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Dundee Utd 1-2 Celtic: Best team performance of the season? Celtic’s 4-4-2 is coming together

October 19, 2010

Two sides, both with their own variations of 4-4-2 battled out an exciting game that was eventually deservedly won by Celtic. Celtic began with much more focus than in a number of recent matches, fielding a very offensive-minded lineup that looked to attack Dundee Utd right from the off. After taking the lead, Celtic could have gone on to wrap the game up by half-time but poor finishing and a sloppy piece of play let the hosts back into the game. The second half was a initially dominated by Utd before a lengthy spell of pressure from Celtic ended with a late winner from Gary Hooper.

Celtic started the game with a fluid 4-4-2 with Izaguirre a welcome return at left-back, allowing Ledley to move back to his preferred central midfield position alongside Ki. The pair both played well and it will be interesting to see how the central midfield looks in the absence of Scott Brown, something some have wanted to see for some time – now they get their wish. Maloney continued on the left and his performance was far better than it has been in that position in recent matches, thanks largely to the return of Izaguirre. Stokes was intriguingly selected on the right of midfield, something perhaps unexpected when he first joined the club and he put in a very good performance. Hooper and Samaras were given the nod up front.

In truth, Celtic’s formation wasn’t really a 4-4-2 at all when attacking because as stated, there was a great deal of fluidity to their play. Samaras, Hooper, Maloney and Stokes frequently looked for space between the lines, with the awareness not to do so at the same time as each other. At times they lined up like a front-four, a front-three or with a lone striker with an attacking trident in support meaning there were was a great deal of variation to the team’s shape. Samaras’ movement causes a lot of problems for opposition centre-backs, and we have seen before his ability to play like a ‘false 9’ when selected alone up front but his partnership with Hooper now provides two players who do this. Both took turns to drop deep while the other ran in behind and both linked up well with their midfield or played each other through on a number of occasions. Maloney and Stokes both tended to play quite narrow, though the latter more so than the former, perhaps owing to him being more of a forward than a wide midfielder. He too dragged his marker out of his defensive line on a number of occasions as he drifted in field, which opened up a lot of space for right-back Mark Wilson. Cha, who has been showing poor form lately, was dropped from right-back in favour of Wilson and the Scot took this rare chance to give the manager a selection dilemma for the Rangers game next week. He tirelessly provided overlaps for Stokes, either creating space or creating an option down the right. His performance was quite a surprise and a real improvement on the largely average displays we have witnessed in the last few seasons. He showed better defensive awareness than the Korean and was more consistent with his final ball, with one of his crosses leading to the opening goal. After receiving a through-ball from Stokes, Wilson whipped in a devilish cross for Hooper – again showing good movement and a predatory instinct – to tap home from close range. In the build up prior to the cross, Samaras had come deep and dragged a centre-back (Severin) out of his line, giving Hooper more room to attack. In much the same way as the big Greek, Stokes also attracted his opposition marker by dropping deep on the flank, creating lots of space for Wilson on the overlap. Dundee Utd were now badly out of shape and Hooper latched onto Kenneth before peeling away from him just at the right time to meet the cross. It was a deserved goal for Celtic after a strong start to the game.


A good example of Celtic's unpredictable movement and just one of a number of alternate shapes they formed


Celtic could have gone on to add to the tally on a number of occasions, with Dundee Utd finding it difficult to cope with the off-the-ball movement of the visitors. Like Wilson, Izaguirre repeatedly shifted forward with both full-backs providing good width, particularly important as their side-midfielders mostly came inside. The flexible attacking four and the two attack-minded fullbacks were offset and built on a very disciplined performance from the central midfield pairing of Ki and Ledley. They were more defensive minded than the other six, though they did sporadically make runs ahead of the ball, Ledley doing so slightly more than Ki, with the latter’s shifts tending to be more backwards than forwards. Often you would see one of them, most frequently Ki, drop back almost into the back line to make a back three, particularly if both full-backs had bombed forward. When in possession, the central midfield pair generally kept things simple and mostly looked to keep the ball moving rather than try anything overly elaborate. Indeed, their role was much like the ‘double-pivot‘ setup that was so popular in the World Cup and they played in similar fashion to the description in this article – What does a central midfielder do in 2010? The way a lot of central midfield pairings are going nowadays is to have one of them almost as a ‘box-to-box’ player (Ledley) alongside slightly more conservative ball-player (Ki) but the two had the versatility to alternate when required.


