Spartak Moscow 2 – 3 Celtic: Seminal away win may be Lennon-era milestone

Celtic banished an irksome hoodoo after a magnificent 3-2 victory over Spartak Moscow in the Luzhinki Stadium. Whatever the particulars of the long-term away track-record, Neil Lennon took momentous steps in his side’s development by delivering the kind of knife-edge result that has been lacking in previous European campaigns.

Celtic lineup

Celtic’s predominant formation (4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1) although there was a hefty mid-match spell using 4-1-4-1

With only Adam Matthews and Lassad Nouioui the main losses to injury, it was a reasonably full-strength squad to choose from – albeit accounting for the still-returning big players like Scott Brown, Georgios Samaras, Beram Kayal and Joe Ledley. The latter two only made the bench, meaning Efe Ambrose continued at centre-back, preferred to Thomas Rogne.

Charlie Mulgrew surprisingly made a rare start in the centre of midfield alongside Victor Wanyama, making for a particularly big and rugged shield ahead of the back four. But it was a tetchy start, with possession  being given up with an ease that belied Lennon’s customary, cautious European 4-4-1-1. Here, Brown was the furthest forward midfielder, which works well on two levels: harassing  Spartak’s deep-lying creator(s), and relieving Brown of too much positional responsibility.

Spartak Lineup

A slant on Unai Emery’s long-term favoured 4-2-3-1 (fluid midfield distorting shape effectively into 4-3-3)

Spartak were without first-choice goalkeeper Andriy Dikan, ruled out by injury, with Sergei Pesyakov the replacement. Captain Sergei Parshivlyuk, Brazilian midfielder Romulo, and main striker Welliton were also missing.

It was coach Unai Emery’s favoured 4-2-3-1, including a tantalisingly fluid attacking midfield band of Ari, De Zeeuw and Aiden McGeady. But what quickly emerged, aside from the roaming of (mainly) Ari and McGeady was the vulnerability on the flanks (which will be addressed later). But there were benefits to this narrowness: left-back Dmitri Kombarov was practically sole proprietor of Spartak’s left meaning Ari could drift inside as a kind of second striker, meaning to link-up with Emmanuel Emenike who was at risk of isolation.

This central over-loading at least initially maintained possessional superiority, especially with Celtic’s early typically ‘European away’ eagerness to give the ball away. Celtic meanwhile were interested in classic counter-attacking football. Defending deep with Mulgrew, Wanyama and Brown the enforcers, and breaking out at pace down the flanks. The one blemish (and indicative of Spartak’s penetrative runs) was another cheap yellow for Wanyama, losing Ari on the run and tripping him to stop the attack. It was a clear, early yellow (like Benfica), and you wonder if there may be less conspicuous ways to stop play.

Opening goal

The opening goal was an apt microcosm of the two strategies, with Spartak starting off in possession centrally, Celtic winning the ball in midfield, powering forward at pace on the break, and an early cross being tapped in by poacher Gary Hooper. What’s notable from Celtic’s point of view, was that Hooper wasn’t required to hold-up possession or take players on.

But the left-back Kombaraov was cruelly exposed. McGeady, nominally the right-midfielder was occupying a central area with Ari nowhere to be seen. Neither player took responsibility for Mikael Lustig’s counter down the flank, and his unchecked cross was directed in to the net expertly.

Emery picked up on the ramifications immediately, putting to an end Ari’s fairly greedy roaming and making sure somebody occupied the left-flank out of possession.

Spartak’s return

Of course, a 12th minute goal away in the Champions League is uncomfortably soon but Celtic were able to galvanise their gameplan, be more confident defending deep and taking the sting out of the match, and take less risks going forward.

Spartak weren’t exactly breaking down the door and with the two sides cancelling each other out, it seemed the most likely route to goal for the hosts would be via two age-old methods: a good old defensive blunder, or a moment of genius from an A-list attacker.

The equaliser was a combination of both. Defensively, it was a sloppy, with Samaras already looking ragged committing a lazy foul in midfield, and the resulting restart of play lazily tracked down. In fairness (particularly to Samaras who was just returning from injury), it’s an energy-sapping business defending against intelligent movers like Spartak.

It wasn’t just the midfield’s concentration slipping, as Kelvin Wilson let his man get on the end of a hopeful long pass from Kim Kallstrom. Ari provided the moment of class, expertly cushioning down the through-ball into Emenike’s path to score.

A cheap goal to give away, but probably fair with respect to which side was more pro-actively making play.

