Tony Watt leading role
Neil Lennon sprung a surprise with the starting lineup, putting faith in Tony Watt to lead the line. Georgios Samaras’ absence was expected (ankle) and Gary Hooper was rested, but it was a massive boost to Watt’s confidence to pip an experienced internationalist like Miku to the team-sheet.This was explained, in-part, through Lennon’s personal discussions with the Venezuelan: “The manager has spoken to me and told me that, technically, I’m the best player we have, but, physically I’m not ready to compete in Scottish football”
On a basic level, Watt ticks all the right boxes to plough a lone furrow: bigger, pacier and difficult to pin down. The battering ram to complement a more technical second striker, in this case Kris Commons. The system served as something of an experimentation; firstly reinforcing Lennon’s developing first-choice 4-4-1-1 formation and secondly posing the question – can Watt lead the line?
He still has a tendency to gravitate towards the left channel where he excels. This is where he can test the pace of a centre-back around the outside and brute-force his way into the box. It suits his style, but to play as a lone striker you need to be more selfless – squaring up to the centre-backs in a gruelling fight, but for the good of the team shape.
In shifting Watt to the right after the break, it almost seemed like Lennon was severing Watt from his instincts, ushering him to play more central. His goal and overall performance justified the selection and underlined a burgeoning reputation, but in terms of leading the line he may have been right to be disappointed.
Broadly speaking Watt’s selection was a nod to the future. Celtic have been looking for someone physically capable of leading the line for years now. Could the 18-year old Watt be the answer?
Jon Daly Isolation
The target-man at the other end of the pitch – the imposing Jon Daly suffered in a flat, pegged back formation. It was probably the flattest a Peter Houston side had lined up against Celtic in 2 years, having previously tried various arrangements of the normal five-man midfield.The idea, as ever, was to get midfielders in support of Daly – in this case Stuart Armstrong and Johnny Russell, but such was Celtic’s spatial dominance, particularly on the flanks that the two Utd wingers spent most of the match deeper even than the rest of the midfield.
Unlike one or two previous Houston 4-5-1s, there was no vertical penetration from the centre. The support for Daly was always meant to come from wide, particularly Russell, and so their total inability to get on the ball higher up the park kept Daly on the fringes. A huge blow to effectively lose contribution from last season’s second top scorer.
Set piece inefficiency
For all the possession, clear cut open play chances were few and far between. Instead Celtic were handed an inordinate amount of set-pieces to attack from, rather amazingly averaging a corner every 6 minutes. Thomas Rogne really should’ve scored early-on from such a corner, but aside from that chance the set-pieces were poor.
It’s strange because Commons delivery recently has been effective. Celtic’s other developing source of attacks, is in playing quick one-twos around the box. Typically a midfielder playing to a striker’s feet with his back to the box, and then running on to the receive-pass beyond the defence.
This could be seen last week against St Johnstone in a number of the goals, but also in one of Commons’ better first-half chances.
Use of the bench
Celtic suffered two forced subsitutions before the goal, with Miku coming on for Izaguirre and Ambrose for Rogne. This made for a more traditional 4-4-2 (after 50 minutes) with Commons wide left.
The two goals were superb demonstrations of the two striker’s respective strengths – Miku’s technique and Watt’s precocious power – but Celtic’s downfall began as the options on the bench thinned out. In theory, there would’ve been absolutely nothing wrong with taking Paddy McCourt on for Commons. Many have (and possibly still do) argue that McCourt’s attacking genius should warrant a starting place in the side.
But it was the “perfect” (for want of a better word) demonstration of McCourt’s weaknesses, and why he’s been so rarely trusted by 3 different managers. It would be wrong to attribute the entire turnaround to one player as the entire team switched off, but McCourt’s introduction, while a catalyst for Utd’s revival, was more indicative of his general limitations with Celtic.
Lennon probably expected decent ball retention with McCourt on the left – besides – he’s been semi-converted into a ball-retaining, passing central midfielder. But he immediately lost the ball in dangerous areas twice, which helped lead to the pivotal swing in momentum.
The concept of momentum is poorly understood in sport with those in football at least confident of its presence. Studies suggest certain triggers for positive momentum, that happened to be apparent in abundance on Sunday. These include opponent’s mistakes (McCourt), opponent’s fortune (Ambrose o.g.), encouragement (home support) and opponent’s body language/attitude. The latter can probably be surmised simply with complacency.
Pat Nevin called it a Utd ‘powerplay’, and after 80 minutes of mediocrity Utd had clawed back two goals to make it 2-2. Illusionary or not, the effect of ‘momentum’ has two sides to it: positive and negative, one team and the other. Perhaps it was an eye on Barcelona, but Celtic’s performance was unquestionably poor for the final ten minutes, with the guilt firmly on the eleven players on the pitch and manager, rather than any individual.
As Lennon pointed out post-match, a draw was probably an unfair result given the other 80 minutes, but that in itself underlines what will be important against Barcelona. Fairness doesn’t come into football matches, with the away fixture demonstrating the need for concentration and application for the full 90 minutes.