allowed to fire a strong volley against Forster’s left post.

It was a warning shot, but also the kind of knife-edge circumstance that can change a fairly comfortable away lead into a nightmare capitulation. Although on this occasion it was gotten away with, it still suggests that frustratingly, the soft-centre remains and on another day would’ve been punished.

Though a goal down, Adam’s tactics were working well and that other “nightmate” scenario for Celtic which haunts these difficult away cup ties – the possibility of a freak red card – was also never far away. County were fishing and Celtic were biting – particularly Stokes and Ledley.

With the centre suitably crammed, Celtic were also not having great luck through widemen Mulgrew and Forrest, partly thanks to the tracking work of Gardyne and Brittain on either side. This in turn gave El Kaddouri and Matthews breathing room, but aware of the threat of the counter, weren’t able to get as far forward as Lennon would’ve liked.

Second half wind-down

With Wilson appearing extremely uncomfortable starting off moves, Lennon made the decision at half-time to get a much more technically accomplished player into that position instead. Charlie Mulgrew was shifted to centre-back to take his place, with Victor Wanyama coming on into the midfield and Joe Ledley moving left. The fact bona fide centre-back didn’t come on suggests the move was purely tactical (as opposed to being due to injury).

The main problem with Ross County’s high intensity pressing, is that it requires a high level of fitness and stamina – and the heavy rain wasn’t helping. Even as the second half kicked off, it seemed as if the Mulgrew change wasn’t even required because County were simply unable to press with the same gusto.

Celtic were finding more room and more opportunities to attack. Beram Kayal, who had flashes of excellence in the first half was starting to grip the game by the collar – taking the playmaking responsibility to go along with the natural ball-winning drive. And it was Kayal who set Stokes free on the right, being played on-side by a tiring defence and the cross was turned in by a despairing Scott Boyd.

It was the kind of tie-settling goal that defined the match. Setting up in absolutely the correct way – to play hard and put pressure on Celtic’s defence, given a wedge of luck County could’ve taken something from the match. As the game slipped out of reach, County added another striker to make 4-4-2, before arranging into a ramshackle 4-3-3 by the end. But the luck required deservedly fell towards Celtic – as epitomised by the goal.

Lennon meanwhile will be mostly happy with the result, albeit not a performance of the free-flowing attacking verve circa the second half of last season and will cite the weather as a contributing factor. However, the defensive scourge still remains and despite the clean sheet the back three have a long way to go to convince.

For a tactical perspective from the eyes of a Ross County supporter, get over to rosscountytactics.com

Atletico Madrid Vs Celtic – Preview & Scout Report

Edit – it appears that Sion have lost their appeal, so fears of the relevance of this article have been allayed!

Celtic’s unexpected return to Europa League football sees them clamber into an extremely testing group, at the expense of FC Sion whose hopes of successfully appealing are fading fast. The first match (as currently scheduled) is against AtleticoMadridin the Spanish Capital, and like Neil Lennon, who didn’t get the chance to go toValenciato sizeup the opposition, Tictactic has been poring over Atleti’s 1-0 defeat on video instead.

Atletico’s transformation

After a delayed start to the season over a La Liga-wide strike concerning a pay dispute, this was only Spain’s second round of games of the season, and therefore they may be slightly less prepared than they would want to be at this point in the year.

It’s also very early doors in terms of Atletico’s transformation process, having lost absolute pillars of the team in club hero Kun Aguero, Uruguayan powerhouse Diego Forlan, and goalkeeper David De Gea who Sir Alex Ferguson rates high enough to class as Edwin Van Der Saar’s successor. To a lesser extent, replacements were also required for Brazilian midfielder Elias, who the excellent Madrid Atleticos explains had to leave as the squad contained too many non-EU players, and experienced full back Tomas Ujfalusi.

But Atletico wasted no time in making up for the losses, most notably in the big money signings of Portuguese full-back Silvio (€8m), Turkish wonderkid Arda Turan (€12m – Turkey’s most expensive ever export) and grandest of all, Colombian striker Falcao for a whopping €45m. The latter will be most recognisable for his free-scoring at the tip of Porto’s attacking trident in recent times. His form was central to Andre Villa Boas’ side winning the competition last term.

