At such a disappointing time I’d like to take the opportunity to underline something that nobody in Scottish media will be right now:
If you’re reduced to 10 men in the first minute, and put a goal down as a result, your chances of progressing are severely restricted.
This wasn’t a result of careful tactical preparation gone wrong, meticulous scouting of the unfamiliar Swiss opposition, underestimating Sion, or simply not being good enough as a club. This was a result of one mans catastrophic disaster.
30 seconds into the match and with Celtic on the attack Scott Brown tumbled just outside the Sion area. The referee correctly waved play-on, and defensive midfielder Serey Die spotted something ludicrous. He hesitated before playing the through pass because it was too good to be true. Celtic’s Daniel Majstorovic seemed to be holding a one man defensive line a full ten-yards behind the other three defenders. Guilherme Afonso was level with the Swede, and had the best part of Celtic’s half to exploit.
It’s important to note in the immediate build-up to this moment, Celtic were in control of the ball. The defence, as a unit, move up to a level they are comfortable with. If Majstorovic was awake and alert, he would’ve stepped forward with enough time to force Afonso offside. Afonso would be back-tracking and not in a position to make a run. This was Majstorovic’s first mistake.
Intelligent defenders will know when they’ve been beaten. If a forward get’s beyond you through skill or guile that’s just part of the game and you accept it. What you must not do, with seconds on the clock is put in an atrocious, impossible challenge in the box (unless you’re 100% sure you can win it). Majstorovic injured Afonso, was red-carded and Pascal Feindouno tucked away the penalty. That was his second mistake.
The second mistake was far worse. He had the choice to either let Afonso have a go (and the team might concede), or to make a suicidal all-in challenge. The most galling point, is that conceding a goal changes almost nothing at that stage. Pre-conceding Celtic needed to score 1 to win, and post-conceding Celtic needed to score 1 to win. It was essentially immaterial. Yet Majstorovic decided to take a suicidal risk, pinning the destiny of the side on this ludicrous, ugly, unnecessary challenge.
The first mistake was lazy and unprofessional, the second unforgivable.
Recent posts have considered the conflict Neil Lennon has in his team selection. There are a ‘known best’ number of players, and some of them either aren’t playing well (Kris Commons) or aren’t playing to the managers instructions (Anthony Stokes). Others it seems Lennon pin-pointed as the players “knocking on his door to play” who are given the opportunity only to “fail again and again”. He was arguably referring to Shaun Maloney and Paddy McCourt in those comments.
Until St Johnstone, Lennon had loyally persisted with one of his favourites in Kris Commons. But Commons continued to disappoint. Similarly to the detriment of the shape of the team, Anthony Stokes was being forced wide-left or used as a lone striker – suiting neither role. Lennon had to prioritise finding a harmony between correct personnel and correct strategy.
Boldly, Commons and Stokes were dropped. Commons – arguably Celtic’s best player last season was fairly predictable having been so poor of late. But Stokes yet again will feel hard done by. He’s Celtic’s in-form striker at the moment, and not fresh back from injury like Gary Hooper. After last weeks defeat to St Johnstone, this blog speculated that Stokes would be dropped for the sake of the teams shape, seeing as he’s ineffective out wide or as a lone striker. If he were to be dropped for this reason, then that would be understandable. Yet Lennon played a 4-4-2 – where Stokes plays his most productive football. Strictly speaking, Lennon has a point. The Hooper/Stokes combination has a tendency to be one-dimensional and overwhelmed, especially at higher levels. Georgios Samaras provides more variety, and the height that the Sion defenders fear so much. (N.B. Sion were watched in the Swiss Super League against Basel and Luvern, and in both games proved to be highly vulnerable in the air).
The second most startling aspect of the formation was the use of four central midfielders and no genuine wingers. Admittedly, both Scott Brown and Joe Ledley have experience on their respective sides but in such circumstances they have a natural inclination to drift inwards, to their favoured central berth.
This left the onus on Charlie Mulgrew and Cha Du Ri to provide width (and the crossing) for strikers Georgios Samaras and Gary Hooper to work with.
What’s also notable is the inclusion of 4 players who were extremely doubtful to feature at all, with Lennon gambling on the fitness of Kayal, Kelvin Wilson, Hooper and Mulgrew.
FC Sion Lineup
Sion made 5 changes after defeating Lausanne 2-0 away from home, but only one change from the side that Celtic failed to score against at Parkhead. Former Jambo Jose Goncalves dropped out in favour of tenacious Luxembourg midfielder Mario Mutsch.
It was a replication of the 3-4-3 that served to confuse Celtic in the first leg, with Buhler moving into centre-back and Mutsch being played on the left. The emphasis on this formation is getting the most from tricky midfielder Feindouno, with the system almost built specifically around him.
Beyond the red card
The disastrous red-card has been covered. Celtic from that point were always on the back-foot and the immediate urgency is to not concede another – as mentioned, a single goal would still win it. The tactical response was to shift Joe Ledley to left-back, Georgios Samaras to left-wing-cum-striker and Mulgrew to centre-back.