Second half

Again, without looking particularly like conceding it happened again for Celtic. Ari wasn’t closed down promptly enough, but his deflected shot was dealt with poorly by the sleeping Frazer Forster. If he couldn’t catch the ball, he should’ve put it behind. Instead Demy De Zeeuw cleverly played the ball across goal for Emenike to tap-in – the sharpest man in the box.

Such a soft turnaround was all the more frustrating considering that it was as good an away display in Europe as Celtic had produced in a long time. It appeared that that crucial vigilance required at this level had been deserted again.

The gameplan couldn’t change however. There’s always the temptation to bring on another, or a different forward, but under the circumstances, the defensive, arguably negative approach was the correct one – particularly with only 1 goal required to restore parity.

It was through this route that the game-deciding incident occurred. Just when it looked like Celtic were once again to fall victim to an unlucky (or poor) refereeing decision, Tony Chapron was eventually persuased by his supporting officials that Hooper was indeed pulled back by Juan Insaurralde, and as last man he had to be dismissed.

This had a frightening effect on Emery’s gameplan (having to withdraw De Zeeuw, for young defender Sergei Bryzgalov). His system’s raison d’etre, the fluid central interlinking of talented attackers was completely curtailed, leaving a bog-standard, flat 4-4-1.

Triumphant turnaround

Lennon waited 8-minutes to see the effect on play, and with the opposition choosing to protect the goal advantage by defending deep, he made the decision to go 4-4-2. James Forrest came on for Wanyama going right-midfield, Samaras moved up front and Commons went left.

Now the shoe was on the other foot, with Celtic the pro-active side and Spartak looking to counter. The difference aside from the extra man, was that Spartak were forced into such a strategy, where as Celtic came prepared.

The question remained, could Celtic break down such a tough defence in a short space of time – but again the flanks proved fruitful. Commons sent Mulgrew galloping down the left, and his excellent first-time cross was dummied by Samaras, re-distributed by Hooper, and drilled into goal by Forrest with what must’ve been his first-touch. Such a satisfying goal (again) in the context of “away Europe”, to break at speed and going through five attackers to score.

The winner had the hint of other team-defining, outstanding European moments such as Scott McDonald against AC Milan, or Chris Sutton against Juventus. Perhaps not in the immediate gravity of the situation, but more in the nature of the goal. In that a lesser team would not be capable, not have the grit to steal the winner. It was sheer determination from Samaras to get on the end of Izaguirre’s superb cross.


While luck and poor defending (on both side’s part) helped shape the scoreline, psychologically the impact was great for both sides. Spartak will feel hard done-by again, but for Celtic it’s a maturation. No longer a “nearly there” excuse, and a realisation (as opposed to against Benfica) that the quality is there to beat these mid to top-level European sides.

Lennon was unequivocal: “People underestimate Celtic. We don’t get the respect
we deserve and this performance might change a few attitudes.”

“It’s a huge step for the club psychologically, and for the players. It’s the first time we have won away in the Champions League, so we have broken our record and that is fantastic.”

And in singling out Hooper’s match-winning performance (the opening goal, the second and the red), Lennon has justified his staunch dependence. Hooper played the most matches (of outfield players) last season, and continues to top the pack. He has adapted to the lone striker role when others have appeared more appropriate, and in scoring 9 goals this season already, has warranted Lennon’s faith.



Posted in 2012/13, Europe | Tagged , | 34 Comments

Celtic 0 – 0 Benfica: Sturdy Celtic can’t bring forwards into play

Celtic drew 0-0 with Benfica after a cagey match rooted firmly in a midfield battle. With both sides depleted, neither could create clear-cut chances, with a goal always more likely to be derived from a defensive mistake or a stroke of fortune. Neither situation arose, leading to a fair goalless finish.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 4-4-1-1

Georgios Samaras and Beram Kayal trained at the start of the week, but were not deemed fit enough to make the match squad. They joined a burgeoning list of absentees including Joe Ledley, Dylan McGeouch, Anthony Stokes and Paddy McCourt. Finally Gary Hooper dropped to the bench suffering from a knock endured during the defeat to St Johnstone.

Neil Lennon therefore had limited options, with Mikael Lustig surprisingly starting at centre-back, Thomas Rogne languishing on the bench and Charlie Mulgrew (as suggested in the tictactic preview) starting on the left of midfield. This allowed Kris Commons to be used behind Miku as the bridge between midfield and attack, and James Forrest in his preferred position on the right.

Benfica Lineup

Benfica 4-2-3-1

Benfica had selection concerns of their own, with big players Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel recently departed, and key defenders Luisao and Maxi Pereira suspended. Youngsters Jardel and Andre Almeida came in at the back, with Nemanja Matic once again in Garcia’s deep-lying role and Perez (normally considered a left-midfielder) in Witsel’s.

