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Celtic 1-3 Man Utd. Experimentation from Lennon…(part one)

July 17, 2010

Don’t be misled by the scoreline, there were actually a number of positives to take from this game. Neil Lennon experimented somewhat by changing the formation three times, trying different combinations of players together and different pressing strategies. Celtic looked quite impressive for periods and it was more a combination of silly errors and personnel changes (or players playing that probably won’t be this season) that cost the game.

Lineup:

Zaluska;

Wilson, Rogne, O’Dea, Mulgrew;

Crosas;

Forrest, Brown, Ledley, Maloney;

Fortuné.

Celtic started the game with a 4-5-1/4-3-3 (shown in Figure 1, below) and for the first 15 minutes or so were narrow and deep, pressing at the half-way line and when they got the ball back, looked to counter.

Fig.1: Celtic's intial shape against Man Utd

Celtic defended quite well, often with two banks of four: the defence holding a good line and one of Forrest or Maloney dropping back to make up a midfield four with Brown, Ledley and Crosas. When one of Maloney or Forrest did this, the other stayed further forward, waiting for a counter. Celtic countered well on the occasions that combinations of  Mulgrew, Crosas , Forrest  and Maloney were involved in transitioning from defence to attack. When the responsibility lay to Brown his passing wasn’t quick or accurate enough. One doesn’t want to be too harsh on Brown – he has other strengths which we will get to later, but passing isn’t one of them. Counters also broke down because of  right-back Mark Wilson’s lack of pace and attacking capabilities. He was often the spare man or out-ball but was incapable of taking advantage of a number of good counter-attacking opportunites. The same problem occurred later on in the half when Celtic were dominating (Fig.2, below).

Fig.2: Mark Wilson (circled) in lots of space

At left-back, Charlie Mulgrew’s passing range and quality on the ball means that he is able to quickly switch play to the other flank when counters came down his side. This makes up for his lack of pace but it means that, for balance, the right-back needs to be fast, athletic and full of running and attacking intent. Cha Du-Ri may be able to make a big impact here. He came on later in the game showed excellent pace – reminiscent of Didier Agathe.

As stated, Celtic defended well in the first 15 minutes but there was one flaw in their set-up. As Celtic defended deep and only pressed at half-way, Scholes dropped back into Man Utd’s half to collect the ball from his defence. He generally picked it up around the start of the centre circle, in acres of room and with no pressure on him (Fig.3, below).

Fig.3: Paul Scholes (circled) in space

Paul Scholes is an excellent long passer and with this much time and space was able to hit diagonal balls to wings where Man Utd’s full-backs – the twins Fabio and Rafael – were galloping forward. Their superior pace caused Wilson and Mulgrew problems but Mulgrew sometimes dealt with these high-balls with his height – Wilson didn’t have that advantage. Sometimes Scholes (or occasionally Fletcher) looked for his strikers, testing Rogne and O’Dea. Rogne dealt with this ok but O’Dea struggled a bit. This also happened in later in the 2nd half during another spell where Celtic sat deep. Neither player is likely to be first choice come the start of the season (though Rogne may have an outside chance) but both would have benefited from playing with a strong, aerially dominant partner – a ‘stopper’ – justifying Lennon looking at players like Sol Campbell. As Nottingham forest defender Kelvin Wilson is reportedly a back-up option to Sol Campbell, he is probably in the same ‘stopper’ mould.

Then comes the change

After roughly 15 minutes, Celtic started to press higher up the pitch with Fortuné dealing with Scholes and Ledley almost man-marking Fletcher (Fig.3, below)

Fig.3: Fortune closes down Scholes (circled white) and Ledley marks Fletcher (circled blue)

Fortuné stopped Scholes from hitting long passes and he wasn’t able to play a short forward pass to Fletcher either, due to Ledley’s marking. With the flanks also covered, he was forced to play the ball back to Smalling or Evans, neither of whom are the greatest of passers. They then resorted to long-balls upfield which Celtic’s defence mostly dealt with well – though again, a more dominant centre-back would have been useful.

