Celtic couldn’t reduce the 10 point advantage enjoyed by Rangers after a disappointing performance in Edinburgh against Hearts. Though a single game in hand waits, the gap only days into October is too big for comfort.
Going into the game, Neil Lennon had a substantial injury situation to contend with, with first-choice Beram Kayal and Joe Ledley joining Emilio Izaguirre, club Captain Scott Brown and new centre-back Kelvin Wilson on the casualty list. Throw in Gary Hooper recently shaking off a knock and Kris Commons only just making his return, this made for a side consisting mostly of second-choice players.
This forced Lennon’s hand towards the conspicuous non-standard attacking 4-4-2 that has been blamed for many a bad performance over the past 2-3 seasons. Reluctant to not play 2 strikers in the SPL, with only two central midfielders available, this brand of 4-4-2 was the only solution.
In terms of personnel, the main inclusion of note was Mohammed Bangura over Anthony Stokes – but almost everywhere else the selection was to be expected. That is excluding Lukasz Zaluska, who after a decent game midweek against Udinese returned to the bench to allow for Frazer Forster’s return.
Paulo Sergio was still without Andrew Driver, and made three changes to the side that lost 2-0 to St Johnstone last week. Stephen Elliott was injured that match, missing out on this afternoons action along with David Obua and Mehdi Taouil. Into the side came David Templeton, Rudi Skacel and Eggert Jonsson.
Sergio lined his side up in a 4-3-3 cum 4-1-4-1, looking to use the height and strength of Ryan Stevenson up front via quality service from the flanks. This flank-based approach was also setup to stifle Celtic’s own threat in wide areas.
Considering the rain which threatened to postpone the game prior to kick-off, the first period of the game was beset with predictably awkward challenges, poor possession retention and a lack of creativity from both sides. It took referee Craig Thomson 25 minutes to first produce a card, but in truth the book could’ve been out much earlier. Skacel for a late swipe at Charlie Mulgrew, Ki for catching Skacel on the ankle, and then the obligatory Ian Black bad tackle yellow.
Hearts initially looked to capitalise on Celtic’s now notoriously fractured defence, with Stevenson taking advantage of Mulgrew and El Kaddouri’s indecision, forcing a save from Forster, Zaliukas hit the post and Hamill also tested the Celtic ‘keeper with a good free-kick.
Celtic on the other hand, were most potent making use of space on the break, but the final couple of passes were too often lacking – with all four “front-men” equally guilty. Kris Commons continued his infuriating recent form of mixing the odd flash of brilliance with sloppy first-touches, badly timed passes and all-round lazyness.
The most gilt-edged chance fell to Bangura, the player Lennon put faith in ahead of last seasons 2nd top (Celtic) scorer, Anthony Stokes. James Forrest burst down the right and provided one of the only decent deliveries of the afternoon – Bangura’s free header was a decent, if slightly unassured attempt, that Jamie MacDonald matched.
As the first half drew to a close, Celtic not only had the feeling of being on top without being able to break the deadlock, but also the feeling that Hearts were far from submission.
Eventful second half defines game
Celtic initially appeared to be building on the perceived first-half advantage, but slack defending once again cost dear. Predictably the source was a looping high cross. The ball hung in the air, allowing for Rudi Skacel to ghost untracked from his starting right-side. It was probably Ki who should’ve tracked his run (or even James Forrest who could’ve been defending that side) but neither Majstorovic or Matthews come away with much credit. Templeton was able to control the cross uncontested, knocking it down for the suddenly free Skacel, who netted the opener.
Bangura was withdrawn for Stokes at this point, but things would get worse. Within minutes of conceding, Kris Commons was rightly sent off for a dreadful lunge on Mrowiec.
Unfortunately nothing was learned from the similar situation against Rangers earlier this season: it was previously stated on this blog, that when you’re a goal down and a man down, the priority over all priorities is to stay in the game. With 30 minutes remaining a chance to salvage a draw, or if you’re lucky, a chance to win it would come. Even in a more reserved formation – such as a solid 4-4-1.
Lennon instead drew James Forrest inside – very similar in fact to the formation against Udinese – only minus a holding midfielder. Against Udinese, the formation was apt, as each wing only carried the threat of one player. But here it leaves both full-backs in a 2 vs 1 situation.
Arguably, it was almost a given that Hearts would score again, which defeats the purpose of the predominantly attacking reaction to the sending off.
It was no surprise therefore, that without a solid foundation to depend on (bearing in mind the already fragile defensive situation) that it was now harder to keep possession in safe areas of the pitch, and easier for Hearts to mount attacks down the flanks.
Regardless, Lennon’s next change was again an attacking one, with El Kaddouri coming off for Paddy McCourt – a desperate penultimate roll of the dice. This now made a 3-4-2 formation, with Mark Wilson becoming a centre-back, and Forrest and McCourt the only wing presence. Hearts took advantage of the space in the channels as Templeton chased down what appeared to be a lost cause. His clever back-heel was into the path of Stevenson, whose finish was clinical.
The very last despairing tactical response was throwing Majstorovic up-front as a form of physical outlet in a 2-4-3 formation, and while even though it was too late, it’s the kind of gung ho Mowbray-esque logical response to a sending off that results in more goals coming in at the wrong end. Where red cards are concerned, more strikers does not necessarily mean more goals scored – if anything, the opposite is true.
It’s still very early in the season and Rangers’ lead is by no means insurmountable. But the early season form is ominous. The togetherness and tactical security of last season is lacking, although the unavailability of 5-6 key players is obviously a compounding factor.
On the plus side, the defence played quite well for a second game (opening goal aside, although arguably the midfield was as much to blame) with the second goal due to over-eager tactical stretching. The 10 (potentially 7) point gap however is not the primary concern. The concern is the ability of certain individuals – not just second-choice players coming into the side – but the attitude and form of the previously dependable, like Gary Hooper and Kris Commons.
The latter is such a painful disappointment. Once the jewel in the crown of a formidable side, the focal point of the entire attacking strategy – now an indecisive and undetermined shadow. The red card will infuriate Neil Lennon, already hugely frustrated with Commons lackadaisical fall from grace.
It’s now not just a case of finding a ‘Plan B’, but being able to be confident in a plan at all.