Neil Lennon demanded a positive response to Sunday’s poor effort at Ibrox before watching his eliminate Ross County from the Scottish League Cup. But the tenacious hosts along with the demanding weather made it a difficult ask, at least in the first half as Celtic ran out comfortable winners in the end.
The big question was how Lennon would shuffle the back-line after Sunday’s poor defensive showing. He acknowledged the criticism that Celtic weren’t defending crosses acceptably, with all four conceded on Sunday and both against Atletico Madrid, originating from cross-balls.
“You can do a number of things – you can change the way you defend corners or you can change the personnel. We half-zonal and half man-mark which we have been doing since I’ve come in really. The system seemed to suit us, it just might be the personnel needs changing in that area”
The personnel did change, though injuries played a significant part. Two of the three main “zonal” markers were withdrawn: Georgios Samaras who’s nursing damaged ribs and Glenn Loovens (dropped entirely), which saw Anthony Stokes and much maligned Daniel Majstorovic start. Another two new additions to the injury list – Scott Brown and Ki Sung-Yeung, made way for James Forrest and Joe Ledley respectively, while Adam Matthews deputised for the suspended Mark Wilson.
Injuries and suspensions aside, the most notable absentee was Kris Commons. Though he’s been struggling with a groin injury of late (at least officially), he’s voiced his discontent at missing out from the squad on Sunday via the medium of Twitter. Perhaps the injury flared up, or perhaps Lennon was doling out a reprimand for the outburst; either way Commons failed to make the squad.
It was a return to 4-4-2, with a strike-force statistically Celtic’s most productive and unlike Lennon’s usual system, the midfield rather than being tucked in on one side (which expectedly would’ve been Charlie Mulgrew) actually featured plenty of width on both sides in an attempt to open a claustrophobic park.
Ross County had injury worries of their own, with striker Steven Craig and full back Scott Morrison not fit enough to make the match squad.
The team featured a number of familiar faces, namely former Celts Rocco Quinn, Michael Gardyne and Paul Lawson: the latter coming in as anchorman in place of striker Steven Craig, and left winger Gardyne ousting Mark Corcoran from the starting eleven.
Lining up in a 4-1-4-1, the clear aim was to defend resolutely (at least early on), frustrate and antagonise a “wounded” Celtic side, and hit on the break, piling pressure especially on the notoriously flakey centre-backs and ‘keeper.
Antagonise they did, with the frequency of beefy challenges and strong tackles matching the petulant personal bickering. County were pushing quick and belligerently in the Celtic players’ faces, especially making use of the spare man in the centre to squeeze the available space.
Celtic’s main problem was using their superior possession effectively. With the long-ball option ruled out (presumably by Lennon, though the conditions demanded it), and the midfield outnumbered, the man with the most space and responsibility to start moves was Kelvin Wilson. But the centre-back looked uncomfortable, what with the monsoon conditions and the industrious Mcmenamin snapping at his heels.Wilson was therefore usually forced to play the ball along the back – Derek Adams’ plan all along.
County’s exploitation of a nervous back three wasn’t restricted to out of possession – in possession the first instinct was to produce long and high-balls, chucked in at every opportunity which Mcmenamin diligently competed for. It’s a classic approach to playing Celtic that hasn’t changed since the middle of the decade when the likes of Gary Caldwell and Stephen McManus were once exploited in a similar way.
Derek Adams’ plan only needed one more ingredient – to keep things level for enough time to panic Celtic and turn the away support, but Gary Hooper had other ideas. Ironically, it came from a Celtic corner which County couldn’t clear. Stokes’ secondary delivery was met by Joe Ledley and turned in by Hooper.
Search for a second
Though the lead was roughly deserved given the possession, County continued with the same strategy and questions were predictably asked of the centre-backs. Wilson and Majstorovic combined in bumbling fashion to mess up a headed clearance (with communication seemingly to blame), and Gardyne was allowed to fire a strong volley against Forster’s left post.
It was a warning shot, but also the kind of knife-edge circumstance that can change a fairly comfortable away lead into a nightmare capitulation. Although on this occasion it was gotten away with, it still suggests that frustratingly, the soft-centre remains and on another day would’ve been punished.
Though a goal down, Adam’s tactics were working well and that other “nightmate” scenario for Celtic which haunts these difficult away cup ties – the possibility of a freak red card – was also never far away. County were fishing and Celtic were biting – particularly Stokes and Ledley.
With the centre suitably crammed, Celtic were also not having great luck through widemen Mulgrew and Forrest, partly thanks to the tracking work of Gardyne and Brittain on either side. This in turn gave El Kaddouri and Matthews breathing room, but aware of the threat of the counter, weren’t able to get as far forward as Lennon would’ve liked.
Second half wind-down
With Wilson appearing extremely uncomfortable starting off moves, Lennon made the decision at half-time to get a much more technically accomplished player into that position instead. Charlie Mulgrew was shifted to centre-back to take his place, with Victor Wanyama coming on into the midfield and Joe Ledley moving left. The fact bona fide centre-back didn’t come on suggests the move was purely tactical (as opposed to being due to injury).
The main problem with Ross County’s high intensity pressing, is that it requires a high level of fitness and stamina – and the heavy rain wasn’t helping. Even as the second half kicked off, it seemed as if the Mulgrew change wasn’t even required because County were simply unable to press with the same gusto.
Celtic were finding more room and more opportunities to attack. Beram Kayal, who had flashes of excellence in the first half was starting to grip the game by the collar – taking the playmaking responsibility to go along with the natural ball-winning drive. And it was Kayal who set Stokes free on the right, being played on-side by a tiring defence and the cross was turned in by a despairing Scott Boyd.
It was the kind of tie-settling goal that defined the match. Setting up in absolutely the correct way – to play hard and put pressure on Celtic’s defence, given a wedge of luck County could’ve taken something from the match. As the game slipped out of reach, County added another striker to make 4-4-2, before arranging into a ramshackle 4-3-3 by the end. But the luck required deservedly fell towards Celtic – as epitomised by the goal.
Lennon meanwhile will be mostly happy with the result, albeit not a performance of the free-flowing attacking verve circa the second half of last season and will cite the weather as a contributing factor. However, the defensive scourge still remains and despite the clean sheet the back three have a long way to go to convince.
For a tactical perspective from the eyes of a Ross County supporter, get over to rosscountytactics.com