Celtic dominate yet struggle to run away with all 3 points.
In the final match before the first Old Firm of the season, all eyes were on Neil Lennon’s team selection for this difficult trip to Tannadice. Cha Du Ri dropped out of the side that defeated Hamilton 2 weeks ago to be rested, and Anthony Stokes came in for the injured Scott Brown.
Neil Lennon has flirted this season with numerous formations – the classic 4-4-2 with flying wingers, the 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1 with Shaun Maloney generally at his best just behind the striker and a more conservative 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 with 3 true central midfielders and high wingers.
Eyebrows were raised when 4 strikers were named on the park suggesting some kind of 4-4-2 setup, yet Shaun Maloney and Anthony Stokes were cast wide in Inside Forward roles, in something approaching a 4-2-4, with the latter in particular aiming to cut inside and get forward as much as possible – he is indeed a striker at heart – where as Maloney is more familiar on the wing.
In the first half Celtic dominated possession and this is mostly down to Dundee United’s defensive setup. Concerned with Maloney and Stokes, Utd’s wingers were insistent on doubling up and helping out their full-back. This left Emilio Izaguirre and Marc Wilson mostly free. Furthermore, Daly and Goodwillie were not pressing Celtic’s centre-halves with any real conviction, meaning Celtic had the time and space to pass along the backline with impunity.
While the central players on both sides cancelled each other out, this meant most traffic was heading down each flank – in one direction. In particular in the opening stages Marc Wilson was finding a lot of joy with his relative freedom to go beyond Stokes, who not only held the ball up well but made good decisions in either playing the flying right-back through, or using him as a dummy and cutting in to go alone.
This combination was used time and again to overload Sean Dillon, and the fairly immobile Scott Severin was struggling to get over and help his ailing left-back. Georgios Samaras with his usual tendency to float into other areas of the pitch was also adding to Dillon’s woes by joining in the attacks in that area.
A similar situation was happening on the other side with less success, and inevitably the goal came with Wilson over-lapping Stokes, winning himself lots of room to pick out Gary Hooper in the box with a fine cross to open the scoring.
United’s best chances came from high balls towards Daly and Goodwillie, and the lack of urgency with each attack means I am reluctant to call it “counter” attacking. Also set-pieces which have been the bane of the Celtic defence for a number of years, kept concerning Forster in goals.
But the most obvious qualm anybody has with attacking full-backs is the “What If?” scenario. And so it proved on the left-hand side late in the first half. Izaguirre was caught too far up the pitch and central midfielder Joe Ledley (who had a solid game), found himself up against 2 players and was pick-pocketed 30 yards out. The lumbering Celtic centre-backs were too far away to make a quick decision, and instead found themselves frozen on the edge of the box. A striker of David Goodwillie’s clinic struck the ball home, with the help of a rather unconvincing Glen Loovens block deflection.
The level of punishment aimed at the United full-backs was obviously too much for Peter Houston to bear, and he made some interesting tactical changes to help protect Messrs Dixon and Dillon.
Instead of wingers Robertson and Conway doubling up on Maloney and Stokes, they were to focus their attention solely on the rampaging hooped full-backs. In what appears to be an attacking push up the pitch, is actually absolutely crucial defensively.
This helped end Celtic’s spell of possessional domination and while Stokes suddenly found himself with a lot less options on the ball, his team-mate Wilson found himself without such freedom to get forward, and a lot more responsibility at the back.
Play began to develop itself through the middle as Joe Ledley and Ki Sung-Yung looked to get more time on the ball. Before the match it was said this was perhaps a light-weight midfield pairing for Celtic, especially compared to heavy-weights like Bauben and Gomis, yet they held their own and won the midfield battle in the end.
Just when Lennon was beginning to wonder how to re-create a similar tactical advantage, a crazy refereeing decision helped turn this game on it’s head. Whistler Dougie McDonald initially called a penalty when Hooper was first tugged back in the box and then knocked flat by the goalkeeper. But mysteriously after consultation with the linesman, the decision was abandoned and Lennon was furious.
This sense of injustice spurred Celtic on and United were slipping deeper and deeper into their own half as Celtic chased victory. A greater ability to pass and move seemed to carve open the tangerines, with Ki and Ledley instrumental with intelligent and accurate passing. With both being excellent from long-range, United were keen not to allow them any room outside the box whatsoever, and this in turn created more space to exploit with passing.
The dead-lock was finally broken in the 89th minute – tactically Celtic had the game won but couldn’t find the goal – but a moment of individual skill from substitute Paddy McCourt who dinked in a beautiful left-footed cross, headed against the defender from Samaras, and then the most ruthless of poachers Gary Hooper was there to delicately tap in the winner.
Celtic’s First 11
More questions have been raised than answered with Lennon’s choice of players and tactics today, and for the Old Firm derby next week it’s almost impossible to call. It seems the luxury of two strikers is too enticing a choice for Lennon to ignore, with the five man midfield seemingly abandoned (even for these tough, physical away games). With 4-4-2 developing into Lennon’s formation of choice, it may be the safe bet, but will the plucky Irishman surprise us all again?