The first question on everybody’s lips following Celtic’s lacklustre exit (as it stands) from the Europa League, is who will keep a place after such a universally poor showing?
The answer, is that only Joe Ledley and Georgios Samaras were dropped. Perhaps a tad harsh, as they weren’t exactly most guilty on the night. That dubious accolade goes to Daniel Majstorovic who despite a horrific, game-changing (or tournament changing) set of blunders, manages to keep his place. It’s probably testament to a combination of factors in Neil Lennon’s book – that on-form Majstorovic can be an imposing defender, and that the alternative of using Charlie Mulgrew in the centre not only means utilising someone who’s not really a centre-back but at the same time unsettling the balance of the team, (that is, playing a right footer in Mark Wilson or Adam Matthews at left-back). Victor Wanyama also didn’t do enough to convince Lennon that he could be an improvement.
James Forrest was selected in Lennon’s words “to provide a bit of width”, interestingly used on the left, as opposed to his favoured (and arguably more effective) right-hand side. This allows Scott Brown to keep his place at the expense of Joe Ledley.
Finally Anthony Stokes was restored to the starting lineup, for the return of the fan-favourite striker partnership with Gary Hooper.
St Mirren Lineup
Danny Lennon stuck to the same side that defeated rivals Morton 4-3 on Tuesday. Although last season Lennon had some success (despite not winning) making use of a five-man midfield, he decided to stick to his guns with an attacking 4-4-2.
Early goals set tone
Anthony Stokes should’ve been allowed to prove his manager wrong for getting dropped mid-week, after getting the better of Marc McAusland and putting the ball in the net. It wouldn’t be the first wrong decision Willie Collum would make of the day, but any ill feeling was forgotten as Hooper and Stokes combined extremely well for Celtic’s number 88 to open the scoring after only 6 minutes. Now that was a reminder to Lennon of just how potent that two can be when interacting. And the key is in one player dropping off combined with intelligent one-touch passing. With Hooper initially coming deep dragging his marker with him, he created space for Stokes to play a clever through ball. It’s all about breaking up the defensive line, and it was a prime example.
The second goal soon after came directly from Celtic’s incessant, urgent pressing. With St Mirren living up man for man in a 4-4-2 vs 4-4-2, once pressure is applied often the only spare man for the team in possession is the goalkeeper. First Beram Kayal sprang from the traps, Forrest and Stokes followed limiting former Celt Paul McGowan’s options. He panicked, and Hooper had already read the intention to use the goalkeeper, taking clinical advantage of a very sloppy pass-back.
Complacent Celtic think it’s over
With only 2 changes from the side that put in an exhausting performance against Sion, it’s understandable for Celtic to take their foot off the gas having gone two up and cruising. It even felt for a moment like an avalanche of goals would follow, especially with how sharp Stokes and Hooper were looking. But the opposite was to happen.
Celtic didn’t seem prepared to mount attacks the ‘hard’ or ‘correct’ way. That is, instead of holding possession and spreading play in the face of a yielding side that’s just been given a black-eye, the ensuing tactic was simply to stick the ball in the general direction of Stokes and Hooper as quickly as possible. It’s a fairly predictable reaction given the fatigue some of the eleven will be feeling.
Consequently, St Mirren began to see more of the ball as hopeful ball after hopeful ball was repelled. With no “spare men” (so to speak) available to pass to for Celtic, the challenge is getting into space to receive passes, and St Mirren (perhaps having extra time recovery from their midweek fixture, and of course not having had a man sent off in that tie) were more eager for the ball.
With more of the ball, St Mirren were also able to exploit flaws in Celtic’s system – namely capitalising on the space left by Cha Du Ri and Scott Brown. The initial formation diagram above shows just how central Brown was playing, almost trying to replicate Kris Common’s successful forays inside as of last season. But where Common’s forced his opposite number (the left-back) to follow for fear of conceding, Brown offered no such attacking threat, and his presence approaching the area behind the strikers only revealed St Mirren left-back Jeroen Tesselaar as the “freest” man on the park.
St Mirren attack Celtic’s right
He used this freedom intelligently and wasn’t afraid to get forward – asking questions of Cha’s defensive capability (who was simultaneously meant to be Celtic’s attacking width on the right, and marking Gary Teale when without the ball). In either careering up the park in a right-sided imitation of Emilio Izaguirre, or tracking Teale, Cha wasn’t in a position to deal with Tesselaar’s freedom. At least in the first half, Brown should’ve been better positioned when defending, but was consistently caught too high up and too central.
The other complication on that side, was Nigel Hasselbaink’s manipulation of Majstorovic. As the image on the right demonstrates.
Cha and the under-fire Majstorovic essentially had 3 players to deal with, with the largely unchecked Tesselaar overlapping on the Celtic right. Hasselbaink was able to use Majstorovic’s clumsiness against him – in that he could shield the ball and work safely outwards towards the channel, reasonably safe in the knowledge that Majstorovic would not dive in.
Bearing in mind Cha’s specific man to mark is Teale, Tesselaar was able to get in behind the defence, and Majstorovic was frequently pulled out of position allowing for Thompson to attempt to steal into the gap.
The dominance on that side in fact from St Mirren, was profound, and it’s no surprise that at half-time Lennon was able to make sure Brown occupied a more realistic area of the pitch.
St Mirren unable to penetrate
Interestingly for Celtic, it’s these kind of situations where past sides have dropped points. Majstorovic was not playing well – the Swede is at a similar mental stage as previous centre-backs Stephen McManus and Glenn Loovens have once been. So shot of confidence that their unable to do right for doing wrong, and it’s almost impossible a situation to play out of. At least it was for McManus and Loovens.
But the Celtic defence were able to hold strong, mostly thanks to a couple of fantastic saves from Frazer Forster in something of an attempt to prove his critics wrong. There was however an unsavoury play, where an insecure Kelvin Wilson was forced to knock a header back towards goal. It’s the same old problems from Forster – too quiet and too slow off his line, as Wilson was quick to point out.
Other areas still worry – Ki and Kayal are suddenly off form, with the former clearly fatigued from a gruelling schedule, and Kayal just back from injury still edging towards his bustling best. James Forrest is never quite as effective on the left, and given Brown’s poor performance, it’s still puzzling why Ledley shouldn’t have started on the left with Forrest on the right.
If anything, today highlighted just what a dilemma Neil Lennon faces with his strikers. Yes, Stokes and Hooper get goals and nobody doubts it. But the team’s ability to retain possession suffers as a result, crying out for a reliable out-ball to aim for up front. It shows why Lennon has experimented with the less prolific Georgios Samaras and a 4-2-3-1 system. Ultimately, nothing is more productive than the two who started today with the resources Lennon has. Is there still time for another striker to come in?