Celtic couldn’t quite kill off a rejuvenated Aberdeen side, inspired by veteran new manager Craig Brown in Saturday’s SPL encounter. With the hosts mainly comfortable and leading by a sole goal for much of the match, the threat of an equaliser loomed ominously over a defence that creaked under late pressure.
Although Scott Brown’s player profile from last week predicted a tougher battle breaking into the starting “centre” 2 midfielders, Joe Ledley was the player to be dropped. The reasoning perhaps is with Aberdeen predicted to be sitting back for large spells, Brown is more suited to harrying the opposition defence into making mistakes and ensuring Paul Hartley isn’t given any time on the ball.
The only other selection dilemma for Neil Lennon was who to play on the right in the absence of suspended James Forrest. Freddy Ljungberg was predicted in a number of media outlets to be given his first start at Parkhead, but Niall McGinn got the nod – possibly in response to Craig Brown’s narrow 4-3-3 that’s served the “new” Aberdeen so well this season. The young Northern Irishman’s direct pace and energy preferred to the ageing Swede’s more considered technique.
Having only followed Aberdeen’s most recent game, a 2-0 victory over St. Mirren, it’s difficult to see if there was any truth in Brown’s supposed intention to play a 4-3-3. Certainly without the ball it was a clear cut 4-4-2 with potent strikeforce Vernon and Blackman (who are on the same SPL goal-count as Hooper and Stokes respectively) working hard to close down the Celtic back-line.
In possession was a whole different proposition, as nominal left-midfielder Chris Maguire had a big responsibility to get forward and join the attack – practically making the 4-3-3 that had been circulating in the papers. Given Celtic’s possession it’s impossible to refer to that formation, although it was clearly the intention going forward. This was tempered somewhat by Celtic’s inclusion of McGinn on that side – Maguire had serious defensive responsibility and while he created two of Aberdeen’s best chances in this breaking role, ultimately his participation in attack was fruitless. Aberdeen’s lack of bite was further compounded by the relative lack of sharpness shown by Nick Blackman who had apparently just recovered from a virus.
Lack of depth at back
The decision to let Jos Hooiveld leave the club just days before the game was bewildering considering the only recognised defender named on the substitute bench was Charlie Mulgrew – employed mainly by Lennon as a left midfielder. But Mulgrew has played at left-back to a reasonable degree and at his old club (Aberdeen incidentally) he also gained experience as a centre-back. The fact that even when Hooiveld was available for selection, Mulgrew was preferred as defensive cover and this speaks volumes about how Lennon must rate the now departed Dutchman. But into the third game under these circumstances and Mulgrew was finally called upon to fill in as Daniel Majstorovic pulled up with a hamstring strain (and is apparently out for 3 weeks.)
It is curious that Lennon has put his faith in a left wing-back with questionable defensive ability, but on Saturday this backup plan was justified. A problem Celtic can face when teams defend stubbornly and deep at Parkhead is the centre-backs – big guys with limited capabilities when asked to distribute play. Facing 10 v 8 outfield players ahead, often the long option is the only one and teams succeed in forcing (for example) Rogne to hit the long and hopefuls. This plays into the visitors hands because the most consistent forwards this season – Hooper and Stokes – are very short and not at all suited to receiving high passes. It was a breath of fresh air to see someone with a cultured left-foot seeking out space intelligently.
But if Mulgrew really is Lennon’s current backup plan, what if the opposition were to apply serious pressure to a defence that has struggled to convince all season?
Stokes and Hooper
In a tight game with few chances, often the individual can be the difference and Gary Hooper duly provided on Saturday, helped of course by the swashbuckling surge of the excellent Emilio Izaguirre. The vision to thread Stokes through was sublime along with the execution of the pass itself. Stokes rounded the keeper to score and settle a wee bit of nerves, but the difference this front pairing can make to the side is incredible. Hooper also broke the deadlock against Hibernian in the previous SPL fixture. With Samaras injured and Murphy on a barren run of form, keeping this partnership together is going to be crucial for Lennon.
‘Derry Pele’ Impotent
Patrick McCourt has worked so hard on developing his fitness this season, proving to his manager that he can be trusted to track back and defend over the course of 90 minutes. It was a game-breaking issue for both Gordon Strachan and Tony Mowbray who were extremely reluctant to start McCourt, preferring to use him as a “super-sub”. While his defensive prioritising should be applauded, at the opposite end this has acted negatively. Without having the pace or stamina to rapidly join attacks, McCourt is picking up possession in a roughly left wing-back type position, and as Aiden McGeady found out before him, teams aren’t slow at double-marking problem players. For McCourt to be effective, he needs to receive the ball in space in the final third – with a determination not to betray the defence his unqieu selling point – his outrageous, casual dribbling threat is stunted.
With no real ‘plan B’, Niall McGinn wasteful and McCourt ineffective, Freddy Ljungberg was introduced but he suffered in a similar fashion to McCourt – he doesn’t have the legs to make use of possession anywhere near his own half. But Ljungberg has never been a player with the intelligence to compensate for a lack of pace – his formula could rather harshly be described as a ‘head down and run’ approach. At Arsenal and with the lightning speed of youth he was devastating – but in his fleeting appearances this season he has been a shadow of his former dynamic glory. Like McCourt he may be most damaging in a free-er role behind the striker, where defensive responsiblity is minimised.
Final 30 minutes
With Lennon’s attacking switch failing to bear fruit, Craig Brown started to suspect that his side could steal something. Added the impetuous home support growing evermore anxious, the momentum was gathering pace in Aberdeen’s favour. There were two main changes that helped facilitate this.
The first is that Brown gradually introduced 3 top prospects – young, full of energy and with nothing to lose. The second is that Brown switched to something of a 3-4-3 with the bustling youngsters up top chasing down an unfamiliar and tiring defence. The away side may have rode their luck (with an amazing last ditch tackle from substitute Peter Pawlett) in their attacking commitment but it was an intriguing test being provided by Brown and typical of the canny older managers of the SPL. A test that also drew attention to the weaknesses in certain areas of the Celtic squad. Strange how some areas can be overloaded (central-midfield) and some cruelly exposed (centre-back, striker).
As the cliché goes though, sometimes you’ve just got to win ugly and Celtic clung on for victory. It turned into a fabulous day as Rangers were defeated by Hearts – the type of opportunity that Mowbray’s side probably would’ve squandered. But with Rangers’ vanquishers arriving on Wednesday, and a Majstorovic-less defence Wednesday will be an immediate priority, followed closely behind by the desperate need for new recruits in the next 7 days.