With off-field shenanigans coming to dominate the head-lines of late, it was a relief for a game to go by where the main talking point was the football. A below par Celtic needed a 92nd minute goal to take all three points, and while it was probably a fair result, Danny Lennon had a lot more positives to take from this game than his namesake Neil.
In the pre-match build-up, the St Mirren boss spoke of the need to: “make sure that we keep ourselves in the game and when our opportunities come along that we take them”. This was perhaps a hint at the defensive, aggressive setup that the Paisley side employed as below:
Although there was speculation that this could be a 3-5-2, quite how deep St Mirren were playing ensured this was a 5-3-2 and nothing else. Wing-backs Van Zanten and Traynor were regularly on the same defensive line as the trio of centre-backs, and the 3 midfielders ahead were happy to sit deep and frustrate Celtic.
Neil Lennon rung the changes for the away side with Efrain Juarez a straight swap for the suspended Ledley, Cha in for the much-maligned Samaras, and Rogne (Lennon’s 2nd choice CB coming back from suspension) in for Hooiveld.
The two strikers were comprehensively marked out of the entirety of the game (well, very nearly!) with Stokes in particular unable to make space for himself. This was not only due to the spare man St Mirren had in central defence, because if Stokes withdrew further into perhaps his favoured number 10 position, he was quickly sandwiched by the deep midfielder Cregg. Hooper on the other hand stayed high up the park, but with so little room to work behind and sometimes out-manned 2 or 3 to one, he was always up against it.
Celtic’s midfield are surely now accustomed to playing against a 3 man central midfield, and while Ki is normally exceptional at dropping deep and making room in such circumstances, Juarez could not make an impact. He enjoys harrying the opposition and winning possession, but today he was on the receiving end of some urgent pressing, and doesn’t yet seem to have the cool-head to receive the ball, make space and make a telling pass, albeit only just returning to the starting lineup for the first time since the Old Firm in October.
The deeper Ki and Juarez were dropping for this elusive space, and with St Mirren’s defence more than happy to keep their shape, it was becoming extremely hard to thread through decent passes, particularly in the centre.
Weakness of the 3-5-2/5-3-2
As Martin O’Neill found out at the beginning of the decline of his great Celtic side in 2003, the 3-5-2/5-3-2 is a formation that can be quite easily exploited. Generally, the easiest exploitation is to play a 4-3-3 – man for man in the centre of midfield and the centre-backs each pick up a striker (as Majstorovic and Rogne each did today). Up-front things get more interesting – the wide forwards are each occupied by the wing-backs leaving 1 centre-forward and 3 centre-backs. That’s 5 defenders dealing with 3 forwards, 3 midfielders dealing with 3 midfielders and finally 2 strikers dealing with 2 centre-backs, essentially leaving the full-backs utterly free (as Craig Burley pointed out on the ESPN commentary) and although Celtic were playing 4-4-2, under the same principle Emilio Izaguirre and Marc Wilson had the most freedom of anyone on the park.
Emilio in particular had the freedom to play most of his football in the final third, but with Van Zanten and the back-line so deep, it was difficult to get behind and cross from the by-line. In fact St Mirren were so deep they were almost uninterested in attacking themselves with any more than 2 or 3 players. And it proved in the first half, where the main danger was on the flanks, especially the left. Unfortunately Celtic’s strikers are both small players and were unable to make anything of the crosses. They fared worse on the other side where Cha and Wilson could not combine at all.
In the second half there was an increasing feeling of frustration which St Mirren almost began to sense with Higdon cannoning a wonderful looped effort off the bar. As Celtic grew ever more desperate, Lennon introduced first Murphy, then McGinn and McCourt in place of Stokes, Cha and Juarez respectively.
Given the above, it was surprising how long it took (57 minutes) to introduce Murphy – a strong targetman with great close control and good aerial ability. St Mirren’s good spell in the beginning of the 2nd half also seemed to drain them of any energy, as players were committed to attack. As a consequence and after the Celtic substitutions, they were retreating deeper and deeper, perhaps ruing the fact that in that good spell they didn’t find a goal.
As a result Ki Sung Yong was enjoying more and more space, and showed exquisite precision to thread a 30 yard ground pass through to McGinn, who’s finishing let him down. In fact the introduction of Murphy, McGinn and McCourt, while logical and on the face of it good substitutions also begged the question: why didn’t they appear sooner?
With the game seemingly finished at 0-0, it was the substitute Paddy McCourt who became game-breaker. In his customary left inside forward role, he duped Van Zanten into allowing more and more space as McCourt advanced from wide into the box. The tired defender couldn’t block the low cross that the previously anonymous Gary Hooper bundled in on the second time of asking.
It was just about deserved from Celtic given the main spell of dominance, despite the lack of cutting edge. In the end the substitutions turned the game, but very nearly could have been too little too late from Neil Lennon. It also must be said that St Mirren defended tremendously well and were so close to executing the perfect crime – playing very defensively, choosing the right moment to hit on the break, and taking that chance. Such a fine line.