Oscar Cardozo surprisingly only made the bench, with Gaitan and Pablo Aimar also entering the side. Benfica’s one advantage perhaps was their schedule, having a match-free weekend. They also enjoyed the luxury of a friendly against Real Betis last week to test the post-Witsel/Garcia team.

The formation was a slightly negative adjustment to the ambitious 4-2-4 shape in that previous 3-0 league win over Nacional, with the wingers stationed deeper and Aimar acting (expectedly) in a No. 10 role, as opposed to Rodrigo’s high up 2nd striker type preference.

Blustery first-half

With both sides taking a midfield heavy, cautious approach given recent defensive foibles, Benfica’s quick and incisive short passing contrasted with the rise of Victor Wanyama and Scott Brown as ruthless enforcers. The force was needed simply to cope, but equally Celtic were doing a better job at keeping possession once it had turned over compared to previous SPL matches. The effect was for a uniform, unpenetrating chain of failed attacks and turnovers.

The difference though was in the intensity of the attacks. Benfica clearly had that extra quality on the ball – with Gaitan and Aimar in particular showing off terrific control and technique. Yet barring one main chance, with Rodrigo just short of going one-on-one with Frazer Forster, Benfica were kept largely quiet – testament to the energetic defending from Celtic. The referee’s book was the resulting worry, with Wanyama picking up an early yellow and Izaguirre pushing his luck.

Individually even the unfamiliar pairing of Lustig and Kelvin Wilson were excelling, who may have been expected to struggle at this level. The standout poor performers were Izaguirre and Forrest. Both so heavily depended on in previous seasons for direct pace and width; both unable to beat a man, compose passes, or even track back that well.

Forrest’s frustration can be explained in part by Benfica’s shape. Matic dropped between the centre-backs to make an ad-hoc back three/five in two circumstances: in possession, and where a centre-back pushes wide to cover a full-back. This support meant that Forrest could rarely isolate Melgarejo one-on-one, and psyched up for the occaision, probably made the wrong decision in even trying to knock the ball past.

The nullifcation of Forrest highlighted Celtic’s weakness in depth – with effectively no (fit) alternative available to play on the right.

Second half

Celtic’s most likely route to goal was via set-pieces, either corner-kicks or deep free-kicks planted on top of the uncertain goalkeeper Artur. But the quality of the delivery, timing of runs in the box and good old luck was lacking. On a separate note, the situation was a hint in the direction of Scotland’s traditional (for want of a better word) “anti” football. That is – a physical, defensive and abrasive style for 90 minutes topped off with a goal from a set-piece. To Celtic’s credit, this wasn’t overtly the plan, just the most likely route to goal.

The outstanding problem remained trying to involve the attacking players. Commons and Miku couldn’t get into shooting positions, and Forrest couldn’t get in behind. Also, Mulgrew couldn’t get high enough up the park, and if he did found it impossible to use his exceptional left-foot.

Benfica while being more comfortable darting forward, couldn’t negotiatie safely past the irrepressible Wanyama and Brown. Lennon’s first shake of the dice saw Mulgrew moved back to left-back, Hooper brought on beside Miku and Commons moved to the left, but the flow of the match stayed the same. Both sides were content with a draw – a loss for Celtic would be disastrous and a point for Benfica seen to be a point gained.

Lennon will be pleased with gaining respect from the footballing world, but certain individual performances are a worry. Izaguirre’s unreliability, Forrest’s ineffectiveness, and Miku’s second quiet performance (albeit in a truly unforgiavable lone role). The defensive progress is welcome, but that match-winning individual, a jewel in the crown, is lacking.

Posted in 2012/13, Europe | Tagged , | 13 Comments

Celtic vs Benfica: Tactical Preview – defensive woes for both sides

Benfica 4-2-4 with fluid centre – September 2nd 2012 against Nacional

Two familiar foes go head-to-head on Wednesday night with serious contrasting problems to contend with and no clear indication in the Betfair Champions League betting tips on who will be the likely winner.

Celtic’s big issue has been form with the worst start to an SPL campaign in over a decade, latterly taking 1 point from a possible 6 following the weekend’s defeat to St Johnstone. Benfica’s headache meanwhile is in replacing three defensive giants: Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel have made big-money moves to Manchester City and Zenit St Petersburg respectively, while central defender Luisao has been suspended after pushing a referee in a recent friendly.

Benfica’s options

Aside from Luisao’s supension (which strategically should be a simple swap), the main question will be how to cope with losing two such exceptional defensive midfielders. Garcia’s role was particularly important as the deepest midfielder of the central two (and a half). Reminiscent of Ki Sung-Yeung’s best regista moments for Celtic, Garcia would drop between his two centre-backs, picking up the ball and taking responsibility for either starting moves or hoarding possession in a calm and sensible manner.

