Celtic laboured to a one-nil win over St Johnstone last night, opting for route 1 football in an attempt to bypass a treacherous McDiarmid Park surface.
In the analysis of the St Mirren fixture, it was pointed out that Celtic were plainly missing a physical presence up front. At times this season, there has been no such requirement as the more nimble frames of Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper have torn into sides like Hibernian (3-1 & 3-0), Hearts (4-0) and Aberdeen (9-0).
On Sunday however, the lack of a second option (read: targetman) to be brought on if required was glaring. St Mirren relinquished swathes of possession, packed the deep defence and frustrated Hooper and Stokes aiming to hit on the counter, and to a large degree Danny Lennon’s tactics weren’t far away from succeeding.
In this encounter with St Johnstone, Neil Lennon swung to the opposite end of the scale, starting both Georgios Samaras and (a rare appearance for) Daryl Murphy. On the one hand this comes across as an emphatic reaction to the struggle on Sunday, but arguably the decision was unrelated. The McDiarmid Park pitch condition was dreadful. Dry, full of divots and to use a popular cliché: not conducive to good football.
While the midfield personnel almost picks itself, Kris Commons played in a much more reserved role on the left. Perhaps dribbling was actively discouraged on this surface. Width, as ever, would be provided by the roaming of Emilio Izaguirre and the tireless Mark Wilson. Glen Loovens partnered Charlie Mulgrew at the back, again hinting at Lennon’s order of preference which worryingly for many Celtic fans, sees the big Dutchman clearly favoured over Thomas Rogne.
The substitutes (unlike St Mirren) provided a higher degree of flexibility, with Anthony Stokes, Paddy McCourt, Shaun Maloney and James Forrest available to be brought on.
St Johnstone Lineup
6 changes were made from St Mirren’s 2-0 defeat away to Dundee United andMichael Duberry and Chris Millar were rested in lieu of the Scottish Cup semi-final at the weekend. Therefore Graham Gartland filled in at centre-back and a number of slightly more fringe players were given an opportunity.
Derek McInnes went for a five man midfield, actually approaching a 4-2-3-1 with Liam Craig and Cleveland Taylor fairly high and wide going head to head with Celtic’s full-backs, and Steve May given the main responsibility to link up with Jordan Robertson.
While the fresh and energetic newcomers to the Saints side enjoyed a bright start, getting into the faces of the Celtic players and not letting them settle, they were mostly without the ball. Both teams struggled to adapt to an awful pitch surface with both guilty of poor ball retention. But as this early scrappy spell subsided, it was Celtic who were coming into the game more positively. The inclusion of both Murphy and Samaras seemed justified as the physical presence of the former was causing bother, creating space for Samaras to get into more dangerous areas.
The first main chance in fact – a tricky free-kick from Commons – was won by a determined Murphy. Furthermore Commons came close with a Dejan Stankovic style effort after the height of Samaras caused ‘keeper Graham Smith concern. With both strikers also coming close with headers in separate chances, the direct football was working to an extent. But as the case can be with forwards more renowned for presence and linkup play, the breakthrough remained elusive.
Supply and demand
This lack of a cutting edge that Stokes and Hooper often provide (given a chance) was brought to mind when Scott Brown slipped through Samaras with a lovely reverse pass, only for the Greek to fire against the onrushing goalkeeper. So it was no surprise that the source of the goal came from elsewhere, in fact a slightly unlikely source in Beram Kayal.
Arguably more than any other team it’s tougher to get goals as a midfielder for Celtic in the SPL. With teams regularly defending deep and narrow, Kayal for example is often faced with at least 2 banks of defence – given the instruction not to let the opposition shoot from range under any circumstance. Ki Sung-Yeung, Joe Ledley and Kayal are all good from long-range, but the space to shoot is rarely there. In this case however, it was a clever toe-poke. Bursting into the box from deep, with Brown again the creator, Kayal improvised a finish from a difficult angle, under pressure from tight marking and the advancing Smith.
Having become accustomed to smart interchanging in and around the box, the concept of lumping the ball high into the box was alien to Celtic. Despite being encouraged by the lead, there was still trouble creating clear-cut chances, and there is one main reason.
Targetmen in the box demand reasonable supply, thriving on attacking balls that are crossed from the by-line. It’s much more difficult to fabricate a goal-scoring headed chance with high balls coming from deep. Unfortunately for Celtic, with wide midfielders playing deep, the quality of the supply was not ideal for Samaras and Murphy.
Commons found it difficult from a deep starting position getting into areas to provide decent crosses, and the state of the pitch exacerbated this issue. Meanwhile Wilson and Izaguirre in particular, were being thwarted quite successfully by Craig and Taylor respectively – not much in the way of width at all.
The introduction of Shaun Maloney (for Commons) seemed to capitulate the idea of width. Right-footed playing on the left-side, there was little chance of getting to the byline. But what he did provide was intelligent link-up with Samaras in particular, and his natural instinct as a forward got him into dangerous areas (as rusty as he was). His clever pass through to Samaras on the left created an embarassing moment for the referee – Duberry fell to ground under presure from Samaras and grabbed the ball assuming he was to receive a free-kick. Astoundingly Iain Brines played on.
The Saints efforts were not to be underestimated though, having one or two decent moments. Scott Brown felled May in the first half in what should’ve been a close range central free-kick (and a card) and in the second, Liam Craig’s cutting in from right to left forced a drastic save from the previously untested Frazer Forster.
It was the correct decision for Lennon to play with two targetmen, but it’s reasonable to argue that the execution wasn’t good enough and made things difficult. A player with the speed of James Forrest would be able to stretch the defence, get to the by-line and maybe provide better ammunition for Murphy. The guile of McCourt on the other side the same. Anthony Stokes may have felt hard done by missing out on some gametime, and it would be interesting to see more of a classic “big man / little man” combination up front.
It’s impossible to argue with the result given the standard of the pitch, but it would be encouraging to see more ad-hoc strategic flexibility during the game.