Another example of Celtic's off-the-ball movement. Notice also Ki dropping back to support the centre-backs



Yet more interesting Celtic movement. This time, Stokes comes a long way infield, almost as a third forward while Samaras peels out slightly to the right


Dundee Utd also began the game with a 4-4-2, but it was far more rigid in comparison and more traditionally British in style. They mainly looked to attack through high-balls to targetman Jon Daly, with David Goodwillie looking to feed off his flick-ons. Little support was provided from the midfield and the pair were often surrounded by Celtic’s defensive unit, which lined up in similar fashion to the ‘block’ seen in the ICT CIS Cup game and the recent 3-1 victory over Hamilton. When the ball was lost, the nearest man would aggressively try to win the ball back and would either do so or, if not, would help halt Dundee Utd’s counter whilst Celtic got back into their defensive shape. It was a 4-4-1-1 formation when defending, with the ‘two banks of four’ allowing little space between the lines and one of the front two dropping back to supplement the midfield when required. They held this defensive block well and intensely pressed the ball when the opponents entered it. They were also quite narrow meaning there was little space within the width of the penalty box and the fact that Dundee Utd offered little threat from the wide areas made things quite comfortable for Celtic. The Utd fullbacks rarely ventured forward meaning Celtic could double up on the wingers without the threat of an overlapping run. This also contributed to a large space between Celtic’s own fullbacks and their direct opponent (the Dundee Utd wingers, who mostly looked to keep close to their own fullbacks), which played a part as to why Wilson and Izaguirre had such an impact on the game.

The quick passing, unpredictable movement and attacking intent created a number of chances which Celtic spurned before an error on the left hand side lead to an equaliser. Izaguirre was high up-field in one of his usual forward bursts and was well ahead of the ball and team-mate in possession, Maloney. Perhaps showing signs of complacency, Maloney tried to beat an opponent when a simple pass to Ledley was on and made a mess of it. This eventually lead to a poor ‘hospital pass’ to the Welshman who was robbed of possession in his own half at a time when Celtic had little defensive cover. A 4 vs 3 situation was created in the hosts favour as most of the Celtic players had been pushing on ahead of the ball leaving the remaining back-line in a difficult situation. That said, they backed off Goodwillie too far, ending up inside their own penalty area before his shot was deflected into the net thanks to the distance between him and the two – Majstorovic and Loovens – who went to block it.

The equaliser invigorated Dundee Utd and they took this new found confidence beyond the break, dominating the first 10 to 15 minutes of the second half. In what was a role reversal of the start of the first half, Celtic were under a lot of pressure and did themselves no favours with some sloppy passing thanks both to a deterioration in their movement and some intense pressing from Dundee Utd. One would have thought that a change might be in order, particularly as 4-4-2’s have struggled against formations like Celtic’s 4-2-1-3 in recent times and they had the personnel on the field that could easily adjust without the need for a substitution. However, they persevered and after holding out the onslaught went to resume their dominance and again created a number of chances to finish the hosts off. On top of this, there were a number of dubious refereeing decisions involving possibly three penalty claims which lead to a fiery atmosphere both on-field and in the stands. The refereeing has had plenty of coverage elsewhere, so there is little need to go into it other than to say that Celtic showed great character to rise above it and go on to win the game, something missing in previous seasons. Dundee Utd tried to counter the pressure exerted by the visitors by introducing the pace of Danny Cadamarteri and looking to play on the break. He was selected on their right-wing, perhaps to take advantage of Izaguirre’s forward runs. But, Celtic cut off the supply well  with their offensive pressing and continued to dominate, not allowing their opponents to leave their own half.  As the game went on, if there was going to be a winner it was only going to be one of the sides.

Just as time was running out, Hooper popped up to score a vital goal after an extended period of pressure in which it seemed like nothing was going to go Celtic’s way. The late goal was reminiscent of a number of games during the good times of the Gordon Strachan era, with Hooper showing he could be the vital poacher who can nick important goals when the team needs them. It sets up an unprecedented clash with Rangers, where both sides have a 100% record after 8 games. Despite their financial difficulty, Rangers look a better side than last season so Celtic will have to be at their best to win the game. A renewed focus at the beginning of games is good to see but the side still need to be more clinical in front of goal – Celtic have taken the most shots out of any club in the SPL this season, with 142 shots and 75 on target (source – Interestingly, Maloney is Celtic’s top ‘shooter’, with 26 shots). Rangers have had the same number on target but from less attempts at goal (118), so there is definitely room for improvement. All things considered, silly mistakes remain the biggest enemy and are most to blame giving chances and in turn goals to the opposition.

