Celtic 3-0 Hibernian: Old comforts for comfortable win

Celtic’s title celebrations have to wait another fortnight after a comfortable late season win over Hibernian. It had been a rocky end to the campaign, having won just 2 of the previous 6 SPL matches, but Neil Lennon’s side never looked like struggling here.

Celtic 4-4-2 versus Hibs 4-1-4-1

Celtic 4-4-2 versus Hibs 4-1-4-1

Lennon returns to old comforts

Lennon has broadly stuck to variations of a front 3 since before Christmas, which at times has contributed to the dithering results. It is fitting to look back at the reason Lennon discarded a fairly popular and consistent 4-4-2, because it was so instrumental in the win here.

In short, the reason is Kris Commons. A 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 has allowed Lennon to play Commons centrally, and indeed against tougher teams has used Commons central in a 4-4-2. It places him closer to goal for a start, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the squad with as much creativity and guile at the moment (going back to the age old blog favourite – the search for a number 10).

But against Hibs, it was back to basics in many ways. A return to this season’s most successful central defence partnership in Kelvin Wilson and Efe Ambrose, a return to previous season’s favourite up top, the “Strooper” pairing, and finally a return to something like a lop-sided 4-4-2, a “peak” formation during the previous two campaigns.

To a lesser, similar extent we could see Izaguirre back to his swashbuckling best, and a more tucked in midfield on the opposite side of Commons.

Granted, defensively this was a more typical flat 4-4-2 than previous incarnations, yet Celtic’s best early chances, and eventually killer two goals, came via Commons cutting in centrally. For both, he received the ball almost precisely in the centre of the pitch, which obviously is not normal for your average right-midfielder.

Hibernian

Hibs’ hopes were pinned on the one and the one in a 4-1-4-1 – Jorge Claros, a technically gifted deep-lying midfielder, and Leigh Griffiths who probably needs no introduction. The rest of the midfield were there primarily to break up Celtic’s play, especially with the one man advantage, but also to break in numbers to support the diminutive lone striker.

Of course the other standard worry facing a counter-attacking team was set-pieces, with Griffiths left-foot a particular worry. An early chance swung past the far post, but the required fortune wasn’t with Hibs in this regard.

But with Hibs back 10 relatively compact, Griffiths cut a lonesome figure. This also served to make life difficult for Claros, starved of space and long options.

Experimental changes with scoreline comfortable

Mikael Lustig, singled out by Lennon as one of the players of the season, added the third, admittedly using his hand, but given Hibs’ looked dead and buried at 2-0, it didn’t really matter. Unsurprisingly, Commons had a part to play, drawing two defenders inside and opening space for Joe Ledley to supply the cross.

The 3 goal cushion allowed Lennon to make his first change, with Georgios Samaras replacing Lustig. Ambrose went to right-back with Charlie Mulgrew – who had a good game  in midfield – dropping back. But more surprisingly, there were cameo appearances for Tom Rogic and Paddy McCourt on either flank.

Rogic was the most significant bearing in mind who he replaced – Commons at right-midfield. It recalls of course the number 10 question, and perhaps demonstrates that Lennon has designs on Rogic being Commons’ main challenger.

We know that Rogic is an attack-minded midfielder, capable of playing all across the breadth of the park. He is also creative, able to beat a man, and mainly left-footed. The 12 minutes given weren’t enough to make a mark, especially with the match winding down, but it was certainly the most interesting change.

Celtic are now only playing for the Scottish Cup, and so this return to 4-4-2 is a timely “keep them guessing” technique in lieu of Dundee Utd next weekend. Jackie McNamara though, will be wary of his last encounter with Celtic and especially wary of Lennon’s main man. Commons played centrally in a 4-3-3, scoring a brace and providing an assist in a 6-2 thrashing. Expect a similar approach on Sunday.

 

 

Share

Helsingborg 0 – 2 Celtic: Possession key but goals win matches

A glance at the scoreline might suggest an uncharacteristically comfortable away European performance from Celtic though it was anything but. Despite Neil Lennon’s pledge to keep possession and starting with a numerical advantage in midfield, his side never looked comfortable against an unexpectedly positive side.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic opening 4-5-1 / 4-3-3

Gary Hooper and Scott Brown returned after missing the draw with Ross County, allowing the 3-5-2 to be set aside once again. Thomas Rogne came in for Kelvin Wilson, Victor Wanyama was suspended and Mikael Lustig dropped to the bench.

While a return to the comfort and reliability of 4-4-2 was speculated in the video preview with STV, Lennon looks to have settled on a go-to away European formation – designed mainly with possession and defensive stability in mind.

While attackers Georgios Samaras and Kris Commons are put in favourable positions, this does ask difficult questions of Hooper as targetman.

Helsingborg lineup

Helsingborg 4-4-2

Also as stated in the STV preview, Helsingborg are a 4-4-2 team, and the surprise was that they kept this shape without really making any defensive tweaks, and this was probably to allow both new striker Nikola Đurđić and “main” striker Thomas Sorum to join forces.

There were two changes from the 2-1 defeat to league leaders Elfsborg with utility player Daniel Nordmark and tricky winger Rachid Bouaouzan being dropped.

Alejandro Bedoya was shifted to right midfield (to accommodate Nikola Đurđić) and Erik Wahlstedt came in at right-back.

Early goal

Very early on (and perhaps like HJK), Helsingborgs played with fear, and Celtic’s 2nd minute goal strangely seemed to lift the pressure. Left-back Jere Uronen was caught ball-watching as Samaras’ delivery was allowed to reach Commons, who opened the scoring too easily.

Celtic’s biggest failing throughout the first half, was in being unable to make use of the extra man in the middle of the park. So often in matches the ‘extra man’ is one of the centre-backs, and therefore moving the ball backwards has been the go-to safety when under pressure.

But with both centre-backs (and to an extent the full-backs) occupied, Celtic had to be more clever in finding the extra man (Kayal). Why did he not sit between the lines picking up possession with impunity? The reason is probably connected with Brown – both players love charging forward, snapping at the opposition, which positionally can be easy to exploit and ironically (with a transfer all but finalised) Ki Sung Yeung would’ve been an ideal ball hoarder here – a player who loves to sit deep finding pockets of space to hold the ball and distribute it into more suitable areas.

The inability to confidently use the spare man (and inability to safely go backwards) manifested itself in turning the ball over inefficiently – i.e. trying to hit Hooper through long and hopeful passes. The diminutive Hooper isn’t the kind of hold-up player who can work from scraps – the passes have to considered and accurate, and he therefore had a torrid time failing to hold up poor deliveries.

From own-half set-pieces (such as goal-kicks) Samaras was the clear target every time with no shorties to be found – and Bedoya was dropping deep to challenge Samaras in the air, and having great success. The result then from Celtic’s relatively safe set-pieces was again, turning over the ball.

The score was kept at 1-0 thanks to some excellent stops from Frazer Forster in a man of the match performance, and with Kayal struggling with a knock, Lennon made a change at half-time to prevent what appeared to be an inevitable equaliser.

Midfield advantage discarded

Return to 4-4-2

Reverting to 4-4-2 had all sorts of advantages: more support for Hooper, it asked questions of Helsingborgs comfortable defence, it moved Commons closer to goal and 45 minutes was just about the right length of time for James Forrest to make his return from injury.

