Kris Commons provided the obligatory opener, but it took 75 minutes for Celtic to truly become comfortable thanks to a sensational Virgil Van Dijk free-kick. Substitute Teemu Pukki added a third while who else but Commons completed the rout from the penalty spot.
With James Forrest injured and Anthony Stokes out, Neil Lennon brought in Nir Biton and Georgios Samaras. The shortage of attacking midfielders meant for a narrow 4-3-3 formation, with Commons (as discussed in length last week) leading the line.
Terry Butcher made 4 changes to the side that lost 3-2 to St Mirren recently, with Ryan McGivern, Scott Robertson, Paul Cairney and Jason Cummings missing out. In came Alex Harris, Tom Taiwo, Abdellah Zoubir and Sam Stanton.
In atrocious weather conditions, it took just 9 minutes for Commons to open the scoring (for the 12th time this season!). Hibs two centre-backs dealt poorly with a long-ball and it was Commons who was playing off the shoulder, waiting to pounce. His anticipation paid off, slotting past Ben Williams coolly.
Though frequently using 4-4-2-type formations, without options out wide Lennon opted for 4-3-3. Scott Brown immediately stood out as a little bit of a square peg in a round hole – not really able to float in between the lines, thus leaving Samaras and Commons a little short of ammunition.
The result was a little bit of a numerical mismatch – with 4/5 Hibernian midfielders taking on Celtic’s 3. This made it difficult for Celtic to comfortably hold possession in deep areas, forcing them to go long and desperate – and in these conditions that is never a good idea.
Though Hibs grew substantially into the game, they had little to show for it by half-time.
2nd half – weathering the storm
Lennon’s response to Hibs’ growth was to tweak the formation. Biton was removed after a quiet game for Teemu Pukki. Perhaps the main reason was bringing Brown deeper into midfield where he is most effective, and getting another attacker into the front 3.
Mulgrew and Commons also found themselves wider – probably in response to Hibs strength on the flanks, afforded by Celtic’s original super-narrow formation.
Yet the same problems continued. Outnumbering in midfield and a propensity to launch the ball towards Samaras (who didn’t have his best game). Pukki, also, looks decreasingly like a target despite how he normally lines up for Finland.
Celtic’s 8 consecutive clean sheets looked under threat, requiring outstanding stuff from Fraser Forster (and later, Izaguirre) to deny Zoubir and Stanton. The 2 Hibees were causing real problems on the edge of Celtic’s 18, with Celtic’s back four all guilty of unforced errors.
The equaliser never came, but until the 77th minute Celtic were poor going forward. Commons’ importance was summed up in one incident where he threaded a superb through ball into Brown, who could not finish. Commons is Celtic’s best striker and most creative midfielder, but he can’t do both at once.
The lively Pukki won a free-kick about 22 yards from goal. Previously Commons and Mulgrew had poor efforts block from a similar range, but up stepped Van Dijk to curl into Williams’ top-right corner.
It was powerful, precise and confident – exactly what the attack had been missing until that point. Hibs’ revival was over.
Soon after, Pukki was given too much space on the right and powered a shot through Williams, while Commons added a penalty at the end.
The raison d’etre of forcing a 4-3-3 is surely squeezing 3 quality forwards into the same side (providing the midfield 3 can cope). But with just one (in Commons), the shape made little sense and heaped pressure on a defence and midfield not able to keep the ball – credit to Hibs’ pressing here.
The half-time move to more of a 4-4-2-ish shape, helped alleviate this, though the confidence (or attitude?) of the players continued to undermine. The amount of unforced errors across the park was extraordinary. The normally reliable Efe Ambrose was subject to an inordinate amount of tellings off from Lennon.
New signing Stefan Johansen was given 5 minutes. His first action after replacing Mulgrew was to tell Ledley to move out to left-wing. It was expected in this blog that left centre-mid was Johansen’s position, and today’s showing suggests the same.