Celtic stormed Pittodre to complete an 11-day trio of victories over Aberdeen. Like the 4-1 cup demolition, Aberdeen’s cause was severely undermined by a freakish early game occurrence. On Saturday a rather unfortunate goal killed the tie and on Tuesday after only 95 seconds Andrew Considine was sent off having hauled down Scott Brown in front of a horrified Richard Donald stand. With an aggregate score over the 3 games of 8-1 in Celtic’s favour, Craig Brown will see this as an unfair reflection on performance but Neil Lennon’s team thoroughly deserved the spoils.
Although Celtic possess by far the most squad depth in the SPL, the centre-back position has been criminally vulnerable – not only to injury but to form. With first choice partnership Daniel Majstorovic and Thomas Rogne added to the injury list, the backup would normally be Glen Loovens (terminally out of form, injured since October). The unfancied Jos Hooiveld went out on loan last week, Josh Thompson is away on a season-long loan and the untested Milan Misun has been sold.
It reads like terrible squad management, and while the intention was to bring forward Kelvin Wilson’s summer transfer, this did not materialise. Given Hooiveld, Thompson and Misun were allowed to leave, it appears Lennon is more than comfortable depending on Charlie Mulgrew and Mark Wilson as central cover. Both are predominantly full-backs, despite Mulgrew never impressing there (for Celtic) but both have played centrally before – Mulgrew under Mark McGhee at Aberdeen and Wilson under Tony Mowbray. Efrain Juarez was drafted in at right-back (reportedly not a favoured position of his) to cover Wilson.
Lennon continued to squeeze Ledley, Kayal and Brown into the midfield by shifting Brown right, and the only other question-mark was over the left-wing slot. Again Kris Commons got the nod over Patrick McCourt, Freddy Ljungberg and Niall McGinn.
Craig Brown’s 3-5-2 / 5-3-2 experiment proved to be a failure after Aberdeen’s flanks were cruelly exposed, and so a return to the 4-4-2. It’s worth remembering that going into the game Vernon and Blackman’s goal tally was only one behind Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper’s joint total; a strikeforce not to be underestimated. Vujidinovic who was embarrassingly hooked on Saturday midway through the first half made way for Jack, and Blackman replaced Young.
The first 20 minutes was a nightmare for Brown in terms of shape. With the super-early red card, it was crucial to restore two banks of 4, with McNamee swaping sides to left-back, midfielder Jack dropping to right-back and forward Vernon dropping to left midfield.
After 15 minutes Jack pulled up injured and was replaced by another midfielder – Young at right-back, and within minutes of this change McNamee endured a groin injury and too was replaced by Rangers loanee Steven Smith. Within this opening 18 minutes Aberdeen’s backline shifted quickly between 4 lineups and frustratingly for Brown 2 of the permitted 3 substitutions were already used – yet they clung on doggedly to a single goal deficit to make half-time.
2 full-backs 2 midfielders = 1 backline
It’s unclear whether the early numerical advantage influenced Lennon, but Celtic’s ad-hoc defence set an ambitiously high line, pressing the half-way when in possession (read: often.) It’s likely that with 4 full-backs (or arguably 2 full-backs and 2 midfielders) making up the defence, pace became a strength and therefore high-balls over the top were not so urgently feared (like has been the case with any of Celtic’s lumbering “proper” centre-backs) In fact getting into aerial duels, particularly with the strong and tall Nick Blackman for similar reasons was to be avoided, and it made sense to keep Aberdeen’s attack as far away from goal as possible. This was contrary to Celtic’s recent successful defensive setup and it was a tough decision to change – but Lennon had to play to the natural strengths of the full-backs at his disposal.
Consequently the actual full-backs on the night had to play a more reserved game (at least in the more difficult first half) and Emilio Izaguirre put in one of his most conservative performances of the season. With a high defensive line, Izaguirre and Juarez provided much needed assurance protecting the “centre-backs” from through balls.
With Stokes and Hooper in sparkling form, Aberdeen’s defence had a similar idea – push away from goal with aggression. The little Celtic front pair are quick, nimble and aggressive and with both defences congesting the middle third, it was their snappy linkup that was causing Aberdeen the most trouble with intelligent one-twos and decisive through-passes. When Scott Brown got involved, particularly in the first quarter, Aberdeen looked closest to breaking point. This created the 95th second turning point, where a superb Gary Hooper chip through ball (is he the total package!?) found a rampaging Scott Brown.
But the hosts were clinging on, and without the attacking support of the full-backs Celtic were not creating overlaps, and the Dons 4-4-1 could defend greater than man to man, albeit with Blackman isolated up front.
At times Aberdeen were under the kosh and apart from the missed penalty, Celtic were creating chance after chance. Baram Kayal curled a left-footed shot onto the post (trying to penetrate a deep-set defence from afar) and Jamie Langfield made a couple of decent saves to keep his team in touch.
2 mentalities and Juarez targeted
With the goal and man advantage, Celtic cruised into the second half without too much urgency and another goal seemed inevitable. Meanwhile Aberdeen were fighting desperately and pushed hard to find the striker in space. At first this was Blackman, but into the second half he swapped with Maguire. So the big top scorer on the left and wee Maguire up front to snap at the heels of the opposition defence. This was likely to be a conscious decision from Brown with 3 main reasons:
Firstly he had identified Juarez as a player easy to bully aerially and with 10 men against the league leaders Brown had to take his chance to exploit. Blackman has a significant height advantage over the little Mexican and consequently long-balls and keeper kicks were directed into this area for Maguire to feed from. Secondly Blackman was often too isolated as a lone frontman and his knock-downs were not being picked up. Finally Maguire with a little more agility and stamina was able to pressure Wilson and Mulgrew more aggressively.
But despite Brown’s desperate tinkering, along with the early red-card and goal Celtic simply had too much in the locker. The introduction of McCourt for the impressive Kayal (with Brown moving central and Commons right) aggravated a tired defence even further. In fact the exhaustion was showing, Commons burst through to hit the post with Aberdeen’s defence dangerously high, and a lack of concentration allowed Wilson to head in the killer second from a corner, completely unmarked.
Stokes fired in a third after more tired defending (and goalkeeping) and with the game won Lennon allowed Daryl Murphy a bit of gametime. Interestingly, 18 year old Lewis Toshney was introduced at right-back (for Brown) with Juarez moving into his favoured centre-midfield role. Toshney at 6 foot 3 and a touch clumsy on the ball looks more of a centre-back, but hardly had any time to make an impression. Maybe not so short at the back after all?
In the end Aberdeen’s stubborn resistence had to fall, with a perfect storm of circumstance undermining everything Craig Brown could muster. But credit to Neil Lennon for dragging out yet another win in what is normally a hugely challenging place to visit. With a semi-final against Rangers at Ibrox on Sunday, all eyes are on the defence with Rogne and Loovens in particular close to contention. It looks like the front 6 could pick itself.