John Reid stuttered a little on Friday at Celtic’s Annual General Meeting. A kind of suppressed surprise – the Celtic shareholders in attendance weren’t the kind of placid and ruly crowd that the Chairman has been used to in his colourful career. His quip, that “Dermot’s put in a lot more than £600” went down like a lead balloon as it suddenly dawned on the board of directors that their prudent book-keeping is not universally adored.
The following afternoon, Peter Lawwell and co watched as Celtic went 3-0 down at Kilmarnock after only 45 minutes and the same unexpected feeling of antipathy struck home. Celtic’s books may be some of the tidiest in the U.K. but on the football pitch (it is after all, a football club) there hasn’t been a more abject looking team since Tony Mowbray’s darkest hour.
While by half-time, there was a palpable fear that this could be Lennon’s “St Mirren” – and there were parallels – Anthony Stokes was the saviour, hauling the team back almost single-handedly and sparking the revival with a precise free-kick closely followed by an opportunistic long-ranger. By the final whistle, Celtic were even chasing the winner, but the undeserved result can only paper over the cracks of an abject performance.
It’s difficult to refer to the current side and selection as “full-strength” , but that’s the best way to describe Lennon’s availability situation. James Forrest has recently usurped Kris Commons in that high, creative role on the flank and Joe Ledley is the people’s choice of tucked in midfielder, seemingly preferred over the injured Scott Brown.
The only concern is at left-back, where Badr El Kaddouri was not deemed fit enough to start having picked up an injury while on international duty. All three right-backs (Mark Wilson, Cha Du Ri and Adam Matthews) are considered capable on the other side, and it was the Welshman who was asked to cover.
The central three bands of pairings are generally considered our strongest selections, although regrettably currently underperforming. The centre-back pair in particular receive high doses of criticism, but the forwards equally haven’t been scoring enough.
But it is what it is – the “best” ten plus a makeshift left-back.
Kenny Shiels has been doggedly sticking to an “attacking brand” of football despite conceding 13 goals in the last 6 SPL matches. The formation has latterly manifested in a 4-1-3-1-1 formation, although Shiels has used more ambitious systems such as 3-5-2/3-4-3 as analysed by Craig Cairns.
Liam Kelly and Danny Buijs recovered from injury to make the starting lineup, but most concerningly for Shiels, ‘keeper Cammy Bell was injured when on duty with the Scotland national side. Bell aside, the only injury concern was over the long-term Ryan O’Leary making for an almost full-strength side.
Celtic open strongly
Having had a chance to regroup during the international weekend, Lennon had a chance to sit the players down and work on problem areas (and there have been many). The theory alleges the group would become stronger, more familiar with Lennon’s system and all problems would be resolved.
Early on, this seemed to be the case. Enjoying a large share of possession (initially), culminated in some decent chances: Ki Sung-Yeung’s delicate through-ball was just beyond James Forrest and then Stokes managed to produce arguably the miss of the season. Forrest fed Cha who dashed beyond the last line of defence, whose cross made it to the back post unfettered. Stokes was waiting with the goal gaping, but somehow turned the ball wide. He’d point to the velocity of the cross and a betraying bounce before contact, but it was a terrible miss.
Gary Hooper looked sharp coming deep and linking up play, until picking up a knock shielding the ball. It was a painful affliction that stunted Hooper’s play, losing that crucial half-yard of sharpness.
Stokes’ miss coupled with Hooper’s demise sparked Kilmarnock into life, and suddenly the space between Celtic’s lines was too obvious not to exploit. Between the Hooped attack and midfield, Buijs was the spare man and diligent enforcer, and between defence and midfield Harkins was proving to be a capable target – also effectively “spare” he had space to retain possession and feed the lurking Heffernan.
The striker’s movement was keen and sharp from kick-off, but once Kilmarnock were able to create forward momentum, he was able to take advantage of Majstorovic’s common-knowledge weakness – essentially a casual lack of awareness or concentration (and lack of pace) ripe to exploit. Paul Hefferman ghosted easily beyond the Swede getting on to the end of a hopeful long-ball. Dean Shiels meanwhile darted forward with the exceptionally off-form Beram Kayal failing to track the run. Hefferman played a simple pass backwards, and Shiels opened the scoring. If ever there was an example of Celtic’s current defensive failings, then it’s that piece of negligence from two key players.
Losing goals is bad (especially on the cheap) but it’s not unforgivable. Celtic’s bright opening suggested a capability to score (and Stokes really should’ve). But the reaction was unforgivable. Confidence was shot, and nobody looked like stepping up and delivering.
