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Celtic’s evolving 4-4-2…

November 12, 2010

“What a difference a day makes?”, or in Celtic’s case, four. After the nine-goal annihilation of the men from the Granite City, Celtic were brought back down to (SPL) Earth when they travelled to Tynecastle. Rather than the usual match reports, we shall focus on Celtic’s evolving team under Neil Lennon. The Aberdeen game showed a glimpse of the future when the right balance is found in the player selection. The Hearts game illustrated what can happen when this isn’t found and showed the need for further activity in the transfer market.


Celtic were fielded in Lennon’s seemingly preferred 4-4-2 formation for this game. The best XI for it is getting closer with an ever improving cohesion and balance to the side and a number of players having now cemented their place. We have talked before about the increasing fluidity to the team’s attack, with a great deal of off-the-ball movement, position switching and the use of individuals capable of performing like hybrids of traditional positions (e.g. striker-cum-winger, winger-cum-fullback). This makes the formation frequently deviate from the starting 4-4-2 shape, with perhaps a lopsided 4-2-3-1 being a closer notation when the side attacks. Said movement from the more attacking players as well as the attacking responsibility placed on the full-backs can make Celtic very difficult to defend against.

Celtic's lopsided 4-2(yellow)-3(blue)-1(green) attacking shape, with advanced full-back(red)

Another big change that Lennon has brought to the side though – from previous seasons and from earlier on in this one – is cohesive, offensive pressing. Celtic have conceded the fewest goals in the SPL thanks to this, as well as scoring a number thanks to winning back possession deep in the opposition half. Saturday’s game against Aberdeen made for an excellent example of this in action and was, in parts, perhaps Celtic’s best pressing display since ‘The Ginger Guardiola’ took charge. Everyone connected with Celtic has probably learnt about making comparisons with Barcelona, but Lennon is at least getting closer than the previous manager. Nobody can emulate the Catalan side’s beautiful style of play but given that it isn’t reliant on technical ability, their approach to pressing is slightly more achievable.

Celtic's high pressing and cutting off of passing options, forcing a clearance from the Aberdeen defender

“Without the ball we are a disastrous team, a horrible team, so we need the ball.”

These were the words spoken by Barcelona manager, ‘Pep’ Guardiola, of his side following their 2009 Champions League triumph, and the same could be said about Celtic. Defensively, Celtic are often heavily criticised with the goals against statistic usually ignored and the critics do have a point in that Celtic are prone to calamitous mistakes. This can be put down the high risks attached to such a pressing strategy and the fact that individual errors are both more noticeable and are usually the direct cause for conceding goals. One such risk is the necessity for a high defensive line, so as to minimise space between the attack and midfield, and midfield and defence. This risk has been alleviated by the inclusion of Cha, Izaguirre and Rogne in the back four, three quick players able to recover if the opposition get in behind them or get back for balls over the top. On Saturday you could see the Celtic defence continually push very high up the pitch, much more so than when Glenn Loovens is in the side:

Here you can see Rogne pushing right up and challenging for the ball in the opposition half

The other benefit of this is the capacity to reduce space between the lines. The forwards could apply pressure on the opposition high up the field, with the midfield a ‘safe’ difference behind therefore able to increase the difficulty of a pass out from the back. In turn, the defence kept a similarly safe distance from the midfield. Getting these distances right is very important to a high pressing strategy, so as to reduce space for the opposition to operate in and Celtic got this spot on on Saturday. When it’s applied successfully, the opposition can be forced into clearances due to the restrictions placed on their passing options and so the presence of an aerially dominant player like Majstorovic becomes very useful. A number of these clearances were hurried thanks to the pressure of Celtic’s forwards, ending up out of play or way over the top out of reach of their team mates and easy to deal with for the likes of Rogne. The Norwegian is possibly the single most important component behind the improvement in the strategy as a whole, his predecessor not possessing the amount of pace nor the on-the-ball composure required for Celtic’s passing football. Loovens presence in the side makes Celtic more vulnerable to balls over the top if the defence pushes up but if they drop back to compensate for his lack of pace this can increase the space in front of them if midfield don’t also drop back to minimise it. Should the midfield do so then again, the forwards have to come deeper too for the same reason which can lead to the side getting stuck in their own half, something that was seen against Rangers at times.

