A thunderbolt from Kris Commons calmed nerves as Celtic ran out 2-0 winners at Rugby Park today. Scott Brown’s diving header late into first half injury time made it 1-0, but as Celtic failed to convince Commons lashed in his 13th goal for Celtic to decide the match.
Neil Lennon’s hand was forced somewhat in two key selection areas – the first being the choice of strikers. With Georgios Samaras and Anthony Stokes suspended, Lennon’s only choice of partner for Gary Hooper was Daryl Muphy. The former Sunderland player has been unlucky with injuries this season, and as a result has been unable to stake a claim up front. Shaun Maloney would be an outside option, and despite fancying himself as a striker (and can do a job), his previous three managers have only seen fit to play him as a winger.
Lennon has struggled to find a successful alternative to the Hooper/Stokes combination with the more single-minded Samaras seemingly not a great fit. Could Murphy be the “second option” completing a big/little man combination? With two decent wingers on each flank, it looked to be a classic wide 4-4-2 setup.
Similarly in the centre of midfield it was injury that dictated Lennon’s selection. With Joe Ledley and Beram Kayal out for the season, Ki Sung-Yeung got another chance to show why he should be starting. The Korean partnered Scott Brown in the centre, and the Captain’s main success this season has been from on the right. Does he have the positional discipline to complete a double-pivot?
With Charlie Mulgrew a fitness worry, bona fide centre-back Thomas Rogne was restored alongside Daniel Majstorovic, and the rest of the side remained unchanged from Sunday’s serious defeat. A chance to prove a point.
Kilmarnock too had selection difficulties, with James Fowler suspended and Jamie Hamill injured. Willy Aubameyang was dropped as Garry Hay, James Dayton and Kieran Agard started.
Kenny Shiels went with a choice of tactics that covered all sorts of areas. The first, and most obvious was the intention to get the best from Player of the Year contender Alexei Eremenko by playing him in a free role in a 4-4-1-1. Furthermore, as many managers have attempted this season Kilmarnock’s two widemen were positioned high on each flank in an attempt to stifle the rampaging nature of Emilio Izaguirre and Mark Wilson. Finally Kieran Agard was to use his pace and aggression to get stuck into Celtic’s two centre-backs – an area perceived to be Celtic’s weakness this season and one identified by Sheils pre-match, saying his intention was to ‘put pressure on the defence’.
Midfield advantage encourages Killie
Neil Lennon has become well accustomed to facing 5 man midfields, and with a willingness to play strikers the compromise has been to use Scott Brown on the right, tucked in to help out in midfield. We’ve also seen (for example against Dundee Utd last week) a striker dropping deep to help out. But with both Kris Commons and James Forrest playing as out and out wingers and both strikers as high up as possible, there was an obvious numerical deficit in midfield. Unfortunately, as the below image shows the spare man was Eremenko.
Particularly in the opening 30 minutes, Kilmarnock were actually commanding possession and Celtic seemed uncomfortable in midfield. This wasn’t helped at all by Izaguirre’s unsuccessful charges up field, and he was uncharacteristically slow in getting back into position putting a burden on Ki to cover or Majstorovic to shuffle over.
This disadvantage in the centre was also dragging Murphy deep and away from targetman duties, so Sheils’ tactics were causing havoc. For every “man advantage” there is an equal and opposite result – but here Celtic’s spare man was one of Rogne or Majstorovic. And with Agard doing a fine job in occupying both and with neither that comfortable with the ball at feet getting forward, Celtic’s spare man was insignificant.
Quality surfaces (eventually)
Jonathan Wilson recently wrote “A good tactic is not necessarily a winning tactic, but one that manipulates the percentages” and nothing could ring more true than here. Despite Shiels’ best strategy, Celtic survived long enough to create some chances of their own. With the quality of players like Hooper and Commons, who each had the ball in the back of the net only to be chopped off, it’s only a matter of time before chances would be created.
But strangely it was the player on targetman duty who supplied the cross that led to the breakthrough. Murphy held the ball up well way out left, swept in a lovely back-post cross (harking back to his spell as a winger at Sunderland) and James Forrest knocked it down for Brown to head in. It’s always positive to see midfielders making that extra effort to get into the box for crosses, and Forrest and Brown reaped the reward.
Game seen out
The late goal seemed to invigorate Celtic as they came out the blocks for the second half, and Kilmarnock seemed to lose a little belief. With both Commons and Forrest not double-marked (as has been the tradition against Celtic wingers), there should’ve been a higher level of performance, certainly in Forrest’s case. But he was coming more into the game as it opened out in the second half, launching in some decent crosses and putting Hay under pressure.
Indeed it was after Shaun Maloney came on for Forrest (and Commons was shifted right) that the killer goal came about. Cutting in onto his favoured left, Commons smashed in from 25 yards – again a refreshing positive – a midfielder that loves nothing more to shoot from distance. It was his 13th goal for Celtic and his 26th of the season (including Derby) – a stunning return for a left midfielder and a heck of a bargain at £300k.
After Izaguirre picked up a knock, he was replaced by Mulgrew and similarly McCourt was given a wee cameo on for Hooper in the dying minutes, just enough time for one slalom style run that he’s famous for.
All in all Celtic won’t be anything less than delighted with the three points and clean sheet, but it was worrying how well Kilmarnock were able to dominate (first half) possession and stifle play. On another day this could’ve been a much more frustrating afternoon, but now all eyes to Rangers Vs Dundee Utd on Tuesday night.