In his most recent Primeira Liga fixture against Nacional, manager Jorge Jesus initially used Axel Witsel in that sitting role, with the attack-minded Carlos Martins charging ahead. The balance wasn’t right especially considering Rodrigo (in roughly the No. 10 area) not especially concerned with helping out in midfield.

At half-time with the score-line level, former Chelsea youth Nemanja Matić replaced the over-extending Martins, which allowed Witsel to take up his preferred dynamic ball-winning role. Matic became regista, and Benfica’s performance and ball retention improved notably.

Who then to replace Witsel, especially if not Martins? Last week in a friendly with Spaniards Real Betis, Jesus had a chance to survey his options. Benfica B product Andre Almeida was Witsel’s direct equivalent in the featured diagram (top), with attacking options like Pablo Aimar and Gaitan (yet to feature this season) given a chance to impress.

The strength on paper therefore lies in Benfica’s attack. Oscar Cardozo and Lima (signed this summer from Braga) finished as 1st and 2nd top scorers in Portugal’s top tier last season. These forwards are complemented by the tricky and direct duo of Rodrigo and Salvio – the latter having already experienced Celtic Park with Atletico Madrid last season.

Aside from the wealth of attacking talent, Neil Lennon has to be most wary of something he encourages in his own side – hugely attacking full-backs who cover a lot of ground. Against Nacional, left and right-back South Americans Lorenzo Melgarejo and Maxi Pereira combined in the final third(!) to open the scoring. Melgarejo on the counter, skipping past players in Emilio Izaguirre fashion flicked the ball to Pereira in Nacional’s box. His cross was met by the head of the deadly Cardozo, opening the scoring.

The warning is emphasized considering Celtic’s weekend travails – James Forrest and Kris Commons inability to track back, and a broad flimsyness in the challenge all over the park.

Celtic possibilities

Celtic 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 shape utilised against both HJK and Helsingborg

One of Lennon’s biggest weaknesses as a manager so far has been the lack of a distinct, first-choice formation ready for the biggest stage. Previous successful European managers had their clear-cut plans (the Martin O’Neill 3-5-2 and then 4-4-2, Gordon Strachan’s 4-4-2 and infrequent 4-1-4-1) but Lennon seems awkwardly discontent with his own 4-4-2.

Over the course of the past two seasons in Europe Lennon has attempted 4-4-2, 4-1-4-1, 4-4-2 diamond, 4-2-3-1, and perhaps most comfortably the above merging of 4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1. Using Commons in the centre helps address his defensive frailty, while maintaining a level of support for Gary Hooper – the reluctant lone striker.

Nicolas ‘Miku’ Fedor and to a lesser extent Lassad Nouioui and Tony Watt have spiced up the possibilities, but for now it seems unlikely that Hooper will be shunned, particularly given Miku’s quiet debut at the weekend. The dilemma is that Miku is more adept in lone role, and has recent top experience – for Getafe against Real Madrid, and for Venezuela against Peru.

In availability terms key injuries forces Lennon’s hand in terms of selecting defence and midfield. Georgios Samaras, Beram Kayal, Joe Ledley and Paddy McCourt are all out. Thomas Rogne’s status as perhaps the strongest centre-back strengthens the case for using Charlie Mulgrew elsewhere – possibly at left-back (given Izaguirre’s recent tepid form) or possibly on the left of midfield, a defensively sound alternative to Commons. Surprisingly Efe Ambrose makes the squad, though the jump from the Israeli First Division should rule out a start.

Another defensive tweak utilised by Lennon, has been using Adam Matthews on the right wing. This might see James Forrest either on the left or behind the striker, with Mikael Lustig at right-back.

What is clear, aside from shoring up the defence and even superseding tactics in terms of importance, is a change in attitude. Lennon cited that his lazy side may have had one eye on the Champions League: here is the opportunity to rectify that indiscretion.

**late edit. Sharp-sighted followers @andymcd90 and @Gaffney67 point out that Maxi Pereira is also suspended for Benfica. A big blow considering the quality of the attacking right-back.

Posted in Europe, Tactical Preview | Tagged , | 5 Comments

St Johnstone 2 – 1 Celtic: Saints’ hard-work is wake-up call for lazy Celtic

While Benfica had a weekend off to prepare for Wednesday’s crunch Champions League group opener, Celtic fell to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of St Johnstone in Perth. Kris Commons’ early opener appeared to set Celtic on their way, but instead the reaction was complacency with Gregory Tade and then Rowan Vine earning St Johnstone the deserved 3 points.