Man Utd were now forced further back and Celtic began to dominate. When in possession, Celtic pushed Ledley and one of Brown or Wilson up to  level with Maloney and Forrest, with Crosas staying deeper and central. This created a sort of 4-1-4-1 shape when Celtic were attacking. See Fig.2 again – Crosas is the man on the ball with (from left to right) Maloney, Ledley, Forrest and Wilson ahead of him in a line of 4 and Fortuné up front. In this instance Forrest is in a more central position (where Brown sometimes would have been) and Wilson is out wide on the right wing (another example of where a fast, attacking right-back would be useful) with Brown covering. This seemed to be a plan – either Brown getting forward centrally with Forrest wide or Wilson going forward down the wing with Forrest drifting to the centre.

Figure 4, below, shows a repeat of this 4-1-4-1(ish) shape – almost identical to Fig.2 – with Wilson again wide. This time however, Fortuné(the man on the ball)  had come deeper to receive the ball and Forrest made use of the space vacated by him by moving up front, dragging the left-back in-field and allowing Wilson to get forward. Ryan Giggs now is forced to track back, exemplifying how Man Utd were pegged back during this period.

Fig.4: Same shape as Fig.2 and Fortune the 'False 9'

There is too much evidence of counter and attacking moves making use of our right-back as an attacking outlet for it to be a coincidence, and this must surely be part of Lennon’s plans for Cha Du-Ri and maybe Efrain Juarez.

Fortuné’s movement is very good. When he moves from a standard striker’s position he can sometimes draw defenders out with him – Evans (circled, Fig.4) has come out of the defensive line to deal with him – leaving space for midfielders to run into. This kind of play is characteristic of a ‘False Nine’, a forward up on his own who vacates the forward position to leave space for midfield runners – more can be read on them here, at the excellent Jonathan Wilson’s blog – and they can be a useful weapon in the modern game if used correctly.

Arsene Wenger recently said “We used to say the midfielders are the guys who bring the strikers alive but what is happening now is the strikers are the guys who can bring your midfielders alive. They come to score from deeper positions and you can really do that with one-man up front.” (quote taken from The Arsenal Column).

If no midfielders get forward though, it can make a team toothless in attack (Fig.5, below).

Fig.5: Fortune has the ball on the wing, but no-one is in the box

The period of domination for Celtic lasted until roughly the 30th minute and during this time, Marc Crosas saw a lot of the ball. The line of 4 pushing forward ahead of him had to be picked up by Man Utd’s midfield 4 leaving Crosas as the spare man. He made use of this time on the ball with some excellent passing, dictating the tempo of the game.

Silly mistakes cost goal

The end to the domination began when Celtic where building another careful attack. The ball came to Scott Brown half-way inside the opposition half and he tried to take on too many players instead of playing the simple pass. He lost the ball with team-mates comitted forward and Man Utd swiftly countered creating a clear-cut chance which they should have taken. Brown had been playing well during Celtic’s domination – he covered well for Wilson, played sensible passes(i.e. within his limitations), got forward at the right times and pressed intelligently – but his decision making let him down on this occasion. If he can iron this out of his game he’ll be a much better player.

From then on Celtic’s confidence took a knock and the game returned to similar pattern as in the first 15 minutes. The first goal came because more silly mistakes: Rogne played a slack pass to give the ball away; Man Utd work the ball to Obertan (drifting in from the right) who beats Ledley and passes to their left-wing; a combination of Wilson and Rogne don’t stop a cross; O’Dea is flat-footed and out of position – Berbatov scores. Perhaps Mulgrew could have got back to cover quicker but most of the blame should be aimed at O’Dea for being out of position and too flat-footed to deal with the cross or block Berbatov’s shot.

Little remained of the half and there was little more of interest. Check back for the 2nd half.

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