Celtic grabbed a second victory in 4 days at McDiarmid park this morning – and this time there would be no surging comeback from St Johnstone.
Manager Neil Lennon opted for an unfamiliar and unconventional 4-4-2. One of the first surprises upon seeing the lineup was Cha and Wilson named in the same side. With both favouring the right-back position, it was interesting to see Cha pushed ahead on to the right wing. The Korean is generally considered to be better going forward than back, and with Celtic’s injury concerns on the flanks (with Maloney still suffering and out from Wednesday) Cha filled in well. It was a real benefit that the 2 could switch at will, and it looked to be a good defensive move and certainly an option to consider.
The other big story was young Thomas Rogne making his first competitive start of the season, replacing the calamitous Glenn Loovens whose blunder on Wednesday was the catalyst for St Johnstone’s quite spectacular comeback. The big Dutchman could not even make the bench, and even at this early stage you wonder if he can ever return to Lennon’s plans.
Fringe player Niall McGinn also picked up his first start of the season, being deployed on the left, and along with Gary Hooper missing out (metatarsel) Georgios Samaras lead the line with Anthony Stokes beside him. Both strikers possibly relieved to be starting in their favoured positions.
Having been seriously stung by ambitious experimentation in the opening 13 minutes of Wednesday’s cup tie, Saints boss McInnes reverted back to a more familiar, fairly cautious lineup. With Davidson missing out due to injury, and Samuel and Parkin dropping to the bench due to knocks, the only other change from midweek was Anderson, in what was a tactical decision. Myre-Williams, Haber, MacDonald and Milne came in.
But tactics aside, the opening began a little surreal with Niall McGinn tapping in after only 69 seconds. The Saints seemed to be half-asleep as a clever free-kick from Ki found Stokes, who fired in a shot that the keeper couldn’t handle. It felt like St Johnstone were a goal down without the match even starting and even at this early stage the Saints were deflated.
On Wednesday the home sides main trump card was the high ball into Celtic’s achilles heel – Loovens but even apart from that area of Celtic’s defence, they are a small team and struggled in general with aerial balls. It was strange that McInnes didn’t repeat the tactic that gained such success and instead St Johnstone, with the little possession they had struggled to make anything happen. In fact one of their only attempts on goal was a feeble header from Haber towards the end of the first half.
The Saints defence was struggling to cope with the movement of both Samaras and Stokes, with both inter-changing at will and dropping into deeper areas of the field. This style of play (that both strikers are noted for) sometimes has the disadvantage of leaving your team a little short up front, without a focal point, but when you’re 1-0 up so early there was no rush to get another goal. Instead Celtic applied pressure with on the deck passing (no more Loovens long-balls) and the pace of McGinn and Cha caused concern. Cha especially with his full-back defensive sensibilities helping cancel out the danger of Grainger.
St Johnstone’s key man in their formation was Steven Milne, and fortunately for Celtic he had a very quiet game. McInnes’ 4-4-1-1 became more of a 4-5-1 with Milne being the extra man in midfield and McInnes would have hoped Milne would be taking up possession between the lines and behind Celtic’s flat 4 man midfield. Yet Milne was picked up easily by Ledley, and despite a numerical disadvantage in the centre, Ki and Ledley were on top.
Where as Ki is often deployed very deep for his country, and for Celtic such as in the Old Firm derby, he can often be found picking up possession between his own centre-backs. But today with Ledley being more of an anchor, Ki was able to get forward into some fine positions, and hit the post with a low drive early in the first half. He’s a player fast becoming one of my favourites at Celtic, and seems to have everything in his locker. Lennon could be seen giving the thumbs up to Ki after the midfielder got forward and hit a shot – I think the manager wants to see more threats created from outside the box, and both Ki and Ledley have ability when striking a football from range – promising.
Almost as unrelated to tactics as the first goal, the second came from a dreadful mistake from Milne (who really did have a rotten game) who passed straight to Emilio Izaguirre, who displayed great sharpness, technique and a poachers finish to score the second just before half-time.
McInnes has already shown his ability to shake things up and after the initial formation continued to frustrate into the second half, the Saints manager reshuffled on the hour.
Sam Parking, the scorer of St Johnstone’s first goal midweek replaced the ineffectual Milne, and Colin Samuel, who looked dangerous (if greedy) on Wednesday came on for MacDonald, who was also playing poorly. As the diagram above indicates, Myre-Williams was shifted to the left wing with Samuel playing inside-right bordering on out and out striker – back to 4-4-2 to chase the goals, but approaching 4-3-3 – bold.
With Samuel concerned mainly with getting as close to goal as possible, this conceded a large amount of freedom to left-back Izaguirre, who had spent much of the game successfully snuffing out the threat of Myre-Williams. Myre-Williams was consequently snuffed out the remainder of his game by Marc Wilson, and the knock-on effect was that Grainger was almost hindered by the new congestion ahead of him, having previously had McDonald tucked in giving him a bit of freedom on the left channel.
Neil Lennon’s reaction to leading 2-0 at half-time was to become slightly more conservative. Samaras clearly started taking up a more inside-left like position, and McGinn looked to play in the hole in the middle. However his natural tendencies as a winger saw him generally drifting left rather than consistently trying to create through the middle. But the bottom line was a change from a 4 man midfield, to a 5, with McGinn breaking between the lines, particularly on the counter.
While the Saints couldn’t really cope 3 v 2 in midfield, a complete reversal to 2 v 3 made things much more difficult, and it suprises me even more that the Celtic defence were not subjected to a barrage of long balls to the 2 (and Samuel) up front, all pretty big guys who would have proved to be a handful. Unfortunately for Saints, Haber didn’t seem that comfortable with the ball going to his feet, and Majstorovic had his number for the entirity of the game.
The game ran itself out with Celtic content and enjoying much of possession, with the now liberated Emilio in particular looking dangerous. Similarly, McGinn’s pace, Ledley’s industry and Ki’s cunning were combining to good effect and the Hoops could well have ended up with more goals. With the Saints looking disheartened, the closest threat to Forster’s goal came from a Samuel cross (again, the high-ball method) that Celtic struggled to clear and then a Parkin off-side that did force the Celtic keeper into a fine, if unnecessary block.
The most interesting thing tactically was another minor shuffle from McInnes, who introduced Rutkiewicz for Myre-Williams. This brought a little balance to the Saints who were struggling with Celtic’s countering – Rutkiewicz dropped to left-back allowing Grainger to fully exploit the wing which unfortunately for McInnes did not bear any success. Grainger was sent off in the end for an avoidable 2nd yellow, compounding the disappointment for St Johnstone who bore little resemblance to the side that nearly staged a splendid turnaround on Wednesday.
With Ki going close with another free-kick, Niall McGinn’s day was summed up when he scuffed a shot breaking into the Saints box. But Lady Luck had the ball sail precisely past Graeme Smith, ending whatever hope McInnes may have had of gaining anything from this match.
On the whole it was interesting to see Lennon learning his lesson from Wednesday and playing the ball almost exclusively on the deck. Even corners were restricted mainly to the front post (presumably by choice) or even along the ground or short. The opening goal looked to be a good example of this (from a wide free-kick). Conversely did McInnes pick up on how much trouble their height and power could cause? A similar ploy was not on display this morning.
Celtic fans curious about Looven’s replacement will no doubt be delighted with a clean sheet and zero incidents of defensive mistakes. But young Rogne was never really tested and perhaps looked half a yard off the pace. A quiet performance by the young Norwegian – but that’s the way defenders like it. Next week’s home tie against Aberdeen will surely prove to be a busier day for Thomas and the Bhoys.