Scott Brown arrived at Celtic in 2007 at the age of 21, another in the long line of Hibernian hot prospects plucked by a Glasgow giant. With rivals Rangers vying for his signature, he eventually chose Gordon Strachan’s Celtic and at £4.4m came at a price almost exorbitant at the time, still yet to be exceeded in Scotland. After a difficult first season tortured by tragic family circumstances, Brown went on to become Scotland’s Player of the Year 2008 and is now Captain of the club.
Recent Midfield History
Brown has been a regular in an area where Celtic have recently developed a wealth of talent, and curiously year on year we’ve seen management continue to strengthen this department. With Brown established, highly rated Ki Sung-Yeung enjoyed a strong 2010 World Cup, and Marc Crosas has impressed in his few appearances (despite accusations of being “too light-weight” for Scotland) – so already a strong midfield contingent. In came Joe Ledley on a free described as a “£6 million player”, World Cup Mexican regular Efrain Juarez and the relatively unknown Baram Kayal. With youth graduate Richie Towell also knocking on the first team door, this makes for 7 centre-midfielders on the Celtic books.
Since Martin O’Neill’s 3-5-2 was cruelly exposed by Alex McLeish’s Rangers side (which utilised a 4-3-3), Celtic have taken the 4-4-2 to heart with O’Neill, Strachan, Mowbray and now Lennon setting up predominantly in this way. As Jonathan Wilson recently blogged, the job of a centre-midfielder (in a centre 2) is to achieve enough possession to filter the ball wide. And I think this hints at just how unglamorous the position has become. Over the same period our most creative and exciting players have been the wide men – Nakamura, McGeady, Maloney and this is no coincidence. Celtic have been setup specifically to win midfield battles, retain possession sensibly in the centre and feed the creative wide players in dangerous areas of the park. This more conservative emphasis for the central players can therefore be detrimental to much valued goalscoring and assist records.
Current 2 Central Spots
In both Lennon’s favoured 4-4-2 or more recent take on 4-2-3-1 (4-4-1-1?) there are always 2 pivoted centre-midfielders. At the beginning of the season Brown was first choice in this role, partnered with either Ledley or Ki. Kayal was ruled out by an early season-injury, Juarez started brightly but in rather unclear circumstances dropped out of contention entirely while Crosas looks to be considered backup at best. But an injury to Brown put an end to this arrangement, and Ki and Ledley emerged as clear starting picks after a string of excellent and consistent displays. With Ki on international duty, now is an ideal time to reclaim a starting spot in that guaranteed centre 2.
Scott Brown’s Game
Having already made over 100 appearances now for Celtic, Brown has been a mainstay of the past 4 years. Making allowances for the difficult first season, the second season (2008-09) was the breakthrough; and part justification for being the most expensive Celtic signing since John Hartson in 2001. But he wasn’t the precocious creative attacker that many fans expected. He had emerged as a brawler – all fight, pressing, hacking and heckling. His scoring/assist record is testament to this, or at least doesn’t suggest “attacking”:
Much was made of Brown’s attacking flair, optimistically described by some as “the Scottish Gerrard” but consistently over 4 seasons, the performances do not back this up. His shooting is poor, forward passing functional and creativity a little uninspiring. But neither is Brown a “defensive” midfielder, certainly not in the classic footballing mould of Lennon or Paul Lambert. He lacks both positioning (in a defensive sense) and the ability to read the game like his illustrious predecessors. Not at all a mop in front of the back 4.
Having read Zonal Marking’s enlightening piece “What does a Central Midfielder do in 2010?” it could be suggested that Brown is a fine example of the ‘modern’ centre-mid. Two key themes from the article could be an exact description of Scott Brown: The first that ball-retention (at times perhaps disparagingly described as sideways passing) is fine and secondly tackling in deep areas of the pitch has lost a relevance in light of a new emphasis on making interceptions higher up the park. Familiar reading to Brown followers?
How to break in?
Up until Hibs on Saturday, Joe Ledley had been the undroppable midfielder – Mr. Consistent. Lennon appreciates his stamina, defensive sensibilities mixed with a decent shot and eye for a pass. The ball through to Samaras on the 2nd of January for the first goal for example, was game-breaking and sublime. Baram Kayal could be seen as the best bet to bypass while Ki is away, especially as he has generally played in Brown’s right of centre spot and since coming in (for Brown who was suspended) has impressed with his technique, determination and willingness to attempt to take games by the scruff of the neck.
But the suspension that allowed Kayal back into the starting lineup is a regular and valid criticism – Brown’s penchant for picking up needless cards. In an Old Firm last season, Brown engaged in an unnecessary altercation with Kyle Lafferty and as spineless as the ref was, a red card was shown. Mowbray blamed the defeat on what was really a soft decision, but Brown did not need to react, and while stubbornness and aggression can be positive traits in a centre-midfielder, having the intelligence to draw the line is far more essential. Would Lennon have this trouble with, say Ki?
