Celtic squandered their chance to go top of the league for Christmas, after being held to a 1-1 draw by a well organised and stubborn Kilmarnock. The same old problems persist for Neil Lennon’s side, despite dominating possession for the entirety of the game, the Hoops weren’t ruthless enough in front of goal and caved at the slightest suggestion of pressure.
Although numerous sources are citing a 4-2-4 formation as the reason for this failure, Celtic lined up in their standard 4-4-2 (or perhaps notationally correct 4-2-2-2) formation with very attack minded wingers and a big man / little man combination up front in Murphy and Hooper. McGinn enjoyed playing in a more “correct” footed wing role, where as Forrest was forced to be slightly more cunning in getting to use his favoured right. Neither had anywhere near their best game in a Celtic shirt, with McGinn in particular wasteful in the first half and Forrest having come back from a long lay-off, struggling to catch up with the pace and intensity of first team action.
Par for the course when coming to Glasgow, Mixu Paatelainen opted for a five man midfield – predominantly a 4-5-1 but there was a fairly clear definition between the 2 holding players (Fowler and Hamill) and Taouil, Eremenko and Craig Bryson. The latter was the key man for Killie by far having the most creative influence and clearly Paatelainen’s intention was to get the ball to his feet as much as possible. Bryson benefited from being the spare man (against Celtic’s 2 man centre) as Fowler would step up from deep alongside Hamill to match Celtic’s Ki and Ledley. Eremenko may be the man grabbing all the juicy headlines but it was Bryson pulling all the strings.
What was also interesting was how central Eremenko and Taouil played – in defence torn between supplementing the congestion in the centre of midfield while also tracking the runs of their opposing full-backs. It was slightly disappointing how easy the Killie wide-men were able to keep Cha and Izaguirre in check without applying any significant pressure. Despite being left with a fairly large amount of space, neither full-back exploited just how much room they were given (nor the fact that Taouil and in particular Eremenko, are slight, a bit lazy and don’t enjoy tracking back.) This lack of support for Forrest and McGinn made their job on the wing much harder, as generally they would be man-marked plus find one of Fowler or Hamill supporting the defensive cause.
Under intense pressure at times in the first half, Kilmarnock’s shape was more 4-3-2-1 with Bryson dropping into a deep shield with Fowler and Hamill – enough to stifle Ki and Ledley’s central attacking options. Murphy struggled in the target-man role and was easily shepherded by Pascali. Meanwhile Gary Hooper looked the most incisive coming close on a number of occasions, but in a moment of disaster for Celtic the English striker twisted his knee after 35 minutes and was replaced like-for-like with Anthony Stokes, who didn’t make an impact at all on the game. Hooper is rumoured to be out until as long as May – a devastating blow for Celtic.
With Paatelainen trying to flood the midfield, Celtic were far more effective playing down the flanks. With the 1 man deficit in the centre, in all other areas Celtic were 1 v 1 (except at back where it was a 2 v 1 situation Rogne/Majstorovic vs Sammon) and in 1 v 1 situations quality should shine through. But not one Celtic player (with perhaps exception of Hooper in early stages) won their personal battles. Ki and Ledley despite being outnumbered, were able to keep possession and make sure the ball was channelled to the right areas, but the final ball from the full-backs, wingers (who admittedly were sometimes faced with 1 defender and 1 midfielder to beat) and forwards was simply not up to scratch.
One thing to consider after months of being shaky in defence: Were Cha and Izaguirre actively instructed by Lennon not to get quite so far forward, in an effort to solidify the defence?
Regardless, whoever crossed the ball couldn’t find the target. In fact Celtic’s most convincing efforts were coming from good delivers from Ki at set-pieces. It was no surprise that this is where the equaliser originated from.
Yet it was from one of Celtic’s many attacking set-pieces that Connor Sammon broke the deadlock, and Paatelainen’s counter-attacking system paying off. Casually picking up possession from a Killie clearance, almost in his own half and marked only really by Izaguirre (one of two defenders back) the Kilmarnock top scorer powered into the Celtic box, and while his marker managed the right thing and pushed Sammon wide, it was consequently Izaguirre’s weaker side, and Sammon was able to finish precisely. Question marks over how the striker could run the length of the half with only one real challenge, but it was an excellent run.
At that point (53 mins) if Celtic fans weren’t already nervous and impatient, then now they undoubtedly were. This impetuousity was shared by the Celtic players who suddenly couldn’t find the same rhythm or retention of possession.
It was good to see the return of Scott Brown after a lengthy absence due to injury, but his like for like swap with Ledley changed nothing. The idea was perhaps to recover a bit of bite and possession to the midfield, and Brown did play some nice passes, but it wasn’t a significant enough difference. The final (desperate) roll of the dice with the third change went of course to “supersub” Patrick McCourt – a player who can certainly be described a a match-winner; but in the 20 minutes he was on, Celtic didn’t really have enough composure to use him in the right areas, and while being the correct (if predictable) idea, again the swap did little.
Analysing the actions of Lennon and his management team, it seemed a bit of a lazy, imprecise performance. It was the same old attacking 4-4-2, with some of our best (and most settled) starting 11. It was the same old mish-mash when attacking and defending set-pieces, but as the game progressed yet again there was no evidence of any kind of tactical shift, no evidence of an attempt to win the game through the manager. It’s not even a “reactive” style of management – it’s simply plan A for 90 minutes. On paper Celtic have much more quality in their squad, and were playing at home – so surely the buck stops with how the manager chooses, organises and motivates the team?
This is becoming something of a regularity on this blog, but once again Lennon easily out-thought off the park and desperately needs to be more proactive if he has any hopes of staying at Celtic Park beyond his current 1 season remit.