Is Neil Lennon’s preferred lop-sided 4-4-2 losing it’s charm? Much of it’s roaring success last season relied on the outstanding form of Kris Commons, and indeed it’s very shape maximises Commons’ effect. He signed from Derby County at the end of January for an outrageously shrewd £300,000 and managed to feature in 21 games out of a possible 24 (in all competition), scoring 14 goals. Clearly a favourite of Neil Lennon, with the manager beaming in May “I think Kris has been the signing of the season for the money he cost…. It’s got to the stage where you are almost disappointed when something he hits doesn’t go into the net and goes over the bar instead”
Sadly the exact opposite seems to be true at the moment. Commons has been struggling to get anything on target, has looked out of shape, has lost his sharpness and is generally out of form. The formation designed to get the most of such an effective player has had it’s crux removed. The signs have been there, as recently pointed out in 67fanzine, and the question remains: without an in-form Commons, how do we play?
The answer is: badly, though it would be unfair to concentrate solely on the Commons effect. Celtic are also currently missing three key players in Emilio Izaguirre, Gary Hooper and Beram Kayal, and also it’s not his fault that the entire team can’t adapt without him. Essentially there is no plan B and St Johnstone took advantage with an admirably organised performance.
However: Lennon had toyed in two out of the previous three matches with a new 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 formation. First, against Aberdeen and then against Sion, after fifteen minutes the 4-4-2 shape transformed with Stokes going wide left, almost mirroring Commons on the right, with the core 3 midfielders in Brown, Ledley and Ki staying central (with the latter the most advanced). It didn’t convince in either match and against Aberdeen was rejected to grab a narrow victory.
In fairness to Lennon, there are further complications. Beram Kayal is replaced in relatively straightforward fashion, but Charlie Mulgrew doesn’t possess the pace or ability to beat a man that the injured Izaguirre does – and that lack of natural width is felt. Gary Hooper’s replacement; Georgios Samaras, who perhaps unfairly received a lot of stick against Sion was dropped in favour of Shaun Maloney, but neither can really replace the intelligent movement and incisive poaching of Hooper. You couldn’t imagine 3 worse players to lose, so any team would suffer.
With Victor Wanyama named in the starting lineup, it was thought that another formation experiment may be on the cards, yet it was back to the tried and trusted ‘lop-sided’ 4-4-2 as the Kenyan lined up along-side Daniel Majstorovic at the back. Commons was restored to the left, with many thinking his use on the right is the root cause of his current form. Adam Matthews took the place of Cha Du Ri at right-back and in a popular move, Anthony Stokes returned to centre-forward.
St Johnstone Lineup
Derek McInnes side are just another SPL team that have seen a massive turnover in playing staff. Core players in Michael Duberry, Danny Grainger, Danny Invincible, Collin Samuel and Jordan Robertson are just 5 of 12 players who were allowed to leave. But the incomers aren’t too shabby either, with the trio of Calum Davidson, Cilian Sheridan and Francisco Sandaza in particular catching the eye – and the three started today.
It is a simple idea – defend deep and defend man for man with the big strikers up front able to unsettle the Celtic centre-backs. Strikers aside, it is actually a very familiar St Johnstone side, with two very good central-midfielders aiming to pull the strings. McInnes only had 2 injuries to worry about, with Chris Millar and Kevin Moon missing out.
Before the teams could even size each other up, Stokes was played through by Adam Matthews and brought down in the area by Enckelman. Regrettably it was apt that Kris Commons missed the penalty considering his form – sending the ball down to the same spot that Gary Hooper did against Hibernian on the opening day of Celtic’s season, and Enckelman atoned for his error.
Whether this miss affected the sides attitude is unclear, but Celtic proceeded to maintain possession without really being able to break down the St Johnstone defence. The Saints’ gameplan allowed them to sit back with a set amount of men – with the defenders and midfield not really commiting to any attacks in a “broken team” kind of fashion. Attacking duties were left to the front two, and therefore with the “low-block” man for man defending, there was very little space to exploit.
It’s a high risk strategy and leaves the onus on Celtic to create – specifically somebody having to beat their man at some stage. But with the defence so deep and condense, even this was difficult. It’s no surprise that the best chances came from set-pieces – one from a Ki corner and another with Commons hitting the post from a free-kick (again won by Ki who was Celtic’s most productive player, at least in the first half).