Now, Celtic’s natural direct instinct was being more rewarded, with Samaras and Forrest on each side providing pace, and slightly more hold-up capability with two forwards.

Defensively, the midfield now had a man each – no more lazy letting go of runners as was evident in the first-half – and when it comes to “man to man” competition all over the park, generally qualtiy shines through, and Celtic were able to close the possession gap (through distribution from the back was still poor).

Both Ledley and Mulgrew went on to hit the crossbar, and James Forrest had an excellent attempt on the counter, firing against the keeper after skinning his full-back and despite not playing that well, Celtic probably edged the overall “key chances” stat.

Helsingborgs would’ve been depending on keeping it tight at the back and grabbing at least one big opportunity, but the opposite occured – lapses in concentration in defence while not having the required luck in front of goal.

Tactical notes

The gap between the sides was drawn by Celtic’s strange discomfort using 4-5-1 – possibly related to having 3 so similar central midfielders, at times lacking positional discipline. Most other 4-5-1 teams have a balance of styles in the middle – a creator, a hoarder and a destroyer for example (interesting thoughts on that subject here from Rob Marrs)

Shifting to 4-4-2 removed that imbalance, and while the more conservative formation away from home was welcome, in truth 4-4-2 would’ve been the more natural formation to begin with. It’s not often that a (with respect) technically inferior team will press ahead with 4-4-2.

Apart from the impact of James Forrest (which Lennon spoke favourably of), and the use of Charlie Mulgrew in the centre of the park once Ledley went off injured (again, bemoaning the lack of Ki) the most notable feature was Commons continuation as a second striker.

Lennon had previously shoe-horned a number 10 position into some of Celtic’s starting shapes in order to get the most of Commons, but an easy compromise is simply using Commons as a second striker. He’s more different to Hooper than say, Anthony Stokes, and has that freedom to move across the breadth of the park, seeking out gaps.

Though the first-half was disappointing, an excercise in how not to keep possession only highlighted the reality that goals win games, and Lennon will be grateful for Helsingborgs undermining faults at the back.

Share

Commons rise poses questions for Helsinki

It would be imprecise to write-off Celtic’s 1-0 win over Aberdeen, as some newspapers have, as a mere result of Jamie Langfield’s 79th minute howler. While the ‘keeper had pathetically failed to keep out Kris Common’s shot worked from a short corner, such a view belies the comfort and dominance that was displayed over arguably Celtic’s sternest title rivals.

It is though, fair to say that not enough chances were produced from either side, with the often razor sharp combination of Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes particularly guilty of failing to enliven the dull season opener.

Aberdeen 4-1-4-1 transitioning to 4-4-2 in the attack

This feature of the match was no coincidence given Craig Brown’s tactics; a manager with a rich history in attempting to shut down more technically proficient sides.

Since returning to the SPL from his coaching hiatus, his tactics can be summarised as a tug-of-war between 4-4-2 and 4-5-1. Torn between the defensive stability of 4-5-1 and the attacking potential of using two strikers, Brown has recently devised an interesting compromise, with one of the wide midfielders pushing to become a striker in possession, while crucially scuttling back when possession is relinquished to maintain the security of a five-man midfield.

So often over the past 2 seasons, a sitting midfielder has demonstrated the dual function of neutralising Stokes and Hooper’s ability to drop into deeper areas, while preserving a man advantage in the centre of the park.

Celtic’s shape

Celtic 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2

It didn’t help then, that both Georgios Samaras and Commons are essentially two different forms of ‘inverted’ wingers with both adding to the central congestion. Commons is a more traditional number 10 creator, while Samaras bases his game on speed and athleticism.

Governed by injuries perhaps, (and suspensions in Charlie Mulgrew’s case)  it was a return to the 4-2-2-2 that has both frustrated and delighted over recent campaigns.

The attacking width to the by-line would normally be provided by the full-backs, but here Emilio Izaguirre and Adam Matthews were both kept at bay by Aberdeen’s counter-attacking wingers.

But the worst stifling was reserved for the centre of the pitch, and in another recent trait of a Craig Brown side, the line between ‘physical’ and ‘dangerous’ was continually challenged. Samaras was kicked (accidentally) in the face drawing blood, and Beram Kayal was lucky to survive a brutal lunge. Calum Murray was certainly lenient with the cards, contributing to a stop-start match high on physical contests and low in possession.

Like HJK last week, this is part and parcel of the textbook travelling to play a difficult, ball-playing favourite. Physically push the boundaries, defend sensibly in numbers, and try and sneak something on the counter. Aberdeen’s weapon here was the use of the pacy former Celt Niall McGinn, who acted as Brown’s “compromise” between 4-5-1 and 4-4-2, playing as a sort of semi-striker.

McGinn also at times was instructed to swap places with lone striker Scott Vernon, normally in an attempt to take advantage running onto the ball over the top – an area of the game that both Rogne and Wanyama continue to struggle with chasing back.

While HJK were rewarded with quite a fortunate goal, Aberdeen’s never arrived with the best case scenario then turning to keeping a clean sheet.

The Kris Commons effect

10 Celtic players plus substitutes continued to look non-threatening, with Lennon gradually introducing the 4-4-2 diamond, in part to maximise the use of the exception – moving Commons in behind the two strikers.

As deserved it may of been, he was of course fortunate to get the goal, but his good performance poses questions to the manager ahead of the Helsinki trip. What use is (one of) Hooper or Stokes if neither at this moment provide a fraction of Commons’ goal-threat and scheming?

One quiet game against Aberdeen doesn’t change either of Hooper or Stokes’ talent, but the dampening of the ‘Stooper’ partnership has come all too easy in the past. And most foreboding of all, comes at a time of transition to a non-4-4-2 formation. Commons could well have played his way into Stokes’ number 10 shirt for the match against HJK.

The Finns will surely lineup similar to the 4-4-1-1 that brought reasonable success in the first leg, and for various reasons Celtic’s formation should match. The temptation for Lennon will be to make use of a more traditional style targetman, like Samaras or Daryl Murphy, but having scored in the first-leg Hooper should keep his place.

While Lennon’s use of two ball playing centre-backs in the first leg hints at a new strategy of breaking down deep defences, given Wanyama’s struggling in the first-leg and Thomas Rogne’s more straightforward nature, the Norwegian should start.

The borderline availability of James Forrest and Scott Brown again makes predicting the lineup difficult, but the short-distance acceleration of the former will be sorely missed on the right-hand side should he not make it. And if not Forrest on the right, Commons could continue there opening the door for Stokes after all. Finally, as much as a headache it is for Lennon to fit Commons best into the starting eleven, on current form the consolation is that HJK’s Antti Muurinen has to find a way to deal with him.

 

 

Share

Celtic 2 – 1 HJK: Second half improvement enough to take advantage

Celtic made a customary sloppy start to the first competitive match of the season, before improving enough to take advantage in what’s turning out to be a tougher tie than expected.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 4-4-1-1 / 4-2-3-1

The lineup was always going to be governed by the fitness of Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes, the former starting in the number 10 position and the latter only making the bench. While Victor Wanyama was never in doubt to feature from the start, it was surprising that he kept the more natural centre-back Thomas Rogne out the side, taking his place in central defence. This allowed Scott Brown to play in the centre of midfield, and in turn James Forrest could be utilised on the right.

