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2011 Turnaround: What’s behind it?

January 28, 2011

Some of you may remember the article entitled ‘Celtic’s Early Winter Blues’ which discussed Celtic’s poor form in the lead up the Christmas period. At the time, confidence was low and there was a genuine fear from some quarters about the looming game against Rangers. A nervy victory over Motherwell followed injury time winners against St. Johnstone and this did little to dispel ill feeling amongst some of the support. Message boards were rife with pessimism while the bookmakers and media were quick to write Celtic off but Neil Lennon continued to retain a calm public persona. His belief transferred to the players and he got his tactics right as his side went 0n to record an impressive 2-0 victory at Ibrox, the first there since 2008. It was both a more composed and defensively solid looking Celtic and 2011 has so far seen them continue in the same vein, with an increasing ruthlessness culminating in the 4-0 demolition of in form Hearts. So what has changed?

Deeper defensive line

One noticeable change from most games earlier in the season has been the use of a deeper defensive line. The centre-backs on Celtic’s books aren’t the quickest and so deploying them closer to their own goal has made life a lot more comfortable for them. There is now little space for fast opposition strikers to work in should they manage to get ‘in behind’, with Fraser Forster  enjoying fewer one-on-one situations to deal with. Rangers’ Kenny Miller was unable to use his superior pace and against the comparatively aerially dominant Rogne and Majstorovic he became largely a bystander.

Fig.1: Defending deep against Rangers

Against Hearts, Charlie Mulgrew – a similarly immobile player – was brought in as a makeshift centre-back with fears as to how this would pan out. This view wasn’t shared by the coaching staff, with Alan Thompson saying pre-game, “…if Charlie steps in there it won’t be a problem for him.” This confidence in Mulgrew was justified with the defensive line suited to his lack of pace but 6ft4 frame. He and Rogne easily dealt with Hearts’ high forward balls towards Stephen Elliott.

Fig.2: Defending deep against Hearts. Mulgrew (orange) wins header

More rigidity; aggressive pressing; better protection from the midfield…

An additional help to the defence has been the protection provided by the players just ahead of them, the midfield. Neil Lennon seems to have settled on a back four and recent fixtures have shown a similar numerical preference in midfield, each defender having a team-mate directly in front of them for added protection. Look at Figure 1 again, notice how close the midfield four are to their defenders. This has enabled the return of the ‘defensive block’ that has occasionally been discussed on here, a strategy currently popular in football as pointed out by Gerard Houiller – “The trend is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball…”

Fig.3: 'Defensive block' aggressively press the ball and win it back against Hearts.

This goes along well with the way the team appears to more rigid than earlier on in the season. They now deviate from their starting shape far less and this has definitely been a contributing factor towards the number of recent clean sheets. Due to Celtic’s pressing, all season SPL opposition has had trouble playing through the middle but were able to find some joy with balls over the top of the defence or when Celtic were caught out of their defensive shape. Now the deeper defensive line and more rigid set-up means that this is far less of a problem. The aggressive pressing is still there – and it still starts right from the front two – but as unit Celtic begin from further back. There are occasions when Celtic will look to win the ball back deeper into the opponents half but these are dependant the on circumstance. For example, there a number of times where the Hearts defenders gave each other poor, slow passes and there was no easy out ball offered by the midfield. When this happened Celtic would quickly close them down and often won the ball back in very dangerous positions. This shows good anticipation and awareness from the Celtic forwards – the players normally tasked with starting the press – as well as Joe Ledley, Beram Kayal and in particular Scott Brown. Indeed, it doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that the team’s good form has also coincided with the return of the latter pair.

… and a clever rotation of them

With such players returning to availability, Ki still to return from the Asian Cup and Kris Commons’ recent arrival, there is good depth to the Celtic midfield. Lennon’s transfer strategy for ‘collecting’ midfielders has been questioned by some and the critics may have a point that are there probably too many in the squad at the moment. However, this has given the manager plenty of options to rotate within his preferred four, with the type of individuals selected altering how it performs. At the heart of it are always two pivoted central midfielders – who play in similar fashion to that described in the Zonal Marking article, ‘What does a central midfielder do in 2010?’ – but the wide players can change depending on the opposition. The Rangers game saw Charlie Mulgrew – proving to be a shrewd signing as a squad player – come onto the left side of midfield which added greater solidity. He dealt well with the threat posed by Steven Davis and provided good cover for the swashbuckling Izaguirre while the other wing saw the retention of a more attacking minded player in James Forrest. The controversial draw at Hamilton that followed mistakenly saw the same midfield selection but Lennon appeared to quickly learn his lesson with two attacking wide players selected against a very weak Hibernian and an extremely defensive Aberdeen. The Pittodrie side came to Celtic Park with only one thing in mind – to defend – and strangely continued in this fashion even when a goal behind. It was a game where Celtic needed more width and this came in the form of a genuine winger, Niall McGinn, selected on the right-hand side. His performance left a lot to be desired but the decision to include him is illustrative of the point.

