It was a highly anticipated Co-operative Insurance Cup semi-final with Craig Brown’s resurgent Aberdeen taking on Celtic in Glasgow for the second time in 7 days. But the resilient and quietly threatening Dons from last week were nowhere to be seen as the tie was killed dead with barely 34 minutes on the clock.
New 300k signing Kris Commos came straight into the side usurping the likes of Patrick McCourt, Freddy Ljungberg and Niall McGinn. James Forrest who would’ve been most likely to start on the left missed out due to the injury sustained against Hearts on Wednesday; the rest of the team remain unchanged since that 4-0 thrashing.
Whoever the manager, since 2003/04 Celtic have been a 4-4-2 side bordering on 4-2-4 or even at full tilt arguably a 2-4-4 considering how high the full-backs push. The centre-backs would play as high a line as possible, and the wingers (classic Nakamura/McGeady style) would spend as much time as possible in the opposition third. This was most successful during Gordon Strachan’s tenure and most exposed during Tony Mowbray’s, but for one reason or another the formula has changed distinctly.
The ‘Lennon’ 4-4-2
It appears the most urgent change was in response to a seriously leaky defence. The centre-backs in particular are now deployed in a much deeper position, meaning ambitious clearance-cum-longball played over the top can be dealt with much easier. A knock-on effect is to open up more space in the centre of the park, easing congestion frequently found when the opposition opt for a 5 man midfield (like Aberdeen on Saturday). With (in theory at least) higher quality central players, the new-found space is a breath of fresh air.
A second change (still a work-in-progress) is the sacrifice of one of Celtic’s “traditional” 2 attacking wingers in favour of someone with more defensive sensibilities. Against Rangers at Ibrox, Charlie Mulgrew was drafted in at left-midfield and occupied a deep, protective role. Similarly against Hearts the tenacious Captain Scott Brown played on the right at the expense of a winger. Arguably this could still be a “cheap” way of getting Brown, Ledley and Kayal all into the same side without losing a striker, but either way the defence has flourished – the consolation yesterday was only the second goal conceded in 9 games.
Lastly it’s now impossible to describe both full-backs as “swashbuckling”. It appears that only 1 has real license to get forward at a given time, perhaps depending on the opposition. Emilio Izaguirre clearly has the greatest attacking verve and therefore Mark Wilson is normally the more reserved of the two. But against Hearts for example, Izaguirre man-marked a problem player and Wilson was left to provide the attacking width.
Although Aberdeen made a good account for themselves last week and perhaps could’ve stuck to the same formula, Craig Brown lost an extremely important player (Nick Blackman) due to being cup-tied. But instead of straight-swapping with Ryan Jack for example, Brown took the opportunity to try and stifle Celtic’s most productive goal-getters – Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper.
The 3-5-2 can be tremendous in halting a 4-4-2 – the spare man at the back (in this case Zander Diamond) shuts down space, is free to commit to headers and can play something of a sweeper role plugging gaps. The 3 man centre midfield shield can also be difficult to break through, especially players with the quality of Hartley and Milsom. But something of the achilles heel can be the areas behind the wing-backs and the associated lack of width – which turned out to be crucial.
But after a team concedes cheaply to a (bit of a) freak goal and 2 (awfully defended) from set-pieces, all this dissection of tactics suddenly becomes somewhat moot. The first a moment of brilliance (or fortune) from debutant Commons. Wilson enjoyed far too much space roughly in the aforementioned “behind the wingback” position he casually picked out Commons who was able to delicately chip a cross-cum-shot over the despairing Jamie Langfield after only 6 minutes. Although it was a moment of sheer luck, the fact Commons was brilliantly causing such carnage in this problem wide area in such an early part of the game would’ve been of great tactical concern to Brown.
Celtic created 3 main chances on the right hand side, directly by over-whelming Considine at left wing-back (particularly via Wilson’s forward overlaps) and 2 of these chances created set-pieces that led to cheap goals. The other Stokes flashed a shot off the bar.
The 3-5-2 had been a spectacular failure, and embarrassingly having to make a tactical substitution (centre-back Vujadinovic for attacker Jack) after only 26 minutes, could normally be considered a prompt and decisive change. But at 3-0 down, ruthlessly, it was all too late.
Craig Brown switched to a more conventional 4-4-2, and rather subtly the change to 10 of the players shape was absolutely minimal. Jack (predictably) came on at left-midfield, and this is where 4-4-2 is effective – protecting the full-back and a disaster area for Aberdeen. Jack would now be able to track the runs of Wilson, protecting the unfortunate Considine. Furthermore, this was identical to Aberdeen’s shape at Parkhead with Jack initially responsible for supporting the two strikers from the left, though in practice this was not a success.
People who maybe didn’t see the game might wonder what type of player Commons is. A sharp, incisive little winger, Commons although favouring his (quite impressive) left-foot, is actually two-footed and isn’t therefore desperate to go on the outside everytime. In fact it seems he prefers cutting inside to taking the outside route, and indeed nicked his goal from an inside position. In a way he appears very much like a mirror of the right-sided Shaun Maloney, and if Commons can reach the heights that the injured Maloney has in his Celtic career, then perhaps this will prove to be a very shrewd piece of business by ardent Commons fan Neil Lennon.
The sheer amount of midfielders is becoming a concern however, and spells bad news for fringe-ish players trying to win a permanent starting slot, namely: Niall McGinn, Freddy Ljungberg and to a lesser extent Efrain Juarez and (eventually) Shaun Maloney.
Midfield wealth to defensive dearth
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Celtic are extremely limited in centre-back options. Thomas Rogne has for 2 games now been the only fit recognised centre-back in the entire squad after the injury to Daniel Majstorovic. Charlie Mulgrew, who’s traditionally been a left-back but has found greatest success in a Celtic jersey at left-midfield – has filled in alongside Rogne. But the young Norwegian himself withdrew at 4-1 due to injury. The header by Vernon was likely to have been aided by the fact Rogne was injured and unable to compete.
It can’t get anymore ramshackle than this (displayed with preferred position above graphic) and almost a travesty that this has been allowed to happen. It’s bewildering because any slip-ups at this stage could fatally damage Neil Lennon’s Championship campaign and therefore his job. Perfectly capable young centre-backs Josh Thompson and Milan Misun have been allowed to leave the club this term, the former on loan but the latter on a permanant basis – Lennon has been truly fortunate that a team devoid of either (or both) of Rogne and Majstorovic, have not been significantly tested.
It would be impossible to conclude without mentioning the superb and flourishing relationship between Stokes and Hooper who have absolutely tormented defences with urgency and intelligence. Similarly a special mention to Baram Kayal who continues to boss midfields with tough tackling, determination and a real hunger to receive passes at all times. He just loves being on the ball. But the professional performance if at all possible was undermined by an Aberdeen dead from the start, and the 3rd encounter in the space of 11 days in the SPL on Tuesday will no doubt see the return of a 4-4-2 and a more organised and dangerous Aberdeen.