Finally, back to the game itself where Celtic’s fluid 4-4-2 showed that it is really coming together nicely now. There have been concerns in the past about this formation but the team selection for this game brought the movement, fluidity and offensive organised pressing that is required for an attacking 4-4-2 nowadays. The constant shifting allowed Celtic to create a spare man when attacking and defending, mostly in midfield where one of the attacking four (Maloney, Stokes, Hooper and Samaras) or one of the fullbacks would help create a 3 vs 2 situation against the hosts.  When you look at Celtic’s attacking four, none of them other than Hooper can really be described as naturally being the position that they were selected in and even he didn’t just play like an orthodox striker. Maloney is a central attacking midfielder playing on the left, Stokes a forward playing on the right, Samaras a forward with a bit of everything and doesn’t just stay up front and Hooper is like a hybrid of poacher and a deep-lying forward. This helps to make the 4-4-2 more fluid and adds unpredictability to the movements and the attacking play. Indeed, Wilson and in particular Izaguirre were sometimes like wingers masquerading as fullbacks. This game was the first time that all of these components were in place and showed why the manager has been so keen to persist with the 4-4-2. Also in the game were a number of features of play (pressing, defensive organisation and discipline, off-the-ball movement etc.) that were seen simultaneously for the first time this season. In previous games one or two of these features have been on display, showing perhaps what the side had been working on in training that particular week. Now the players are gelling better and starting to look settled in the formation and so were able to bring all of these features together for long periods of the game. This, in combination with the youthfulness of the side means that there is a lot of potential for this Celtic team. One just hopes that the more settled Rangers side (but ultimately, one with less potential) hasn’t come too soon.




Dillon, Kenneth, Severin, Dixon;

D Robertson, Bauben, Gomis, Conway (Cadamarteri 75);

Daly (Russel 90+4), Goodwillie

Subs not used: Banks, Watson, S Robertson, Douglas, Shala



Wilson, Loovens, Majstorovic, Izaguirre;

Stokes, Ki, Ledley, Maloney (McCourt 89);

Samaras, Hooper

Subs not used: Zaluska, Cha, Twardzik, Towell, Juarez, McGinn

15 Comments leave one →
  1. NickMcD permalink
    October 19, 2010 8:44 pm

    This site really makes a difference – thank-you.

    As you say, this really was the first game where several aspects of Lennon’s vision of a 442 dropped into place. I must admit, a light came on for me.

    It seemed to cast an even better light on his signing policy, where players have been sourced strategically for positional flexibility/adaptability. Hooper being an interesting example, you’ve highlighted.

    As you say, it was an encouraging display from Maloney on the (notional) left. I also took encouragement from Majstorovic’s increasing coaching of Loovens.

    Will be interesting to see Juarez fit in over the next couple of weeks. Also, how the apparent switch of Ledley from the deeper lying central position into the more advanced Brown/box to box position plays out.

    Is it too much to hope for a Glasgow derby preview?

    • October 19, 2010 10:41 pm

      I’m always impressed with managers who have a firm, well thought out plan for each signing. Sometimes you see sides – particularly down south – who buy players on reputation or who have shown some good form but the manager hasn’t shown he had any plans as to how he used them. For me, this is why a lot of players can look good at one club then poor at another, and seems to happen even more frequently with players coming from abroad. There often doesn’t seem to be a consideration of the fact that they have come from a team who play in a completely different way. Thankfully, Lennon’s signing policy so far looks very good. When looking at the fees and how the players have fit together well, I don’t think he has made one bad signing yet.

      Majstorovic does seem to be helping Loovens to an extent. Loovens still looks shaky though and is one of the weak points of the team. I expect Lennon’s spending to continue with that area of the side in mind.

      A Rangers preview is a distinct possibility but might depend on the amount of footage available of them. Watch this space…

  2. adventurazura permalink
    October 19, 2010 9:52 pm

    Great post as usual.