Celtic lineup

Celtic 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2

Neil Lennon faced a swathe of selection problems. Efe Ambrose hadn’t returned from international duty, Thomas Rogne was benched after speaking to the media while away with Norway and the injury list piled high: Adam Matthews, Beram Kayal, Joe Ledley, Georgios Samaras, Dylan McGeouch, Paddy McCourt and Anthony Stokes were all unavailable. The one positive though, was the return of Scott Brown having missed out on international duty through his ongoing hip problem.

St Johnstone lineup

Initial conservative 4-5-1

The big news at Mcdiarmid Park was of the flu virus that had decimated training earlier in the week. 7 players had suffered, though by kick-off a full-strength side was assembled – at least on paper.

Callum Davidson missed out through a knock, and Murray Davidson was substituted after only 21 minutes having failed to shake off that illness.


Opening the scoring after only three minutes, Celtic’s early eminance was down to playing confident deck football, making use of Commons and Hooper. It’s this sharp and smart passing that has long-term enabled Celtic to take advantage of a four man midfield. The strikers can make penetrating runs against a defence unsettled in open play, and the midfield can spray passes across the width of the pitch.

But the positivity was short-lived, very quickly descending into a sluggish complacency. The Saints by contrast had four main areas of success:

  • Taking advantage of exposed full-backs (James Forrest and Kris Commons guilty of not tracking back)
  • Tough ‘borderline’ tackling and sensible professional fouls
  • Inability to deal with Tade (not directly linked to goal)
  • Vine’s really clever movement between right-back and right centre-back

Aside from Celtic’s careless attitude, the first point is probably the most preventable. The other three were more down to St Johnstone’s own accomplishment.

Tade and Vine

This second formation from around the 30 minute mark until half-time was the Saints at their most positive and very difficult to contain.

Vine’s gravitation from left-wing to second striker, prompted by Steve Lomas, defined the Saints formation.

His job was to unsettle Mikael Lustig (often overloaded with the help of Tade, Liam Craig or Dave Mackay) drifting towards Kelvin Wilson to make two up front, and then dropping into any gaps left by Lustig.

This movement was best demonstrated in the equaliser. Forrest lost the ball weakly on the half-way, with Lustig out of position. Vine drifted into the space vacated by Lustig dragging Wilson out wide.

Tade was left one-on-one with Mulgrew, with essentially the width of the 18-yard box to play with – Izaguirre inexplicably not in a position to drop in and team-up with Mulgrew to make 2 vs 1.

This man-for-man approach when clearly prevailing in every personal battle, coupled with lazy tracking back meant St Johnstone could attack with ease.

Tade’s contribution apart from the goal was to give the Celtic centre-backs a horrible time. A ball of restlessness, scrapping for every long-ball put his way, and when the ball is put over the top or in behind, the tenacity to not allow Celtic’s centre-backs to calmly resume possession and build an attack.

Second half struggles

At 1-1 and in the ascendency, St Johnstone actually came out after half-time in a traditional defensive 4-1-4-1 formation. In part perhaps, to weather a Celtic storm that never arrived, in part due to the threat of the virus restricting energy levels, but also because they were so comfortable. There wasn’t a need to press high and risk opening gaps when the chances were already coming easily.

Celtic’s frustration only increased, with Wanyama and Commons guilty of petulance. At stages late one, Wanyama was consumed by red-mist, dishing out vigilante justice against Craig, and Commons tried to let fly with a 45-yard set-piece with the entire team out of position. To add insult, in trying to stop the counter-attack he fouled again, earning a poor yellow.

Vine’s hugely deserved winner was a sublime curled finish, but again poorly defended. Mulgrew’s challenge was soft, and with (substitute) Thomas Rogne and Wilson again chasing shadows, Vine was left one-on-one with Lustig in a seriously dangerous area. Frazer Forster’s very bad positioning, tight in at the near-post opened space and encouraged the wicked finish.

Last 10 minutes – 4-4-2 diamond

It’s fitting that it has taken this long to mention Nicolas Fedor’s debut, because he had almost zero impact on the match. Tony Watt’s late cameo added a bit of mischief, with Celtic in the end shaping up in a kind of 4-1-3-2.

For all the technique and trickery within that final side, Celtic hardly looked like breaking even – all composure had completely vanished.

Commons might point to a missed penalty opportunity with Steven Anderson pushing him over in the box, but St Johnstone were the better side all over the pitch and merited the win.

Lennon thought it may be a case of one eye on Europe, yet with the injury situation most of the starting XI will still expect to play.

