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Celtic’s early winter blues

December 2, 2010

Celtic have won just one of their last four SPL games, the win thanks to an injury time winner from Gary Hooper. The following two fixtures saw Celtic slip from winning positions to draw at home to Dundee Utd and Inverness Caley Thistle (ICT). The side have displayed an increasing amount of sloppiness to their overall play and wastefulness in front of goal that is reminiscent of last season. Perhaps more worrying is a clear mental fragility – in most ‘big’ games this season Celtic have failed – and this is something that really needs to be addressed.

Celtic 1-1 Dundee, 20/11/10: Celtic spurn goalscoring chances then are unable to hold onto 1-0 lead

(Hooper 23; Dillon 90+4)

The first of these home game slip ups was against Dundee Utd, where Celtic conceded a stoppage time equaliser for it to finish 1-1. Celtic have the best defensive record (goals against) in the SPL so far this season and this is largely a result of the offensive pressing style that Neil Lennon has introduced to the side. The aim is to win the ball back high up the pitch and as far from our own goal as possible, before the opponents can take it forward into more dangerous areas. Obviously this isn’t always possible as sides are always going to have some kind of possession in your half but the high pressure game has mostly been successful. If the ball isn’t regained deep in opposition territory then the other sides’ counter attacks have often been slowed thanks to the immediate application of pressure on the ball-carrier, giving Celtic time to get into position to close off the passing options or drop back into a slightly deeper defensive block. Most sides have struggled to cope with this with a number of them resorting to panicky clearances or even the possible deliberate surrendering of possession in less threatening areas than their own defensive third. Most of the first forty-five minutes of the Dundee Utd game was no different as Celtic hounded them from the word go, the away side penned in their own half for long periods. Utd also failed to deal with the threat posed from Celtic’s left – the tandem of Maloney and Izaguirre where much of Celtic’s best play has come from this season – and so it was no surprise to see the opening goal come from a combination of this and offensive pressing. After initially working possession up to Dundee Utd’s penalty area, the ball was lost but then swiftly regained  – thanks both to a poor clearance from the away side and Celtic’s closing down – and found it’s way to Shaun Maloney who fed Gary Hooper to finish with style. It was an instinctive and excellently taken goal by the Englishman, controlling then striking the ball almost in one movement.

High pressing against Dundee Utd

Aside from one scare, a breakaway from Utd’s Goodwillie – an example of the high risk attached to a high pressing strategy and subsequent high line – Celtic were largely untroubled. This high riskiness is partly to blame for the criticism – despite their goals against statistic – that Celtic’s defence have received this season. Mistakes are more noticeable and often more likely to lead to opposition chances and/or goals than in a side who defend deep and in numbers giving plenty of cover and who don’t commit as many forward as Celtic do. Often the individual who made an error is directly responsible for a goal being conceded. Despite this, Celtic’s defensive record highlights the strength of such a strategy and if the mistakes can be minimised then we are on to a winner. Furthermore, when Celtic attempt to adopt a more defensive style of play the results have been far worse. Celtic are a lot better with the ball than they are without it – i.e. they aren’t great at defending – and so it makes sense get the ball back quickly before any ‘real’ defending has to be done. Sadly, in the latter stages of the second half against Dundee Utd, Celtic tried to play defensively.

Celtic try to shut up shop

Beforehand, Celtic had tried to push on for second goal to kill the game but due to some profligacy in front of goal this never game. The game drifted on and possibly due to complacency the passing and concentration of the side gradually deteriorated, most notably Joe Ledley, whose central midfield position is vital to the team’s recycling of possession. Dundee Utd grew in confidence and sensing Celtic losing their way, started to exert pressure higher up the field. The game was crying out for a change to get the second goal but, for whatever reason, it didn’t come until Celtic were starting to hang on. Samaras and then McCourt were brought on but this did little to help matters, with the latter’s defensive weaknesses being all too obvious. The away side were now really pushing forward and so Juarez was introduced so as to shift to something more like a 4-5-1 with Samaras up front alone, McCourt on the left (therefore Maloney on the right) and Juarez forming a central trio with Ledley and Ki. Celtic retreated deeper, nervously inviting Utd onto them and were eventually unable to defend a corner in the dying moments.