There was another midfield reshuffle against Hearts with Ledley returning to form the pivot with Kayal and Brown moving out to the right. This was an interesting tactical decision that was surely made to nullify the threat posed by Hearts’ Rudi Skacel and Lee Wallace. With Brown backed up by the solid if unspectacular Mark Wilson, it proved to be a very good move by the manager. James Forrest switched to the other flank where he faced Eggert Jonsson – a far less of an attacking threat than Lee Wallace – and his pace and direct running troubled the Hearts right-back no end. It was a shame to see Forrest’s game ended so early as the opening goal showed this was an area where Celtic were getting plenty of joy.

More direct style of play (at times)

To say Celtic have become more of a direct side is not entirely accurate because there are still plenty of periods where possession is retained and they patiently wait for an opening. This was particularly true in the Aberdeen game where their ultra-defensive set-up meant Celtic had to take their time when in possession of the ball. However, in recent times we have seen that the side looks to get the ball forward very quickly when the opportunity presents itself. Furthermore, against Hearts the side fired out of the blocks in search of an early goal – reminiscent of the Martin O’Neill era – and were very direct right from the off. This plays well with the deeper defensive line and ‘defensive block’, particularly when Celtic get the opening goal. After taking the lead in the Rangers and Hearts games, Celtic were able to invite the opposition onto them before exposing their high defensive lines – as they pushed forward in search of a goal – with pace and quickly moving the ball forward.

Figure 4, below, is a perfect example of these new strategies working concurrently and to devastating effect:

Fig.4: Deep 'defensive block' (yellow), Ledley (green) intercepts Foster (blue) pass and quickly fires ball forward to Samaras (red) to expose Rangers' high defensive line

Reunion of Hooper and Stokes

A key addition to the recent upturn in fortunes has been the return of the Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes partnership. The solid platform on which the side is now built has an added ruthlessness when these two are together up front. They have forged a good understanding, with Stokes recently saying, “I think I have a very good understanding with him. In a way we are different players but the runs we make are very similar. I’ve always a fair idea of where he is on the pitch so it makes it easier for me.” Indeed, if one watches them closely you can see that they are always moving as a pair rather than independently of each other and that they look to combine frequently. The front two are an important component of the 4-4-2, both in an attacking and defensive sense as Roy Hodgson and David Pleat discuss in the UEFA Training Ground videos, Hodgson on the 4-4-2 and David Pleat on striker partnerships. “If you play with two of them, you’ve got the added advantage that whoever receives the ball has someone in close support. Also, if you play the ball forward to one the other can threaten the back of the defence, or vice versa,” Hodgson points out. In a defensive sense, Pleat asserts that the front two must, “hold up, as long as possible, the [opposition] back four.” These are things that Stokes and Hooper are improving at and one can see that more games they get together, the more effective and exciting a partnership they can become.

Conclusion

The most noticeable change we have seen recent times is a greater emphasis on making Celtic difficult to beat, while their superior offensive quality is still able to shine through without playing in such a ‘gung-ho’ attacking fashion. Long term, we may see Lennon try to change back to a style more like that seen earlier in the season but for now he has altered the playing style to better suit the defensive options available. In addition, he has learnt very quickly how to adapt tactically to the opposition, something that has been questioned in the past due to the likes of Walter Smith, Jim Jefferies and Peter Houston out-manoeuvring him. There are still big question marks as to how this side will cope, barring a total collapse, with European opposition next season but it looks as though they are well set to go on and have domestic success at least. Let’s just hope this positive article hasn’t jinxed it…

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. NickMcD permalink
    January 29, 2011 4:12 pm

    Your best article yet – genuinely illuminating

    Be interesting to see if we continue with Brown on the right

    • January 30, 2011 1:00 pm

      Thanks very much.

      I can see Brown continuing on the right for the tougher games but wouldn’t be surprised to see him return to the centre against weaker sides or those intent only on defending – meaning a more attacking player can come in on the right.
      For me, he has played well in the centre recently as well as on the right. In fact, I’d go as far to say that this has been his best prolonged period of form in a Celtic shirt.
      If he can start to add more of a threat going forward – though that could be asking a bit much in addition to what he is already providing for the team – we could have quite a player on our hands.

  2. JeanPierre LeGuerre permalink
    January 31, 2011 5:24 pm

    Good thorough article – enjoyable read.

    Fingers crossed we get a defender asap – Charlie Mulgrew will be needed (in some games) out on the left side of midfield.

    • January 31, 2011 5:49 pm

      Cheers,
      not long left to go, let’s hope we get some reinforcements. Yeah, Mulgrew will be useful in that position. He seems to be better anywhere other than left-back!

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