Glasgow Celtic have been dominating the back pages of the newspapers this last few days, yet incredibly it’s matters off the park that’s eclipsed the incredible 9-0 victory over Aberdeen at the weekend. And while the debates over Poppy flowers, Pope e-mails and referee conspiracies continue to garner column-inches, there’s the sudden realisation that the main purpose of the club is to play association football. Unfortunately at Tynecastle tonight, there wasn’t much of that to be seen from Celtic, who were thoroughly outplayed by a more motivated, better organised Heart of Midlothian.
Neil Lennon opted for a version of his favoured 4-4-2 with 4 fluid attackers, 2 holding midfielders with an eye for a pass, rampaging full-backs and no nonsense centre-backs. On the face of it, standard choices.
But most perplexing to Celtic fans from the off was the decision to make changes to a side that had comprehensively demolished Aberdeen. The only reasoning behind the inclusion of Georgios Samaras is the issue of height, because prior to this game the Greek had been on poor form. In the past 5 games, the one occasion Samaras did not start was against Aberdeen, who are the only team with an average height lower than Celtic’s (5’10” Vs Celtic’s 5’11”). Majstorovic and Hooiveld aside, Celtic are a very short team and Samaras’ height is important during set-plays.
Samaras is sometimes accommodated on the left of a 4-2-3-1, but the issue when played as the left striker in a 4-4-2, is his natural instinct to move into the left-channel inhibit’s the movement of the left-winger, who tonight was Shaun Maloney. This congestion on the left also added to Emilio Izaguirre’s frustrations, as there was little room to charge into. The other “victim” would be Anthony Stokes, who is generally much less effective on the right – against Aberdeen starting as a deep striker, he found the net three times.
Jim Jefferies’ 4-3-3 succeeded in nullifying Celtic’s attacking potential all over the very narrow pitch, so narrow in fact that it doesn’t qualify for UEFA club competitions at only 64 metres wide (compared to minimum 68) surely a factor in Celtic’s inability to make the space that they thrive in.
Apart from struggling to attack, Izaguirre could not cope with David Templeton at all, and partly due to the bravery of the Hearts setup. Templeton played extremely high up the park and did not require to track back with Bouzid, Jonsson and Black succeeding in closing off that right hand side, with every attempt of Izaguirre to break forward leaving all sorts of room for the Hearts winger to exploit, and the immobile Hooiveld does not have the acceleration to compensate.
On the other side Stephen Elliot succeeded in mainly occupying Majstorovic, but tracking back just enough to keep check of Marc Wilson, who similarly found it impossible to overlap Stokes and get forward. In fact what’s interesting about the Hearts setup was the entire left-flank was the territory of left-back Ruben Palazuelos’ . Celtic’s right-winger Stokes was too concerned with cutting in towards goal, doesn’t have the pace to get to the by-line and had essentially evacuated that area of the field. As a striker it was natural but this space neutered Wilson and only added to the midfield frustration.
Heart’s three central midfielders easily trumped Celtic’s two and not just with the numerical advantage: their pressing was much more urgent and Ki and Ledley starved of options ahead of them, struggled to create. Celtic in general were enjoying more possession but could not make any progress, and Hearts were perfectly organised to counter-attack: Either a long-ball behind Izaguirre, or a long-ball to Kyle who had the beating of Hooiveld every time. And what added further to the tactic was the speed that the Heart’s front players would support the target man. Elliot, Skacel, Templeton and Black would swarm for any scrap of a flick-on.
Overall Jim Jefferies entire plan worked spectacularly well, and Lennon the opposite. But there’s no under-estimating the superior desire of the Hearts players, who consistently out-thought and out-fought Celtic. Although the away team were still in with a shout at 1-0, Ledley was correctly sent off for a terrible lunge. There will (or should) be no claims of conspiracy this time round, including the flimsy hand-ball claim.
Strictly from a Celtic point of view, it was very interesting to monitor Lennon’s tactical response to losing a man:
The decision to replace Wilson was rather straight-forward, Cha is more attacking and Wilson was toiling (though ultimately Cha was not much of an improvement). But there were 2 main decisions that will rankle some sections of the Celtic support.
Removing Anthony Stokes was probably the correct decision. Even though he is a goal-scorer and in-form, in the context of tonight’s game Celtic needed to re-organise their shape. Stokes was not doing enough defensively and therefore McGinn was introduced.
With Maloney (a winger/forward) now taking up a central midfield role, in an area of the pitch already over-whelmed, 10-man Celtic looked even more soft-centred. Surely it was an ideal time to use Efrain Juarez, an energetic and attacking midfielder eager to gain a place in the team. Perhaps with Lennon already consigned to the “ESPN interview room” the game was already up. From start to finish Lennon’s choices were less than inspired, and Jim Jefferies’ Hearts took full advantage.