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Celtic 1-3 Man Utd (part two): 2nd half sees Lennon experiment again

July 18, 2010

The start of the 2nd half saw Celtic change formation to 4-2-3-1 with the back four staying the same and Fortuné remaining up front on his own. The re-adjustment in midfield saw Giorgios Samaras replace Scott Brown and move out wide onto the left with Shaun Maloney taking up a more central role behind the lone striker. Joe Ledley dropped deeper and closer to Marc Crosas, though still had more licence to get forward than the little Spaniard.

Fig.1 and Fig.2: 4-2-3-1. Back 4 (marked in yellow), Central Midfield 2 (blue), Advanced Midfield 3 (green), Forward (red)

The two pictures (Figure 1 and Figure 2,above), show the new shape with the back four(Wilson, Rogne, O’Dea, Mulgrew) marked in yellow, the midfield two (Crosas, Ledley) in blue, the advanced midfield (Samaras, Maloney, Forrest) marked in green and the forward (Fortuné) in red.

After a loose 5 minutes or so, Celtic settled into their new shape and began to dominate possession again, thanks to the triangles and diamonds that are naturally created in a 4-2-3-1. This spell of dominance saw Celtic go on to have their best spell of the game and lasted until roughly the last 12-15 minutes, at which point some of the key players had departed and Celtic switched to 4-4-2.

Man Utd made changes of their own at half time, most notably Scholes departing and leaving Fletcher with more responsiblity in getting the ball forward from deep. In the first half, Fortuné had been tasked with dealing with Man Utd’s deepest midfielder (mostly Scholes) on his own but with Maloney now closer to him they could share the burden, which aided Celtic’s spell of dominance.

Fig.3: Fortune and Maloney nullify Fletcher (circled white) leaving Smalling (circled blue) to play the ball

Figure 3, above, shows Fortuné and Maloney staying with Fletcher so that Smalling, a worse passer, has to play the ball out. He often resorted to long-balls which Celtic’s defence mostly dealt with well but, as pointed out in Part One, a ‘stopper’ would have been useful here because Rogne, O’Dea and Wilson had one or two shaky moments. The midfielders – most notably Crosas and Ledley – did well to make up for these shaky moments by getting back for the 2nd-ball when these long-balls weren’t cleanly dealt with.

Despite this spell of dominance, with Man Utd mostly stuck in their own half (Fig.4, below), silly errors were Celtic’s biggest enemy. Another clear-cut chance was handed to Man Utd when Samaras, like Brown in the first half, lost the ball in a dangerous area. Mostly though, Celtic had Man Utd covered well and unable to get forward using anything other than long high balls. Figure 4, below, shows this with the ball carrier having to knock the ball back because every one ahead of him is covered.

Fig.4: Man Utd have to go back because everyone is covered

The change to 4-2-3-1 brought more variety in attack for Celtic, with Fortuné, Maloney and Forrest constantly moving and sometimes switching positions with Samaras mostly staying wide on the left. Forrest would sometimes drift in-field to the inside-right channel, creating space for Wilson (as in the first half) to get down the right wing from deep – as stated in Part One, Cha Du-Ri will benefit from this – with Crosas covering. On the other side, Samaras’ hugging of the touchline created space in the inside-left channel for Maloney to drop into or Ledley to get forward from deep, with Mulgrew covering. This is (approximately) what led to the Celtic penalty and subsequent equaliser on roughly the 59th minute mark.

Fig.5: Samaras (circled in yellow), stays wide, Maloney (green) draws Smalling out and Ledley (blue) bursts into the space

Figure 5, above, shows how the penalty was won. Samaras (circled, yellow) has stayed wide on the left but the inside-left channel is still covered by Man Utd on this occasion. Maloney (circled, green) had shown a lot of clever movement between the lines and did so again here, dropping into this channel and occupying both Fletcher and Smalling, pulling the latter out of his defensive line. This created a space in the centre of Man Utd’s defence and Ledley (circled, blue) bursts into it it from deep – untracked by Fletcher because of Maloney, and untracked by Gibson (the other Man Utd central midfielder) who was covering Crosas. Mulgrew (the ball carrier) plays the ball to Ledley in and he is eventually fouled by the back-tracking Smalling (normally a red card offence).

Although there are question marks about Man Utd’s defending, this attack is one example of the unpredictability that can be achieved by playing a 4-2-3-1 formation and more importantly, having the right players to fit it. One key player is the man just behind the forward (the Mesut Özil role) and in Shaun Maloney we have a player who could fill it for us. He is probably the most intelligent attacking player at the club.

