With Rangers having played 2 more games and being 4 points ahead, Celtic hosted a tricky Dundee Utd on Sunday afternoon. Despite the best efforts of the likes of Steven Naismith to pile on the pressure (with nonsense tabloid filler), Celtic were composed enough to dispatch of the Tangerines – but both managers were left with differing levels of frustration
With Joe Ledley out injured for the season, Lennon’s first selection choice was to either introduce Ki Sung-Yeung (or Juarez?) in a straight swap, or shift Scott Brown central. He went with the latter option, presumably with the idea that the Kayal/Brown combo is a more robust choice in dealing with the physical three man midfield likely to be employed by his Dundee Utd counterpart.
With Brown inside, Kayal shifted into the left central spot (not his preferred) and in line with Lennon’s preferred slightly lop-sided 4-4-2, Kris Commons was slightly withdrawn on the right (in the ‘Scott Brown’ role) with James Forrest high up as an out and out winger on the left.
The other big decision was Anthony Stokes in for Georgios Samaras – off the back of an (almost) match-changing performance as a substitute against Rangers. Stokes has now contributed 19 goals (joint top club scorer) and 10 assists – and seems to have a much better understanding with first choice Gary Hooper than his forward competition.
Dundee Utd Lineup
Peter Houston set out in extremely similar fashion to the previous two encounters between the two sides. Out of possession a deep and disciplined 4-1-4-1 and in possession a quick counter-attacking 4-3-3. Paul Dixon, Morgaro Gomis and Sean Dillon all returned to the side after a 4-2 win over Kilmarnock, at the expense of Barry Douglas, David Robertson and Keith Watson.
Slack early period – from both sides
Generally when Celtic are outnumbered four to five in midfield, one of the strikers takes up the role of dropping deeper to linkup play, and this has never been more evident than here against Dundee Utd. It was Stokes who was playing “off the shoulder” as high as possible, and Hooper was the linkup man, often playing so deep as to blur the line between “second striker” and “attacking midfielder”.
But causing massive concern to Lennon was Stokes’ inability to hold up the ball, play the simple pass and bring others into the game. Sometimes even the simple stuff was eluding Stokes. This isn’t too surprising as it’s not that common for a small striker to be playing a classic “holding up” role, even while most of the supply was (presumably intentionally) below headering height. But this also underlines a continuing problem up front – the lack of alternative style. All three of Hooper, Stokes and Samaras prefer deck football, and this is a relatively new problem since Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink left the club.
While Lennon verbally tore chunks out of Stokes, the decision to restore him to the side eventually did pay off however, after the young Irishman exploited a mistake by Gary Kenneth to supply Gary Hooper with an easy finish, another notch for that most fruitful of partnership. Stokes came close with a wonderful looping long-range effort and clearly the “encouragement” from Lennon was taking effect.
Equally Peter Houston was greatly concerned by his sides inability to hold onto the ball, despite the numerical(ish) advantage in midfield and most frustratingly despite Celtic’s own charitable acts of giving away. Houston knew Celtic weren’t quite clicking and knew that if his side could boss possession, they could start creating chances.
Target areas and tactical adjustments – from both sides
In Celtic’s most worrying first half spell, Dundee Utd were getting great pleasure from the areas behind the Majstorovic and Mulgrew, and David Goodwillie’s and Craig Conway’s pace coupled with Frazer Forster’s indecisive dealing with balls over the top were causing some hair-raising moments.
At the other end, James Forrest was returned to his favoured right flank, another main possession offender. While he did make decent headway down the left, his criminal lack of a left foot voided his own good work and therefore Commons was also able to resume duty in his own favoured area.
Into the second half and Brown and Kayal, the epitome of a tenacious midfield, were beginning to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and in what better way than to score a screamer? Kayal won the ball, jinked past his man and fired in an unstoppable left footer from 25 yards.
Peter Houston was understandably frustrated as one goal was mainly a defensive blunder, and the second quite extraordinary and so he made his change to salvage a goal from this game. With Bauben’s offensive intention successfully shackled by his opposite number Scott Brown, he was swapped for targetman Jon Daly and Utd went 4-4-2 and man for man in the centre.
Further deterioration from Utd, but one positive note
While this was the only realistic strategic change Houston could’ve gambled on (and the intention was to further pressure the slightly frayed Celtic back-line), the lack of bodies in midfield only intensified Brown and Kayal’s stranglehold on the game. And with Kris Commons also tormenting Sean Dillon, a sharper (or luckier) Celtic could easily have scored a number of further goals.
At 2-0 Lennon rung the changes, with Ki coming on for the disappointing Forrest (moving Brown out right), bringing Shaun Maloney on for Gary Hooper in a like for like swap, and eventually giving Daryl Murphy some rare gametime in place of Brown. Encouragingly, the three gave good accounts for themselves with Maloney creating the killer third goal, Ki his usual effective and dependable passing self, and Murphy scoring a later wonder-goal skinning four tired Utd defenders and lofting the keeper. Maybe Murphy is the second up front option Lennon is looking for after all?
One positive change for Dundee Utd was the introduction of Johnny Russell. Played on the right as an “inverted” winger, his quick feet and acceleration provided a real thorn in Celtic’s side. Charlie Mulgrew was especially finding it hard when Russell cut in onto Mulgrew’s weaker right, first hitting the post after a tremendous mazy run, then lobbing Frazer Forster when perhaps he should’ve scored, but finally did get on the score sheet after dodgy defending at the back yet again.
Conclusion and look North
There were mixed reports on Celtic’s handling of this game across the media, and while the first two goals were arguably rather fortunate, there were countless other “unfortunate” chances to balance the scale. In fact in agreeance with Neil Lennon, Celtic could of and maybe should have had many more.
James Forrest’s ineffect, particular on the left could point to a slight change of system for Lennon on Wednesday against Inverness – perhaps adding Ki to the midfield and returning Scott Brown to the right hand side where he’s done so well this season. And depending on the pitch condition up North, Lennon may gamble on the likes of Samaras or Murphy for a more route one approach. At this stage of the campaign goal difference is of little importance compared to the demand for three points, so will Stokes be sacrificed again?