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ICT 0-1 Celtic: Good start to the SPL season; Maloney steals the show

August 15, 2010

After a tricky opening quarter, Celtic went onto dominate newly promoted Inverness ‘Caley Thistle (ICT) and could have won by a far bigger margin. If anything, the 1-0 scoreline flattered the hosts.

The game started quite frantically, with ICT looking to upset Celtic’s rhythm with intense pressing. All ten of their outfield players worked very hard to close Celtic down, in numbers and as a unit. This is what legendary Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi referred to as ‘full pressing’ – where every member of the team would heavily press the opposition high up the pitch, trying to make the playing area as small as possible for them. Due to its physical demands his sides would only employ such a strategy for short periods, usually for the first 15 to 25 minutes to put fear into the opposition from the start. Then, they would switch to less demanding, less intense pressing sytems having gained a psychological advantage over their opponents. Whether such a tightly planned strategy was part of ICTs plans is unlikely, but they definitely exhibited a form of ‘full-pressing’ for roughly the first 25 minutes and then paid the price doing so. Playing in such a way was probably the only way that they could stop Celtic, but predictably they were unable to maintain it for most of the game.

ICT's high pressing - 6 players (and two more out of shot) in the Celtic half

ICT’s main attacking threat during this period came from their right-hand side, with an ‘interesting’ battle between Celtic left-back, Charlie Mulgrew and ICT right-winger, Johnny Hayes. Mulgrew’s weaknesses are well-documented, largely his lack of pace and agility making him easily beaten when up against a pacey winger (such as Hayes). To make up for this, he should look to Giovanni van Bronckhorst in the World Cup for an example of how to play at full-back when you are slow – stay very tight to your man, make it difficult for him to take his first touch and start moving. Instead, Mulgrew tended to stand off Hayes, giving him those extra few yards to start dribbling. There is a possibility that ICT targeted Mulgrew as Celtic’s weak point, but they may have just attacked this side of the pitch more because their was more room there. Fortune, on Celtic’s right, provided good defensive support for his full-back whereas Mulgrew wasn’t given the same kind of protection.

Fortune tracks back and gets goal-side (circled)

When Joe Ledley, playing as the left-sided central midfielder, came back to help Mulgrew he didn’t have as many problems, but ICT did well at times to occupy Ledley in-field to create space for Hayes on the overlap which gave him ‘one-v-ones’ against Mulgrew. Again though, when this occurred McCourt should have taken more defensive responsibility.

Hayes (circled) in plenty of room on the right.

Mulgrew stands off Hayes (ball-carrier) while the ICT full-back, McCann (circled) provides an overlap, untracked. Mulgrew is left 2 vs. 1

One other way in which ICT did well was the way they got players ready for ‘second-balls’. Due to ICT’s high pressing, Celtic’s main way of getting field position was long-balls to Samaras. ICT always got players in and around him for the dropping ball and so most of the time won possession back.

Circled area shows 4 ICT players against 2 Celtic players for the high-ball and subsequent second-ball

As the intensity of ICT’s pressing dropped, Celtic were able to come into the game more in an attacking sense and string more passes together. One of the earliest of these involved Cha Du-Ri getting forward ahead of the midfield and pulling the ball back for McCourt to almost score. Cha Du-Ri’s athleticism and pace were to become a feature of the game, with ICT sometimes unable to track his forward bursts and unable to cope with his speed. Barring injury, it should become a feature of the coming season – expect him to chip in with a number of assists and even the odd goal.

Another good move by Celtic in the first half demonstrated the value of a one-striker formation if the striker is one who likes comes out of his usual position and cause confusion in the opposition defence. Samaras had a decent game – only decent because at times his link-up was patchy or his first touch was sometimes poor. When these were good however, Celtic put together some nice passing moves with him particularly linking up well with Maloney, which occurred when Samaras put through Maloney to hit the post. Samaras – exhibiting the characteristics of a ‘false 9’ – left his striker’s position and came deep and was followed by his marker, Grant Munro. In doing so, Munro left his defensive line which opened up space for Maloney to run into.

Samaras (green dot) has come deep taking Munro (yellow) out of his line, leaving space for Maloney (red) to run into

Samaras and Maloney appear to have a good understanding, first demonstrated in the latter’s first game back – against Falkirk in a 3-0 win – after his return from Aston Villa two seasons ago. This partnership was never given a chance to flourish, partly down to Strachan’s preference for two orthodox strikers and also Maloney’s injury record. Strangely, on one occasion in the second half the partnership didn’t come together when Samaras could have given Maloney a tap-in, but the move came about in the first because of the two linking up.