Of the possible formations considered in the pre-season summary, Neil Lennon went for the 4-4-1-1 (or arguably 4-2-3-1, the subtle distinction being without the ball there was a clear, flat 4-4 band with the two attackers staying ahead and pressing the opposition defence). The main selling point for Lennon being the close similarity to 4-4-2, only with one forward more withdrawn.

HJK Lineup

HJK 4-4-1-1

Antti Muurinen made four changes to the side that disappointed in the derby defeat to FC Honka. As considered in the HJK preview, it is unthinkable for a 4-4-2 side to persist with such a formation in a difficult away European tie. The compromise here was withdrawing the inexperienced, if proflific striker Joel Pohjanpalo in favour of a more robust central/attacking midfielder in Rasmus Schuller. His instructions, in comparison to Commons, was clearly more defence orientated, with his normal midfield berth consequently taken up by Joel Perovuo.

Elsewhere, centre-back Rami Hakanpää was dropped following his dismissal against Honka, and versatile full-back Tuomas Kansikas was left out in favour of the pacier Mikko Sumusalo; suiting HJK’s counter-attacking intention.

Positive Celtic

The hosts came flying out of the traps, eager to buck the aforementioned trend of performing poorly in 3rd round qualifying. HJK by contrast, initially couldn’t cope with Celtic’s intensity going forward. Particularly the movement and interlinking of Commons and Forrest central and right, almost to the point of swapping positions at will.

The other positive, like against Inter Milan in pre-season, was directness of Emilio Izaguirre and Georgios Samaras on the left flank. Both share the same main attribute of blistering pace, but neither could find an end product for their hard running.

Weathering of the storm

Though it’ll be the most repeated phrase across all media platforms, HJK to their credit weathered the storm, defending deep, narrow and content without the ball – exactly the requirement of the situation, and perhaps contrary to the expected width that the dangermen Demba Savage and Sebastian Mannström like to bring. The effective and organised defending reflective of the fact HJK are already 18 matches into their

The recklessness apparent in HJK’s past few matches is still evident, with Timi Lahti and Mathias Lindström probably being leniently treated by the ref, but equally Wanyama could’ve given away a penalty with a very clumsy challenge in his own box.

HJK’s stubborn and patient approach took the sting out of Celtic’s early thrust, and from around 20 minutes onwards came out of their shell with comfortable, if mostly non-penetrating passing spells. Two fine chances were carved out, the first on the counter requiring Adam Matthews to be alert after Emilio Izaguirre dabbled and lost the ball, and the second a decent drive from Peruvuo keeping Frazer Forster on his toes.

First tinker of the season

Celtic 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2 – 34 minutes through 45

With 34 minutes on the clock and frustration brewing, Lennon made his first tactical tinker, surely as a response to his sides growing insistence on playing rushed, hopeful passes. Samaras was pushed up front to provide a target, with Forrest moved to the left-wing and Commons going right.

The adjustment was of interest because, it wasn’t exactly that the initial formation wasn’t working – more a slipping of concentration and patience. Thus the same negative issues continued for the rest of the half – an urgency to get forward just without the patience or thinking to dictate the match.

 

Second half

Whether this played on Lennon’s mind is uncertain, but for the second half it was a return to Plan A, but before the change could sink in HJK had taken the lead. Mannström – a known decisive passer – twisted away from Izaguirre and finding the onrushing Schuller, who scored on his second attempt, with luck on his side on the rebound.

This turned the home pressure up a few notches with a more focused urgency returning to Celtic. Forrest on the right had the constant beating of his man, but finding a team-mate gambling on the right path of the final ball proved troubelsome. Commons demonstrated his effectiveness working in the hole behind the striker, by hitting the post from 25 yards.

He continued in this creative role, helping Samaras through to the key area to attack – the area behind HJK’s full-backs. Tearing onto the ball, the Greek managed to produce the all-important final ball that until that point had been lacking, and Hooper tapped in easily.

Soon after, HJK were to commit a fatal sin in effecting a substitution while defending a corner. The old cliché rang true, as Mulgrew headed in from Common’s delivery.

There was tactical mayham towards the end as Lennon pressed for another. On 65′ Stokes came on for Commons returning to a 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2, and then very late on the formation became more lopsided 4-4-2, with Wanyama joining the midfield to make a 3 (and Lustig at centre-back), Paddy McCourt on the left-wing (in place of Samaras), and finally Stokes and Forrest up top quite central.
Conclusion

While a win was always the target, in knock-out competition a clean-sheet can be just as important. The amount of chances that Celtic created should’ve mitigated the conceding of Schuller’s goal, but the 2 goal cushion never came.

HJK played the archetypal European away performance (against stronger opposition) in defending deep and narrow, hitting patiently and only at the right time on the counter, and making one of the few chances count. One flaw perhaps was Savage’s tendency to drift towards the strikers, failing at times to track back which served to isolate Sumusalo as the defender struggled to cope with Forrest.

It was Forrest, Commons and Samaras who were Celtic’s greatest success, and again referring back to the pre-season summary, highlights just how useful a geuine lone striker could be for the side, and also the gradual move away from 4-4-2 and towards something more fluid and fashionably European.

Share

Hearts 2 – 0 Celtic: Poor changes fail to remedy poor performance

Celtic couldn’t reduce the 10 point advantage enjoyed by Rangers after a disappointing performance in Edinburgh against Hearts. Though a single game in hand waits, the gap only days into October is too big for comfort.

Celtic lineup

Going into the game, Neil Lennon had a substantial injury situation to contend with, with first-choice Beram Kayal and Joe Ledley joining Emilio Izaguirre, club Captain Scott Brown and new centre-back Kelvin Wilson on the casualty list. Throw in Gary Hooper recently shaking off a knock and Kris Commons only just making his return, this made for a side consisting mostly of second-choice players.

Celtic attacking 4-4-2

This forced Lennon’s hand towards the conspicuous non-standard attacking 4-4-2 that has been blamed for many a bad performance over the past 2-3 seasons. Reluctant to not play 2 strikers in the SPL, with only two central midfielders available, this brand of 4-4-2 was the only solution.

In terms of personnel, the main inclusion of note was Mohammed Bangura over Anthony Stokes – but almost everywhere else the selection was to be expected. That is excluding Lukasz Zaluska, who after a decent game midweek against Udinese returned to the bench to allow for Frazer Forster’s return.

Hearts Lineup

Hearts 4-3-3

Paulo Sergio was still without Andrew Driver, and made three changes to the side that lost 2-0 to St Johnstone last week. Stephen Elliott was injured that match, missing out on this afternoons action along with David Obua and Mehdi Taouil. Into the side came David Templeton, Rudi Skacel and Eggert Jonsson.

Sergio lined his side up in a 4-3-3 cum 4-1-4-1, looking to use the height and strength of Ryan Stevenson up front via quality service from the flanks. This flank-based approach was also setup to stifle Celtic’s own threat in wide areas.