The last 10-15 minutes of this game were a good example of why Celtic shouldn’t abandon their usual ‘offensive defence’, as at the moment they simply aren’t reliable enough defensively to retreat and hold a lead. Until this is improved – perhaps with further signings – a 1-0 scoreline is always going to be under threat. Another problem in this game was a lack of pro-activity from Neil Lennon. Earlier in the season, it was he who was making changes in an attempt to correct a scoreline but recently this has been less apparent. He seemed to dally before making his changes too late, after the opposition had made their own and grabbed the initiative – something seen also in the Rangers and Hearts defeats. This may be down to his lack of experience and is could be a cause for concern when facing canny, seasoned campaigners. One hopes he learns quickly.

CELTIC:

Forster;

Cha, Rogne, Majstorovic, Izaguirre;

McGinn (Samaras 76), Ledley, Ki, Maloney;

Murphy (McCourt 80), Hooper (Juarez 90)

Subs not used: Zaluska, Hooiveld, Mulgrew, Towell

DUNDEE UNITED:

Pernis; Dillon, Watson, Kenneth, Dixon;

Douglas, S Robertson (Swanson 70), Gomis, Buaben;

Russell (Daly 66);

Goodwillie

Subs not used: Banks, Cadamarteri, D Robertson, Shala, Armstrong

Celtic 2-2 Inverness Caledonian Thistle, 26/11/10: Celtic experiment with back three…then ditch it.

(Ki 38, McCourt 65;  Foran 70, Munro 83)

Celtic began this game with a 3-4-1-2, a close relation of the 3-5-2, something not seen since the days of Martin O’Neill and so it made for an interesting afternoon. Jim Craig summed up the experiment with, “they don’t look like they know what they’re supposed to be doing…

3-4-1-2: three(yellow), four(red), one (green) two (blue, other striker just off screen)

It’s a formation that largely fell out of favour in the last decade but has recently had a renaissance for teams looking to play ultra-defensively. It was peculiar decision by Lennon considering that Celtic are almost always going to be on the attack, particularly when playing at home, but also because most sides we face will play with one up front. If there is only one centre-forward to mark, the side with a back three are left with two spare men. One of these can provide cover but the other becomes redundant, so you can be left with a surplus at the back and a deficit elsewhere. Further problems can arise when opposing teams lining up with a 4-5-1 that shifts to 4-3-3, the side with 3-5-2’s wing-backs then having to pick up their opposing wingers. Nelsinho Baptista, currently boss of Kashiwa Reysol in Japan, sums this up nicely (Team A is 3-5-2, Team B is 4-5-1/4-3-3):

“Team A is using five men to deal with three forwards. In midfield Team A has three central midfielders against three, so the usual advantage against 4-4-2 is lost. Then at the front it is two forwards against four defenders, but the spare defenders are full-backs. One can push into push into midfield to create and extra man there, while still leaving thre v two at the back. So Team B can dominate possession and also has greater width.”

When Celtic last used a 3-5-2, most British teams used a 4-4-2 formation but since then more and more sides have adopted 4-5-1’s with a primarily defensive and/or counter-attacking mentality – Jose Mourinho’s legacy? Given this is what Celtic face almost on a weekly basis, it makes the 3-4-1-2/3-5-2 experiment a peculiar decision when taking into account its modern day weaknesses as an attacking formation. Teams still are unlikely to dominate possession in the way Baptista outlines, but even so it was far lower against ICT – 56% for Celtic, a much lower amount than usual at Celtic Park. Indeed, the shots on target count didn’t make for much good reading either, just three in the whole ninety minutes.

Why use it then?

