Neil Lennon opted for what is increasingly becoming regarded as the ‘Plan B’, as Atletico Madrid outclassed Celtic in the Europa League last night.
With Anthony Stokes and Scott Brown added to the injury list already featuring Emilio Izaguirre and Thomas Rogne, Lennon was forced to shuffle the backline while setting up in the ‘tough away game’ formation, 4-2-3-1. Mark Wilson did indeed come into the squad, but not as suggested in the preview at left-back. His experience was preferred to Adam Matthews at right-back, with Charlie Mulgrew playing on the other side and Glenn Loovens starting alongside Kelvin Wilson.
Georgios Samaras’ inclusion in the team-sheet instigated discussion of Lennon’s strategy, would the Greek play alongside Gary Hooper, or would Hooper be deployed deeper in a 4-4-1-1 as thought by ESPN? Samaras actually played on the left, with Ki as the most advanced midfielder in the centre and James Forrest on the right. Joe Ledley and Beram Kayal would combine to make a double-pivot.
The selection was largely as expected considering what was available, although Hooper’s use as a lone striker was singularly the most contentious issue.
Atletico made a number of changes to the side that lost to Valencia at the weekend and it’s unclear whether this was to rotate a deep squad, rest key players in a packed fixture period or perhaps there was a sense of security considering the gulf in resources between the two sides. Regardless, the replacements were quality with Diego Ribas coming in for Adrian, Arda Turan for Jose Antonio Reyes, Koke for Tiago, and only Miranda survived the cull at the back with Antonio Lopez, Diego Godin and Luis Perea coming in.
The system itself was almost identical to the 4-3-3 used against Valencia, the difference subtly distinguished through individuals.
Soft concession undermines effort
For the second time in two important away Euro ties, Celtic have been fatally undone within the first couple of minutes. Whether this is coincidence or a suggestion of a complacent early mentality is a question worth asking. Casting an eye over previous season’s big games sees a guilty trend – under Mowbray, Nikica Jelavic managed to score in both Rapid Vienna fixtures before 3 minutes were on the clock. On Lennon’s watch, Jamie Ness scoring after 3 minutes in the ‘2-2’ Old Firm last season springs to mind, as does the early capitulation to Utrecht and latterly Daniel Majstorovic’s moment of madness against Sion.
The need to sharpen up in the early game aside, the goal was a damning example of the flaws of the Zonal Marking system, which Celtic first employed in earnest under Tony Mowbray and has remained since. Looking at the above image, it’s surprising (or not) that the goalscorer – Falcao – is the left-most player inside the Celtic box.
The crux of the system here is the roles of Kelvin Wilson, Glen Loovens and Georgios Samaras who are the three players (in order nearest the ball) who are employed along the 6 yard line. The main advantage (in theory) puts the best headers of the ball in the most important spacial area. On the same basis, it avoids “dummys” in the man-marking system, dragging your best headers towards insignificant areas of the box.
The main disadvantage was clearly demonstrated. Falcao – arguably the best in the air on the pitch – was given a free, unchecked run towards what ended up being a pin-point cross. Loovens didn’t shroud himself in glory considering the ball landed in his “zone”, and seemed to get caught under it slightly. But when a player of Falcao’s quality is allowed such a monstrous, unfettered run-up, the result wasn’t a surprise.
This is why managers often mix Zonal and Man-marking for corners, and it could be argued that a post-defender could’ve been better employed simply shielding Falcao from moving with impunity.
Square pegs round holes
With the quick-fire advantage, Atletico were happy to take their foot off the gas (slightly) and play a much more reactive game, and Celtic were able to attract more possession than they are perhaps used to in these circumstances. After fine work from Samaras, Celtic were very nearly back in it as Hooper and Kayal combined on the counter.
But undermining the whole battle-plan was the issue of square pegs in round holes, very briefly and in no particular order as follows: Gary Hooper is not at his best used as a targetman, Georgios Samaras is not at his best used as a left-winger and Ki Sung-Yeung is not at his best used as an attacking midfielder.
The 4-2-3-1 is a new system to the team and broadly Scotland, who in tactical flexibility are streets behind all but the lesser European leagues. Sion’s interesting take on diverging 3 and 4 at the back was testament to that. And Celtic it seems have been very slow in moving away from the simple 4-4-2. Not that the 4-4-2 itself is a problem, more the inflexibility, and it showed last night.
In particular, the midfield band of 3 struggled to adapt to the system and Lennon was seen to be trying to communicate via sign-language, to get that band of three higher up the park and more emphatically defined. Instead the 4-2-3-1 almost became in practice a 4-5-1 and Ki was largely the source of this frustration.
As fantastically technically gifted a player he is, and it seems he has some of the right attributes to play as a classic number 10 playmaker, it just isn’t his preference and his regista instincts tends to kick in. He suits having the pitch ahead of him and not playing with his back to goal.
The other main “square pegs” were Gary Hooper and Georgios Samaras, although admittedly there didn’t seem to be a genuine alternative on the left (although Kris Commons and Paddy McCourt may argue differently).
That deals with Celtic’s problems from a pro-active point of view, but re-actively there was a gigantic problem going by the name of Diego – and his positioning was taking supreme advantage of the 4-2-3-1. Like Adrian against Valencia, Diego nominally started on the left but had the freedom to come inside and was more incisive than his Spanish team-mate. Conversely to Ki who was thrust reluctantly into the number 10 area, Diego was desperate to get there, and with Wilson unwilling to track inside too often and Celtic’s band of 2 naturally leaving a gap ahead of the defence, Diego was ruthless and hungry – at times allowed space to shoot where ideally an anchorman would be marshaling.
Diego’s desire for the number 10 position was rewarded when Gregorio Manzano simply moved him there, taking off Koke for Reyes.
It’s no surprise that the change very quickly resulted in a goal, with the movement of Arda and especially Diego between the lines a (bitter) pleasure to watch. It was Arda (now on the left) who done the hard-work, and Diego exploiting the space that he had earned for himself, who scored the killer second.
It was still a very positive performance from Celtic – a big change from the “rabbit in the headlights” approach to European games of recent times. There is that obvious slack opening problem that needs to be quickly addressed, and of course the ‘Plan B’ needs finetuning.
It could be time to forget Ki as an advanced playmaker and leave him deep where he’s at his best. Commons (on form) would’ve been a more suitable candidate, or even Scott Brown who came on 2 years ago against Moscow to great effect. Another who once played the role was Paddy McCourt (Rangers 2-0, January 2011) and his continued omission is frustrating to see unfold.
The loss was expected, but the minimum requirement was a decent performance, and at least on that note the team delivered.