Samaras dispatched the penalty excellently and the goal saw confidence rise throughout the team. Celtic then continued to dominate in a similar fashion up until roughly the 75th minute when Simon Ferry replaced the impressive Ledley and Ben Hutchinson came on for Maloney. Celtic changed formation for the 3rd time in the game, switching to 4-4-2 with Hutchinson partnering Fotuné up front. From this point on there is little point in paying attention to what happened on the field as most of the remaining starters were worn out by now – Fortuné, full of running, had simply ran out of steam – and subs like Ferry and in particular Hutchinson were only brought on to get other tired players off. It is very doubtful we will see a midfield comprising of Samaras, Ferry, Ki and Forrest again (at least in competitive games) and the same can be said for the Hutchinson-Fortuné strike partnership. The formation also seemed to be thrown together simply due to who was on the field.

Man Utd went onto score two scrappy goals which aren’t really worth dwelling on. They may have been playing a number of fringe players as well but they brought on a good deal more fresh legs and there still seemed to be a cohesive tactical plan behind their play as opposed to Celtic’s very loose 4-4-2.

Conclusion – Don’t focus on the results (for now), just look at the process

It is very encouraging to see Lennon using pre-season to try out different systems and combinations of players. It is a good sign that he is looking for a way of playing that best suits our players rather than deciding beforehand and forcing them into it. It could also help him to find a Plan B (or even C and D), which could be key to the coming season with flexibility now so important in the modern game. He is building something here – with a great deal of thought involved – and we at T.A. are excited by what there could be to come.

Full lineup:


Wilson (Cha 67), Rogne, O’Dea, Mulgrew;

Brown (Samaras 45), Crosas (Ki 67), Ledley (Ferry 76);

Forrest, Maloney (Hutchinson 74);


Subs Not Used: Hooiveld, McCourt, Loovens, Caddis, Cervi

15 Comments leave one →
  1. TootingTim permalink
    July 19, 2010 1:31 am

    Please, please keep this site up throughout the season. We cyber-tims are very well served but this is, quite simply, on ‘another level’. It’s so good I’ve resorted to cliche already:)

    Having just watched the Seattle game, and read the comments on CQN, MAF has been disparaged roundly. A Seattle flounder you might say. But I take it from the above analysis – which has echoes of TM’s reasoning behind his purchase – that his off-the-ball work is of a very high standard and thus we may see him persevered with? Be interested to see this site offer analysis of individual players as the season progresses.

    As we all know MAF, Samaras and maybe McCourt, Brown and Mulgrew divide opinion amongst the support. Be interesting to get your take on their contributions.

    Hail, hail

    • July 19, 2010 2:15 pm

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Yes, MAF gets a lot of stick for his ‘lack of goals’. Unfortunately, especially in Britain, too many people see the man up front as being the goalscorer, the midfield as the creators (or protection for the defence), and the defenders’ only job is to defend. Football – on the continent at least – has moved on from this idea (hence the quote from Wenger). Just look at Drogba’s first season at Chelsea. Frank Lampard was the top scorer whilst Drogba was the top assister. Surely it doesn’t matter if the roles are reversed so long as the team wins? Obviously Drogba has gone on to add lots of goals as well – he is a special case.

      The top strikers in the world now are capable of much more than just scoring goals, they need to be or they can become a passenger – when Scott McDonald didn’t score he did little else of value; players like Michael Owen are no longer considered ‘world class’.

      At our level and finances we can’t afford to get the top strikers who score as well as offer something else – Torres, Drogba, Villa etc. But it is important to have someone up front who can at least be involved in the build up. This, combined with goalscoring midfielders (something MAF has lacked so far at Celtic) should serve a team better than having a poacher up front who does little else. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a team shouldn’t have a poacher in the squad but it is probably better as a Plan B (e.g. Owen coming to score for Man Utd against Man City, McDonald scoring v. Rangers in January, both came off the bench).

  2. graemegc permalink
    July 19, 2010 7:45 am

    excellent analysis- i’ve been saying for years we need to be playing 4-3-3 or a variation of it- allowing us flexability & balance in midfield that has not been there since wgs last 2 years as manager
    as you say having a plan b (& even a plan c & d) will make us less predictable- increaseing our chance of success

    • July 19, 2010 1:57 pm

      completely agree, both WGS and Mowbray seemed to try to force players to fit their ‘vision’. Lennon, on the other hand, appears to be looking for a system to fit his players.

  3. JeanPierre LeGuerre permalink
    July 19, 2010 8:23 am

    Hi – am loving the site – please keep up the good work. The ‘Net has been crying out for a site like this for some time. Well done.

