Celtic struggled to come away with all three points today against a well organised, defensive St Mirren outfit. A stodgy, poor performance preceded a late goal from substitute Kris Commons to stretch the lead at the top of the SPL to 5 points.
While Neil Lennon only made three personnel changes to the side that beat Hibernian 3-1 on Wednesday, the rotation made for a real change in strategy. Although still nominally a 4-4-2, this differed significantly from Lennon’s favoured 4-4-2/4-3-1-2 hybrid. Namely, the tucked in right-midfielder had now become an out and out winger leaving only 2 midfielders in the centre. St Mirren in contrast had more than 3.
To begin, James Forrest continued high up on the left, with Freddy Ljungberg coming in for Scott Brown to play on the right. With the ageing Swede eager to prove himself, this was a vote of confidence from Lennon, or perhaps even a challenge.
Cha Du Ri came in as a straight swap for Mark Wilson, and if anything in theory was to provide even more attacking thrust. Again in a straight swap, Joe Ledley (who’s featured heavily this campaign) was rested allowing Ki Sung-Yeung to stake a claim in the centre of the park. Glen Loovens continued alongside Charlie Mulgrew at centre-back, perhaps indicating Lennon’s preference of the experienced Dutchman over Thomas Rogne.
St Mirren strategy and lineup
The tactical challenge for any ailing SPL side visiting Celtic Park is how to keep a clean sheet. Danny Lennon’s intention was clear from the start – pack the midfield, defend deep and narrow, and use the strength of targetman Michael Higdon as a platform for counter-attacks, and to put physical pressure on a sometimes brittle defence.
With Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes the likely candidates to start for the home side, Danny Lennon sacrificed room on the flanks – almost encouraging Celtic to go down that route. With enough bodies strong in the air defending in the box (with Goodwin at times an auxiliary centre-back) Danny Lennon was confident of repelling any aerial threat.
Kenny McLean and Steven Thomson were given the task of supporting frontman Higdon on the break, but without the ball were going man for man with Kayal and Ki. This left Goodwin as primarily a spare man. Hugh Murray and Patrick Cregg mainly kept the Celtic full-backs in check.
It was text-book spoiling tactics from St Mirren, and the capitulation of the flanks meant unsurprisingly almost nothing was created through the centre.
Celtic bossed possession, and looked fairly comfortable at the back. Only the chances being created (mainly from the work of Ljungberg and Forrest who actually switched sides early on) was culminating in hopeful crosses aimed at the dwarved Hooper and Stokes. This is exactly why Stokes was dropped in the first place (against Rangers). The two are at times too similar and can be snuffed out of games, especially if expected to get on the end of crosses. Shaun Maloney’s long awaited return in place of the injured Gary Hooper perpetuated this trend.
St Mirren’s over-manning at the back actually left Charlie Mulgrew as the freest man on the park, and Celtic were often able to pass the ball around in midfield best when Mulgrew joined in from deep. Ki Sung-Yeung, normally a composed and creative passer of the ball had one of his worst games in a Celtic shirt, and was withdrawn in the second half for Joe Ledley in a like for like swap.
The third and final change saw Kris Commons coming on for the slightly disappointing (and no doubt disappointed) Freddy Ljungberg. The former Arsenal star had a decent game, but when trying to get into this Celtic side, as Paddy McCourt has found you need to score, create, and a whole lot more. And it was Kris Commons who decided the match, pouncing on a snap opportunity to shoot from 19 yards.
Given the nature of the match, it was only a fair result. Possession was dominated by Celtic and the home side made use of numerous corners and set-pieces. The one (worrying) blotch was Saints Captain John Potter finding space to shoot from 7 yards in the dying moments of the game, after Celtic failed to clear a corner.
It’s moments like that chance, moments like Commons’ winner and performances like today that defines the season for title-hopefuls. As the cliché goes, dragging out results despite poor performance. But this felt slightly more ominous than a great side playing poorly. Where was the “Plan B”? Each change was like for like and (Commons the exception) the changes did not facilitate any real impact. With not enough clear cut chances created, perhaps the use of someone like Samaras to get on the end of the abundant number of crosses would have been appropriate.
Neil Lennon will argue that the ends justifies the means, but internally the squad and management will know that uninspiring under-performances such as these can ruin seasons.