Who would’ve thought that with Celtic 3-0 up after 13 minutes, by the end of the game they would be clinging on for dear life?
After suffering at the hands of their arch-rivals Rangers, where Celtic deployed a conservative-ish 5 man midfield, it was back to old faithful 4-4-2 for Neil Lennon. Niall McGinn is the only change to the starting 11 who lost on Sunday, but took his place on the right wing, with the ineffectual Anthony Stokes moving back to his familiar position as striker, albeit slightly deeper than poacher Gary Hooper.
Eyebrows were raised when the BBC outlined a 3-5-2 formation for St Johnstone, and I can see how they came to that conclusion, but it was decidedly a 4-4-2. The starting lineup was as below:
Saints fans will bemoan the bizarre happenings on the left side that so confused the BBC, starting with the fact that Grainger is best as a left-back, and yet played (initially) somewhere between a left defensive-midfielder and ad hoc centre-back, and Maybury is a right-sided defender playing as a left attacking wing-back.
With Steven Anderson playing as a very defensive right-back (verging on centre-back), this made for not only a very lop-sided team, but a defence that self confusingly blinked between 3, 4 and 5 in the back-line.
Naturally the offside rule caused havoc, as did Grainger’s indecision whether he was a centre-back, left-back, left-winger or defensive midfielder, and Maybury unsure whether to attack or defend and if so who would be covering. This was especially evident for the first goal when Stokes combined with McGinn in that problem area, to drill home a fine finish from 16 yards.
With the messy over-manning of the left hand side, equally the Saints right was under-manned, exacerbated by Anderson being so far tucked in, and their right midfield Chris Millar predominantly being a central midfielder (rather than a right midfielder with confident defensive attributes in that position.) Georgios Samaras showed some excellent dribbling technique to force a (reckless) foul from Murray Davidson, with the resultant free-kick from Ki Sung-Yong eventually finding the net via McGinn and a handful of more stodgy defending.
The penultimate nail in the coffin for this particular Saints lineup was a simple ball over the top which cruelly exposed Maybury’s inability as a left-back, and you could almost see how desperate he wished he could be defending with his right side. First the pace of McGinn took him into a dangerous crossing position, and Stokes showed great positional awareness to get away from the defenders and tap in.
But the final nail proved to be a real turning point in the game. Celtic fans were (paranoid or not?) waiting for the once-a-game blunder from officials and unsurprisingly it came. As can be seen from the image on the right, Maybury (exposed again – marked as red) was caught in an outrageously bad position – just an awful defensive line. Just for reference Grainger can be seen adding to the confusion marked as yellow. Yet Hooper’s superb weighted pass straight through the bus-sized gap to Joe Ledley, who proceeded to round the keeper and score, was ruled out by the linesman for offside. A really bad decision and possibly adding fuel to the “conspiracy” fire, which is fast burning out of control.
The reason that this was a particular turning point was straight afterwards, and out of nowhere, St Johnstone pulled back a goal. And just as predictable as the crucial referee mistake is the guaranteed howler from centre-back Glenn Loovens. Surely the only reason he started this game was due to Celtic’s chronic lack of fit centre-backs. But his feeble attempt at clearing a long-ball to Sam Parkin was as embarrassing as it was important to the direction of the game.
Yes, the goal proved to be a moment of realisation for St Johnstone – that in the pouring rain, a simple high and looping pass landed vaguely in Looven’s territory results in surefire chaos. Celtic’s achilles heel was exposed. And so it was exploited time and time again for the remainder of the half as the Saints made amends for such a woeful start.
Seemingly Celtic’s desire and energy were sapped at first by the goal and then by the horrendous rain in Perth. The dynamic and urgent attacks now resorting to long and hopeful balls from the back.
But while Derek McInnes’ side suddenly enjoyed the upper hand, his own teams failings did not disappear – the lop-sided mixup could not continue so at half-time Anderson was replaced by speedy winger Jennison Myrie-Williams, and McInnes re-shuffled to appeal to his players more natural strengths.
The switch to a much more natural 4-4-2 served 2 purposes. The out and out wingers (and rampaging runs of Grainger from left-back) were specifically to get crosses in to the box. Furthermore, defensively it strengthened the Saints handling of Celtic’s most successful outlet – McGinn and Samaras down the flanks.
Neil Lennon had no reply tactically and Celtic continued their resort to high and hopefully balls. This had the disadvantage of by-passing the technically savvy midfield, and also putting pressure on the frames of Stokes and Hooper, neither of whom should be expected to pluck the ball from the air, and hold it in the heavy rain from the hulking and experienced Duberry (and Mackay), who dealt with the aerial threat easily.
On a side note it’s worrying that Celtic are so keen (like 2nd half against Rangers) to make use of the long-ball. Not only is their strength in technique and skill, but their current strikers are not great in the air – Lennon take note.
As the rain chucked it down and Celtic were so keen to relinquish possession, St Johnstone thundered in high ball after high-ball from every conceivable angle. Grainger’s Delap-esque long-throws were causing Celtic’s centre-backs all sorts of problems, and the free-kicks and corners were racking up. By the law of averages one of these set-pieces had to be turned in, and it was Davidson who leapt high on the penalty spot to punish Celtic. From a tactical perspective it was interesting to watch Celtic’s struggle – they only had 3 big men, with only Majstorovic recognised as being particularly strong in the air. Loovens and Samaras were the others and as a trio were deployed on the 6 yard line, zonally marking that danger area. On the contrary McInnes was able to bring on big Marcus Haber to add further aerial threat.
The barrage continued and Samaras actually defended very well. But Lennon had no answers and looking at the bench, the desperate introduction of Charlie Mulgrew (himself with reasonable experience at centre-back) a sign that Celtic’s defence were stretched to breaking point. From a commentators perspective surely Efrain Juarez would have been a good choice to bring on – his experience at the top level and speed and stamina would surely have been a better choice at that stage of the second half than Anthony Stokes, marooned up front chasing impossible high balls.
The match degenerated into an exercise in seeing if Celtic could last till the end, desperately clearing cross after cross, and thanks to Majstorovic they just managed it. But so many issues that Lennon needs to address. Celtic lacked a plan B and surely on the bench even with a fairly depleted squad Lennon should have given himself options. There was also a glaring lack of height across the team, and an inability to keep the ball when the going got tough. Finally Loovens must be replaced – he can be a good SPL level defender but on this form he is a menace to the team.
St Johnstone must take great heart from outplaying the Glasgow giants (post-35 minutes onwards) and deserve a lot of respect. But in the end it was a terrible team selection from the outset that undermined their nights effort mixed with disastrous collapse of Celtic as a unit. Other SPL sides will be looking at Celtic and taking notes with interest.