This is one of the problems associated with a 4-4-2 formation that has led to some of its recent criticism. Teams either needing to employ high, offensive pressing or a rigid, deep, defensive strategy where the shape is always kept for it to work. Celtic have tried to be a high pressing side for most games this season but haven’t always had the correct player selection for it to work – leading to some of the problems we have had in games – but on Saturday was the closest we have seen to the correct one. The beauty of a high pressing style when using a 4-4-2 formation is the ability to cover the field when the opposition have the ball. As Arsene Wenger has been known to say, 60% of the players are able to cover 60%. Legendary Italian coach, Arrigo Sacchi employed this in his great AC Milan side and as Jonathan Wilson – an expert on football tactics – states:

“They squeezed high up the pitch, and so 4-4-2 made sense because a four-man midfield meant each member of the back four was protected by a midfielder and so was less likely to be isolated (which, with acres of space behind him, was a real concern).”

Wilson continues however, with:

“…but it has been made harder to execute because of the liberalisation of the offside law. The effective playing area has been stretched, and as a result, three-band systems have increasingly been replaced by four-band systems.”

While this is true, it is not such an apparent problem for Celtic when playing in the SPL, particularly at home where they are largely faced with packed defences. Furthermore, the SPL isn’t home to many players who are suited these four-band formations and so it shouldn’t really be much of a concern – Europe next season will be a different proposition. The fluidity of Celtic’s attack and the fact that it morphs into something closer to 4-2-3-1 when attacking also helps to create cover when transitioning into defence and should they continue to improve at this then perhaps this system could be employed in European competition – though this is still a long way off.


This game saw a number of changes to the starting XI, with most importantly Rogne suspended out due to a red card against Aberdeen – Hooiveld took his place. Rogne’s pace was a miss and this wasn’t helped by the dropping of Cha to the bench in place of Wilson. Celtic went from having a back four containing three fast players (Rogne, Cha, Izaguirre) to one with three much slower ones (Hooiveld, Wilson and Majstorovic) and so this was the first upset to the balance of the side. As stated earlier, the aggressive pressing system is reliant on pace at the back so without it Celtic were unable to apply the same kind of pressure on Hearts in their own half. This highlights the need for reinforcements at the back who are more suited to the style Neil Lennon that wants to implement, whether it be squad players who can cover for the likes of Cha, Rogne and Izaguirre or even first team players. Hooiveld didn’t play particularly badly on Wednesday night and is not a bad player by any means but sometimes you have to look for those more suited to your style of play. There are some big decisions looming for Lennon as regards the back-line.

There were further changes to the side in midfield, with McGinn dropping out and Samaras coming in on the left-hand side. So far this season the big Greek has performed best when fielded as a lone striker, where he plays like a ‘false 9’ – dropping deep and pulling defenders out of position for runners from deep to take advantage of. On the left he is capable of the spectacular but is far less consistent and despite admirably tracking opposition fullbacks in some games, doesn’t always show enough defensive discipline. Generally, his awareness of what is going around him seems to diminish when compared to how he performs up front. On Wednesday was one of his bad games and as well all know when he’s bad, he’s very bad.

Celtic took up more of a 4-2-3-1 formation for this game, though the whole lineup looked disjointed with far less cohesion to their all round play. This could be down to a number of reasons: general complacency following the Aberdeen game, something not unknown from this Celtic side; too many changes, both in personnel and system; the players brought in upsetting the balance of the side. Whatever the reason – likely a combination of all three – Celtic didn’t perform in another big game and this is something we have seen time and again. A Lennon says:

“I think the game is 80% mental anyway, and I was mental. You look at what all the managers over the years said, the Cloughs, the Fergusons, the O’Neills. Psychology plays a big part in what they bring to football clubs and players.”

Where do we go from here?