    I’m still not 100% convinced that this is the most effective formation with the personnel that Celtic currently have and I thought the result was more down to Celtic having better players, better fitness and a good team spirit rather than the set-up. To me it looks a bit unbalanced with Stokes wide right, although this formation would probably be a good option if Forrest is available. The downside of having Samaras playing free (and I thought he was very good) is that Maloney, with some defensive responsibility, is often getting on the ball in less dangerous areas. Against a better team that presses this can result in the most creative player getting on the ball on the edge of his own penalty area. We grew used to this with Gordon Strachan’s European set-up, either McGeady, Maloney or Nakamura often having to carry the ball too far forward to really affect the game.

    Looking forward to the Rangers game I wonder if Lennon will consider introducing another midfielder (Juarez, I imagine) at the expense of either Stokes or Samaras, which would be tough on either of them. That’s got to be his most difficult call – surely Wilson’s storming performance has booked the right back slot. I also liked Ledley and Ki together although I think against Rangers it would be good to have one more in there, although there’s no doubt a counter argument for bringing the game on to them with our fantastic four up top.

    I was also at the Scotland Spain game (very enjoyable) and I have to say that so far Lennon looks tactically way ahead of Levein.

    • October 19, 2010 10:32 pm

      You make some good points. I particularly agree about Maloney, to me he is still largely wasted on the left. But the 4-4-2 is taking shape and I think the potential within it is becoming more apparent and despite not being such an influence creatively, he helps make Izaguirre into a potent weapon. The difference with Strachan’s side was the left-back slot was filled by Lee Naylor, who wasn’t such an attacking force.

      The Rangers game is going to be a cracker IMO. I think it will be of better quality than in recent seasons and should be a good tactical battle. Like you say, Lennon looks tactically better than Levein and I’d go as far to say he’s potentially got the taking of Smith too. Both have built careers mostly on stopping better passing sides whilst Lennon has so far shown a knack for getting the better of packed defences, often with game-changing subs or tactical changes.

  3. October 19, 2010 10:43 pm

    And, forgot to say, thanks for the comments!

  4. Paks permalink
    October 20, 2010 9:23 am

    Excellent analysis, I always look forward to your intelligent posts after a game.

    The best game so far this season. The quick incisive passing and off the ball movement at times was breath taking. More of the same please Neil.

    Praise must also go to Dundee Utd who made a game of it. They are unfortunately like most other SPL sides in that they only raise their game when playing Celtic or Rangers.

    I must say that I was a bit sceptical when we bought Anthony Stokes as I thought he was a bit of a journeyman. Bhoy was I wrong! Great first touch, movement and passing, his ability to see the run and make the telling pass will make him a Celtic hero.

    Great having Emilio return at left back, allowing Joe to move back into midfield, made a difference. The biggest surprise of the day must go to Mark Wilson, what a game he had, just hope he can maintain that form for the rest of the season.


    • October 20, 2010 10:59 am

      Thanks very much and pretty much agree with everything you say there. Stokes has surprised me too, I was expecting him to be a goal poacher and mostly sit on the bench but his movement and awareness has been very good so far. And his tricks and flicks are a joy to watch at times. Like you say, he’s potentially a hero.

      Dundee Utd are good side but indeed it’s true that they tend to only raise their game against Celtic or Rangers. I think with the level of player that is available to them, that type of performance is hard to maintain for long periods of the season (it’s the same with the other clubs too). It makes one wonder what they would be like with greater financial clout.

  5. Liam permalink
    October 20, 2010 12:10 pm

    Hi, and thanks again for the great site. I broadly agree with most of your analysis, but I’m not sure I’d use 4-4-2 as the annotation for this system – ultimately it seems more like a 4-2-3-1. But at the end of the day, I don’t think there’s any merit in getting hung up on these fairly arbitrary numbers. What is interesting to is:
    1- the ‘split’ in the front 6 (ie outfield excl back 4) seems to have settled at 2 defensive / 4 attackers. In the Euro games we generally played with a 3/3 split and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this v Rangers (Juarez coming in for Stokes or Sammi)
    2- Ki’s role in dropping in beside the defenders – as I’m sure you know, ZonalMarking has written about how Busquet is doing this at Barca, and Rafa Marquez with Mexico. I’m not entirely convinced Ki is the right player, but I think it’s an intriguing tactical development

    Finally, every time I think of Hooper (guts, poaching instinct, movement) and Stokes (movement, skills, drive) I smile to myself. If these two keep it up, we have real gems on our hands!