The first possible reason could be as simple as Neil Lennon looking back to the ‘good old days’ under Martin O’Neill –  if it worked then, it could work now. This is probably doing him a disservice as there will surely have been other considerations taken into account, one being the importance of Shaun Maloney in a central role. Maloney’s form has dipped in recent weeks and out on the left he seems unable to influence the game in the same way as he did earlier in the season, when he played centrally between the midfield and attack. In a 3-4-1-2 he is able to return to this role without sacrificing a front two, something which seems to benefit Gary Hooper. The best lone forward Celtic have used so far this season has been Giorgios Samaras, but he is far less clinical than Hooper and so it makes sense to line up in a way which suits your best goalscorer. Unfortunately, Maloney went off injured in the first ten minutes so we were unable to see how the planned experiment was actually intended to work. Instead, we were treated to Paddy McCourt, a player whose fantastic talent is hampered by the fact that the manager’s plans can effectively be thrown out the window.

Another (perceived?) benefit from which the experiment was likely to have sprung is the ability to field a third central defender, the hope being that it would give Celtic extra height and stability when defending set pieces – perhaps the Dundee Utd equaliser was still fresh in Lennon’s mind. While this may have helped on that front, it created problems in open play. Initially, ICT looked to sit deep and surrender possession to Celtic’s back-line, meaning Rogne, Majstorovic and Hooiveld were left to start off moves. While all three are fairly composed on the ball, they’re not exactly the type of players you want to bestow such a responsibility to. With the wingbacks pushing on the three centre-backs spread across the pitch, often ending up passing sideways along the their line without really getting anywhere. The other problem in open play was much more so related to the pushing forward of the Celtic wingbacks: on the right Cha pushed very high up-field, leaving Rogne to cover the right-flank; on the left Hooiveld had a similar job though his wingback, Mulgrew, wasn’t quite so attacking-minded meaning the Dutchman wasn’t quite as wide, so as not to encroach on his team-mate’s space. Mulgrew, a player lacking speed and agility, therefore had a lot of space behind him and was also often left 1 v. 1 against ICT’s tricky winger, Johnny Hayes, a player who has troubled him before.

Space (circled, yellow) behind Mulgrew (green)

Cha (circled) in very advanced position...

...causing Rogne (circled) to become make-shift rightback

Rather than start with a back three, it is not uncommon for attacking sides to shift into one when in possession of the ball. The most standard way of doing this in a 4-4-2 is for one fullback to stay back while the other goes forward, and this is something Celtic have employed a number of times this season. Another method that is growing in popularity is the use of a ‘modern centre-half‘, where a player from midfield drops back between the centre-backs forming a back three while the fullbacks bomb forward. Celtic have also sparingly used this method and it is something probably more suited to the players at our disposal, particularly when Izaguirre and Cha are playing. (Barcelona are the masters of this and in fact use a combination of both strategies, meaning any three of five players can make up the back three depending on the situation). It would allow a better passer of the ball – perhaps Ki, though he is starting to show more in attack so could be wasted here, so maybe Joe Ledley or Kayal on his return – to drop into the three and so the aforementioned problem of three centre-backs starting off attacking moves wouldn’t happen. The other benefit is that the ‘modern centre-half’ can stay in midfield if he isn’t needed at the back and this can help the wide players push out and have more width should they require it. A central defender from a back three is far less likely to be comfortable shifting forward into midfield and as Jonathan Wilson states in his book, Inverting the Pyramid, “…if a defender is going to step up into midfield, why not simply play a defensive midfielder in that role anyway.”

Despite all these flaws, Celtic still managed to take a two goal lead, the first a smart finish by Ki which illustrates his growing prominence in attack. He looked more of a deep lying midfielder at first but it would make sense to have someone capable of striking the ball like he can closer to the opposition goal, a goalscoring midfielder something Celtic have lacked in recent years – could he fill that role?. This was one of the few moments Celtic were able to test the ICT goalkeeper and the Korean managed to beat him at the near post after McCourt was involved in the build up. The man who replaced Maloney was given a chance to show he was worthy of more time on the pitch and he demonstrated just why fans want to see more of him with Celtic’s second, yet another dazzling run and finish.

