Celtic travelled to Motherwell this afternoon to play on perhaps the worst surface in the SPL. Fresh off the back of a marvellous 3-0 victory over Rangers, Neil Lennon’s Bhoys looked to extend the gap at the top.
The most significant impact on today’s proceeding was the immediate pressure put on the Celtic defence, and in particular Charlie Mulgrew. I’ve spoke already this season about Mulgrew’s past defensive failings (as a full-back) and have been surprised that Aberdeen, Hearts, Dundee Utd and Rangers haven’t asked any question whatsoever of the utility player.
1. Harrangue the defence into errors
Like the 2-2 draw with Rangers in the cup, from the get-go the home side were relentlessly pushing forward and putting the Celtic defence under pressure. The first chance fell to Humprey after Mulgrew miss kicked an easy clearance. Minutes later, Mulgrew was again at fault trying to shepherd the ball back to Forster. Instead of the safe option of blasting the ball into orbit, Mulgrew tried to be clever and let the keeper pick up the ball. But Forster hesitated, and John Sutton didn’t. Sutton went on to torment Mulgrew for 90 minutes.
2. Motherwell flood the midfield, break up play
After the initial flurry of high-intensity pressing, Motherwell (perhaps easier than expected) got their reward and instantaneously switched to a 4-5-1. Jamie Murphy simply took up a position on the left flank in contention with Mark Wilson and the rest of the midfield adapted seamlessly. Again with the pitch perhaps contributing, Motherwell were able to disrupt Celtic’s favoured ‘on-the-deck’ style of passing. A combative, aggressive style that depended on Lasley, Jennings and Forbes making sure Ledley and Ki were not to have time on the ball. In fact the 3 arguably were getting away with persistent fouling and it’s no surprise that they all ended up in the book. Chief aggravator Keith Lasley came across distraught when he picked up a yellow after only 15 minutes, and there’s no doubt as to why.
3. Force Celtic to play a way they don’t want to
Even with players like Hooper, Stokes, Ki and Commons, who all have excellent close control, Celtic were unable to keep the ball on the deck and play the way they want to. A combination of awful, divetty pitch, aggressive pressing from Motherwell and general poor performance contributed to Celtic’s inability to create chances. The half-chances that were created went badly wrong every time, so perhaps an element of luck involved too. Stokes in particular had a chance that fell on his unfavoured left side to shoot, but hesitation dissipated the chance.
So Celtic were torn between their instinctive passing style and the more tempting long-ball approach, by-passing the quagmire in midfield. Normally a reasonable alternative for a side, Celtic must have one of the smallest starting sides in the SPL and Hooper and Stokes were easily dealt with aerially. This surrender to the long-ball approach meant that the height of Georgios Samaras was required, and the ineffectual Stokes was withdrawn.
At this point in summary, Celtic were chasing the game and torn between either a blood and snotters scrap in midfield or an unnatural long-ball approach.
4. Celtic’s full-backs pinned
With Common’s often roaming inside to find space and Scott Brown tucked in on the other side, the matter of width falls on the lap of Izaguirre and Wilson – both in-form “gallivanting”, attacking full-backs. But having conceded an early goal and with Motherwell outnumbering the midfield, their wide midfielders (Humphrey and Murphy) were able to dedicate their time to neutralising the threat of Celtic’s full-backs.
Humphrey was in particular a potent outlett, and offered a pace and acceleration that Izaguirre isn’t used to in the SPL. And with Celtic’s width stunted, this funnelled more and more play into the dreaded middle…..
5. Simply out played
Tactical nuances aside and most significant of all, the bottom line is Motherwell were more motivated, dealt with the pitch better, more organised and finally simply performed better as individuals. On the other hand the Celtic individuals could consider this their worst showing of the season.
Could it have been a hangover from the Old Firm derby? Was it the pitch? Was it the fact Beram Kayal was missing? Was it the flimsily soft penalty? All of the above and more. While it was a perfect storm, nothing should be taken away from Motherwell who were excellent. John Sutton completely dominated Charlie Mulgrew all match and probably didn’t lose an aerial jostle. Humphrey on the wing looked dangerous every time the ball went to his feet. The centre of midfield was tough and unforgiving, and finally the defence were solid and made SPL top scorers Stokes and Hooper look poor.
A rousing day for Stuart McCall but sadly for Lennon, a thumping fall to earth.