Even opening

Considering the rain which threatened to postpone the game prior to kick-off, the first period of the game was beset with predictably awkward challenges, poor possession retention and a lack of creativity from both sides. It took referee Craig Thomson 25 minutes to first produce a card, but in truth the book could’ve been out much earlier. Skacel for a late swipe at Charlie Mulgrew, Ki for catching Skacel on the ankle, and then the obligatory Ian Black bad tackle yellow.

Hearts initially looked to capitalise on Celtic’s now notoriously fractured defence, with Stevenson taking advantage of Mulgrew and El Kaddouri’s indecision, forcing a save from Forster, Zaliukas hit the post and Hamill also tested the Celtic ‘keeper with a good free-kick.

Celtic on the other hand, were most potent making use of space on the break, but the final couple of passes were too often lacking – with all four “front-men” equally guilty. Kris Commons continued his infuriating recent form of mixing the odd flash of brilliance with sloppy first-touches, badly timed passes and all-round lazyness.

The most gilt-edged chance fell to Bangura, the player Lennon put faith in ahead of last seasons 2nd top (Celtic) scorer, Anthony Stokes. James Forrest burst down the right and provided one of the only decent deliveries of the afternoon – Bangura’s free header was a decent, if slightly unassured attempt, that Jamie MacDonald matched.

As the first half drew to a close, Celtic not only had the feeling of being on top without being able to break the deadlock, but also the feeling that Hearts were far from submission.

Eventful second half defines game

Celtic initially appeared to be building on the perceived first-half advantage, but slack defending once again cost dear. Predictably the source was a looping high cross. The ball hung in the air, allowing for Rudi Skacel to ghost untracked from his starting right-side. It was probably Ki who should’ve tracked his run (or even James Forrest who could’ve been defending that side) but neither Majstorovic or Matthews come away with much credit. Templeton was able to control the cross uncontested, knocking it down for the suddenly free Skacel, who netted the opener.

Bangura was withdrawn for Stokes at this point, but things would get worse. Within minutes of conceding, Kris Commons was rightly sent off for a dreadful lunge on Mrowiec.

Celtic post-red-card 4-2-1-2

Unfortunately nothing was learned from the similar situation against Rangers earlier this season: it was previously stated on this blog, that when you’re a goal down and a man down, the priority over all priorities is to stay in the game. With 30 minutes remaining a chance to salvage a draw, or if you’re lucky, a chance to win it would come. Even in a more reserved formation – such as a solid 4-4-1.

Lennon instead drew James Forrest inside – very similar in fact to the formation against Udinese – only minus a holding midfielder. Against Udinese, the formation was apt, as each wing only carried the threat of one player. But here it leaves both full-backs in a 2 vs 1 situation.

Arguably, it was almost a given that Hearts would score again, which defeats the purpose of the predominantly attacking reaction to the sending off.

Capitulation

It was no surprise therefore, that without a solid foundation to depend on (bearing in mind the already fragile defensive situation) that it was now harder to keep possession in safe areas of the pitch, and easier for Hearts to mount attacks down the flanks.

Regardless, Lennon’s next change was again an attacking one, with El Kaddouri coming off for Paddy McCourt – a desperate penultimate roll of the dice. This now made a 3-4-2 formation, with Mark Wilson becoming a centre-back, and Forrest and McCourt the only wing presence. Hearts took advantage of the space in the channels as Templeton chased down what appeared to be a lost cause. His clever back-heel was into the path of Stevenson, whose finish was clinical.

The very last despairing tactical response was throwing Majstorovic up-front as a form of physical outlet in a 2-4-3 formation, and while even though it was too late, it’s the kind of gung ho Mowbray-esque logical response to a sending off that results in more goals coming in at the wrong end. Where red cards are concerned, more strikers does not necessarily mean more goals scored – if anything, the opposite is true.

Conclusion

It’s still very early in the season and Rangers’ lead is by no means insurmountable. But the early season form is ominous. The togetherness and tactical security of last season is lacking, although the unavailability of 5-6 key players is obviously a compounding factor.

On the plus side, the defence played quite well for a second game (opening goal aside, although arguably the midfield was as much to blame) with the second goal due to over-eager tactical stretching. The 10 (potentially 7) point gap however is not the primary concern. The concern is the ability of certain individuals – not just second-choice players coming into the side – but the attitude and form of the previously dependable, like Gary Hooper and Kris Commons.

The latter is such a painful disappointment. Once the jewel in the crown of a formidable side, the focal point of the entire attacking strategy – now an indecisive and undetermined shadow. The red card will infuriate Neil Lennon, already hugely frustrated with Commons lackadaisical fall from grace.

It’s now not just a case of finding a ‘Plan B’, but being able to be confident in a plan at all.

Share

Celtic 0 – 1 St Johnstone: Celtic out-of-sorts as Saints sneak goal

Is Neil Lennon’s preferred lop-sided 4-4-2 losing it’s charm? Much of it’s roaring success last season relied on the outstanding form of Kris Commons, and indeed it’s very shape maximises Commons’ effect. He signed from Derby County at the end of January for an outrageously shrewd £300,000 and managed to feature in 21 games out of a possible 24 (in all competition), scoring 14 goals. Clearly a favourite of Neil Lennon, with the manager beaming in May “I think Kris has been the signing of the season for the money he cost…. It’s got to the stage where you are almost disappointed when something he hits doesn’t go into the net and goes over the bar instead

Sadly the exact opposite seems to be true at the moment. Commons has been struggling to get anything on target, has looked out of shape, has lost his sharpness and is generally out of form. The formation designed to get the most of such an effective player has had it’s crux removed. The signs have been there, as recently pointed out in 67fanzine, and the question remains: without an in-form Commons, how do we play?

The answer is: badly, though it would be unfair to concentrate solely on the Commons effect. Celtic are also currently missing three key players in Emilio Izaguirre, Gary Hooper and Beram Kayal, and also it’s not his fault that the entire team can’t adapt without him. Essentially there is no plan B and St Johnstone took advantage with an admirably organised performance.

Celtic Lineup

However: Lennon had toyed in two out of the previous three matches with a new 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 formation. First, against Aberdeen and then against Sion, after fifteen minutes the 4-4-2 shape transformed with Stokes going wide left, almost mirroring Commons on the right, with the core 3 midfielders in Brown, Ledley and Ki staying central (with the latter the most advanced). It didn’t convince in either match and against Aberdeen was rejected to grab a narrow victory.

Celtic standard 4-4-2

In fairness to Lennon, there are further complications. Beram Kayal is replaced in relatively straightforward fashion, but Charlie Mulgrew doesn’t possess the pace or ability to beat a man that the injured Izaguirre does – and that lack of natural width is felt. Gary Hooper’s replacement; Georgios Samaras, who perhaps unfairly received a lot of stick against Sion was dropped in favour of Shaun Maloney, but neither can really replace the intelligent movement and incisive poaching of Hooper. You couldn’t imagine 3 worse players to lose, so any team would suffer.

With Victor Wanyama named in the starting lineup, it was thought that another formation experiment may be on the cards, yet it was back to the tried and trusted ‘lop-sided’ 4-4-2 as the Kenyan lined up along-side Daniel Majstorovic at the back. Commons was restored to the left, with many thinking his use on the right is the root cause of his current form. Adam Matthews took the place of Cha Du Ri at right-back and in a popular move, Anthony Stokes returned to centre-forward.