The Maloney-Samaras partnership. This time, Maloney (red) plays through Samaras (green) for his shot to be saved.

As the first half progressed, ICT pressed from deeper and deeper positions and attacked in fewer numbers, seemingly happy to keep Celtic – now more confident and in control of the tempo – at bay and hung on to keep the score level. So, the story of Celtic’s half was that they managed stop the inevitable early onslaught with good defending – the left-hand side excepted – and then grew into the game to be the dominant force and could have gone in at half-time leading. It was largely a decent half from Celtic’s point view, despite the claims of some commentators, with Zaluska having little to do and ICT lucky to keep the score at 0-0. Indeed, there were clear signs that barring poor finishing, Celtic would win this game over the full 90 minutes. Perhaps those that cover Scottish football in the media need to be reminded that that is the length of a game.

ICT attempted to start the second half as they had started the first, but they seemingly had spent most of their energy in that period so couldn’t match the intensity and largely kept their pressing to their own half. This gave Celtic more time to carefully start attacks and so their passing was more accurate, which it need to be against a now packed ICT defensive third. Important also was the movement of the attacking players, who had to be clever to find space and nobody exhibited this more than Shaun Maloney. We have touched on how Maloney’s best position is just behind a front-man before, and he demonstrated this to great effect in the second half. It takes a lot of footballing intelligence to play this role with good movement and off-the-ball runs required to make one-self available, awareness of where the team-mates are and a good touch required to help when receiving the ball in often tight spaces – Maloney has all these attributes. ICT were often unable to cope with his movement between the lines and most of Celtic’s attacks were down to getting the ball to him in just enough space to do something with. He would either quickly turn and play a telling pass – he played a number of defence-splitting passes from just inside ICT’s half – or dribble forward into a dangerous area. Sometimes he did a combination of both.

Maloney in space (circled)

And again in less space, but still enough for him to cause problems

Credit must also go to Celtic’s three-pronged attack of McCourt (and later Forrest), Samaras and Fortune who stretched the ICT defence and forced them back to help create more room for Maloney. This is the value of playing a 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 against teams who look to sit back and congest their defensive third. The front-3 can occupy the opposition defence more than a 2-striker formation would, the 2 midfielders provide sufficient defensive cover when required and can take turns to support the attack and the 1 ahead of them can effectively play a free-role. Obviously, said player has to be sufficiently creative and technical to play such a role and in the SPL at least, Maloney could be the man for it. The only downside to his game was that he didn’t score, but at least he is getting into scoring positions – the goals should come if he continues and as his confidence grows.

Though McCourt must get most of the plaudits for the goal – it was a fantastic solo goal, he dribbled through an ICT defence who had managed to get players back quickly and he finished brilliantly – it came about initially because Maloney had done what we have described above. He picked the ball up just inside the ICT half  – with Celtic forming a 4-2-1-3 shape – and quickly turned and carried the ball forward at pace before passing to McCourt to work his magic.

Maloney (circled) collects ball before McCourt's goal

The game continued with ICT growing more and more tired, and unable to deal with Celtic’s tempo of play. Celtic created lots of chances – Maloney at the centre of almost every move – and should really have won the game by a big margin.

Positives

  • The 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 shape seems to suit the players we have. It also causes more problems for packed defences – something we are likely to face this season.
  • Shaun Maloney. Will he keep it up?
  • James Forrest coming on and not looking out place. His performances in pre-season weren’t just because they were friendlies. His crossing was very good in pre-season and in this game he showed a good shot from distance too.
  • Paddy McCourt – a match-winner and hopefully we’ll see more of him than in previous seasons
  • Joe Ledley – he rarely gave the ball away, mostly keeping his passing simple and keeping things ‘ticking over’. He was also comfortable at collecting the ball from the defence and starting passing moves, and showed the ability to get out of trouble when under pressure.

Negatives (though only minor)

  • Scott Brown’s wayward passing. Not a bad game from Brown but he needs to keep it more simple with his passing. He doesn’t have the ability to play the incisive pass but tries to do so too much. In the second half he tried to less.
  • Scott Brown’s willingness to go to ground in the tackle. Whilst a good tackle is satisfying at times, when it goes wrong it gives the other team a chance to move the ball on or time put a ball in. This happened on a couple of occasions – Brown should have instead stayed on his feet and blocked the pass or cross.
  • Mulgrew – his lack of pace and agility are a real concern and his defensive positioning doesn’t help. Lennon appears to be addressing this problem with the signing of Izaguirre though.
  • McCourt’s defensive work. The game showed the best and worst sides of Paddy McCourt. If he can help his full-back out more – when playing wide – then he’ll be a great player for us. Incidentally, ICT nearly scored just before our goal because McCourt didn’t do enough to stop a cross coming in from deep.
  • Hooiveld’s tendency to hit long-balls – he does this too much, and they are often inaccurate. Sometimes it’s down to the 2 midfielders not being available but sometimes it seems like an attempt to play a ‘Hollywood’ pass. When he keeps it on the floor his passing is actually quite good.

