Three times ‘unlucky’ for Craig Brown and Aberdeen
They say familiarity breeds contempt but some of the Celtic contingent must be wishing they could play Aberdeen every week. Three match ups in ten days at three different venues resulted in three Celtic victories, with eight goals scored and one against (1-0, 4-1 and 3-0). While Celtic have been fairly consistent with tactics and team selection – aside from the odd personnel change – ‘Dons boss Craig Brown tried and failed with three different strategies to stop the men in green and white.
Interestingly, Aberdeen’s ‘best’ result came at Celtic Park, probably because they were rank outsiders and knew they had to come and shut up shop. Without the ball – which was most the game – they lined up in a straightforward 4-4-2, defended deep and looked to restrict the space between their midfield and back four. They did this well, managing to frustrate Celtic for the majority of the game and continued in this vein even when losing – perhaps with the notion that if you stay within a goal, you still have a chance. Fortunately for Celtic, they stuck to these instructions too stringently at times which is what led to the home side taking the lead. Defending too deeply and with the midfield close, there was a lot of space for Celtic to play in front of them but still be a threat. Hooper was able to drop into a huge space in this area – as opposed to between the defence and midfield – before swiftly picking out the run of Stokes behind the away side’s back line. For Celtic, this is one of the benefits of playing at home on a large pitch, much larger than anything they will have been used to in preparation for the game.
This inadequate protection of the defence was to become a recurring theme for Aberdeen in the subsequent games, the next meeting – the 4-1 hammering at Hampden in the CIS Cup semi-final – a perfect example. Three of the Celtic goals came from corners – two directly, one indirectly with piece of brilliance – and this is a result of defending in the way described above. When a side does so, it is common for last ditch blocks, tackles and clearances to result in the giving away of corners due to their proximity to the byline. Celtic took full advantage.
Aside from this inability to defend corners, Craig Brown must also have been concerned that his side also went to the other extreme. On numerous occasions the midfield was caught too far away from their defence – the opposite problem from above – giving Celtic space to play in ‘between the lines’ and this indiscipline should have led to the Hoops adding to their score.
The game also saw a change in formation for Aberdeen to a 5-3-2, but we basically saw the same problem of eight players forced back close to their own penalty box, detached from their front two. They were also weakened by the loss of forward Nick Blackman, whose pace and runs into the channels after balls over the Celtic defence were the only real threat in the game at Celtic Park. Despite the change in formation not necessarily being the main cause for going four-nil down, the half-hour capitulation was enough to prompt Brown to switch back to 4-4-2. The second half saw a flat performance from Celtic and this, coupled with the injury enforced switch to four full-backs in the back four, perhaps allowed Aberdeen to pull one back. One wonders if Vernon would have been able to head home so comfortably had the likes of Rogne or Majstorovic been available.
Another meeting between these two sides, another venue and this time it was Celtic who were on their travels as they went up to Pittodrie to face an Aberdeen side intent on revenge. “It is not a case of being sick of the sight of them – this time we want to get a result. We want to make sure we go out and give them more of a game on Tuesday and make sure we do not start the way we did on Saturday,” said Dons midfielder, Rob Milsom, in the lead up to the game. Craig Brown reshuffled his pack again, opting this time for a 4-3-3/4-5-1 but these plans were immediately hit a blow in the first minute when his side went down to ten men. Some excellent play by Gary Hooper and a cross-field pass to find Scott Brown saw the latter’s good first touch take him past his marker, Andrew Considine and the ’Dons left-back was rightly sent off for a tug then a trip when Brown was through on goal. This forced Craig Brown into a switch around with the returning Nick Blackman – who has been selected on the left-wing – moving to the centre to be the focal point of a 4-4-1. As in the Celtic Park game, they looked for him to run the channels in chase of long balls forward over the Celtic defence. Again though, the midfield did their defence little favours and this was largely what led to the opening goal. This time, right-back Ryan Jack was offered no easy out-ball by his overly advanced midfield and his clearance was charged down by Kris Commons. Possession was turned over with Hooper waiting in the gaping space between the Aberdeen midfield – who were slow to retreat – and defence. He was able to comfortably play a one-two with the more advanced Stokes to be faced with a one-on-one and coolly slid the ball past the ‘keeper, Jamie Langfield. It is interesting to see Aberdeen repeatedly make this kind of mistake, with ex-Celtic Paul Hartley – supposedly an experienced holding player – the main culprit each time.
After the goal, Aberdeen gave a good account of themselves but succumbed to fatigue and Celtic piling on the pressure. The second half saw Chris Maguire play as the lone forward, with Blackman and Scott Vernon tasked with providing support from the left and right wings respectively. However, their tracking of the continual advancement of the Celtic full-backs – Juarez and Izaguirre – meant they spent most of the time deep in their own half. When Celtic got the second goal the game was effectively over, with the third simply providing further delight for the fantastic travelling support.
The Celtic View
From Celtic’s point of view, it was three important victories – four if you include the 4-0 win over Hearts – in games billed as tough encounters. This means Celtic go into the cup tie at Ibrox on Sunday in far more confident mood than in the lead up to their last trip there. Charlie Mulgrew continues to surprise and must surely have won over some of the early season doubters – provided he doesn’t play left-back! There have been two noticeable benefits to his deployment at centre-back, the first being that he is a left-footer in the left centre-back slot and the second is his good distribution. If Celtic look to long – either by choice or out of necessity – he has the ability to find forward runs with much greater accuracy than any of Celtic’s natural centre-backs.
Kris Commons has made a fantastic start to his Celtic career, slotting almost seamlessly into the starting lineup. He has shown an ability to go past players on the outside or inside, looks comfortable on either foot and is a definite goal threat both with his shots from distance and clever runs behind the defence. In the game at Pittodrie, he was often very close to the front two of Hooper and Stokes, making it almost look like a front three. It was interesting to see this greater fluidity returning to Celtic’s attack in the most recent Aberdeen game – as opposed to the more ‘back-t0-basics’ approach seen so far this year – as they looked to finish the home side off. As the game went on, there was an increasing amount of position switching and players roaming as Celtic tried to carve open a ten-man side who were hanging on. It is good to know that Celtic have this ‘in their locker’ should they need it but one would expect them to continue with the style that has served them so well in recent weeks.
The blossoming Hooper and Stokes partnership looks better each time they take to the field together and their growing telepathy and link-up play is a joy to watch at times. They stay close together and are always ‘vertical’ (one deep, one advanced) – an important feature in strike-partnerships – with the first instinct of each to look for the other when receiving the ball. Their exciting dovetailing – reminiscent in style to Man Utd’s Yorke and Cole – is such a pleasure to see and such a rarity in the modern game that their partnership merits it’s own article. Look out for one in the coming weeks.
It’s a disappointment that no late reinforcements were brought in as the transfer window was closing – particularly in defence – but the makeshift back-line’s recent displays have been encouraging. Let’s hope they can continue to impress – they’ll need to on Sunday.