St Johnstone Lineup

Derek McInnes side are just another SPL team that have seen a massive turnover in playing staff. Core players in Michael Duberry, Danny Grainger, Danny Invincible, Collin Samuel and Jordan Robertson are just 5 of 12 players who were allowed to leave. But the incomers aren’t too shabby either, with the trio of Calum Davidson, Cilian Sheridan and Francisco Sandaza in particular catching the eye – and the three started today.

St Johnstone 4-4-2

It is a simple idea – defend deep and defend man for man with the big strikers up front able to unsettle the Celtic centre-backs. Strikers aside, it is actually a very familiar St Johnstone side, with two very good central-midfielders aiming to pull the strings. McInnes only had 2 injuries to worry about, with Chris Millar and Kevin Moon missing out.

Promising start

Before the teams could even size each other up, Stokes was played through by Adam Matthews and brought down in the area by Enckelman. Regrettably it was apt that Kris Commons missed the penalty considering his form – sending the ball down to the same spot that Gary Hooper did against Hibernian on the opening day of Celtic’s season, and Enckelman atoned for his error.

Whether this miss affected the sides attitude is unclear, but Celtic proceeded to maintain possession without really being able to break down the St Johnstone defence. The Saints’ gameplan allowed them to sit back with a set amount of men – with the defenders and midfield not really commiting to any attacks in a “broken team” kind of fashion. Attacking duties were left to the front two, and therefore with the “low-block” man for man defending, there was very little space to exploit.

It’s a high risk strategy and leaves the onus on Celtic to create – specifically somebody having to beat their man at some stage. But with the defence so deep and condense, even this was difficult. It’s no surprise that the best chances came from set-pieces – one from a Ki corner and another with Commons hitting the post from a free-kick (again won by Ki who was Celtic’s most productive player, at least in the first half).

Frustration sets in

In these situations you need that penalty to go in, or that corner, or that free-kick. It’s a case of quantity over quality – at some stage the defence will be breached despite the chances themselves not being of great quality simply due to the nature of the opposition defending. However well the likes of Ki, Maloney, Ledley and Matthews were playing, there seemed to be a lack of presence in the box – neither a target to aim for or a penalty box poacher to pounce. Maloney was the deeper of the two strikers and despite preferring that position, has over the course of his career become a midfielder. Similarly Stokes is a player who is best doing his own thing – slipping out wide into space or dropping deep.

McInnes’ tactic became a success around the 35 minute mark where frustration crept in. Calls from unimpressed fans for McCourt, or Forrest to take the place of the flagging Commons. There were stray passes and groans from the crowd. Regardless, Ki came close with a decent strike from range and Stokes was perhaps unlucky after Enckelman plucked the ball from his toes at the crucial moment.

Changes

At half-time, whether Mulgrew was injured or not, he was taken off with Mark Wilson coming on, and the substitution could easily have been for performance reasons. Mulgrew was guilty of misplaced passes and wasn’t able to get forward enough to trouble the deep Saints defence. In theory Wilson would be better equipped to get forward, away from his marker and into space.

The course of the match changed little but as the frustration and desperation grew stronger, the chances dried up. Ki and Ledley were starting to look tired, Majstorovic too nonchalant and the problem of the missing frontmen continued. Perhaps a mixture of complacency and fatigue overall.

Celtic’s confidence in their gameplan – the idea that if enough chances were created the goal would come – took an almighty blow on the hour as Dave Mackay scored the shock winner. In a rare foray forward with conviction, Celtic found themselves all over the place at the back. Majstorovic was out of position meaning Wanyama had to come across and cover. Wilson at left-back was sucked in to the middle, leaving room for St Johnstone’s right midfielder Dave Mackay to have a free blast at goal. He got lucky with a deflection, and Celtic were stunned. It’s unclear whether Commons had any chance in getting back and covering for Wilson, but across the board the defence was too lax positionally.

No reply

McInnes immediately withdrew Sheridan to bring on a midfielder, and his replacement Higgins was able to sit just ahead of the other two central midfielders, and put pressure on any move beginning from Celtic’s centre. Lennon also immediately responded with McCourt coming on for the disappointing Commons, whose contribution barring the free-kick was dreadful. James Forrest was also soon brought on for Joe Ledley, in a move towards the more expansive 4-4-2 that Lennon tends to use, with two high wingers on either side.

It was McCourt who was proving to be the more effective, but his insistence on taking on that “player too far” only added to the pent up frustration bubbling over in Celtic Park. Still, he was the source of on of the two final real chances of the game, bursting past a number of defenders and playing a fine one-two before slamming a shot against the post. And the last chance fell to Stokes, whose hopeful header was cleared off the line.

Conclusion

We shouldn’t be too hasty in condemning the lop-sided 4-4-2 as finished, as today was a faint reminder that that formation is able to dominate SPL sides quite comfortably;at least in possession, chances created and limiting the opposition. And again, there are 3 key players missing. But there are still stark issues: if the wide ‘creator’ i.e. Commons is off-form/injured/etc then who can come in? It doesn’t seem that Lennon has enough faith in Forrest, McCourt or even Maloney to start them in that role.

The other option is a change to the system – the 4-3-3 employed against Sion was equally inept, albeit severely hindered by poor individual performances. Stokes is wasted out wide, Commons is off form, Samaras was provided with zero service and there isn’t another option for a lone striker (with Hooper injured). Finally Ki is more suited to the deeper role he’s come to excel in, rather than as an attacking midfielder providing immediate support to a striker.

Anthony Stokes could be vital to all of this. Currently the only available striker with a reliable goal ratio, he is on the face of it undroppable at this time. The dilemma, is that he doesn’t fit into a 4-3-3, and whatever iteration of 4-4-2 Lennon has employed, he doesn’t seem to fit into either (except from obviously, where Hooper is fit and Commons is on form).

Will Lennon have to drop top scorer Stokes altogether for the sake of the team’s flexibility and effectiveness? It’s a hell of a call, and if he did and failed would be open to all kinds of criticism.

 

 

 

 

Share

Pre-season Friendly – Cardiff 0 – 1 Celtic: Little revealed in tame friendly

Celtic travelled to Cardiff for their final friendly prior to the SPL kick-off this coming weekend. With the Scottish season starting 2 weeks earlier than the English second tier, the hosts were understandably rusty; using the occasion perhaps as a fitness and sharpness exercise. Neil Lennon on the other hand looked to assess a couple of new signings in a reasonably competitive environment – particularly on-trial goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.

Lineups

Celtic 4-4-2

To a similar extent, it was also another chance to see new signings Kelvin Wilson and Adam Matthews in action, with the latter in fact being poached from Cardiff in the summer on a free. The three newcomers slotted in to a very strong Celtic lineup, which resembled closely in shape to Lennon’s first choice formation. That is – a lop-sided 4-4-2 skewed towards allowing Kris Commons as much artistic license as possible.

Joe Ledley returned to his former club to play tucked in on the left of midfield, Ki Sung-Yeung started along-side Beram Kayal in the centre, with Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper resuming a profitable partnership up front.