He also showed why successive managers have been reluctant to use him more frequently, with little contributed to the side defensively and at times a lack of awareness as to what was going on around him. It’s difficult to believe that with the aggressive pressing style that Lennon is trying to implement that McCourt was given the free role he appeared to have. His natural way of playing and lack of stamina probably had more to do with that and in the second half Celtic were effectively defending with ten men. The change in formation to 4-4-2 enabled him to continue with a similar role but did little to help these defensive problems.

Four...Four...Two

The change to 4-4-2 involved youngster, Richie Towell, replacing Jos Hooiveld and lining up on the right of midfield. He is considered a versatile player by the coaching staff but with central midfield as his primary position and this is definitely how he appeared on Saturday. Playing very narrow – almost as third central midfielder –  it allowed Cha to continue to burst forward on the overlap. McCourt may or may not have been instructed to play on the left but he continued to come into more central areas in search of ball which made the formation more of a 4-3-1-2. Charlie Mulgrew dropped back into a more conventional fullback position, decreasing the space behind him but the wandering McCourt still left him exposed at times.

4 (yellow) 3 (red) 1 (McCourt, blue), 2 strikers off screen. Notice also McCourt's man left free (circled)

Whatever the reason that prompted Lennon to ditch the original formation – there were a number of them – the formation had change nothing to do with the first ICT goal. An individual error – one of Celtic’s biggest enemies – let ICT back into the game and just as with the Dundee Utd game the visitors were given the initiative. They took full advantage of Celtic’s weakened defensive unit – McCourt and Mulgrew particularly culpable – and like Utd got the equaliser through a late set-piece.

CELTIC

Forster;

Rogne Majstorovic, Hooiveld (Towell 57);

Cha, Ki, Ledley, Mulgrew;

Maloney (McCourt 9);

Murphy (Stokes 78) Hooper

Not Used : Zaluska, Juarez, McGinn, Wilson

INVERNESS (4-3-3) Esson; Duff, Tokely, Shinne, Munro; Cox, Duncan, Ross; Foran (Odhiambo 81), Rooney, Hayes
Not Used: Tuffey, Golabeck, McBain, Sutherland, Sanchez

Conclusion

A rough few weeks for Celtic, with some poor form and a noticeable drop in confidence and belief throughout the side. The fragile mentality and/or possible complacency perhaps illustrate the influence Scott Brown has on the team, as this slide in form seems to have coincided with his absence. Of course this is just conjecture but it’s a possibility, despite his flaws he still displays the most leadership out of anyone in the squad. Another argument is that Lennon has made some bad decisions in recent weeks, outfoxed by Smith, Jefferies and Houston, all more experienced coaches who managed to tweak their teams’ systems during games to steal the initiative.

The postponement due to the weather could be a chance to regroup and assess what it is going wrong, while the players can have a break from some of the constant pressure to win every game. The good thing is that the season not even half way through, plenty of time to recapture form and make up the difference on Rangers. With Biram Kayal and James Forrest soon to return, the squad will also be a lot stronger in the lead up to the opening of the transfer window, with Celtic surely looking to strengthen further.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. JeanPierre LeGuerre permalink
    December 7, 2010 5:51 pm

    Mental fragility, and also an element of naivety. For me, the team’s inability to retain/hold the ball against Dundee Utd was at best unprofessional, and at worst ‘schoolboy’. It really was that poor. The quality of player acroos the squad is clearly not at the required level ewither. Sure, it is ahead of the other teams in the division (bar possibly rangers)but there is no gulf in class really, so either an off-day, bad organisation, bad luck, or as you address, a bad choice of tactics, can quickly close the gap on any given day between Celtic and the other spl teams.

    • December 7, 2010 10:07 pm

      Yes, whatever gulf there was appears to be reducing or even gone already. Finances surely have played a part, our ability to spend has dropped closer to the rest of the SPL. However, the gap in spending power is still pretty large making results like the recent ones inexcusable.

      Definitely an element of naivety about Celtic at the moment – from the coaching staff to the players – and it’s costing us. Probably doesn’t help that most of the players are in their early 20s, with only Majstorovic and Cha over 30. This on top of the fact they must still be gelling, given the high turnover of players in the summer.

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