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Celtic 3-0 Hearts: 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 still looks best; Maloney the vital ingredient

September 13, 2010

Celtic began this game with a different setup from what we have seen in previous weeks. They lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, which is nothing new, but part of the difference came because of the players that were selected, most notably the two Irishmen up front – Murphy and Stokes. They were fielded as a fairly traditional strike-partnership, the ‘little man-big man’  combination not unlike Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Scott McDonald during the Gordon Strachan years, though Murphy and Stokes have a good deal more mobility. Murphy offers the option of the ball into feet or to his head, and does decent hold-up play with his back to goal but when he started in the 4-4-2 against Motherwell he often lacked someone to feed off him and against Hearts, Stokes provided this (as should Hooper when back from injury). The pair also looked happy to swap roles at times, taking turns to drop deep while the other looked to get in behind, which in turn adds less predictability and shows the virtue of having a target-man with pace or a poacher who can be involved in the build-up.

The other difference to the 4-4-2 compared to what we have witnessed not just under Lennon but also previous managers was that it was slightly more fluid. The reason that 4-4-2 has come in for so much criticism recently can largely be put down to the changes to the offside law in 2005, which has led to most teams defending deeper and no longer using the offside trap. This has increased the playing area and so when attacking, the 4-4-2 can become more stretched, with bigger spaces between the lines. This isn’t such a problem if you are a side who like to be rigid, more defensive and soak up pressure – e.g. Roy Hodgson’s Fulham, Alex McLeish’s Birmingham – but an attacking side would require excellent players so that they can shift into a number of different shapes when they have the ball but also get back into position when they lose it. Man Utd are probably the only top club in Europe you will see use 4-4-2 and they are successful with it because they have very good, very intelligent footballers who are used to playing with each other and you will notice that when attacking, they adopt a variety of different shapes to their starting formation. They also have players playing roles that are difficult to define because they are like hybrids of traditional positions. For example, Rooney at some points in games plays like a goal poacher but others looks like a deep-lying forward. This kind of versatility within individuals is what is required nowadays to be an attacking 4-4-2 side otherwise it is quite easy to become predictable, which brings us back to the ability of Murphy and Stokes to swap roles, quite a contrast to the last Celtic partnership of their type, Hesselink and McDonald.

Celtic's most common attacking shape, on this occasion Stokes dropped deep.

Like Man Utd, Celtic tried to move into different shapes when they had the ball but unlike the English side there wasn’t quite the amount of variation with Celtic largely shifting into a front-three. Most often this was in what could be described as a 3-3-1-3, often with Maloney and Forrest (starting on the two flanks) pushing forward right alongside one of Stokes or Murphy, whilst the other dropped deep. Brown and Ledley would sit slightly deeper with one of the two full-backs joining them in midfield, with the other staying back with the two centre-backs. This is probably the most natural shift to make when fielded in a 4-4-2 formation, with the movements of each individual dependant almost on their partnership with another – e.g. if the other full-back goes forward, I stay back – as well as the position of the ball on the field. At times, Celtic tried to vary this with Maloney sometimes drifting into the centre to be the ‘1’ or with one of the full-backs bombing on right up the wing, in which case Ledley or Brown would cover. Often when Maloney moved into central areas this opened up space for Emilio on the left-flank and so a chain-shift would then ensue. There were one or two other variations but the aforementioned where the most common. It’ll be interesting to see whether 4-4-2 eventually becomes Lennon’s preferred starting formation if more variety is added to the movements and as more understanding is developed between the players. For now, it appears that the team isn’t ready yet – a point verified by few attempts on goal – and so it wasn’t much of a surprise to see a tactical change early on in the game.

Celtic change formation. Back four (yellow), middle two (green), attacking trident (blue) and lone forward (red) with Maloney circled in his more effective central role

The change was a switch to the 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 formation that has served us fairly well under Neil Lennon, with Stokes showing the versatility to be able to play on the right of a front-three, the role previously occupied by Fortune, and looks as though he can be more of a goal-threat when selected here than his predecessor. He also showed more natural aggression. Crucially though, Maloney moved into the central role between the midfield and attack where he has excelled so far this season, and did so again in this game. Playing in the centre allows him to be more involved in the build-up play and to shift forwards into a variety different areas of the field, something he has the intelligence to do so effectively with his good movement meaning that he is consistently able to make himself available for a pass. It is also easier to press a ball-carrier when they are beside the touchline as there is only one direction in which they can go – in-field – whereas a player in the centre has the full 180 degrees. On top of this, he can be directly involved in the transitions from defence to attack and this is what resulted in the first goal. Celtic won the ball back  from a Hearts attack and immediately were able to get the ball to Maloney in the centre of the field where he held off Bouzid with good strength and released Murphy with a through-ball. Had Maloney still been on the left, this may not have been able to happen. Murphy showed good timing to stay onside – despite Jim Jefferies complaints – and good pace to race through to eventually set-up James Forrest to score.