 

 

Cardiff 4-4-2

Cardiff manager (and former Celt) Malky Mackay was also taking the opportunity to get a good look at some new players. His side, reeling from a failed promotion bid last season had lost 12 players and only taken 6 in.  Robert Earnshaw, Andrew Taylor, Craig Conway, Don Cowie and Aron Gunnarsson all arrived on a free, with Joe Mason the latest signing, for an undisclosed fee.

There are a few familiar faces to followers of the SPL, with former Celtic players Lee Naylor and David Marshall in the side, along with Kevin McNaughton (formerly of Aberdeen and now sporting peculiar grey hair) and Don Cowie once of Inverness CT.

The focal point of the flat 4-4-2 was beefy target-man John Parkin, forming a partnership with the more mobile new signing Mason.

Competitive Opening

It will always be impossible to take pre-season friendlies too seriously, especially with regards to analysing strategies and performance and this encounter proved to be no different. Celtic started off more confident, comfortable on the ball, but yet more relaxed. Perhaps as a by-product of using the game as a physical exercise – Cardiff on the other hand were highly competitive and strong in the tackle throughout.

The flat 4-4-2 was matching up with Celtic’s iteration rather nicely, with players on either side having their particular opposite number to stick to. But with Cardiff defending more compact and quite strictly in their own half, the Celtic players finding most time on the ball were those being pressed the least – Glen Loovens and Kelvin Wilson. Mason and the lumbering Parkin generally kept to the half-way line enabling the two centre-backs plenty time on the ball, only – they don’t know what to do with it.

The normal Celtic response is for Ki to drop ever deeper – even into the space between the centre-backs to gather possession and make productive use of the ball, but his opposite number was diligently tracking. Still, Ki’s passing was quick, clever and accurate, and he was perhaps Celtic’s best player on the night. But this emphasis of play in Celtic’s own half led to a first half of trying to crack a stubborn, entrenched Cardiff defence.

Cardiff prickly on the counter

Once play progressed beyond the two centre-backs, Celtic would push out into opposition territory but this asked questions of the unfamiliar back-line – 3 of the 5 at the back (including the goalkeeper) are new to the side. This led to Cardiff’s counter-attacking being slightly more effective. Twice Parkin was able to breach a pretty woeful and unorganised off-side line and a more capable striker wouldn’t have been so wasteful. But this is the purpose of the pre-season.

Celtic’s best chance before the game-killing goal was restricted to a  Kris Commons effort. With the 4-4-2s mostly cancelling each other out, it was unsurprising that this opportunity came about from Commons drifting inside where his opposite number was reluctant to follow. With the central defenders “tied up” so to speak, Commons free shot went narrowly wide.

The Hooper/Stokes combination at times continues to worry – when a deep and organised defence clams up, the two can disappear. It was perhaps an opportunity for Stokes to drop deeper into space between the lines, but both he and Hooper were only interested in the penalty area. Equally, when the two combine successfully it serves as a reminder as to why they are so effective. They both possess great close control and share a good understanding, and Hooper in the second half perhaps could’ve done better with a close range effort.

Fittingly, the match-winning goal came from an Emilio Izaguirre cross – the latest to feature in the tictactic Player Profile series. The move also perhaps under-lined how delicate a strict man to man marking policy can have (without “free” defenders to mop up between the lines). Joe Ledley on his homecoming beat his marker and quickly sprayed out a pass to Izaguirre high up on the left. The Honduran’s cross was somehow met by the head of Stokes, and the unassailable advantage was found.

There was little to speak of at all in the second half, as both managers were able to make a raft of substitutions, using the time as something of a training exercise.

New signing-watch

One of the main priorities for Lennon in this match was to put Stipe Pletikosa through his paces. Ironically Cardiff were unable to test him – barring perhaps, a straightforward drive that was safely taken care of, and a few shakey moments involving pass-backs. But it would surely be the quietest game of the 2011-12 season for Celtic’s goalkeeper, which doesn’t paint a great picture of Cardiff’s performance!

Adam Matthews was far busier at right-back and had a decent game. Again, it’s a hugely competitive position with Mark Wilson surely first-pick and Cha Du Ri also impressing earlier in pre-season, so Matthews has his work cut out.

His roving was impressive, constantly looking to get forward to support Commons ahead, but his final ball was lacking. It seemed the Cardiff players were gleefully aware that upon shutting down the outside right option, Matthews isn’t great at cutting inside onto his less favoured left. His pace and dribbling is impressive, but needs to develop a cutting edge on his left as tonight he had plenty time and room to use it.

Like Pletikosa, Kelvin Wilson was very hard to judge given the bluntness of Cardiff’s attack, and a few dodgy off-side attempts aside, was fairly solid. But it wasn’t so much a test of defensive strength and guile, and more a test of ability on the ball which for a centre-back is predictably awkward. While his technique may be more Majstorovic than Mulgrew, he does possess notably more pace than the big Swede. But like all the current centre-backs, the acid test will be in competitive battle.

Finally, a first glimpse and cameo appearance for Victor Wanyama who came on for Kayal with perhaps 15 minutes remaining, by which point the game was already well over.

 


Share

Hearts 0 – 3 Celtic: Superb win marred by nonsense

Celtic took the race for the SPL title to the final day after a comprehensive victory over Hearts at Tynecastle last night. But once again for Celtic and Neil Lennon in particular, the superb performance was overshadowed by typical anti-Celtic bigotry. This post will concentrate on the actual football, but for thoughts on the Lennon situation, please see my previous post, or a great source of Celtic News and discussion at the brand new and excellent Celtic Fans Media Hub.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 4-4-2

Tactically, what’s been most challenging for manager Neil Lennon in recent games is the loss of 2 key central midfielders – star man Beram Kayal and the industrious, dependable Joe Ledley. While this has given Ki Sung Yeung a golden opportunity to prove to Celtic fans that he can mix it with the best, it’s also forced Scott Brown inside from the right-midfield role that he’s excelled in this season. But Lennon is keen to preserve the signature 10/11 season formation of  a lop-sided 4-4-2 – as opposed to the risky “high wingers” 4-4-2 that sees both (for example) James Forrest and Kris Commons high up on each flank.

This double winger approach probably enables the “best” players to be on the park at the same time – there’s no doubt that in an attacking sense James Forrest (or Maloney, McCourt, etc) are better players than Charlie Mulgrew. But the system detriments the team in two ways. First of all it forces a real emphasis on wing play, at it’s most successful with Commons on his “correct” left side and the same for Forrest on the right. This stretches the middle of the park, where often Celtic will find themselves a man short (although incidentally not last night at Tynecastle). It’s simply not as defensively sound as the favoured lop-sided formation which sees 3 central midfielders on the park – and with a questionable pair of centre-backs, this is a worry.

The second major disadvantage is the affect the wide midfielders have on the full-backs. It’s been a tremendous season for attacking full-backs in the Hoops, but when the wingers are hugging the touch-line, your ability to get forward is severely inhibited. A third disadvantage is that the strikers do not relish getting on the end of the crosses that a wide 4-4-2 would generate, and last but not least, Kris Commons seems to be more devastating as the player with the freest role starting from the right and cutting onto his favoured left foot.