Frustration sets in
In these situations you need that penalty to go in, or that corner, or that free-kick. It’s a case of quantity over quality – at some stage the defence will be breached despite the chances themselves not being of great quality simply due to the nature of the opposition defending. However well the likes of Ki, Maloney, Ledley and Matthews were playing, there seemed to be a lack of presence in the box – neither a target to aim for or a penalty box poacher to pounce. Maloney was the deeper of the two strikers and despite preferring that position, has over the course of his career become a midfielder. Similarly Stokes is a player who is best doing his own thing – slipping out wide into space or dropping deep.
McInnes’ tactic became a success around the 35 minute mark where frustration crept in. Calls from unimpressed fans for McCourt, or Forrest to take the place of the flagging Commons. There were stray passes and groans from the crowd. Regardless, Ki came close with a decent strike from range and Stokes was perhaps unlucky after Enckelman plucked the ball from his toes at the crucial moment.
At half-time, whether Mulgrew was injured or not, he was taken off with Mark Wilson coming on, and the substitution could easily have been for performance reasons. Mulgrew was guilty of misplaced passes and wasn’t able to get forward enough to trouble the deep Saints defence. In theory Wilson would be better equipped to get forward, away from his marker and into space.
The course of the match changed little but as the frustration and desperation grew stronger, the chances dried up. Ki and Ledley were starting to look tired, Majstorovic too nonchalant and the problem of the missing frontmen continued. Perhaps a mixture of complacency and fatigue overall.
Celtic’s confidence in their gameplan – the idea that if enough chances were created the goal would come – took an almighty blow on the hour as Dave Mackay scored the shock winner. In a rare foray forward with conviction, Celtic found themselves all over the place at the back. Majstorovic was out of position meaning Wanyama had to come across and cover. Wilson at left-back was sucked in to the middle, leaving room for St Johnstone’s right midfielder Dave Mackay to have a free blast at goal. He got lucky with a deflection, and Celtic were stunned. It’s unclear whether Commons had any chance in getting back and covering for Wilson, but across the board the defence was too lax positionally.
McInnes immediately withdrew Sheridan to bring on a midfielder, and his replacement Higgins was able to sit just ahead of the other two central midfielders, and put pressure on any move beginning from Celtic’s centre. Lennon also immediately responded with McCourt coming on for the disappointing Commons, whose contribution barring the free-kick was dreadful. James Forrest was also soon brought on for Joe Ledley, in a move towards the more expansive 4-4-2 that Lennon tends to use, with two high wingers on either side.
It was McCourt who was proving to be the more effective, but his insistence on taking on that “player too far” only added to the pent up frustration bubbling over in Celtic Park. Still, he was the source of on of the two final real chances of the game, bursting past a number of defenders and playing a fine one-two before slamming a shot against the post. And the last chance fell to Stokes, whose hopeful header was cleared off the line.
We shouldn’t be too hasty in condemning the lop-sided 4-4-2 as finished, as today was a faint reminder that that formation is able to dominate SPL sides quite comfortably;at least in possession, chances created and limiting the opposition. And again, there are 3 key players missing. But there are still stark issues: if the wide ‘creator’ i.e. Commons is off-form/injured/etc then who can come in? It doesn’t seem that Lennon has enough faith in Forrest, McCourt or even Maloney to start them in that role.
The other option is a change to the system – the 4-3-3 employed against Sion was equally inept, albeit severely hindered by poor individual performances. Stokes is wasted out wide, Commons is off form, Samaras was provided with zero service and there isn’t another option for a lone striker (with Hooper injured). Finally Ki is more suited to the deeper role he’s come to excel in, rather than as an attacking midfielder providing immediate support to a striker.
Anthony Stokes could be vital to all of this. Currently the only available striker with a reliable goal ratio, he is on the face of it undroppable at this time. The dilemma, is that he doesn’t fit into a 4-3-3, and whatever iteration of 4-4-2 Lennon has employed, he doesn’t seem to fit into either (except from obviously, where Hooper is fit and Commons is on form).
Will Lennon have to drop top scorer Stokes altogether for the sake of the team’s flexibility and effectiveness? It’s a hell of a call, and if he did and failed would be open to all kinds of criticism.