It appears that the strongest lineup from what we have available should be something approaching this:

Best XI? (from what's available)

This is of course overlooking Scott Brown, Efrain Juarez and Biram Kayal. Brown is a perennial concern for most Celtic fans and one wonders whether he will walk straight back into the side when he returns from injury despite the good form of Ki and Ledley. After a great start, Juarez’s form dipped and at the moment there doesn’t look like a first team place in the current setup. That said, he’ll surely provide stiff competition and definitely has it in him to break in. Kayal is the most similar in style to Ki and Ledley but from his few outings before his injury showed glimpses of a more incisive passing range. He appears as though he would fit seamlessly into the lineup up above and will provide interesting competition for one of the two central midfield roles.

Olivier Kapo may provide another option for the wide positions, as will McGinn, who is quite similar in style to James Forrest when on the right. Forrest though, looks like a star in the making and is already one of – if not the – best crosser(s) in the squad. When he returns from injury he will surely find his way back into the starting lineup and will provide plenty of ammunition for Gary Hooper.

Up front we have the interchangeable pair of Hooper and Stokes. Both can operate in ‘the hole’ and both are far more clinical than Samaras. Daryl Murphy could be a good option when a more ‘agricultural’ style of play is needed but Hooper and Stokes are the best partnership we have seen so far.

Neil Lennon has some big decisions to make in the transfer market as there aren’t enough options in the squad to keep continuity in the style of play. Injuries and suspensions to one or two players can really upset  the side and so January is likely to be another busy period of transfer activity, with a number coming in as well as more going out – who the latter are will be both important and intriguing decisions that could have quite an impact on the season ahead.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Northern Times permalink
    November 12, 2010 6:58 pm

    I thought Lennon was quoted as saying Loovens was our quickest centre back. I thought it was just his complete lack of ability as opposed to lack of pace that made him a liability

    • November 12, 2010 8:13 pm

      Really do you have the quote? Perhaps it’s more down to agility and acceleration rather than overall pace. Even so, his lack of ability, particularly on the ball is real liability as well as you say.

  2. November 12, 2010 9:03 pm

    The ups and downs eh?

    Even if we had the tactics right on Wednesday, its hard to say if the players would have had the right mentality for it…but its gone now.

    Would agree that the line-up as stated would be good for most home games and certain away games but still think a 4-3-3 or hybrid 4-3-1-2 style formation would set us up better for a lot of the away games.

    Would also have Wilson in for Cha in the battling games.

    Thats just opinion though…and not really something we have overly utilised this season – good work again.

    • November 13, 2010 5:16 pm


      It’s all about opinions isn’t it really. I think the 4-4-2ish system was progressing quite well, it just needs the right players for it to work, which isn’t always possible. When we can’t get the balance right for it I think it is perhaps easier or more natural for the team to be set up in one of the other formations. When we can get the right balance I believe we should have the quality to use it for the battling games and prevail. Let the others worry about us. Still a lot of work to be done before we get to that stage though…

  3. Josh Lyman permalink
    November 17, 2010 10:07 am

    Good article – it seems that Lennon has learnt his lesson re: Stokes or Samaras in a wide position – the only game this worked in to-date was ICT at home in the cup.

    Ledley and Ki doing very well and I think Kayal and Juarez have the discipline and composure to push either of these players for a place. As you say, Kayal particularly who is a good tackler & blocker and perfect to play with someone like Ki (a la Mascherano & Alonso).

    I really think Brown will struggle in this system – he is much more suited to playing in a three man central midfield IMO.

    • November 17, 2010 1:08 pm

      Yes, completely agree with all you posted there. the system requires two central midfielders who are well-rounded – comfortable in possession and able to pick a difficult pass every now and then, but also positionally and defensively disciplined. brown has shown little of these qualities in his whole career.

      juarez’s inclusion brings a slight change. on sunday he burst forward more than one of the two central midfielders usually do. this gave ki a different role, he was much more obvious as the playmaker and played a little deeper, picking out some lovely passes out wide. he often shifted back into the backline too, almost making a back three.

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