Inverness maintained their impressive away record by coming from 2 behind to hold Celtic to a draw at Parkhead. The match was at risk of postponement due to the continuing refereeing crisis and the unseasonally heavy snowfall, but Alain Hamer from Luxembourg stepped in and the snow eventually subsided.
With Celtic’s defence and resilience being under serious question in recent weeks, manager Neil Lennon sprung a surprise by naming 3 central defenders in his starting lineup – harking back to his playing days of 2003 under Martin O’Neill. With in-form Emilio Izaguirre injured, Charlie Mulgrew came in at left wing-back. Anthony Stokes, Mark Wilson and Niall McGinn couldn’t make the starting 11, and Georgios Samaras couldn’t make the bench.
A lot has changed in the world of tactics since O’Neill’s heyday, with the 3-5-2 generally considered a specialist defensive “under siege” formation. Not often thought of as a serious attacking option for the “giants”. Such was the popularity of O’Neill’s setup that the formation is often begged for on fan forums from time to time.
It was a ploy to shore things up defensively, add a bit of height to the team and get more proper defenders in and around the penalty area; but for Celtic, when playing at home they tend to enjoy a massive share of possession.
The case for defence is the ability to play 2 striker and a player “in the hole”. Images of Lubomir Moravcik playing just behind Sutton and Larsson may stir romantic encouragement from the support, but even in those days the flamboyant Slovakian was used sparingly, and in fact even as one of the 2 strikers instead, with a more workmanlike midfielder (such as Stan Petrov, or even Sutton) taking responsibility for the central attacking midfield position.
Not for the first time this season, Shaun Maloney was withdrawn early after colliding with an opposition defender, and it now became Patrick McCourt’s big chance to show he can last the majority of the game as the crux of the team, and rarely for the contemporary game, he had a genuine free role.
Nothing changed with the two central midfielders, although Ki and Ledley can never be as defensively mature as Lennon and Lambert once were, and out wide Mulgrew at left wing-back was today’s Alan Thompson, and Cha Du Ri taking up sprint duties on the right in the mould of Didier Agathe. But Cha played extremely high up the pitch, aggressively attacking the young Inverness left-back Shinnie, which asked a lot of Thomas Rogne who was reluctantly forced out to right-back to deal with Richie Foran and was never comfortable.
With Inverness (especially in the opening stages) going with an isolated lone striker, Celtic were left with control of the ball but with 3 cumbersome centre-backs starting off moves instead of the usual 2. This effectively meant one less attacking player ahead. When with the ball, the trio would spread out as wide as possible with the strange scenario of Thomas Rogne and Jos Hooiveld acting as deep full-backs.
In theory, when defending the centre-backs would outnumber the (impressive) Adam Rooney 3 to 1, but in practice Majstorovic was going one to one with the ICT forward, Rogne was marooned in the full-back position as discussed and Hooiveld had a slightly easier time of it but was always drifting in to his instinctive CB area, exposing space behind Mulgrew.
So despite being visibly uncomfortable, slightly open defensively and clumsy and unsure starting off attacks, Celtic went and took the lead through a sharp finish on the turn from Ki Sung-Yong.
It’s worth mentioning that up front Celtic went with the old big man / little man combination. But it would prove to be a fruitless day for both strikers.
Inverness 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2
It was predictable that Terry Butcher would try and flood the midfield with the intention of killing any creativity that Celtic could muster, such is the fashion of teams visiting Glasgow. Tricky left-footed winger Johnny Hayes had a good game and had the most license to support Rooney. He worked an intelligent relationship with Lee Cox in that when attacking on the right-flank (making perhaps a 4-5-1 shape) Cox would fill in centrally, and when pressing high through the middle (making the 4-4-1-1) Cox would become the right-midfielder. This inter-changing made for a congested right-hand side, which no doubt worked to the advantage of the away side.
If a little toothless up front, Inverness generally played deep, tough and disciplined and were maybe unlucky to concede. Rooney was a handful for Majstorovic, but he had no support in the first period and ICT could not take advantage of Celtic’s uncertainty.
3-4-3 / 3-5-2 rejected
Going into the second half 1-0 up without Inverness really threatening, a change in system could be described as the wrong decision. But the issues discussed previously were still clear to see and after 57 minutes Lennon took the gamble of reverting back to a version of the 4-4-2 that’s been the formation of choice up until today. I asked for a more pro-active approach and here it was in action:
Big centre-back Jos Hooiveld having found himself out of position in a left-backish area was correctly swapped for a midfielder (Towell), enabling Mulgrew to drop back and the formation to move in the 4-4-2 direction. However, with Towell being a central midfielder who enjoys the ball at his feet, wing duties were left for Cha to continue, and Towell tucked in slightly.
When McCourt gets the chance to run at defenders he is truely dazzling. It may be difficult for outsiders to believe, but his dribbling is genuinely top class and I’m refraining from making the comparison to someone like Marko Marin and I certainly won’t mention Leo Messi. But the “Derry Pele’s” game is critically undone by a lack of athleticism – criminally unable to track back, make tackles, or win headers and has a notorious lack of stamina.
It was a game that underlined his qualities and flaws – the goal to make it 2-0 was extraordinary. Dancing around 3 defenders before dummying and lifting the ball casually over the baffled keeper. And on this form he was allowed to keep his initial free-role, instead of moving onto the left of a 4-4-2 (where he is normally deployed). Therefore the shape of the team (with Towell rather central) was perhaps more 4-3-1-2/4-3-3.
The goal that dragged Inverness back into the game was the dreaded individual error, and not to do with Lennon’s setup. An unsuccessful pass by Inverness was not cleared by Majstorovic, who instead played a hospital pass to Rogne. Foran ghosted in, stole the ball and showed fine composure to score.
The goal couldn’t have come at a worse time and Celtic were rattled. Bewildered by shifting from a formation they’ve never played to slightly less of a formation they’ve never played, confusion reigned supreme and the goal swung the belief and initiative in Butcher’s favour.
And then, McCourt’s negatives. While not really being part of the midfield, or being wide-left, there were gaping holes and Celtic’s midfield were swamped. Defensively he is flimsy, as is Mulgrew, so this fragile team with a history of conceding late goals under pressure, playing an unfamiliar formation realised Lennon’s worst nightmare and conceded a late goal – yet again from a set-piece.
In the quest for defensive solidity the team was only undermined – the experiment was a failure. What is disconcerting about these late turnarounds, is how well Celtic can play initially. The 4-4-2 (4-4-1-1) has never had a problem getting goals. From a commentator’s perspective, what is needed is a more subtle reaction to taking the lead. No more gigantic changes away from the tried and tested 4-4-2 – the decision to return to a back 3 seemed rose-tinted. Lennon already knows how to get the goals: what’s required is a more subtle, or more intelligent way to protect them. What I’d like to see is a genuine combative 5 man midfield introduced into games.