The signing of Diego on-loan from Werder Bremen is the cherry on top, and the Brazilian playmaker will be looking to recapture the form shown in his first spell inGermany. Perhaps a flop at Porto and Juventus, and certainly a prickly personality (his falling out with Felix Magath precipitated the move to Spain), he’s still making headway in the Atleti squad, trying to regain fitness and match sharpness.

 Atletico Lineup

Atletico 4-4-2 / 4-3-3

Gregorio Manzano made only one change to the side held to a goalless draw by Osasuna back in August, with new signing Miranda coming in for stalwart Luis Perea. The tall Brazilian has broken up a successful and dependable centre-back pairing in Dominguez and Perea, who until this match had kept a clean sheet for an incredible 421 minutes of football. Considering the 27 year old Miranda was sent off on his debut in the Europa League against Stromsgodset, despite this error  it suggests Manzano has faith in his new free signing.

Another contentious selection choice was Thibaut Courtois between the sticks. The 19 year old Belgian not only has big boots to fill following De Gea’s exit, but seems to have jumped the queue for the number one jersey. Well thought of ‘keeper Joel Robles and up and coming Sergio Asenjo were expecting a straight-up fight for a starting place, yet Courtois usurped them both jumping in to number one.

The formation of choice is a Manzano vintage, with the line blurred between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 – not unlike Neil Lennon’s own preference.

The system

Manzano’s side though have a much higher tendency to work via the flanks with two very attacking full-backs and a significant creative responsibility resting on the shoulders of ex-Arsenal winger Jose Antonio Reyes.

The graphic below shows Atleti’s attacking tendencies over the past 2 La Liga matches, and clearly Reyes and Silvio are important figures.

Data based on 2 La Liga matches

Aside from the two forward thinking full-backs, the next 5 players (the two centre-backs and the three central midfielders) are the foundation on which attacks are based. Mario Suarez in particular is the shield ahead of the defence, and Tiago (formerly of Chelsea) is key in terms of recycling possession and orchestrating attacks. Gabi, another new face, is tasked with shuttling out to the left-flank from his central berth, where his left-back is mostly exposed.

Also chipping in on the left is peculiar attacker Adrian Lopez. Not quite a creator, not a poacher (criticised in Spain for his lack of goal-scoring) and not really a left-winger, against Valencia he popped up in each of these areas. Perhaps nominally starting on the left of the front three, he didn’t spend that much time there. But his freedom and the variety he provided kept the opposition guessing.

This didn’t suit superstar frontman Falcao, who thrives on quality delivery from both sides. Not really knowing where Adrian was going to turn up next, and shorn of ammunition coming from the left-hand side, a great part of Falcao’s game as a targetman was denied.

Valencia

Los Che played a conventional 4-2-3-1 with an exciting, creative front 4. Pablo Piatti, Jonas, and Pablo Hernandez interchanged at will, trying to get beyond frontman (and ultimately the goalscorer) Roberto Soldado and the Atleti defence struggled to keep tabs on all four.

Like with Celtic breaking down Motherwell, Valencia were finding the most success when the midfield band of three burst from deep, keeping the ball on the deck and linking up intelligently. Piatti was unlucky to have a goal chopped off for offside in such a delicate move and Atletico’s defenders seemed lumbering in comparison.

Falcao at the other end was largely isolated, with Reyes part-concerned with Jeremey Mathieu’s positive running, and Adrien not providing a consistent level of support. With Reyes being a winger of the inverted type, again Falcao didn’t see the delivery that his ability in the air demands. Partly as a result, Atleti’s ball retention wasn’t great and Valencia could dictate play through Alberto Costa and especially David Albelda.

In the end it was a simple cross that Soldado out-maneuvered and out-jumped his marker to score. Here it was all about the accuracy of the cross and the movement of the striker, so when Celtic do get the opportunity to attack, it has to be clinical, as it’s likely to be rare. The “corridor of uncertainty” can clearly be seen in the below image for the goal, and that’s where every cross has to successfully land.

Summary

Apart from worrying about the incredible £40million signing Falcao, Celtic will have to be wary of Atleti’s tendency to attack down the right; through Reyes and the overlapping full-back Silvio.

