Craig Brown is unable to improve a dreadful record against Celtic in all competition this season after losing for a fifth time. And while he was only in charge for four of these (with Mark McGhee responsible for the 9-0 drubbing), his ten man side could do little to resist a second half pummeling from Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi final at Hampden.
As readers who’ve purchased the latest issue of 67 fanzine will be aware (and in no real surprise to those who didn’t!) Neil Lennon lined up almost exactly as predicted in the tictactic preview. The difference was Thomas Rogne coming in for Glen Loovens, in what may be a relief to most fans. Another relief was the sight of Daniel Majstorovic appearing on the bench, having come back from a broken toe.
‘Big Dan’ aside, this is Lennon’s best XI.
The most significant factor in Brown’s team selection was the fact Paul Hartley couldn’t shake off the knee injury that has kept him ruled our for 4 weeks. Without a quality fifth midfielder to perform the holding role, Brown aimed to supplement the midfield via the other end with Chris Maguire dropping back and pressuring Celtic’s central players wherever possible.
With the right-back area a renowned problem position for Aberdeen right now and with Rory McArdle unable to feature, Derek Young was the man to fill in, with Ryan Jack joining Rob Milsom at centre-mid. As expected, the remaining back four consisted of Steven Smith, Andrew Considine and Zander Diamond.
Again referring back to the tictactic preview in ’67 Fanzine, Aberdeen’s goal-scoring was identified as a key problem area. Brown’s attempt to get around this was by squeezing all four of his top scorers onto the pitch. All naturally strikers, it was Josh Magennis and Sone Aluko who started on the left and right sides respectively.
The two were outranked (in goal-scoring terms) by Scott Vernon and Maguire – the latter being Aberdeen’s main creative hope.
Tetchy first half
Celtic opened slowly and cautiously, with Aberdeen on the other hand energetic and aggressive. Magennis and Aluko’s willingness to bomb forward impacted on Izaguirre’s and Wilson’s own attacking motives, and Maguire was finding more space than Neil Lennon would appreciate. Magennis was looking to cut inside on to his favoured right at every opportunity, and made the first chance of the match as he forced Frazer Forster into a tricky near-post save from distance.
Magennis’ abandonment of the flank seemed to prompt Brown into an early switching of sides – although arguably this was classic “unsettling” tactics. Either way, in theory both wide midfielders would be more comfortable defending on their “correct” sides, so the change made sense for a number of reasons.
With Aberdeen looking to condense the game into a smaller area of the large Hampden pitch, Anthony Stokes was looking dangerous from balls in behind Diamond and Considine, getting close to rounding Langfield who was sharp off his line.
Scott Brown drifting in to a central attacking midfield position also exploited this area at the back, in what proved to be a game changing moment. His sublime through pass released Gary Hooper who was tripped by the toiling Considine. For the second time this season, Considine was sent off in the opening stages against Celtic, and for the second time Anthony Stokes missed the resulting penalty.
From here on in, it was an uphill battle for a Dons side that had defended quite resolutely and at times seemed to have more will to win. Just before the teams went in for the break, Maguire came reasonably close with a header, finding tonnes of room. But Craig Brown would have to reshuffle to have any hope of containing an improving Celtic.
10 man resistance
The circumstances were asking a lot from the stretched Aberdeen squad, and with 2 defenders, a wide midfielder and a striker on the bench, Brown’s shuffling seemed odd. Firstly Derek Young is not a centre-back, and as admirably as he performed in this role, a more accomplished defender waited on the bench (Vujadinovic was later to come on for Young – too late). But while bona fide midfielders Young and Jack made for a ramshackle ad-hoc centre and right-back, striker Vernon dropped in to midfield!
Perhaps the only explanation was that Brown simply did not want to remove any proven goal-scorers. One of Vernon, Maguire, Aluko or Magennis would have been a more natural choice to remove, but these also happened to be the only decent goal-scorers.
Maguire was left to lead the line, playing off the shoulder – and the clear Dons strategy was to fire quick, unexpected if possible long balls over the defence. Maguire was playing fast off the shoulder, gambling on anything and everything, but if you don’t get the breaks it’s a thankless task.
How to unlock a deep, organised defence?
While the breakthrough goal came from something of a fluke “cross-cum-shot” free-kick from Charlie Mulgrew that evaded everybody, Neil Lennon has been grappling with this conondrum since day one of his managerial reign. How to unlock a deep, organised defence?
In the past 2 matches we’ve seen trials given to more direct, physical approaches utilising the height and aerial ability of Daryl Murphy and Georgios Samaras. But this method has never been ideal for Lennon, who finds the goal-scoring instincts and intelligent linkup of (chart leaders) Hooper and Stokes, essential.
Today saw a different approach to breaking down the classic deep two banks of four. From the start Hooper had been playing “in the hole” between the lines, in an attempt to exploit Aberdeen’s lack of holding midfield players. But it’s from this starting position that he and his midfielders had been finding most joy.
For example, for the second goal (that effectively settled the tie) Joe Ledley burst from his own half to get on the end of an Izaguirre cut-back. Similarly Scott Brown done fabulously well at the centre of the move which eventually led to Shaun Maloney’s goal – the Celtic Captain started a few yards into the Aberdeen half, disguised a pass to Izaguirre, Brown made a darting run in behind the Aberdeen defence and squared to (eventually) lead to Maloney scoring.
And there were numerous examples, from Commons lifting the ball over the bar from six yards to Stokes running from deep the win the penalty for the third. It’s a different approach to overloading the opposition defence and almost forcing them to defend deep and narrow, albeit Aberdeen’s cause was not helped by player deficit and the high defensive line.
Apart from the result and apart from the successful run-outs for the likes of Majstorovic, Maloney and McCourt, what was most pleasing was the attacking verve – the incisive passing over the top and the awareness to bring players from deep into play. Despite a half-time battering from Charlie Nicholas, Scott Brown was superb (almost) in the centre – ball-winning, creative, determined and energetic. But it’s difficult to focus on an individual. For all Aberdeen’s circumstantial rotten luck, it was a great team performance justified by the scoreline.