Celtic geared up for two massive away fixtures by comfortably thrashing Stuart McCall’s poor Motherwell side.
Neil Lennon’s quandary hadn’t changed: his favoured lop-sided 4-4-2 formation is designed with Kris Commons as the attacking focal point, only after a number of lazy, substandard performances Commons had been dropped. Either change the system, or change the personnel and Lennon opted for the latter option. James Forrest would be that high-up creative wide-man (this time) on the right, and with this responsibility comes pressure to create.
With Scott Brown injured, that left a midfield core of Joe Ledley, Beram Kayal and Ki Sung-Yeung, which perhaps is even the strongest central three possible.
New signing El Kabbouri, also allowed Lennon to replicate the system used to great success at the tail end of last season. A buccaneering left-back over-lapping the more reserved left-midfielder, with the ball-playing Mulgrew alongside Kelvin Wilson. Adam Matthew’s was given the nod ahead of Mark Wilson, with Cha Du Ri injured.
As suggested in this blog (and by countless others) post Sion, Daniel Majstorovic was dropped entirely. On a side note, fan favourite Kayal was given the Captaincy in Brown’s absence and big talking Sierra Leone striker Mohamed Bangura took up a place on the bench.
Motherwell were missing Steven Saunders who is out with an achilles injury, while new signing Omar Daley’s paperwork wasn’t complete in time to make the match squad. Shaun Hutchison returned from absence to partner Steven Craigan at the heart of the defence.
Slow start from both sides
Neither side exactly burst from the starting blocks, with Motherwell’s setup revealed to be quite narrow. The first of two main interesting tactical notes, was Tom Hateley’s role as a defensive midfielder.Not only employed behind an already packed central three, he was given license to drop inbetween the centre-backs to congest the central area further.
McCall was clearly keen to keep Celtic on the peripheral flanks, aiming to put trust in Hutchison and Craigan to deal with crosses, especially with the tendency of Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes to struggle when consistently asked to deal with high balls.
But for all the conniving to flood bodies in the centre, asphyxiating Celtic’s play, the home side were able to slice through the middle via tika-taka passing and intelligent linkup – after only 9 minutes.
The main factor from an offensive point of view was Forrest’s cutting in from the right with drive and purpose. Too often on the right in this so called “Kris Commons” role, Forrest is too easily persuaded to continue out wide onto his right. Defenders are less keen on letting him inside, and it’s here he linked up so well with the clever Hooper and Stokes, who were being provided with the exact short passing and bursting runs that they thrive on.
From a defensive point of view, Hateley’s dual-role as a defensive midfielder and an ad-hoc centre-back actually undermined the delicate back-line, with not only the “off-side line” under threat of compromise but also the two centre-backs have a natural inclination to slink out wide to accomodate Hateley.
In short the dynamic and fluid defensive shape was creating space and doubt, which Celtic’s three main attacking players could exploit. In fact the three goals that killed the game are cases in point.
The second interesting tactical note from Motherwell fell by the wayside after the goal. Namely, Jamie Murphy had was given almost a free-license to take up a slot either wide-right or wide-left depending on where he felt most penetrating. In practice this meant starting on the right, hampering El Kaddouri’s forays forward but he was often seen on the left too. But with Motherwell so wasteful in possession, whatever side Murphy was on he was restricted to defensive chasing.
Conversely Celtic were slowly gaining momentum in the kind of fashion you’d like to see every match, with Forrest in particular thriving in his role. It was a lot of pressure for the youngster to take on, especially with the home support keen to see him drive at his opposite number at every opportunity and he duly delivered.
Normally Ki is the deepest midfielder, picking up possession close to the centre-backs and starting moves from there, but Kayal seemed to be asked to perform a similar function. This in turn freed Ki to get forward that little bit more often, and it now looks like an exciting double pivot between the two – taking turns to either drop deep or go forward.
Injury forces Motherwell reshape
As Celtic piled on the pressure, Mothewell were forced into making a change, with Hutchison injuring himself in a slide tackle. Chris Humphrey replaced him coming on at right-midfield, Hateley shifted to right-back and Tim Clancy moved into the centre.
The formation change didn’t impact on the flow of the game however, as Celtic’s intricate linkup play was continuing to aggravate the Motherwell defence.
In a fantastic flowing move, Hooper, Forrest and then Stokes combined, with the latter sliding a perfect pass through to Ledley who burst into the box to score the second.
Hooper and Stokes excel in these kind of circumstances, and it shows that when given support from midfield runners the extra options make the duo much harder to deal with. It’s only when exposed and disjointed from the rest of midfield that the two seem to struggle.
As discussed in the Emilio Izaguirre Player Profile, the left-back problem has been a consistent scourge of Celtic’s. Just when Izaguirre was unearthed as “Player of the Year” quality, he suffered a devastating long-term injury. Mark Wilson once played at left-back to great success under Strachan, and to a lesser extent Mulgrew or even Matthews are capable there. But none of these replacements seem to match Lennon’s expectations in that position.
Morroccan Badr El Kaddouri has been drafted in on loan – a bona fide left-back from Dynamo Kyiv. And what a debut he enjoyed, barrelling down the left at pace and with purpose, with the bonus that the all-important final ball appears to be up to scratch.
The final ball is something that fatally undermined Lee Naylor’s Celtic career, and Naylor is a good example of what can go wrong. He had some fantastic displays, especially in his first season but he proved that consistency is all important for a full-back. If El Kaddouri can maintain the level of performance put in today, Izaguirre might find it difficult to return back to the starting eleven this season! The jury remains out.
The other new signing, Mohammed Bangura was able to make a cameo appearance, although with the game over and Celtic on cruise control, he wasn’t able to contribute too much. Though it was a brief appearance, he showed some intelligent, quick turning, decent pace and a hunger to poach inside the box. Admittedly his touch and passing was lacking at times, so still a reasonable period of bedding -in time expected.
Ki added a third with a fantastically crisp drive, reminding us again of the pleasures of a goal-scoring central midfielder. Beram Kayal came close, Forrest added his second and Celtic’s fourth and the young winger was unlucky not to win a penalty near the end.
It was a vastly improved performance from recent outings against an admittedly poor Motherwell wide. Atletico Madrid in Spain on Thursday will be a supremely tougher test.
Neil Lennon will be intrigued by how much more potent the side looked without the destroyer type player Scott Brown in the side. Ledley (in that tucked in ‘Brown’ role only on the left) has shown how to burst into the box and linkup with the frontmen. But this lop-sided 4-4-2 may be deemed to be too attacking for Madrid, what with 3 fully attacking players on the pitch. Perhaps a more conservative 4-5-1 will be used, only that means either dropping Stokes or using him wide on the left.
So while Lennon’s signature 4-4-2 has suddenly regained it’s punch, an alternative approach may be required immediately.