    • July 19, 2010 1:55 pm

      Thanks very much. is great for all the big leagues and european and international games but there was nothing for celtic. so we thought we’d step in.

  4. Northern times permalink
    July 20, 2010 1:28 pm

    Excellent site. Very impressed with your analysis and different from other sites out there where you only get comments that the team or players were either good or rubbish. Is this a hobby or do you have a coaching background?

    • July 20, 2010 3:57 pm

      Thanks very much, I try to keep it as objective as possible (though being a fan I can foresee that might be a problem, especially for Rangers games). No coaching background – though it is under consideration – just an avid follower of the finer points of the game.

      • Northern times permalink
        July 20, 2010 4:18 pm

        Well impressed. I can’t get to the games and it’s obvious we don’t get analysis like this on scotsport so it is welcome. Looking forward to your views when the real stuff starts. I will point my mates in this direction too as we enjoy the tactical stuff too.

  5. Panenka's Chip permalink
    July 20, 2010 8:54 pm

    Just to add my compliments to those above. I’m a big fan of Zonal Marking and am pleased this kind of analysis is being applied to Celtic. Keep up the good work.

    However, although I agree that NL is trying to find a system to fit his current players, surely the sheer amount of transfer activity going on for us means he has a plan A (and hopefully plans b & c!) for the coming season that he is now going to “staff”.

    • July 21, 2010 12:06 pm

      good point. he probably already has a general idea of how he’d like us to play, but it appears he is experimenting to find the right balance and correct roles for each player within that desired set-up. this can mean slight changes to the formation – the formation doesn’t dictate how a team plays – or changes to what each player does within the team set-up.

  6. Northern times permalink
    July 21, 2010 7:53 am

    Was wondering what your thoughts were on these new formations for the spl? Personally I would be disappointed if we started with one up front against a team from the lower end of the league. Do you think the preseason formations were more from a European perspective?

    • July 21, 2010 12:45 pm

      the formation does not dictate how attacking or defensive a team is. playing with one man up front doesn’t necessarily mean you are playing defensively just as playing with two strikers isn’t necessarily any more attacking.

      the lower SPL sides are likely to sit very deep and concentrate almost solely on defence when playing us (particularly when we’re at home). they often congest the midfield and their defensive 3rd.
      in recent years we have seen our midfield outnumbered by playing only four – two of which having little defensive responsibility. with one up front this problem can be (i stress can be and not will be) solved as you can have another body in midfield, another passing option to carefully build attacks.

      one thing that would be vital though is runners from deep, without them the attack simply fails. it can sometimes be easier for packed defences to deal with two strikers. the (usually two) centre-backs have a clear idea over who they should mark. dealing with one can be more difficult, particularly if he is difficult to track as they have to be switched on as to when one picks him up and the other doesn’t. on top of this, having players coming in late from deep or from out wide to in can add more confusion as they can be harder to pick up than someone who stays up front and central. do the midfielders track them or do the defenders?
      if set up correctly it can create less predictability in how a team attacks, with a number of runners coming from different angles and at different times – again it is vital that they do this or the attack can fail.

      a good example is mourinho’s chelsea. he almost always played one up front (usually drogba) with a variety of attacking midfielders behind him and they still scored a lot of goals.
      another is luciano spalletti’s roma (circa 2007). they played a system often referred to as 4-6-0. totti started furthest forward but he is not an archetypal striker, often coming deep to be involved in the build up. four attacking minded midfielders would make runs from deep and out wide and this proved difficult for defences to cope with as they didn’t know who to mark. their 7-1 drubbing by man utd also shows how, despite not a playing with striker, they weren’t defensive.

      that is not to say that we shouldn’t play with 2 up front. if we wish to go more direct (getting the ball from the defence to the strikers quicker) then playing a big, strong, aerially dominant striker (murphy?) can be of use in that kind of system. the defence knows what they have to deal with and so then it becomes a test of whether they can or not.

      again – and i must stress this – it is more the setup of how many players are getting forward when attacking than the formation itself that can tell you how attacking a team is. the trouble is, the mass football media often like to tell you the opposite.

  7. Northern times permalink
    July 21, 2010 3:05 pm

    Cheers for that. I suppose the thing we have been missing since petrov left is a midfielder getting beyond the forwards. I also like samaras coming in from the left but feel unless he wins everything in the air and scores 30 goals a season the fans won’t be happy. Thierry Henry used to perform this role well with Arsenal and Villa at the world cup also showed how useful this could be as a tactic. It’s like you said. Who marks him. The fullback or the centrebck. Cheers again for the reply. Very illuminating.

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