In fact it took two more goals to elicit a response. The first, Kayal last possession and at least put in effort to win it back. The problem with his pressing (as in any case with pressing) is that he was the only one doing it. The surrounding 6 or so players were statues. Shiels sauntered down the wing, providing a good low cross which evaded everyone but Hefferman. Kilmarnock’s third was more “freak” in nature but typical of Celtic’s current situation. Charlie Mulgrew was unaware of James Fowler’s skulking presence, who intercepted a poor pass-back and was able to chip Forster on the stroke of half-time.
Kilmarnock were very much on top. Tactically, their superior numbers in midfield ensured Celtic couldn’t supply the front two. Meanwhile Celtic weren’t doing enough down the flanks – Cha mostly checked by Harkins and Matthews stifled by his wrong-foot.
(A no doubt angry) Neil Lennon, withdrew the injured Hooper and awful Kayal to be replaced by Mohamed Bangura and Victor Wanyama respectively – keeping a similar system initially. A lot of responsibility was on James Forrest to get behind Killie’s defensive line.
And Celtic were becoming more effective on the flanks, but neither Hooper, Stokes (or Bangura) seem to be capable in the air – this is largely why a 4-4-2 with traditional wingers / attacking-full-backs has rarely worked in recent times, and why Commons found great success in cutting inwards.
In fact, it’s through the centre Celtic would have to plow and Lennon sensing the wide folly at the time, switched to the 4-4-2 diamond used recently against Udinese. Kenny Shiels’ 4-1-3-1-1 is actually not far away from Francesco Guidolin’s system, which Celtic’s diamond worked well against.
The system also serves to supplement the defence – with Wanyama a sturdy shield which Mulgrew and Majstorovic were no doubt grateful for. Perhaps his use here will become more frequent.
This solidified base provided a platform for the rest of the midfield and full-backs to become more attack minded. Now more matched in midfield, Ki had a bit more room to operate.
As against Udinese, the failing in this system is the use of James Forrest, who is a far more effective right-winger than number ten. Not comfortable with back to goal, preferring space to run into, the player who was once the most rewarding attacking outlet was now smothered. Perhaps Paddy McCourt (or James McFadden!?) would be more at home.
With a more settled foundation (and perhaps Kilmarnock taking foot off the gas somewhat) there was still the small matter of clawing back at least three goals – with unlikely rumblings in the online community that Lennon’s job would depend on it. But it wasn’t the substitutions or change in system that retrieved the draw – it was Anthony Stokes.
Having had an uneventful, even poor first 70 minutes, Stokes spontaneously combusted – seemingly on a one-man mission. The first – a free-kick – was sublime. The second opportunistic. The two goals roused his slumbering colleagues, with Mulgrew adding the third headed in from a set-piece.
It was a spectacular fall for Kilmarnock, who albeit tiring, probably deserved more.
The immediate worry is how the players of the first 75 minutes (including Stokes) were mostly the same as those of the thrilling final 15. Why the early lethargy? An urgent Celtic can create chances, and besides, isn’t this Lennon’s forté? A motivating style rather than a tinkerer?
The long-term worries remain: why are Celtic so easy to score against, and is there a first-choice formation? The lop-sided 4-4-2 has become predictable and with Forrest is fantastic for providing crosses – there just aren’t any decent aerial players to aim for. The narrow 4-4-2 diamond is a step in the right direction, albeit with the aforementioned “Forrest” problem. But a system that works has to be found.
A less broad issue has been the performance of certain players. Kayal is a shadow of his former self, like Kris Commons managing to relinquish the verve and urgency of his consistent best from last season.
Another mention for the defence, which continues to be exploited. Perhaps it’s the players themselves, or perhaps it’s the height of the line up the park that Lennon seems determined to maintain. There is no shame in a deep defensive line – far from being “anti-attacking” it invites the opposition higher up the park opening up more space – a theory Pep Guardiola applies. It should also prevent, like today’s first goal (or the infamous Sion red-card situation) the constant through-balls that blights the likes of Majstorovic and Glen Loovens.
Finally, a progress report for Mohamed Bangura, who has featured in every game since his debut on the 10th of September against Motherwell. The African has started twice (Udinese, Hearts) and in 284 minutes has failed to find the net. It’s not a great return spread across 8 games, and the performances haven’t inspired confidence. His first goal will be of utmost importance.
At 3-0 down, 3-3 sounds like a wonderful result, but it was a poor performance – perhaps Celtic’s worst half of football under Lennon. The fight continues, but drastic improvements are required if Celtic hope to keep up with Rangers, and indeed if Lennon hopes to keep his job. Peter Lawwell (and John Reid’s replacement, Ian Bankier) would’ve been watching with interest – for many fans the criticisms towards the club have been displaced from Lennon to upstairs and it may not just be the manager’s neck on the chopping block.