In general, a myriad of reasons justifying Lennon’s lineup.

Hearts Lineup

Hearts 4-4-2

Jim Jefferies went with a fairly positive formation – not unlike Celtic’s. David Obua tucked in helping out in the centre while Skacel played slightly further forward. Unfortunately for Hearts, the ageing Czech seems to have lost the sharpness that once made him one of the trickiest attackers in the SPL (while still retaining the selfishness).

Winger Ryan Stevenson plugged the gap as targetman up front in the absence of Kevin Kyle with Stephen Elliott playing just off him. Ryan McGowan and Ian Black provided the shield in front of the defence, where Marius Zaliukas returned from absence to Captain the side.

Grip slowly tightens from beginning

Celtic started off well, clearly fired up after last weeks abysmal defeat to Inverness. Hearts (and to some extent Georgios Samaras) started off fairly lazly, giving the ball away continually and with Gary Hooper and Commons looking dangerous and being provided with early ammunition, Hearts (with little to play for in SPL terms) looked interested only in fouling.

The returning Zaliukas having given the ball away in ridiculous circumstance via a free-kick straight to Samaras, shortly afterwards gave the ball away again – only this time Commons setup Hooper for an easy tap-in.

The clearest reason that Celtic were bossing the game, was the ease that Scott Brown and Ki in particular were finding space. The classic trick played time and time again would be for Ki to intelligently draw in two players, Brown would drift into space, and Ki would play him the simple pass. It was brutally effective, and the cleverness of the Korean was a joy to watch. This led to Brown getting into more and more advanced positions, in one case leading to Commons hitting the post.

Red card

As Celtic’s dominance continued, an agitated David Obua recklessly threw a punch at Charlie Mulgrew and was rightly sent-off. This effectively ended the tie as a contest

Hearts 4-4-1

and Jefferies was forced to reshuffle as a result. McGowan swapped roles with Skacel, and Elliott dropped to right midfield.

The intention was to get reasonable crosses onto the head of Stevenson and for Skacel to provide the support (and possibly big-game inspiration) to put the Celtic backline under pressure – and in fairness this worked to some extent.

But into the second half, Hearts were unable to cling onto that one goal deficit that kept them in the match, as superb work from Commons and Ki released Hooper to score his second. It was good movement from Ki to allow the ball to come across him, and the pass as usual was precise.

And if the second goal didn’t end the game as a contest, the shameful attack from a Hearts fan on Neil Lennon certainly did. As the opposing fans verbally tore into each other in the aftermath, the footballing side of the game seemed to vanish and a degree of perspective became apparent. Lennon is simply a man doing his job and to see him persecuted by the bigots of Scotland was at once upsetting and outrageous.

Easy win wrapped up

In-form Kris Commons was rewarded with a goal and Celtic’s third – again linking well with Hooper to blast in. Being on a yellow after a supremely soft booking (getting out of the way of a dodgy lunge from Ian Black, construed as a dive) Commons celebrated his goal by slowly edging into the crowd. But this was enough for referee Craig Thomson to produce a quick-fire second, and Commons had to go.

But by now the damage was done – in all respects. Celtic ran out comfortable winners (with cameos from Shaun Maloney and Daryl Murphy), Hearts had lost control of their own support, and the SFA has now lost it’s respect.

All eyes are now focused on Sunday. Celtic need at least a point from Motherwell while hoping that Rangers (who are a point ahead) lose.



Share

Celtic 4 – 1 Dundee Utd: Celtic hit four but should’ve had more

With Rangers having played 2 more games and being 4 points ahead, Celtic hosted a tricky Dundee Utd on Sunday afternoon. Despite the best efforts of the likes of Steven Naismith to pile on the pressure (with nonsense tabloid filler), Celtic were composed enough to dispatch of the Tangerines – but both managers were left with differing levels of frustration

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 4-4-2

With Joe Ledley out injured for the season, Lennon’s first selection choice was to either introduce Ki Sung-Yeung (or Juarez?) in a straight swap, or shift Scott Brown central. He went with the latter option, presumably with the idea that the Kayal/Brown combo is a more robust choice in dealing with the physical three man midfield likely to be employed by his Dundee Utd counterpart.

With Brown inside, Kayal shifted into the left central spot (not his preferred) and in line with Lennon’s preferred slightly lop-sided 4-4-2, Kris Commons was slightly withdrawn on the right (in the ‘Scott Brown’ role) with James Forrest high up as an out and out winger on the left.

The other big decision was Anthony Stokes in for Georgios Samaras – off the back of an (almost) match-changing performance as a substitute against Rangers. Stokes has now contributed 19 goals (joint top club scorer) and 10 assists – and seems to have a much better understanding with first choice Gary Hooper than his forward competition.

Dundee Utd Lineup

Dundee Utd 4-1-4-1 / 4-3-3

Peter Houston set out in extremely similar fashion to the previous two encounters between the two sides. Out of possession a deep and disciplined 4-1-4-1 and in possession a quick counter-attacking 4-3-3. Paul Dixon, Morgaro Gomis and Sean Dillon all returned to the side after a 4-2 win over Kilmarnock, at the expense of Barry Douglas, David Robertson and Keith Watson.

Slack early period – from both sides

Generally when Celtic are outnumbered four to five in midfield, one of the strikers takes up the role of dropping deeper to linkup play, and this has never been more evident than here against Dundee Utd. It was Stokes who was playing “off the shoulder” as high as possible, and Hooper was the linkup man, often playing so deep as to blur the line between “second striker” and “attacking midfielder”.

But causing massive concern to Lennon was Stokes’ inability to hold up the ball, play the simple pass and bring others into the game. Sometimes even the simple stuff was eluding Stokes. This isn’t too surprising as it’s not that common for a small striker to be playing a classic “holding up” role, even while most of the supply was (presumably intentionally) below headering height. But this also underlines a continuing problem up front – the lack of alternative style. All three of Hooper, Stokes and Samaras prefer deck football, and this is a relatively new problem since Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink left the club.

While Lennon verbally tore chunks out of Stokes, the decision to restore him to the side eventually did pay off however, after the young Irishman exploited a mistake by Gary Kenneth to supply Gary Hooper with an easy finish, another notch for that most fruitful of partnership. Stokes came close with a wonderful looping long-range effort and clearly the “encouragement” from Lennon was taking effect.

Equally Peter Houston was greatly concerned by his sides inability to hold onto the ball, despite the numerical(ish) advantage in midfield and most frustratingly despite Celtic’s own charitable acts of giving away. Houston knew Celtic weren’t quite clicking and knew that if his side could boss possession, they could start creating chances.

Target areas and tactical adjustments – from both sides

In Celtic’s most worrying first half spell, Dundee Utd were getting great pleasure from the areas behind the Majstorovic and Mulgrew, and David Goodwillie’s and Craig Conway’s pace coupled with Frazer Forster’s indecisive dealing with balls over the top were causing some hair-raising moments.

At the other end, James Forrest was returned to his favoured right flank, another main possession offender. While he did make decent headway down the left, his criminal lack of a left foot voided his own good work and therefore Commons was also able to resume duty in his own favoured area.