    • October 20, 2010 1:30 pm

      Indeed, one mustn’t get too hung up on formation annotations. 4-4-2 seems the easiest way of describing it as it seems the most common starting point before the players shift but as you and the article point out, it rarely looks like one when Celtic are attacking. The split you refer to is much more important, and shows that it’s not really the formation that dictates how attacking or defensive a team is (Scottish media take note!), but how many players are ahead/behind the ball, attacking/supporting/defending etc.

      In some ways the way Celtic lined up was a bit like Brazil in the World Cup in the way it was quite a flexible formation. There are obviously quite a lot of differences too but there are some of the same elements there: ability to spin on an axis and make asymmetrical shapes, the wide forward of Stokes a little like Robinho, the central midfielder who dropped into the backline, the box-to-box player, two very attack-minded fullbacks, the ability to switch between 2 or 3 in the centre of midfield. I think overall it’s very encouraging to see Lennon bringing this type of flexibility to the side, something seemingly more and more important int the modern game.

      Ki tended to drop back just in front of the two centre backs and didn’t form a back 3 quite as much as Busquets or Marquez, though this ploy changes defending on opponents. Sometimes you see Busquets stay a little further forward also. It is an interesting development to see Celtic trying this out too, though like you say, Ki may not be the best choice. I think that maybe Kayal could be more suited to this ‘Modern Sweeper’ role.

  6. Liam permalink
    October 20, 2010 1:48 pm

    Agree re Kayal, and some of his comments just after he signed suggested that this might be what Lenny saw in him. Let’s hope he makes a good recovery from his injury and begins to settle a little better.

    I was simplifying a little on the ‘split’ – modern coaching (in my limited knowledge!) focuses on the split between 2 blocks of the ten outfield players, so the full backs become relevant. A few years back, a 9-1 split even in possession (the ‘1’ as basically the only player ahead of the ball) was common at the highest level, but I think we’ve seen more willingness to attack of late. Also, whereas many teams will have a very rigid split with the defensive block being quite static in possession, the game has become more fluid with players more willing to change positions regularly – something you have highlighted in Lenny’s Lions.

    In each of your pictures above, there are 3-4 players ahead of the player on the ball, which is a very attack-miinded approach – but the personnel vary, with only the front two remaining constant. Notably one, but never both, of the full backs are in the 3/4 ahead of the ball. From memory (not pics to support this, when Sammi dropped deep and picked up the ball, Stokes or Maloney advanced. As you have repeatedly pointed out, there appears to be a very sophisticated awareness developing in our attack, which is thrilling to see!

  7. Darth Vidar permalink
    October 20, 2010 3:08 pm

    Wow – what a tremendous site. It is so refreshing to see someone having the nous and ambition to dive beneath the usual rehashing of the rags stories or, in the case of lesser Celtic sites, just publishing agenda based drivel.

    With the quality and depth of analysis here, it is just a matter of time before this is regarded as an absolute premier Celtic website. So far only Video Celts has managed to rise above the cut and paste legions.

    Well done again – serious Celtic fand deserve serious content.

  8. October 20, 2010 3:55 pm

    great site, great comments

    Regarding the fitness, I dont think this sort of 4-4-2 system works if the players dont have the fitness to create the space and do all the running, also having ‘ball players’ throughout the team helps us keep the ball, i know this may mean Maloney cant do a killer pass 25 yards out, but it may mean that we keep the ball, instead of a punt up the park when under pressure which was happening at our own 30 yard line last season.

    Players make the systems work. If you add in that by the looks of things the players signed know what its all about and they haven’t thrown their toys out the pram because they aren’t in their fav position then we could be on to a winner.

    However Man united found it hard to break them down, so will we.

    • October 20, 2010 5:25 pm

      Yep, the players that you have at your disposal are what should dictate your formation and way of playing. Interesting point about sacrificing a killer Maloney pass from 25 yards out in favour of ball possession, it’s not something I’ve heard someone mention before.

      If Rangers play the 5-4-1 then there’s a chance our 4-4-2 could struggle in the same way that Man Utd’s did. I’ll elaborate on it in the preview…


  1. Celtic 1-3 Rangers Part One: First Half « Tictical Analysis

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