With Celtic recently losing the initiative in the SPL title race, the most undermining criticism of Neil Lennon’s reign as Celtic manager has been: he doesn’t win the big games.
But head to head against Walter Smith’s Rangers, the record now stands at 2-1 in Lennon’s favour. And to win again at Ibrox makes the victory all the more satisfying. Furthermore, the much-maligned man who settled the game regularly faces similar criticism, so all in all this has been an Old Firm where Georgios Samaras and his manager have silenced the critics.
Yet the starting lineup, if failing to raise eye-brows caused great concern. Apart from the aforementioned Greek playing in a lone role up front, Charlie Mulgrew earned his first start since the disappointing draw against Inverness in November. Two massive gambles on two arguably “unpopular” players.
Mark Wilson came in at right-back and Baram Kayal at centre-mid as straightforward swaps for Cha Du Ri and the excellent Ki Sung-Yeung respectfully. Both replacements perhaps worked in Celtic’s favour as both are more defensively minded, crucial given the recent defensive mini-crisis.
Having recently abandoned the 4-4-2 in favour of 4-2-3-1, Lennon again went for a five man midfield, but this time the wingers and central players played at a much deeper level, so could easily be considered 4-4-1-1 or even 4-5-1. Playing so deep is pretty alien to this Celtic side who have suffered this season playing high up the park; trying to break down stubborn deep defences only to be caught out on the counter or at set-pieces.
Along with the more defensive inclusions of Wilson, Kayal and the general deep midfield, the employment of left full/wing-back Mulgrew at left-midfield now also made sense. Lennon had set out to stall and probably for the first time aim to hit the opposition on the counter-attack, utilising Samaras’ pace and power (also now explaining his inclusion over Stokes).
Rangers Starting Lineup
In as neutral terms as possible, this negative, counter-attacking style absolutely epitomises this Rangers side, and Smith has become a master of it – the 2008 UEFA Cup run is testament to this. With shortages of options up front, Smith continued his 4-4-1-1 with winger Vladimir Weiss playing behind SPL top-scorer Kenny Miller.
With Steven Naismith dropping out just prior to the game, the only real proven replacement was Kyle Lafferty, who returned after a lengthy lay-off. The pre-match question was; would Weiss revert to left-wing and Lafferty play as a striker in a 4-4-2? Or even play Lafferty wide-left? But even at the late stage of Naismith’s removal, Smith sparked a major surprise by handing Jamie Ness his Old Firm debut. This had major ramifications for the roles of the personnel, if not the team’s shape. Right-sided Steven Whittaker was the man who replaced Naismith at left-midfield, Ness joined McCulloch in the centre (two extremely defensive players) and Davis played, also in a slightly unfavoured, tucked in right-midfield role.
Defensive 4-4-1-1 vs Defensive 4-4-1-1
The obvious connotations of two defensive 4-4-1-1’s facing against each other, especially in an Old Firm encounter, is just how scrappy and congested the game would become. As expected, counter-parts Miller and Samaras were isolated and chances were few and far between. Celtic were predictably threatened at a set-piece, with Lee McCulloch’s header deflected against the bar. The first half saw both teams cancel each other out, and you wondered if both managers would find a draw agreeable. In occasions like this, it often comes down to individuals breaking the game, and so it proved.
But if one team had slightly more possession, and were playing higher up the pitch – it was Rangers. What’s interesting, and slightly on a tangent is just how Rangers get away with regularly fielding a 40 plus central defender at the highest level in both Scotland and Europe. The reason they do, is primarily their coy defensive setup. David Weir generally travels very little distance, and sticks stubbornly to his zone just outside the Rangers box. When necessary, the pacey Bougherra or converted centre-back Sasa Papac (the defensively minded left-back) deal with balls over the top if required.
Rangers Perilous High-Line
So with Rangers perhaps gaining the upper hand and putting pressure on the resilient Celtic defence, it must’ve been of slight concern for Smith (albeit on the while on the attack) to see Bougherra and Weir stationed level on the half-way line alongside Samaras. One exceptional ball over the top from Joe Ledley later, and Samaras sprinted away. With Bougherra unsighted by Samaras’ movement, Weir could not cope and neither could the “sweeping” Alan MacGregor. The control and finish under these circumstances was excellent, and it seemed for once that Celtic dealt the sucker-punch.
Another point of interest, was the play of both sides “in the hole” attacking midfielders. Not Paddy McCourt’s most fruitful experience in something approaching a free-role, but it was certainly his most industrious, helping Samaras chase down the opposition defenders when not in possession. It was an exhausting 90 minutes for McCourt, but served to answer critics’ main bone of contention; that he doesn’t have the stamina to defend effectively.
Weiss is a winger at heart, and in his increasingly frustrated quest for space drifted to either wing, predominantly the left. But again with the Celtic defenders uncharacteristically and particularly deep, and a defensive 4 man midfield ahead Weiss was squeezed out the game, his odd flutter of trickery coming to nothing.
When Rangers do have such time on the ball and struggle against a stubborn side, it seems Walter Smith gives license to Madjid Bougherra to get forward and try to overload defences, becoming an ad-hoc extra man in attack. He’s scored important goals bombing forward in this fashion, most notably against Stuttgart in the 2009 Champions League group stage and it’s an interesting tactic if the centre-back has the quality and mobility.
It seems clear that Rangers had little interest in knocking high-balls into the box. Steven Whittaker (primarily a right full-back) was wrong-footed as a left-midfielder and looking at the Rangers bench underlines how thin a squad Rangers actually have. Davis was tucked in and didn’t provide much width, and utility man Ricky Foster isn’t the most attacking of full-backs and offered little threat.
Celtic had a genuine “flying” right-winger in James Forrest, but with the general setup extremely deep, he couldn’t receive the ball in decent positions and his role was restricted mainly to defending. On the left, Mulgrew again was deep, and Izaguirre rarely overlapped. While Celtic were playing a reserved, “Rangers” style, their hosts simply couldn’t make anything happen and played pretty poorly. In fact on the break Celtic actually created more shots on goal, more corners and more set-pieces.
The second required fine skill from Samaras who took the ball in an isolated position deep in Rangers’ territory. The Greek cut easily past Ness and with Bougherra covering, the Algerian lazily clattered into Samaras in the box. Unlike most Old Firm derbys, the referee had an easy call to make and pointed to the spot. Samaras casually swept the ball into the inside side-netting with a superb penalty.
It was a strange encounter – the exemplary respected minute silence and mutual mourning of the 66 had an air of dignity and consideration about it that seemed to go beyond football and numbed the fiery Old Firm rage that animilises players and fans alike.
With two deep and defensive 4-4-1-1 sides, less brutal hatchetry and Celtic being more ruthless with the space they were afforded on the counter, it was a satisfying victory and one where Neil Lennon can truly be applauded. With some controversial selections and omissions, Lennon took a big gamble that if backfired would add perhaps intolerable pressure. Lennon will be delighted with some individual performances as well, with Samaras and Kayal impressive, and of course a fine defensive performance that merited the clean sheet. It is also satisfying that for once (or at least since Gordon Strachan) a Celtic manager has decided to take a more sensible, cautious approach to the Ibrox encounters. But with Rangers looking to take 6 points from their games in hand and go two points ahead at the top, there is still so much for Lennon and this team to do.