“They will be all right for Wednesday and up for it but that’s the wrong attitude to take, they should be up for these matches as well.

“Today’s performance was needless and I am very disappointed for the first time in a long time with them.”

Posted in 2012/13, St Johnstone | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Scotland 1 – 1 Macedonia: Scotland given a lesson in transition

Scotland’s 4-1-4-1 against Macedonia’s 4-2-3-1 counter-attacking system

Scotland’s World Cup qualifying campaign lies in tatters and Craig Levein teeters on the brink after a drab 1-1 draw with Macedonia. Nikolce Noveski struck an early lead for the visitors before Kenny Miller tapped in a barely deserved equaliser just before half-time. Levein gradually added more attacking impetus as the match wore on, but the winner couldn’t be found and in fact Macedonia had the better chances on the counter.

Pre-match, with the lineup named the anticipation was of an attack-minded 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, with Kenny Miller perhaps given close support from one of Jamie Mackie, James Forrest or Shaun Maloney. Instead, it was a revert to Levein-type, opting for the default cautious 4-1-4-1, with Mackie on the left-wing and Maloney unfamiliar in the centre of midfield. At least individually, there were more attacking natured players on the park in comparison to Saturday’s draw with Serbia, but this was the same “begin not to lose” 4-1-4-1.

Mackie and Forrest’s inclusion on each flank aimed to stretch Macedonia’s expected deeply entrenched back-line, but in practice Scotland weren’t able to make use of this width, playing too impulsively, trying to force the ball towards Miller rather than eke out space via thought-out midfield passing.

Scotland’s best chance came through the more composed approach, with Miller in a brief flash of best form absorbed enough defenders to lay-off Gary Caldwell, though his left-footed drive from twenty yards went well wide. It’s at moments like these – when pressing for goals – that Caldwell’s ‘spoiler’ role, as suited as he is, becomes counter-productive and Adam’s seat on the bench becomes more conspicuous.

With the tartan army already rankled Noveski’s opener caused outrage. Taking notes from Serbia’s ease in finding 2 vs 1 at corners, Ivan Trichkovski one-two’d a path away from Forrest and whipped in the assist. Noveski may have been half-a-yard ahead of the last defender but he appeared level with the ball.

Levein mentioned post-match that Scotland “had to win the match, hence number of attacking players”, so clearly the idea was for individuals to dictate the attacking balance of the match, rather than the formation.

Regardless, the front 3 couldn’t get on the ball in good areas. Forrest had nowhere to go, Mackie seemed unfamiliar and out of place on the left, and Miller continued his poor form, or more accurately inability to win or hold on to the ball.

The goal aside, Scotland were struggling to deal with two monstrous problems: Goran Pandev’s roaming with impunity and his side’s speed and urgency transitioning between defence and attack and vice versa. While Pandev was exempt from real defensive positional duties, he was the link, the physical hub that others scurried back and forth around.

In attack, he took forward with a magnificent sense of timing and awareness of his team’s counter-attacking movement, and in defence sauntered into areas that kept Scotland’s midfield on it’s toes. Capping a majestic performance he was incessant in attempting clever and ambitious slide-rule passes, with his front three continually trying to break the offside trap.

While Macedonia’s attacking players were energetic going forward, transitioning back into defensive positions they were even more energetic, making Scotland’s countering look slow and stodgy in comparison. This put a dent in Levein’s goal-scoring ambition, with the opposition quicker getting back than Scotland could move the ball forward.

The equaliser came through a rare moment of positional indiscipline from Macedonia, with James Morrison able to thread through to Mackie, beating the offside-trap, who supplied Miller with the easiest of tap-ins.

The gravity of the situation slowly dawned on Scotland, and while Forrest’s on-the-ball influence increased (linking up well with Alan Hutton on the right) too often it was only Miller in the box – who isn’t really one to get on the end of crosses.

Levein slowly ramped up the attacking flavour of the side, introducing Adam for Miller (with Mackie going up top, Maloney left) and then Rhodes for Morrison on 65 minutes (making for a 4-4-2). One criticism seemingly taken on board post-Serbia is that the gradual attacking increase (or in short: introduction of Rhodes) came far too late – here he was given 25 minutes to make the difference, and quickly after had 2  diving headers put narrowly wide.

Scotland bossed possession seemingly more intent on creating, but Macedonia landed with the bigger chances on the counter. Allan Mcgregor is responsible for keeping the score level, providing two brilliant saves one-on-one.

Levein’s failing here was being too exact in his planning. He wanted to start both games with a tight, defensive 4-1-4-1 and grow into the match, gradually adding firepower as appropriate. But both plans went badly wrong.