Don’t mention the money
There is a fairly spurious criticism of Brown’s continued selection that has to be dealt with. During times of poor form, there are intermittent hushed claims of a mini-conspiracy to keep the player selected, with hints that the instructions come from above the managers position. With a massive transfer fee – in Lawwell’s infamous words a genuine “blue-chip” signing, being a bona fide Scot of Captain material plus of course the persistent rumours that a “big 5” side from England are prepared to bid £10m+, it’s often mooted that the manager is more than encouraged to pick Brown whenever possible. All baloney of course. But the fact 3 different managers have consistently picked Brown is not indicative of some kind of upstairs interference – it surely suggests that they know something the fans don’t – that Brown can be an excellent modern midfielder, suited to the SPL and beyond.
On National duty of late, Brown has ceded his central position for arguably superior players like Darren Fletcher and Barry Ferguson (nearer his prime), and for the supremely defensive minded managers of Scotland past like Walter Smith, Alex McCleish and the infamous 4-6-0 of Craig Levein, Brown has been seen shunted out to the right of midfield. Unlike at Celtic where the majority of games are demanded to be wins, the Scots have the tendency to play much like opposition SPL clubs now – a deep, narrow five man midfield packed with industry and fight. In a tucked in role (almost like an auxiliary centre) Brown is ideal as his natural game is a heckling, pressing style. But he also has the energy to get forward on the counter. In theory this is a decent excuse to squeeze the Captain into the side – but unlike previous managers, Lennon doesn’t exclusively opt for true attacking wide-players (Mulgrew recently for example) and with the possession Celtic enjoy most games, having someone like Brown with decent technique but little pace – being “marooned” out wide doesn’t make attacking sense, especially when there are superb right-wingers in the squad. At SPL level this position is surely a non-starter, albeit perhaps at the back of Lennon’s mind on the European stage.
Behind the striker?
The best performance from Scott Brown in a Celtic shirt came last season in the Champions League qualifiers against Dinamo Moscow. After 68 minutes of frustration, Mowbray raised eyebrows by introducing Brown for striker Marc-Antoine Fortune. With a goal desperately required, in a difficult away tie this was a puzzling decision – but it worked (in one of Mowbray’s few triumphs). Brown played just behind Scott McDonald at the spearhead of a central midfield 3. His high-pressing and hustling disrupted an uneasy Moscow defence, and he linked up with Samaras for the Greek to score the winner and put Celtic through.
Unlike maybe the right or pivoted centre, these non-SPL away games seem tailor-made for Brown playing in such a high position, best anchored by 2 disciplined midfielders like Ledley or Kayal. His swashbuckling style of pressing and aggression can unsettle defences and ease pressure – the current Celtic back-line cannot afford to be put under significant strain. Against superior European sides this also gives flexibility in the team formation. When defending the side could very easily fall back to a Mourinho-esque (circa Inter 2010) defensive 4-2-3-1 – a great setup for a siege style performance. He has been used sparingly in this role since his days at Hibernian, and it seems a lack of attacking cutting edge and composure in front of goal discourages Lennon from utilising him here, though a decent goal against Berwick has been encouraging.
But competition is fierce, with Maloney playing superbly at the beginning of the season and Stokes is also more effective here than as a lone forward. McCourt is staking a claim due to Maloney’s injury (and Stokes’ loss of form), and Ljungberg must also be coveting a starting slot. Undoubtedly these guys are more flairish attacking players, but what none can provide is a real tenacious ability to win the ball high up the park, and perhaps given the success of Ki, Ledley and Kayal in deeper positions this could just be the future for Scott Brown.
Brown usurped Ledley against Hibs on Sunday on the left of the centre-two, but this could point towards a rotation policy given Ledley’s previous (seeming) immunity. With Ki possibly requiring rest after international duty, in the short term only Ledley and Kayal stand between Brown and a starting berth in his favoured centre role. Injuries and suspension may open doors, but Lennon has always been vocal about his respect for Brown. The rumours of elite clubs circling Brown do persist, which can only be a good thing for a team who should ultimately be a selling club, and perhaps it’s indicative again of people ‘in the know’ appreciating certain qualities. But it’s difficult to see Brown playing anywhere else. At 25, the days of “potential” are over – he needs to reclaim the award-winning form of 2008 and fast. And while the manager may be convinced of his value, there’s still a long way to go persuading the Parkhead faithful – goals and assists are not essential – Moscow-like performances are, wherever he is selected to play. But currently with some of the best centre-mids since the days of Martin O’Neill, for better or worse 2011 could be a career defining year.