Highlighting the need to not concede another, there are two main worries at this point. 1) The left hand side is an obvious defensive weakness. 2) There are 4 borderline unfit players on the park while a man down.
Many people, including John Hartson were advocating immediate switches, and they would have a strong case. The priority above all priorities was defending effectively – a goal would be a mere luxury, probably borne from some unlikely set-piece or stroke of luck. Yet Lennon persisted for an unfeasibly long-time with the same lineup.
Sion meanwhile were also, not at their best – probably punchdrunk with fortune and their performance only added to the perceived frustration that an on-song Celtic should be wiping up. But there were a few things of note keeping Sion tactically interesting.
The first was the fluid formation, something Celtic were simply unaccustomed to.
The key was a subtle switch by Mario Mutsch – staying up the park allowing for “normal” left-back Arnuad Buhler to resume his preferred role. Mutsch would enter midfield, with Die dropping deeper to mop up in front of the defence in his (almost) unique “Landry N’Guemo” fashion.
The other notable theme was, like the first leg the influence of Michael Dingsdag, who for a centre-back exhibited qualities more akin to a deep-lying playmaker.
As with previous matches, almost everything would channel through him, along with set-piece duties – so it would’ve been interesting to see Gary Hooper employed in an ambitious man-marking forward role. Sure Adailton and Buhler would have more freedom but it would inhibit Sion’s gameplan somewhat.
Reasonable handling of first-half but…
Heading towards half-time Celtic had many positives to take. The balance of power was still within a one-goal reach, and one or two chances had been carved out. Most notably a decent Mulgrew free-kick, a rushed Samaras shot from Hooper’s knockdown plus Cha was making relative headway down the right-hand side (albeit with little end product).
But it appeared that Lennon went for the jugular during the half-time team-talk. He wanted goals – immediately. Samaras seemed to be restored to striker along-side Hooper, and with that considerably more physical strain was put on the already groaning and exhausting team.
Lennon was hoping to use the post half-time team-talk momentum to sneak that crucial away goal. In practice the worst happened – Sion scored another. Feindouno blasted a free-kick against Kayal who rushed from the wall. Sadly the next man in the wall – Ki – was sleeping (likely exhausted) and couldn’t close down the second ball – and on the hour the man who didn’t pass a trial at Celtic swept home his second.
If Celtic were still clinging by their fingernails one-nil and one-man down, this was the point that the game was definitely over. It’s worrying to think that after that hour, no changes had been made. There are often stories of teams coming back with a man-down, but surely not many (if any at all) come back from playing 90 minutes with such a deficit. This makes careful use of subsitutions all the more important – running out the clock slightly, getting that vital fraction of a percent of energy back, solidifying and re-grouping. None of this happened, and dwindling Celtic were punished.
Out of nowhere, Mulgrew managed to steal one back with a rugged free-kick, and again Celtic were within a single goals distance of the winner. It was the exact kind of scrappy goal or lucky break that was required when the scoreline was 1-0, yet the over-enthusiastic attacking push robbed the team of that opportunity. Celtic continued the push, only to concede from an attacking corner. Ki was left sleeping (again) at the back, and Sio scored the decisive third.
This fixture was lost on two main points. The failure to grab anything at Celtic Park being the first, with Lennon’s dawdling over system and formation undermining the attempt.
But this cannot be understated – Majstorovic’s two mistakes were to blame for the second leg. Of the 10 who continued, it’s impossible to demand that they could have performed better. Yes, it was a hugely disappointing performance, but Majstorovic is almost entirely to blame. Almost.
The next in line for criticism, after Majstorovic is Neil Lennon. It was debatable if the big Swede could be trusted in the first place after a lazy, selfish performance against St Johnstone. Assuming there were no better options (Mulgrew with Mark Wilson at left-back?) then still, the criticism doesn’t stop there.
The lack of substitution’s was at best worrying. The physical demands on ten men (four of whom fresh back from injury) was immense. Lennon could argue that nobody looked tired, but just look at Ki’s failure to close down Feindouno’s second and his lethargic dabbling for the third. Just when the momentum seemed to sway in Celtic’s favour following Mulgrew’s free-kick, no change was made to capitalise. Playing Joe Ledley at left-back for the entirety of the game while better options waited eagerly on the bench. The same with Samaras on the left. There were far too many reasons screaming out “MAKE THE CHANGE”, and while Forrest did add a bit of impetus on the 72nd minute, Commons introduction on the 88th was merely token. McCourt and Stokes waited, not to be used.
While Celtic remain hopeful that Sion are ejected from the competition for fielding players they signed during a FIFA enforced transfer embargo, the feeling is still overwhelming disappointment. The ties came at a bad time, during poor form, and Majstorovic’s mistakes were criminal. But it still feels like more could’ve been done to win outright (in both legs) so Lennon remains culpable.