Against Serbia it made sense because they are a strong side, and he couldn’t really account for dreadful individual contributions – albeit could’ve been more proactive looking for the winner. Macedonia however were a different proposition, out “small-siding” us with superb, well-drilled counter-attacking and dogged defending.

In this respect Levein’s transition into a more attacking system came too late, but there were just as many damning selection errors. Maloney and Caldwell are both unsuited in midfield against such a dynamic side, Mackie generally plays on the right for his club, and Miller’s international career looked finished on Saturday, despite the goal. Adam – once so central to Levein’s masterplan, was discarded.

Forrest’s pace and Rhodes’ sharp movement in the box provided glimmers of hope and these youngsters hold a lot of promise for Scotland’s future. A future now surely without Levein and without the stodgy pessimistic football that’s unacceptably yielded two home draws against beatable sides.

Posted in 2012/13, Scotland | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Scotland 0 – 0 Serbia: Low margins rein in high expectations

When you’re a team as contradictorily limited and ambitious as Scotland, the margins between defeat and victory are so slim. That’s why the two most “successful” managers of recent times have been so cautious, so dependent on defensive football, using set-plays to steal points from more technically adept teams.

The inevitable Achilles heel of such a strategy, is when you’re chasing something; when you are forced to pro-actively hunt for a goal. This normally comes after conceding, but there are fixtures that Scotland simply have to be ambitious and go after the win from the off.

Aside from the complete antithesis to this idea (the infamous Prague 4-6-0) Scotland’s record is littered with falling short when the situation calls for attack. Being too instinctively unambitious, too hung-up on our own defensive stereotype. George Burley started his tenure in this fashion losing to Macedonia in Skopje. Walter Smith had Belarus at Hampden, Berti Vogts had, well, numerous failings (Moldova, Slovenia, Lithuania, the Faroes), and Craig Brown’s failed final campaign in charge was blighted by Belgium.

The problem, generally, is that defensive football works, but against Serbia yesterday, that attacking situation reared its ugly head again. Steadying the ship in the opening period using the tried and tested 4-1-4-1, Craig Levein soon found that the opposition though having an impressive pedigree, were more keen for a 0-0 draw than himself.

Going back to the slim margins, Levein is no fool. He tweaked the central midfield three, making for a more attacking shape – Gary Caldwell was pushed up alongside Charlie Adam, with James Morrison asked to take on the linkup job between midfield and attack. 4-1-4-1 became 4-4-1-1.

It was a subtle adjustment, going largely unnoticed. But the problem wasn’t so much the shape (the tactical battle in a sense was won) as the personnel. Aside from impudent moments of stupidity from Steven Naismith and Alan Hutton that could’ve earned first-half red cards, at least 5 outfield players were playing poorly.

Charlie Adam – so depended on as a consistent deliverer of quality set-pieces, wasn’t providing. Naismith, Morrison and Robert Snodgrass couldn’t give support to the worst performer of all Kenny Miller. The question for the manager therefore was less tactical and more a test on making positive substitutions to influence that game at, crucially, the right time.

While it’s easy to indulge in a “I told you so” moment with regards to Miller’s eventual replacement – Jordan Rhodes – in fairness to Levein and with respect to “margins”, Miller had to start. He is a proven international performer and is exceptional defending from the front. But age, along with the move to Vancouver has caught up and yesterday’s wretched performance only underlined the requirement for a replacement.

Where Levein can fairly be criticised, is the timing of Rhodes’ introduction. The 81st minute was painfully tardy considering Miller’s glut of dire touches before an hour was even on the clock. The ambition to score was edged up with the addition of Jamie Mackie making for a late 4-4-2, but the lateness of the changes only served to separate the manager’s expectations from the impetuous tartan army’s.

On paper, a point against a side of Serbia’s relative standing is reasonable, if unambitious. But it feels to supporters like two points lost rather than one point gained. Scotland missed out on the play-offs for the previous major tournament – the 2012 European Championships – by 2 points, dropped to our usurpers Czech Republic.  World Cup qualification has proven even harder, trailing the Netherlands in the qualifiers for 2010 by 14 points; trailing Norway in the 2006 qualifiers by 5.

Those measly two points may be so much more valuable after all.

Posted in 2012/13, Comment, Scotland | 14 Comments

New dimensions: Miku and Nouioui

The end of August saw a particularly satisfying conclusion to this summer’s transfer window, with Neil Lennon able to address key problem areas within his squad. A 3rd goalkeeper in Slovakian Lubos Kamenar, another centre-back, as Lennon describes “in the Wanyama mould” in the Nigerian Efe Ambrose, and two more attackers: Nicolas “Miku” Fedor and Lassad Nouioui.

