In Celtic’s final game of the 2011 Dublin Cup, Neil Lennon took the opportunity to field some fringe players making for an experimental looking formation.
Damien Richardson made wholesale changes to the side that was beaten easily by Manchester City on Saturday, lining up in a 4-5-1 formation. Only goalkeeper Ger Doherty survives that rout. Celtic similarly named a completely different XI to the side beaten 2-0 by Inter. Clearly a fringe side in the main, only Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes can be considered first-eleven material as it stands.
Bearing in mind this encounter was merely a friendly, here are 6 thoughts on the action:
1. Celtic aren’t as comfortable with a 4-4-2 that features 2 bona-fide wingers
Neil Lennon’s favoured formation is now clearly established as the asymmetrical 4-4-2, featuring a core of 3 central type midfielders and only one truly attacking wide-player. The classic incarnation would be Kris Commons high up on the left, with Joe Ledley, Beram Kayal and Scott Brown completing the midfield. Arguably, this could be considered a 4-3-1-2, but that notation doesn’t really explain that the ‘1’ features on either the left or right wing, at least without the ball.
Celtic continually face five-man midfields and being outnumbered in midfield is a constant danger. But this lop-sided 4-4-2 helps alleviate the problem with the tucked in wide midfielder wading into the central battle as Brown so successfully demonstrated last season.
But the numerous demands of a full season has seen Lennon at times using high attacking style wide players on both sides, which when faced against a 4-4-2 can be fine. Against a 5 man midfield however, this more risky formation has seen the midfield congested and overpowered. For example, that Inverness game at the end of last season, St Mirren in April and the tight 1-0 win over Aberdeen in January.
The same problems were clear against the Airtricity XI until the tired total capitulation at the end.
2. Most fringe players unable to make their case
Starting from the back, Dominic Cervi went largely untested and likely remains in Lennon’s book as a third choice ‘keeper. Darren O’Dea, particularly in the first half wasn’t able to organise or stay in harmony with the defensive line – getting away with a couple of dodgy moments and not seeming to have developed in his time away from the club. Richie Towell in the centre came across more as a ball-playing “Ki” type player than a bustling Brown style, only wasn’t able to stamp his authority on the midfield. At 20 years old, Towell has plenty of time to develop. Daryl Murphy started on the left but was shifted up front after only 30 minutes – underlining the fact that despite playing as a winger for Sunderland, should be considered as a striker only.
Filip Twardzik and Victor Wanyama made the best impressions of the “fringe” players, with the young Czech showing a good all-round and positive game, if a little sloppy when it mattered. We’ve now seen enough of Wanyama to see he’s very much a destroyer – waiting conservatively in the middle third of the pitch for the ball to enter his zone. His passing is more functional than creative, but his discipline and strength in the tackle gives the midfield a different option.
3. McCourt and Stokes less effective on the right
Like Daryl Murphy, whose effectiveness is curtailed when played out of position, McCourt and Stokes were each given a spell on the right wing (McCourt for first half hour, Stokes roughly for the second).
McCourt’s crossing isn’t great for a wide-player. He also doesn’t really have blistering pace to go around the outside, where the full-back generally wants you to go anyway. He is much more effective cutting in and causing trouble but he is right-footed. This inability to go outside coupled with cutting in onto his lesser foot is a double-edged blow to McCourt’s “niche” contribution.
Similarly, Stokes prefers being in and around the box (where he invariably drifted anyway) and along with his defensive inadequacies leads to using a player only to a fraction of his best ability.
4. Alternatives to Commons?
His guile and intelligence was sorely lacking (compounded by an outnumbered midfield) and Lennon’s favoured 4-4-2/4-3-1-2 is almost tailor made with him in mind. With Murphy dismissed as a left-winger and McCourt and Stokes diminished on the right, the question is who is the real alternative to Commons?
James Forrest is a completely different type of player – route 1, burst down the line and deliver a cross, and like the rest Forrest is most effective on his preferred (right hand) side. The glassy Shaun Maloney could be the genuine alternative, but all things considered – without Commons the best replacement could well be using McCourt on the left.
5. Kearns catches eye to Matthews’ detriment
While Stokes performance up front deservedly earned him the man of the match award, it was Daniel Kearns, the 19 year old Dundalk winger that caught the eye. With that extra bit of freedom the extra man in midfield provided, Kearns was a constant threat down the Airtricity left hand side. Pace to burn, two good feet and excellent close control, it’s clear that Kearns will be moving on to a bigger stage sometime soon.
Adam Matthews bore the brunt. Having displayed a real attacking talent in pre-season from the full-back position, Matthews was pegged back and entirely nullified by Kearns.
The second “killer” goal came after 70 minutes via a fairly avoidable penalty, so the scoreline is very flattering and doesn’t do justice to the 65 minutes+ that Airtricity essentially matched this squad of players. The two main “first eleven” players that Celtic fielded, Stokes and Hooper were predictably successful picking up a brace each, and a third that entered the fray (Commons) also impressed.
Despite the scoreline it was ever so slightly disappointing from Celtic’s perspective, especially one or two fringe players who really need to be doing better.