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CIS Cup, St. Johnstone 2-3 Celtic: Excellent start blighted by familiar problems

October 28, 2010

Celtic continued with the same kind of 4-4-2 that we have seen in the past few games, but in an indication that he’s not quite worked out the best XI, Lennon took the opportunity to experiment in one or two positions. Samaras moved out to the left wing in place of Maloney, which allowed another look at Stokes up front alongside Hooper, whilst McGinn came in to start on the right wing. Cha returned in place of Mark Wilson at right-back, another position up for grabs. Elsewhere the manager seems to have found his first choice picks – Majstorovic and Loovens are the central defensive partnership until January at least, with the game being another chance to get used to each other. Izaguirre has made the left-back slot his own, and is becoming a key player already. Ledley and Ki also look like the preferred central midfield partnership until the returns of Kayal and Brown, the next couple of months being a chance for them to forge a partnership and/or cement a first team place. Up front it appears it will be Hooper and another, with Samaras, Stokes and Murphy all vying for the other position. Maloney seems to be the manager’s choice for the left of midfield, despite looking more effective in a central role but his absence from this game gave us a look at how the side could cope without his influence, which has been very important so far this season.

More width from the midfield

Looking fired up after Sunday’s disappointment, Celtic stormed out of the blocks, taking a 3-0 lead inside the first thirteen minutes. The two wide men, Samaras and McGinn, gave Celtic plenty of width by hugging their touch-lines and the Hoops looked to get the ball out to them quickly. The selection of McGinn – a more traditional out-and-out winger than those available – in particular helped give the side much more width from the midfield than we have seen in recent weeks. His presence in the side was pivotal in the first and third goals, the first coming from good field position as a result of his running and the third thanks to getting outside his fullback to deliver a cross for Stokes to tap in.

McGinn (green dot) supplying width

Both he and his Greek team-mate frequently looked to get in behind the opposition defence, though Samaras – being a more unconventional wide player – had a slightly greater tendency to come inside, in turn opening up space for Izaguirre. McGinn’s propensity to stay wide also opened up space in the inside right channel.

Celtic’s familiar foe

As we have stated numerous times this season, Celtic are their own worst enemy, often shooting themselves in the foot in situations where tactics are in no way to blame. This largely manifests itself in needless, individual errors with certain players being more guilty of this than others. Two such players are Cha and Loovens, who were both to blame for letting St. Johnstone back into the game. Cha, a winger masquerading as a full-back, was beaten in the air to a high diagonal ball before Loovens rashly swiped at thin air when attempting a clearance. Sam Parkin, the St. Johnstone forward, latched onto the loose ball and finished excellently but it was a poor goal to concede from Celtic’s point of view.

For the ten minutes or so leading up to the St. Johnstone goal, the quality of Celtic’s passing deteriorated and this is another recurring problem we have seen from the side so far this season. It seems as though after a good spell of dominance complacency starts to seep into the team, which leads to sloppiness and then in turn causes nervousness. This may or may not be the actual cause for the drop in the standard of play but, whatever the reason, the drop happens in almost every game and is something that needs to be addressed. They continued in this fashion for the rest of the half, going in 3-1 up at the break though were lucky not concede again.

Defending corners a weakness?

Celtic allowed the hosts back into the game via a corner, with Davidson rising above Majstorovic to thump in a header. As in the Rangers game, defending corners and free kicks in and around the box started to become a worry for Celtic and a method from which St. Johnstone threatened on a number of other occasions. As the game went on though, Majstorovic began to take more of a command and his positional awareness and physique helped Celtic escape from a number of tricky situations. This was not just from set-pieces either, as he was continually the one seen halting a St. Johnstone attacking move.

Width starts to work against Celtic

Though it played a big part in taking a 3-0 lead, Celtic’s wide midfield started to become their weakness in the second half. At times McGinn and Samaras’ high field positions meant the formation was effectively a 4-2-4, with Ledley and Ki left to patrol a large area on their own. St. Johntone’s midfield was much more narrow, enabling them to outnumber the Celtic pair in the centre of the park. Conversely, this opened up the flanks for Celtic’s wide players and so the game became a battle between St. Johnstone’s dominance of the central area and Celtic looking for quick, high balls out wide and in behind the hosts defence.

Celtic's central midfield (green) vs. St. Johnstone's (blue). Notice how far up-field Samaras is (red) and wide McGinn is (orange)

As the rain got heavier, the game grew scrappier with both sides keeping very open formations and lacking quality in their play. This brought a very loose, end-to-end nature to the game with St. Johnstone looking to throw players forward in search of the equaliser and Celtic doing much the same to try and finish the game off. This was probably not the most sensible of plans as Celtic had to rely on Majstorovic to get them out of trouble on a number of occasions before Forster made an incredible save to keep the score at 3-2. Celtic managed to hold on to the lead and see the game out, progressing to the semi-finals and causing a collective sigh of relief amongst all watching fans.

What have we learnt?

In short, not a lot that we didn’t know already. The various combinations within the lineup that we have seen the manager try don’t ever have a great deal of effect on the side’s attacking capability, against the SPL sides out-with Rangers that is. The biggest problem – and it appears to be one that will linger for a good while longer – is the continuing propensity of the side to cause itself problems. After the game, Lennon mentioned a lack of professionalism and the need to see games out in better fashion, so we’ll have to see just how he plans to solve this problem.

Something we can take from the game was the performance of Anthony Stokes up front. He looks more comfortable here than on the right of a midfield four and he is more clinical in front of goal than Samaras. His  partnership with Hooper also retains the ability of having two forwards able to come deep or run in behind that was present in the Hooper-Samaras partnership.

The last thing to comment on is the change in the side that was brought by having McGinn in the side. Recently our wide players have continually come inside, looking for space between the lines – largely down to the fact they are naturally central players. Out-and-out wingers bring a different option, should we decide we need it. We saw it with Spain in the World Cup, where they would play very narrow and keep possession before bringing on the likes of Jesus Navas on the wing when the game opens up. James Forrest’s return will therefore be a welcome one, and it will be interesting to see if the manager uses him on the left – as he did before his injury – or if he moves back out to the right. Of course, McGinn’s performance shows that he will have competition. What Celtic lack is a left-footed player of similar type, and in fact have lacked a left-footed winger for quite some team. Will this be a target in January?

Lineups

CELTIC

Forster; Cha, Loovens, Majstorovic, Izaguirre (Mulgrew 85);

McGinn, Ki, Ledley, Samaras;

Stokes, Hooper

Subs Not Used: Juarez, Crosas, McCourt, Zaluska

ST JOHNSTONE

Smith; Anderson (Myrie-Williams 45) Mackay, Duberry, Maybury;

Millar, Davidson, Craig (MacDonald 83), Grainger;

Parkin, Samuel (Haber 66)

Subs Not Used: Enckleman, Rutkiewicz

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