Into the second half and Brown and Kayal, the epitome of a tenacious midfield, were beginning to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and in what better way than to score a screamer? Kayal won the ball, jinked past his man and fired in an unstoppable left footer from 25 yards.

Peter Houston was understandably frustrated as one goal was mainly a defensive blunder, and the second quite extraordinary and so he made his change to salvage a goal from this game. With Bauben’s offensive intention successfully shackled by his opposite number Scott Brown, he was swapped for targetman Jon Daly and Utd went 4-4-2 and man for man in the centre.

Further deterioration from Utd, but one positive note

While this was the only realistic strategic change Houston could’ve gambled on (and the intention was to further pressure the slightly frayed Celtic back-line), the lack of bodies in midfield only intensified Brown and Kayal’s stranglehold on the game. And with Kris Commons also tormenting Sean Dillon, a sharper (or luckier) Celtic could easily have scored a number of further goals.

At 2-0 Lennon rung the changes, with Ki coming on for the disappointing Forrest (moving Brown out right), bringing Shaun Maloney on for Gary Hooper in a like for like swap, and eventually giving Daryl Murphy some rare gametime in place of Brown. Encouragingly, the three gave good accounts for themselves with Maloney creating the killer third goal, Ki his usual effective and dependable passing self, and Murphy scoring a later wonder-goal skinning four tired Utd defenders and lofting the keeper. Maybe Murphy is the second up front option Lennon is looking for after all?

One positive change for Dundee Utd was the introduction of Johnny Russell. Played on the right as an “inverted” winger, his quick feet and acceleration provided a real thorn in Celtic’s side. Charlie Mulgrew was especially finding it hard when Russell cut in onto Mulgrew’s weaker right, first hitting the post after a tremendous mazy run, then lobbing Frazer Forster when perhaps he should’ve scored, but finally did get on the score sheet after dodgy defending at the back yet again.

Conclusion and look North

There were mixed reports on Celtic’s handling of this game across the media, and while the first two goals were arguably rather fortunate, there were countless other “unfortunate” chances to balance the scale. In fact in agreeance with Neil Lennon, Celtic could of and maybe should have had many more.

James Forrest’s ineffect, particular on the left could point to a slight change of system for Lennon on Wednesday against Inverness – perhaps adding Ki to the midfield and returning Scott Brown to the right hand side where he’s done so well this season. And depending on the pitch condition up North, Lennon may gamble on the likes of Samaras or Murphy for a more route one approach. At this stage of the campaign goal difference is of little importance compared to the demand for three points, so will Stokes be sacrificed again?

Share

Kilmarnock 0 – 4 Celtic: Defensive mistakes punished by Commons & Hooper

Celtic matched Rangers with a 4-0 away victory after travelling to Rugby Park on Wednesday evening. A brace from Kris Commons followed by efforts from Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes punished an unfamiliar and unorganised Kilmarnock defence. The visiting support used the occasion to show their full, passionate backing of manager Neil Lennon, in a tremendous display.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic non-standard 4-4-2

Lennon welcomed back influential defender Daniel Majstorovic who had recovered from a broken toe – just in time for the Rangers clash on Sunday. Thomas Rogne dropped out as a result, and the only other change was the introduction of James Forrest for Joe Ledley. This enabled Scott Brown to move infield to possibly his favoured central position. This also forced a more traditional 4-4-2 formation, with two genuine wide players on the park.  But keeping with Lennon’s ideal of 1 withdrawn wide-man, Kris Commons was given a slightly more central, more demanding defensive responsibility as opposed to the almost free-role he had been enjoying of late with great success.

Kilmarnock Lineup

Kilmarnock 4-4-2 diamond / 4-5-1

Kenny Shiels pre-match willingly accepted that an in-form Celtic are simply impossible to deal with. While some managers (perhaps rightly) respond by adjusting the team to create a more robust, defensive strategy, Shiels stuck to his guns. Speaking of playing with “style and flair”, Kilmarnock lined up in one of the most tactically interesting formations seen this season.

Described as a 4-4-2 diamond – a design traditionally emphasising the ability of the attacking midfielder “in the hole”, Kilmarnock took this concept even further. So much so in fact that the nominal strikers (David Silva and William Gros) could be found occupying either wing out of position. Writers of football tactics talk of “false-nines”, a classic contemporary example being Leo Messi – essentially a forward who drops deep away from his traditional marker to disrupt, find possession in dangerous areas, but also to create space for team-mates.

In this sense both Silva and Gros were acting as “false nines”. They were not strikers (although Gros was the most forward of the two). They were simply there to pull the Celtic central defenders out of position, wide and crucially to create room for key-man Alexei Eremenko to exploit. In defence each were meant to take up a wing position, creating something of a 4-1-4-1 with Eremenko the furthest forward. A romantic, if fatally flawed strategy.

Kilmarnock’s wide struggle

The everlasting curse of the 4-4-2 diamond is the strict lack of midfield width. A team must have some extraordinarily fit full-backs to make up for this midfield deficit – which Kilmarnock did not have. And while the compromise was for Silva and Gros to cover the left and right respectively, as relatively high “forwards” they neither could cover the necessary ground or have the defensive instincts of wide midfielders. Caught in two minds in an unorganised system – a system that would have a knock on effect undermining every position in the side.

Commons and Forrest were ruthless on the wings, for once mostly enjoying true mano-a-mano battles with the opposition full-backs. To compensate Liam Kelly and Craig Bryson were dragged further wide, vacating the central positions. Eremenko was in a free-role, the strikers were dropping as and when they could manage, the midfield were being dragged around willfully – in short a midfield shambles.

Forced errors

In possession and building from the back, Kilmarnock found themselves with no focal point to maintain hold of the ball higher up the park. As a result the defence with no out-ball (and determined to play short, possession football) were being put under intense undue pressure. And Celtic were pressing marvelously.

None pressed more aggressively than Man of the Match Beram Kayal, showing qualities similar to his manager in his pomp only with more mobility and more attacking thrust. If Kayal was the irrepressible bull-dog in the centre, Hooper was the genius creator, having a hand in all four goals. Commons was given a criminal amount of room on the edge of the box on four minutes, and Hooper picked him out with ease to open the scoring.

The two goals that followed (and that killed the game) were similarly born from defensive calamity. The second Commons dispossessed James Fowler, quickly conspiring again with Hooper to score, and the third Jamie Hamill gave the away to Commons who this time returned the favour releasing Hooper. A ruthless tag-team.

Conclusion

Just after half-time Celtic were continuing to pounce on mistakes, hitting the wood-work twice in quick succession – and Anthony Stokes later added a fourth after an intelligent and unselfish pass from Hooper.

As determined, creative and clinical Celtic were, Kilmarnock were equally lax and unorganised. Kenny Shiels lined up ambitiously (and admirably) with a side he felt could stretch Celtic’s tender defence. But Lennon’s side were so quick to punish, that the manager was able to rest Beram Kayal and at one time even had merely 3 defenders on the park. While it was brave from Kilmarnock, ultimately the 4-0 thumping may be of detrimental effect at this time in the season. Celtic meanwhile enjoy the run-out in the build-up to Sunday’s crunch Old Firm.




Share