The Atleti lineup is by no means certain. The immensly talented (if at a trough in his career) Brazilian playmaker Diego will be eager to get into a central midfield bereft somewhat of creativity, and Arda Turan is knocking at the door – probably at the expense of Adrian and likely used as a tricky left-winger which would give the team more balance and improved supply to Falcao.

And while the 421 minutes went without conceding until Soldado’s goal is an admirable record, Atleti will be worried by their inability to create many clear cut chances in two league fixtures on the trot. Interestingly, Falcao has been quoted saying the Celtic game should be a great opportunity to start banging in the goals, which is a slightly disrespectful statement, however correct he may be.

Celtic Lineup

The win over Motherwell saw Celtic return to an expansive, attacking system – and a lot of this was down to personnel. James Forrest grabbed his chance with both hands to replace the (currently) poor and lethargic KrisCommons, while El Kaddouri made a stomping, dare I say Izaguirre-esque debut at left-back.

Lennon’s preferred 4-4-2

Joe Ledley also impressed getting forward, which is in contrast to Scott Brown whose ability in the final third isn’t anywhere near as cutting. Possibly for the first time, Ki and Kayal complemented each other superbly, rather than detract from each other’s subtly different style, with the two functioning in a modern double pivot.

But it can’t be a case of simply setting up in the same way as against Motherwell. The immediate issue, apart from quality of opposition (and venue) is that the impressive El Kaddouri is cup-tied and won’t feature. So the options are: moving Mulgrew back out wide (with Glenn Loovens returning), or simply putting Mark Wilson straight in.

It’s often argued that to counter inverted wingers, inverted full-backs can excel, defending on their favoured foot; so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the right-footed Mark Wilson used in a specifically defensive capacity against Jose Antonio Reyes. This would also avoid the need for depending on Loovens, whose only just returning from a spell no the sidelines. In a “siege” style situation however, the experience and instinct as a centre-back of Loovens, may be preferred to Mulgrew, who will no doubt feature somewhere on the park – either left-back, centre-back or as a defence minded left-midfielder.

Defensive midfield tweak?

Assuming a suitable back four is chosen, the biggest issue that Lennon will be toiling with is: is the lop-sided 4-4-2 too attacking, too open to exploitation? If there was pressure on James Forrest to be the central creative figure in the “Kris Commons” role, it will be exponentially more difficult in the heat of Madrid.

Most painful of all for fans, is the idea that Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes aren’t able to play together against the toughest, most attacking sides. To paraphrase Gordon Strachan, it doesn’t matter what system you play (regarding away ties in Europe) you always defend with ten players – and quite simply Hooper and perhaps more significantly Stokes cannot contribute enough defensively in a 4-4-2.

The alternatives

As previously discussed (re: alternatives to the 4-4-2), this inevitably entails shifting Stokes to another position or off the park entirely, leaving a lone striker. And if dropping Stokes would be unpopular, Gary Hooper too isn’t certain to play as the targetman. It’s a straight-up choice between Hooper and Georgios Samaras in this system (this is surely too soon for Bangura who looked rusty in his cameo debut), and strictly speaking it’s the Greek whose attributes are more suited to the role.

In midfield, the core of Joe Ledley, Ki Sung-Yeung and Beram Kayal is unlikely to change, with the biggest question marks hanging over Scott Brown’s fitness and whether Forrest should play after such a fine performance against Motherwell. Kris Commons is the more experienced player, when on-form the more complete player and established as a favourite of Lennon’s. And the manager may even opt for both, with Commons on the left and Forrest on the right.

The most cautious formation will require Brown to be fit, and is a return to the 4-4-1-1 which served so well against Rangers in January. Given the opposition and stakes, it may be where to put the smart money:

Cautious, counter-attacking

Given how poorly Atletico are reported to be in the air, this could be the best hope for getting something from the game. A hard-working, narrow 4-4-1-1 with Commons (or Forrest) and Samaras pushing out on the break, exploiting the higher Atleti defensive line. Meanwhile, emphasising attacking set-pieces, taking advantage of strength and height, and ultimately, hoping to strike lucky. What must be avoided, is an early Sion-style catastrophe.