Celtic cut the 7 point advantage that Rangers had acquired down to 4, with a hard fought win over Inverness CT. It was an important step towards recovery with last Sunday’s defeat still rankling, along with the upcoming Europa League visit of Udinese.
The defensive woes continued for Neil Lennon, with perhaps two of the most consistent centre-backs in Charlie Mulgrew and Kelvin Wilson suspended and injured respectively. Wilson joins an injury list including Emilio Izaguirre, Kris Commons and Scott Brown. Georgios Samaras, Paddy McCourt and Mark Wilson however, returned.
This left very few questions for Lennon, effectively picking the strongest and freshest XI available, although a few may wonder how close to the first team Thomas Rogne currently is. And so tactically it was a return to the favoured, “SPL” formation – the lop-sided 4-4-2.
Terry Butcher’s injury list is similar in length to Celtic’s, with Gavin Morrison, Owain Jones, Chris Hogg, Aaron Doran, Lee Cox, Josh Meekings and Jonny Hayes all crocked. Influential Richie Foran did shake off injury, to start in a supporting role to striker Gregory Tade.
The fact Inverness CT employed a very similar system to Highland rivals Ross County, suggests that managers can see Celtic’s weaknesses and failings just like fans – congest Celtic’s superior midfield in order to cut off supply to the strikers, and whack balls on top of or behind their shaky centre-backs and timid goalkeeper.
High line and slow start
A problem highlighted a number of times already on this blog is Celtic’s unnatural tendency to start sluggishly. Better teams have taken advantage, like Sion or Atletico Madrid, and Scottish sides seem to have their best spells in the opening 10 minutes.
The soft centre (of defence) was clearly targeted early on, and in a way it’s a very easy route for teams to take – and this isn’t a criticism, but there’s nothing technical about turning over possession quickly simply via the long-ball. It isn’t a criticism because Celtic hate defending against it, and it’s Scottish football’s worst kept secret.
Hence the pacy Gregory Tade taking advantage of a very high defensive line. High-lines are normally associated with top sides, and in theory SPL title-chasers Celtic should fall under this bracket. But high-lines also require confidence, understanding, communication and as a “hedge” at least one centre-back with a bit of pace.
Celtic’s back three (including Forster) possess none of these qualities, and while Rangers have always been aware of their limitations at the back, Celtic as a “football playing” side insist on defending high and are punished as a result repeatedly. The FC Sion/Majstorovic incident is a case in point, although recently Kenny Miller, Nikica Jelavic and latterly Tade have demonstrated the exploit.
Survival and midfield rebellion
While Loovens and Majstorovic looked uncomfortable most of the time, for Butcher a goal is not necessarily the end product required. It unsettles the team, upsets the home fans and carries the risk of a last man foul situation. Thankfully for Lennon, none of these came and Celtic were therefore allowed to start taking control.
It’s the down-side of Inverness’ tactics. The quick turnover if absorbed easily by Celtic allows for more possession which in theory equates to more chances. Ki Sung-Yeung and (more notably yesterday) Beram Kayal play an important part in retaining possession and directing the flow into the more dangerous areas, and this was conveniently demonstrated in the assists for both goals, midway through the first half.
Speaking only of the two would be something of a disservice to Joe Ledley, who was the best player on the park. It was a very similar performance to Scott Brown at his best, tucked in from the flank, breaking centrally, relentlessly driving for possession and rewarded with a fine goal. Equally, it wasn’t a surprise that the goals came from midfield players because the strikers had a very poor game – with Anthony Stokes especially having a nightmare.
Inverness fade, 2nd half changes do little to alter flow
As per Ross County, with the gap between the teams widening, Butcher’s hunt for a goal became more forced having to slowly increase the ratio of attackers. The 4-1-4-1 became a 4-4-2, yet Tade was never removed despite looking exhausted only early into the second period.
The tactical shuffle if anything worked in Celtic’s favour, with the same long-ball tactic being dealt with in quite straight-forward fashion, although now with a more open midfield for Ki, Kayal and Ledley to exploit.
Celtic’s second best performer was Adam Matthews at right-back, who at best has the defensive robustness of Mark Wilson, the dribbling ability of James Forrest and the delivery of Andreas Hinkel.
Lennon, concerned that the forward positions weren’t competitive enough (in this match and in general) introduced first Mohamed Bangura for Gary Hooper (who looked to have taken a knock), and then Samaras and McCourt to replace Anthony Stokes and Ki. Ledley moved central making a more conventional “wide” 4-4-2 with McCourt on the left and Forrest on the right.
Perhaps it was something of a warmup for players who will surely feature at some stage against Udinese – especially Samaras and McCourt. The latter could be the match-changer off the bench, in a game Celtic really need to win.
Although Samaras put in an energetic, positive performance and McCourt’s devilish trickery was vaunted again, the changes came at a time when both sets of players were content with the outcome. Inverness had given a lot, and were simply out of answers, while Celtic had the comfortable 2 goal advantage.
The concern is still the early game sluggishness and the flimsy nature of the defence. As will be discussed in the upcoming Scout Report (having watched AC Milan 1-1 Udinese and hopefully Sunday’s Cagliari – Udinese), Celtic will need to be wary of using a high-line as Udinese will have the players to exploit it.
Will the 4-4-2 be maintained? Or will it be another attempt at ‘Plan B’. It’s a repetitive story, but Lennon still has to make that massive gamble.