Full lineups

ICT:

Esson; Tokely, Munro, Gillet, McCann; Cox, Duncan, Hayes (Sutherland 86), Ross (Blumenshtein 61, Proctor 78); Odhiambo; Rooney

Subs not used: Tuffey, Golabek, McBain, Sanchez

CELTIC:

Zaluska; Cha, Loovens, Hooiveld, Mulgrew; Brown, Ledley; Fortune (Juarez 88), Maloney, McCourt (Forrest 61); Samaras

Subs not used: Cervi, Misun, Ki, Kayal, Murphy

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. ajaxbhoy permalink
    August 15, 2010 5:51 pm

    Great analysis, looking forward to more. Kind of a tale of two possibilities…had ICT scored early when they had Celtic on their heels, it might have been a different result. Conversely, Celtic should have had about four or five at the end. Forrest looks like he could be the real deal and great that he’s coming out of the reserves. In the future I’d like to see Celtic improve their development system and utilize the loan system to fill in the side. I’m optimistic at the moment that the main squad issues have finally been addressed and some stability can finally be returned to Paradise after a few years of sub par decisions.

    • August 15, 2010 6:15 pm

      Agree, for the past few seasons we have been told that the squad issues were due to the marketplace or given other such excuses. Problem positions and shortages in some areas with a surplus in others. Lennon appears to have addressed (or is in the process of addressing) these problems in one transfer window. Kind of makes a mockery of the transfer dealings of past regimes.
      That said, it looks like we’re seeing the first glimpses of the youth development started during said regimes.

      As for the game, I still think Celtic would have gone on to win even if ICT had taken the lead early on. The fitness levels between the sides was quite large and Lennon has so far shown a knack for game-changing substitutions.

  2. Jean-Pierre Leguerre permalink
    August 15, 2010 8:32 pm

    great to see the site back again. Have been eagerly awaiting this column since the last match. Keep up the good work – it really is a great read, and well put together.

    Quick suggestion – any chance of a look at some of the new signings under the ‘Players’ heading that you have at the top? would be great to read between games – and a good insight into the new players strengths/weaknesses etc etc.

    • August 16, 2010 11:03 am

      The plan was to have articles on players every now and then throughout the season e.g. in-form or under-appreciated players etc. looking at things they do in games that may or may not be noticed by the usual media coverage. Was also going to do a transfer window one, once it has closed.

      But something more along the lines of your suggestion shall be looked into as well. It can be difficult to find out about some of the signings though, e.g. izaguirre, very little can be found on him other than youtube videos and we all know that can be quite unreliable. Can be good for getting a taste of what players are like but never tells the whole story.

      Thanks again (and other suggestions are welcome)

  3. Panenka's Chip permalink
    August 16, 2010 1:08 pm

    Couldn’t agree more with your analysis of the ICT game. The usual hacks in the Scottish sports press seem convinced that Lennon wants rid of Samaras sharpish but I’m convinced that a combination of Samaras and Maloney at their best can produce the goods for us, especially if Hooper can be our “fox in the box” (real pitt about his 6 week layoff). Problem is, Maloney rarely strings 5 or 6 games together and Samaras loses his way without the assistance.
    As for focusing on players, I’d welcome a discussion of the merits of Scott Brown (or lack thereof) as I simply don’t understand why 3 managers have persisted with him. What exactly does he contribute? (other than his woeful tackling, poor finishing and awful on-field discipline). I’m not even sure he has anything like effective “captaincy” characteristics.

    Why?

    • August 16, 2010 8:04 pm

      yeah it would be interesting to see a lineup which had samaras on the left, fortune on the right, hooper up front and maloney just behind. with flexibility and time to develop an understanding and could switch positions. the height and strength of samaras and fortune could counter the lack of these things in hooper and maloney. as you say though, maloney has to stay fit and you never know which samaras is going to turn up.

      re. scott brown, he is definitely a player that would be considered. one problem though is – and this applies to all our players – is that i’m not aware of any detailed stats for the SPL. the EPL has stuff like guardian chalkboard and pass completion stats for all its games, is there anything like this for the SPL? i was hoping there would be things like this for the Braga games, as they were UEFA, but they didn’t do anything for them. they normally have things like average position charts etc.

      hopefully they’ll do for the europa league group stages – if we make it of course!

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