First goal clearly onside. Both players had come from deeper positions (respective to which way their team was attacking) before the above

Celtic look more comfortable in this formation as it allows for easier shifting into alternative attacking shapes without surrendering sufficient defensive cover. Indeed, this is the same situation for most clubs in Europe. Also important in the modern game is the possession of players who can operate between the lines and if you have any, as we do in Shaun Maloney, then it is only sensible to utilise a formation that allows them to do so more easily. It is difficult to defend against because these sort of players don’t have a clearly defined role, nor a clearly designated area of the field in which they operate. Maloney would often collect the ball between the midfield and attack but would also pop up on the wing, deeper than his midfield two or run beyond the central forward, which is what he did for goal number two. Hearts were just unable to decide how to deal with him.

From then on the game was pretty comfortable for Celtic with not so much to comment on tactically. However, the introduction of Samaras in the second half did make a change to how Celtic shaped up. As we have previously pointed out in other articles, Samaras likes to leave his forward-line, drawing defenders with him and creating space for runners from deep. This is opposed to Murphy’s tendency to stay central and try to win flick-ons or take balls into his feet and hold it up. Samaras’ came on, played his usual style, including continuing his good relationship with Maloney, and this posed a different type of problem for the Hearts defence. Both are just differing methods of how to bring other players into play and it is good to know we have these different options available to be utilised when the situation requires. The other major change was the substitution of Kayal on for Brown, meaning Celtic now had more incisive passing from deep.  He started to dictate the tempo and increased it compared to when Brown was on the field, with Celtic’s football getting more exciting for the fans and more troublesome for the Hearts defence. Again, this exemplifies the versatility that Lennon is trying to instil into the style of play.

A final word must go to Pat McCourt who, aside from some typical exciting dribbles, scored yet another fantastic goal. Does he score any other type? (Admittedly it was against a tiring opposition).


The game was a welcome return to club football after the tedium of international qualifiers and made for a good run-out for a number of the new players. They appear to settling in quite quickly and as stated earlier, it will be interesting to see as they settle further whether Lennon will switch to 4-4-2 or whether the form of Maloney when played in the centre can afford to be overlooked. Also interesting is that the variety of systems tested in pre-season are now available as different options to the manager, meaning we’re able to change formation fairly comfortably. We finally have a ‘Plan B’.

Full Lineups



Cha Du-Ri, Loovens, Majstorovic, Emilio;

Forrest, Brown(Kayal 61), Ledley, Maloney;

Stokes(McCourt 77), Murphy(Samaras 69)



Barr, Bouzid, Jonsson, Palazuelos;

Suso, Black(Elliott 73), Templeton, Stevenson(McGowan 83);

Mrowiec, Kyle (Obua 65)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. paksenarrion permalink
    September 13, 2010 7:20 pm

    Another excellent analysis, far more interesting than the usual match summaries found elsewhere.

    Shaun operating in the middle linking the attack is definitely the way to go. I also thought that the introduction of Beram for Scott Brown was a major turning point in the game. Shame we didn’t take all our chances, was 3 going on 7.

    The 2 things that impress me most at the moment are that we are able and willing to change our tactics and we now have a decent bench with players who can change the game.


    • September 14, 2010 5:24 pm

      Thanks very much.

      Agree with what you say, that’s Maloney’s best position and he looks the best player when used there. He’s at the heart of everything.

      And it’s really good to see this new tactical versatility, reflects really well on the coaching staff.

  2. September 13, 2010 8:30 pm

    Loving these after game analysis. Keep up the fantastic work!

    • September 14, 2010 5:09 pm

      Thanks very much. Hopefully there’ll be more than just after game analysis soon too….

  3. Jean-Pierre Leguerre permalink
    September 13, 2010 9:31 pm

    Bonsoir –

    Great to see you back. Was surprised to see the 4-4-2 lineup, given the success of (a very attacking) 4-2-3-1 over the last few weeks. Down to personnel perhaps? (Lennon wanted the 2 irish strikers to play, negating the need for Maloney in the ‘hole’ behind a lone striker?)

    • September 14, 2010 5:21 pm

      I was surprised too but as I said in the post, perhaps it’s where the boss eventually wants to go or like you say the personnel, as Stokes has mainly been part of a striker partnership at his other clubs. Possibly though, he wants it as an option against weaker sides. I used Man Utd as an example but even they tend to save their 4-4-2 for the games they are more certain to win and change to other formations for big games.

  4. Eamon Wolfe permalink
    September 14, 2010 2:48 pm

    Just recently found the site via CQN. Really enjoy it, keep up the good work. A question, where do you think Samaras’ best position is?

    • September 14, 2010 5:02 pm

      As Lennon says, he’s a bit of an enigma. He’s looked good on the left but I think if he could be more clinical in front of goal then the central forward in some kind of front three (4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3). His movement is still slightly inconsistent but at times is very good and he drags defenders out of position, creating space for team mates to run into. I wouldn’t want him in a front two as his type of player – a ‘false 9’ – works best with one forward so you can have runners from deep coming from a variety of angles. At the moment though he’s stills perhaps a little too inconsistent when finishing and his decision making can let him down which isn’t necessarily a good thing for such a vital position. But, he has great potential, good pace, height etc. and so I’d love for him to eventually grow into the focal point for our attack rather than play on the left.

    • September 14, 2010 5:04 pm

      And thanks for the comments btw!


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