With the disappointing Mo Bangura and Daryl Murphy departing to AIK Solna and Ipswich respectively on loan, Celtic had only 2 bona fide senior strikers to choose from: Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes. Tony Watt’s precocious development continues well, and while other attackers, like Georgios Samaras, Kris Commons and James Forrest, provide varying levels of backup, they remain primarily midfielders.

Hooper, is undoubtedly Lennon’s first-choice, with a record over two signings to justify that faith. Yet he, and particularly Stokes, have proven difficult to confidently shape a side around. Neither can really play as a targetman (a recurring theme in this blog), and are both so similar in style that domestic sides are becoming accustomed. Play deep, tackle hard and drop anchoring midfielders back into the congestion.

So Miku and Lassad (as they are referred as) provide welcome alternatives to the short, classic poacher type tendencies that have come to typify Hooper and Stokes.

Nicolas ‘Miku’ Fedor

Miku leading the line for Getafe in a 2-1 win over Real Madrid a week ago

Leading the line against Real Madrid, the first thing that strikes you about Miku’s place in the Getafe team, is that he isn’t a traditional target-man, despite playing in the lone role. He isn’t imposing (enough) in the air and is too lean to really rough up opposition defenders. But then, this wasn’t his role. With Mourinho’s high line, Miku was asked to play off the shoulder and to attack the channels on the counter, splitting defenders and opening space for the attacking midfield band of three to exploit.

Of course he still had to maintain target-man type duties: that is to attempt to win anything thrown his way, hold up the ball easing pressure on the defence and midfield, and lay the ball off intelligently.

While Miku is strong and fast, he lacks the sheer power of a Chris Sutton type striker, or galloping pace of someone like Georgios Samaras. Instead he brings all the attributes together in a typically Latin package, focusing on technique, movement but most of all sharp finishing. His 12 league goals last term in La Liga were typified by finishing with minimal touches and maximum power.

This all round ability, and crucially contrast in style with Gary Hooper, is what caught the attention of Neil Lennon: “he’s a player we like but didn’t think we could get but his name came up again three or four days ago. He has a good goalscoring record for a mid-range team in La Liga and I think he will complement Hooper very well.”

The implication then, is a continuation of 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2) that has regularly been a go-to comfortable formation. But clearly (and reportedly), Miku would be able to do a Samaras-type inside-forward job on one of the flanks if required.

Read far more about Miku and his background in this excellent piece by @markocooper

Lassad Nouioui

Lassad playing the targetman role back on the 15 April 2012, in a 3-2 win over Celta Vigo

If Miku is the more mobile alternative to Celtic’s current Hooper/Stokes type striker, then Lassad Nouioui takes steps in the other direction. That’s not to say that the free signing from Deportivo La Coruna is immobile – but his qualities undoubtedly lend towards the targetman stereotype. With the failure of Daryl Murphy to assert himself and Samaras’ preference for the left-wing, Celtic have been lacking such an option since Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink.

This is largely down to the global scarcity in quality target-men, which is reflected, not only in Hesselink’s price (a hefty £3.4m) but also the premiums paid in England, most notably in Andy Carroll and Steven Fletcher. Lennon was cryptic in unveiling Lassad, saying it was somebody “you will not have heard of”, which hints at the extent you have to search for a quality targetman.

‘He is six foot two, he leads the line very well, he can play inside or outside the box and he can head it very well. We have liked him for a wee while. I know most of his goals have come in the Second Division in Spain but it is still a good standard’

Such qualities were demonstrated in Deportivo’s second in the noted match from April. First, in beating two defenders to knock down the ball to local legend Juan Carlos Valerón, but then in anticipating the pass, and then in beating the offside line and slotting the ball clinically past Yoel Rodriguez in goal.

It was a precise finish into the near corner, but it’s Lassad’s workrate throughout the match that would have impressed his new employers. Constantly embroiled in aerial duels with the Celta defence, constantly looking to knock the ball down to that famous trequartista Valerón.

Stocky, and 6’2″, Lennon will therefore be eyeing up the opportunity of finally utilising a non-two striker system for tougher European purposes. Using a lone striker has recently been the most efficient way of fitting a number ten into the side, and with Kris Commons currently Celtic’s most productive attack (and to an extent James Forrest waiting quite literally in the wings) Lassad brings a whole other dimension to the team.

In the tictactic pre-season summary, it was suggested that a targetman is Celtic’s transfer window priority. In capturing two very different types of lone forward, Lennon now has the options that he previously so craved.

Posted in 2012/13, Player Profile | Tagged , | 5 Comments