In the forthcoming edition of 67Fanzine I ask the question: does Neil Lennon have an alternate formation? Before the magazine has gone to print, the manager has already answered the question. In the fairly dominant 1-0 victory over Aberdeen at Pittodre, Lennon experimented with a 4-2-3-1 formation, quite likely with Europe in mind.
Another question raised for 67Fanzine is: how will Lennon squeeze his preferred players onto the park, because when Scott Brown returns from suspension somebody has to drop out. Gary Hooper, Joe Ledley, Beram Kayal, Kris Commons and Brown have been the traditional ‘untouchables’ (if you can pardon the Mourinho expression) but the contributions of Ki Sung-Yeung and Anthony Stokes seem to have earned them a place on the list. That’s 7 players with surely only 6 slots up for grabs. Incidentally the 67 Live blog even goes so far as to speculate that Lennon needs to play certain players to have a chance of keeping them!
Regardless, with Brown suspended for this encounter at Aberdeen, Lennon could pick all of his current favoured players – interestingly though using 4-2-3-1. Hooper led the line, Ledley and Kayal made the usual double pivot in the centre and Commons took up his usual place on the right. Stokes and Ki however, were asked to perform completely different roles than they’re used to. Most worryingly for Stokes, it was his displacement out wide that preceded his drop in form last season and ultimately was dropped altogether. On those occasions he played on the right, but in theory he should also be effective in a Kris Commons-esque role on the left, cutting in on his favoured right foot.
Ki, normally the deepest midfielder, (often dropping as deep as the centre-backs when starting off moves) was now playing in a much more advanced attacking midfield role. Again, in theory it should be a good fit – Ki’s creativity, shooting and movement seems ideal for the role.
At the back new signings Adam Matthews and Kelvin Wilson were selected, with Glenn Loovens, Thomas Rogne and Mark Wilson injured.
Craig Brown had plenty of practice against Celtic fairly recently with the normal SPL fixtures supplemented by 2 cup meetings. The aggregate scoreline of 21-1 doesn’t really reflect that Brown’s Aberdeen had some decent spells. He had trialled 3-5-2 (disastrously) and 4-5-1 before settling on 4-4-2 as a formation of choice.
New signing Youl Mawene joined a list of absentees including Ryan Jack, Chris Clark and Fraser Fyvie, while Manchester City loanee goalkeeper David Gonzalez and centre-back Kari Arnason made their respective debuts.
Why the 4-2-3-1 did not work
While Celtic enjoyed a great amount of possession (62%) and took a decent amount of shots (25 with 13 on target compared to Aberdeen’s 3 on target) it was a fairly toothless performance up front, with not enough genuine chances created and the final touch dreadfully lacking. The 4-2-3-1 experimentation was undermined from the start thanks to poor individual performances all round and perhaps especially from Commons.
The first failure of this system was the ostracisation of Stokes out on the left hand side. He is playing better than Hooper at the moment and scored the breakthrough against Hibernian a fortnight ago, so it’s understandable that Lennon wanted to keep him in the side. The alternative of course would be to have Ledley on the left in a 4-4-2, but in similar fashion this diminishes his ability. In short Stokes is our best player at the moment and suffered tremendously out wide.
The second reason was that Hooper was fairly isolated without a player close by to work from – either feeding off or flicking/passing on to, so he was another suffering under the system.
The third reason was a subtle difference in midfield. Ki usually excels in a regista role – that is a deep lying playmaking role in the mould of, say, Xabi Alonso. He makes the entire team tick with almost every move going through him. Being fielder higher up the park as an enganche, he saw far less of the ball and he was missed at the back. The centre-backs love having Ki as a constant out-ball – he has an astonishing hunger to get into space and receive the ball from his defenders, and neither Ledley or Kayal (as good players as they are) offer this service.
Having lost Izaguirre (having broken his ankle) combined with the above 3 reasons there were at least 4 players being played in less favoured positions.
Lennon gave the formation 60 minutes before deciding that it wasn’t working, reverting to the lop-sided 4-4-2 that has brought good results and performances, but it wasn’t all bad. In perhaps a tictactic first, Celtic actually had the man advantage in midfield and consequently the possession stats reflect this.
It was also a good opportunity to see Ki in a more advanced position, and despite being out-of-position it was still a fine performance, yet again showing how capable he is in attack.
Aberdeen were well and truly snuffed out as an attacking force, so perhaps there is use in the 4-2-3-1, especially in tougher games and also if players are used in more familiar positions.
Finally, as bad a game as Commons had in general, he actually contributed 2 goal-scoring opportunities. Only 1 can go down on the teams record for assists, but his through-ball to substitute James Forrest was fantastic, and it really should be considered that Commons setup 2!
Back to 4-4-2
It was previously mentioned that unlike Scott Brown, Joe Ledley’s performance is greatly stunted when used out on the flank, and the change precipitated James Forrest coming on. This use of two out and out wingers is risky business and something that Lennon looks more and more to be avoiding having to do. This further explains the initial choice of 4-2-3-1 which keeps Ledley central along with both Ki and Kayal on the pitch.
But it was a risk worth taking as Stokes effectiveness was given a boost as soon as he was put back in the centre. Commons pounced on Ricky Foster to steal the ball before combining with Stokes who scored the winner.
Forrest’s introduction seemed to breath a bit of urgency into the side and his direct running up the touch-line was in contrast to Stokes, who while on the left doesn’t have the speed to beat players as well, and doesn’t like going for the byline.
Going back to the opening paragraph and the question “Is there an alternative to the lop-sided 4-4-2” the answer, sadly at the moment is no. While the 4-2-3-1 looks to have great potential, it shouldn’t really be used to squeeze the desired players on to the pitch – Stokes being the prime example. It would be much more preferrable to see the 4-2-3-1 with the strategy chosen first and the individuals second. Frustratingly for Lennon this inevitably means losing an “untouchable”.