Celtic matched Rangers with a 4-0 away victory after travelling to Rugby Park on Wednesday evening. A brace from Kris Commons followed by efforts from Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes punished an unfamiliar and unorganised Kilmarnock defence. The visiting support used the occasion to show their full, passionate backing of manager Neil Lennon, in a tremendous display.
Lennon welcomed back influential defender Daniel Majstorovic who had recovered from a broken toe – just in time for the Rangers clash on Sunday. Thomas Rogne dropped out as a result, and the only other change was the introduction of James Forrest for Joe Ledley. This enabled Scott Brown to move infield to possibly his favoured central position. This also forced a more traditional 4-4-2 formation, with two genuine wide players on the park. But keeping with Lennon’s ideal of 1 withdrawn wide-man, Kris Commons was given a slightly more central, more demanding defensive responsibility as opposed to the almost free-role he had been enjoying of late with great success.
Kenny Shiels pre-match willingly accepted that an in-form Celtic are simply impossible to deal with. While some managers (perhaps rightly) respond by adjusting the team to create a more robust, defensive strategy, Shiels stuck to his guns. Speaking of playing with “style and flair”, Kilmarnock lined up in one of the most tactically interesting formations seen this season.
Described as a 4-4-2 diamond – a design traditionally emphasising the ability of the attacking midfielder “in the hole”, Kilmarnock took this concept even further. So much so in fact that the nominal strikers (David Silva and William Gros) could be found occupying either wing out of position. Writers of football tactics talk of “false-nines”, a classic contemporary example being Leo Messi – essentially a forward who drops deep away from his traditional marker to disrupt, find possession in dangerous areas, but also to create space for team-mates.
In this sense both Silva and Gros were acting as “false nines”. They were not strikers (although Gros was the most forward of the two). They were simply there to pull the Celtic central defenders out of position, wide and crucially to create room for key-man Alexei Eremenko to exploit. In defence each were meant to take up a wing position, creating something of a 4-1-4-1 with Eremenko the furthest forward. A romantic, if fatally flawed strategy.
Kilmarnock’s wide struggle
The everlasting curse of the 4-4-2 diamond is the strict lack of midfield width. A team must have some extraordinarily fit full-backs to make up for this midfield deficit – which Kilmarnock did not have. And while the compromise was for Silva and Gros to cover the left and right respectively, as relatively high “forwards” they neither could cover the necessary ground or have the defensive instincts of wide midfielders. Caught in two minds in an unorganised system – a system that would have a knock on effect undermining every position in the side.
Commons and Forrest were ruthless on the wings, for once mostly enjoying true mano-a-mano battles with the opposition full-backs. To compensate Liam Kelly and Craig Bryson were dragged further wide, vacating the central positions. Eremenko was in a free-role, the strikers were dropping as and when they could manage, the midfield were being dragged around willfully – in short a midfield shambles.
In possession and building from the back, Kilmarnock found themselves with no focal point to maintain hold of the ball higher up the park. As a result the defence with no out-ball (and determined to play short, possession football) were being put under intense undue pressure. And Celtic were pressing marvelously.
None pressed more aggressively than Man of the Match Beram Kayal, showing qualities similar to his manager in his pomp only with more mobility and more attacking thrust. If Kayal was the irrepressible bull-dog in the centre, Hooper was the genius creator, having a hand in all four goals. Commons was given a criminal amount of room on the edge of the box on four minutes, and Hooper picked him out with ease to open the scoring.
The two goals that followed (and that killed the game) were similarly born from defensive calamity. The second Commons dispossessed James Fowler, quickly conspiring again with Hooper to score, and the third Jamie Hamill gave the away to Commons who this time returned the favour releasing Hooper. A ruthless tag-team.
Just after half-time Celtic were continuing to pounce on mistakes, hitting the wood-work twice in quick succession – and Anthony Stokes later added a fourth after an intelligent and unselfish pass from Hooper.
As determined, creative and clinical Celtic were, Kilmarnock were equally lax and unorganised. Kenny Shiels lined up ambitiously (and admirably) with a side he felt could stretch Celtic’s tender defence. But Lennon’s side were so quick to punish, that the manager was able to rest Beram Kayal and at one time even had merely 3 defenders on the park. While it was brave from Kilmarnock, ultimately the 4-0 thumping may be of detrimental effect at this time in the season. Celtic meanwhile enjoy the run-out in the build-up to Sunday’s crunch Old Firm.