For all the thought and preparation Mark McGhee must’ve put into this game, not even in the depths of his worst nightmare could he have imagined the horror that unfolded at Celtic Park this afternoon, as Aberdeen crumbled to an astonishing 9-0 defeat.
But it was one of those days where there was perhaps nothing particularly brilliant about Lennon’s setup, and McGhee’s plan was not that bad, but the clear difference was in the execution. Aberdeen’s initial (and short-lived) setup can be seen below:
On first look this is a fairly traditional 4-1-4-1 and it does have the standard elements – a defensive flat back-four, a quality anchor-man in Paul Hartley and another combative midfielder in the centre in Yoann Folly. However, the biggest mistake here was relying too heavily on strikers filling in midfield or wide roles – Vernon, Aluko and Maguire are not particularly suited to a midfield battle, especially against one half of the Old Firm. The Aberdeen boss perhaps wanted the best of both worlds – an inherently defensive formation but with a goal-scoring threat in all areas of the park.
If Aberdeen were to enjoy any success, it would be through Sone Aluko – a player that McGhee holds in very high regard, but having just come back from a lengthy lay-off, this was a gamble that back-fired. Question marks also hang over top scoring forward Vernon ostracised on the left of midfield, and third top scorer MaGuire similarly misused on the right. With so many offensive players in such a defensive setup, it was perhaps a case of round pegs in square holes – but even this didn’t account for the spectacular capitulation of Aberdeen.
As the season progresses it’s becoming clearer that Lennon is happy to switch between 4-4-2 and 4-2-31 depending on players available. In practice there’s common elements – basically the back 7 players from goalkeeper to Ki and Ledley never change. Generally there’s at least 1 out and out striker (Gary Hooper) but it’s the shape of the 3 remaining players that defines the formation with Anthony Stokes in this case usurping Shaun Maloney as the player “in the hole”.
What may also be interesting about Lennon’s choice is the dropping of Georgios Samaras (who had started the previous 6 games). Against St Johnstone he was the third strongest headerer of the ball, but with Aberdeen not being a particularly tall team, perhaps this lack of aerial threat warranted the big Greek dropping to the bench. With McGinn scoring 3 goals in the 2 Perth games, this further debased Samaras’ argument to be starting.
Movement of front 4
Where under Gordon Strachan, McGinn had mainly operated as an out and out right winger, the past few games has seen McGinn pushed inwards to the inside-right channel to allow Cha Du Ri to overlap, and this is how Lennon set up today. Stokes doesn’t favour that wide-right position and much prefers being the centre of attention, and he thrived today. Stokes may not be the best at dribbling, but his technique, close control and link-up play is really impressive and between the central quartet of Stokes, Maloney, McGinn and Hooper, Aberdeen were struggling to cope with the devilish movement.
It has to be the shortest front four in British football, but with constant quality ammunition being supplied from the irrepressible Ki Sung-Yong and Joe Ledley, Aberdeen were pushed deeper and deeper and that’s exactly where the pivotal moment in the match materialised. With Hartley and Folly tracking Maloney and Stokes deep into their own penalty area, the back-line were practically entrenched on the 6-yard line. The ball was half-cleared after trickery from Maloney and Ki’s goal-bound placed shot hit Hartley’s unnaturally raised hands. With the clear goal being denied, Hartley had to walk, and from then on in it was an uphill struggle.
Even before the penalty and 25 minutes in, it almost felt like Aberdeen had not yet turned up and the possession figure at that time of 65% to Celtic underlined this. Losing both key men in midfield (Hartley to the card and Aluko tactically withdrawn) and leaving forwards playing unfamiliar, defensively crucial roles, McGhee’s mighty gamble had backfired drastically and he would pay the price.
Despite at 3-0 the referee (on paper at least) levelling the playing field by correctly red-carding Thomas Rogne, the difference was minimal.
If anything with both teams down to 10 men, Celtic were able to use the unusual amount of space to their maximum advantage. At times only the goalkeeper and two centre-backs were left back, with Cha Du-Ri and Emilio Izaguirre effectively becoming wingers. Shaun Maloney continued at inside-left and Stokes nominally as an inside-right, but the latter had so much freedom to get into dangerous areas and Aberdeen could not respond. It was relentless over-loading and their outlet up front (Vernon at the beginning of the second half followed by Magennis) were anonymous.
But going back to the movement of Celtic’s front 4; Hooper was clinical, Stokes incredibly (with each grabbing a hat-trick) and every Bhoy played well. But special mention to Ki Sung-Yong for pulling the strings so precisely and his 75th minute removal not only facilitated the standing ovation the Korean deserved, but also shows how much Lennon feels Ki can bring to the team. There’s nobody like him in the SPL.
But fawning over the goals and performances can be left to the fan-sites and red-tops. The only goal that mattered was the first (including the resulting red-card) but arguably the Aberdeen players traveled to Glasgow with no actual desire to win, regardless of Mark McGhee’s tactics. Sadly it’s McGhee that will be found accountable.