Celtic put in an improved away European performance at Stade Rennais, only for the night to be sullied by yet another defensive blunder. This time Cha Du Ri and Frazer Forster conspired to concede a comical goal, but Neil Lennon will take a lot of heart from coming away with a point.
As discussed in the tactical preview, the decision would be made by a number of factors – the need for a central midfield 3 (to match Rennes predicted setup), the need to stay compact defensively, and without the injured established, strikers Georgios Samaras and Gary Hooper, the need to get the most of Saturday’s star man Anthony Stokes. Joe Ledley’s return from injury complicated matters, and in the end, Rennes danger in wide areas forced Lennon into utilising a form of 4-5-1 as opposed to the “vulnerable on flanks” 4-1-2-1-2 diamond.
Ki Sung-Yeung was used once again in the vaguely successful 4-2-3-1 setup, but out of possession would drop deeper, allowing Victor Wanyama to sit in front of the back four – where he operates best (as per right image). It again highlights Lennon’s struggle with the “attacking midfield” position (or number 10). Ki is much more effective in deeper areas of the pitch, but was given another bash higher up.
Elsewhere, Ledley came in at left-back with Lennon probably favouring his experience and natural “correct” foot over Adam Matthews, and raised eyebrows by using Cha on the right of midfield. This partly robbed James Forrest of his effectiveness (who’s vastly superior on the right), but Cha provided subtle, and much needed defensive sturdiness on that side.
The centre-backs were once again shuffled, and for those interested this particular back four once again has never worked together before. Daniel Majstorovic, who was heavily culpable against Kilmarnock, found himself dropped in favour of Glen Loovens. Still hard to believe that Charlie Mulgrew – a converted full-back with a bit of height – has become consistently Celtic’s best centre-back.
Up front, it was a big call to try Stokes in the lone striker position. Not renowned for selflessness, hold-up play, work-rate or strength and ability in the air, but regardless currently Celtic’s only fit and performing striker.
As expected, manager Frédéric Antonetti continued with his well-drilled 4-2-1-3 system, and felt secure enough to make 8 changes from the side that beat Lorient 2-0. Most notably, lightning-fast wide-men Jires Ekoko and Jonathan Pitroipa were rested, along with main striker Víctor Montaño.
It was already clear that Yann M’Vila wouldn’t play, with Vincent Pajot taking up that deep all-round/creative role. Yassine Jebbour was also something of a surprise at right-back considering he’s perhaps not even considered 3rd choice in that position.
Tactically, Celtic’s matched (or mirrored) nature meant the job of defending was made slightly easier. They were also holding possession uncharacteristically well (for an away European tie). The use of Cha on the right and Forrest on the left took the side some getting used to, but ultimately in the beginning it was a solid containment attempt punctuated by decent half-chances going forward.
Rennes, perhaps unsettled by their own wholesale changes kept to the gameplan – quickfire direct passes over and behind Celtic’s back-line. Julien Feret was engaged in a constant battle to find space between Celtic’s lines, with Wanyama mostly doing a fine job keeping him quiet.
Most worrying for Celtic, was how easily their shape and width was being pulled, or exploited. The two wingers were impressing with their movement – either dragging their opposite numbers inwards (allowing for an over-lapping full-back of their own) or pushing outside given space to run into. Their movement, particularly Abdou Boukhari cutting in on the right, gave the illusion that Celtic were too narrow, but Forrest’s tracking of Jebbour wasn’t really tight enough.
Ki had already been busy in an attacking sense, and Anthony Stokes was starting to tame long-balls despite the looming attention of Kader Mangane. In a flash of brilliance (mixed with luck!) Stokes pulled inside with Mangane flagging, only to screw his powerful shot straight at Benoit Costil – a case perhaps of power over placement.
The stalemate was broken in cruel, if predictable fashion: a quick, low punt forward (quelle surprise?) from a corner caught Cha slightly off-guard. Chasing back, seemingly in good time his back-pass to Forster was too powerful. The ‘keeper’s positioning was terrible – flat-footed, unsure and didn’t provide the necessary angle to take the pressure of the defender – and the pressure really was on Cha. Not for the first time this season, the communication wasn’t good enough, and Celtic conceded a comically bad own-goal.
The goal – like Kilmarnock’s opener – seemed to steal the wind from Celtic, and there was a kind of deja vu feeling more familiar with the late 90’s – a team of good players lacking the organisation and down-right luck to make headway in European competition.
The home side seemed to pick up on this inferiority complex and going into the second half, were able to turn the screw. The piercing run / flash through-ball combo was coming off with reasonable effect, the left-back Chris Mavinga managed to burst into the box, beyond Brahimi to force a great save from Forster.
It was only when a tiring Celtic were in possession and attacking that they realised how dangerous they could be. Cha – keen to make amends for his blunder – on the counter flashed a shot-cum-shot towards Costil. His parry fell to the feet of Ki, who, unbalanced and almost surprised to receive the ball, couldn’t direct his shot on target.
Antonetti tried to build on the perceived momentum by bringing on the A-list wingers: Pitroipa and Ekoko. In a fairly underused type of substitution, the intention was to use their pace to take advantage of Celtic’s waning powers.
The swaps, although initially quite uncomfortable preceded the equaliser, which came through a fairly unlikely source. Generally at this level, it’s unlikely that cheap goals are conceded. But Rennes couldn’t defend a cracking Mulgrew delivery from deep, and Ledley’s looping header dropped into the net.
Lennon shuffled at this point, but rather than changing personel, simply changed the positioning and it’s hard to explain why. It was strange to see most players in more familiar positions – strange because this was the 70th minute. Perhaps it was an attempt to use a 4-4-1-1 to bring Ki closer in support of Stokes.
But at this point, Celtic could only hit feebly on the counter, with the front two in particular looking exhausted. It’s worrying for Mo Bangura and Paddy McCourt that in a situation where positive, attacking substitutions were unmistakably required, they sat watching on the bench. (Well, Bangura did eventually make a 2 minute cameo…)
What does that say of Lennon’s faith? How many squad players are simply making up the numbers?
In truth, the goal (and a hopeful Mulgrew free-kick) was really the last purposeful attack from Celtic, and the remaining 20 minutes continued to be sapping. Youssouf Hadji almost caught Forster off-guard with a tremendous over-head kick, and Forster was again called into action to deny Pitroipa from point-blank in the dying minutes.
The draw only served to underline how mis-matched the squad currently is. It’s inflexibility away from a 4-4-2 is severely undermining attempts to establish an alternative system. A right-back at right-wing, a central-midfielder at left-back, a left-back at centre-back, a deep lying-playmaker at number 10, a right-winger on the left, and a small poacher striving in vain to mimic Chris Sutton’s powerful play.
In fairness, though many players were out of favoured position, it was a valiant struggle against a side that had the better of Atletico Madrid and Udinese recently.
It’s excruciating to watch yet another avoidable blunder lay waste to a draining European performance. Looking over the past four games: Cha’s in France, Mulgrew at Kilmarnock, Commons’ red card at Tynecastle and Hooper’s ill-thought out barge against Udinese – it appears that Celtic are their own worst enemy.
It points to a team bereft of confidence, which would certainly explain the petty red-cards and rickety, uncommunicative defence. Despite the mounting injuries, the ramshackle defence and erratic spiking in form of certain players. In fairness here to Beram Kayal, it was his finest performance since the beginning of the season, and meanwhile Wanyama’s appearance ahead of the defence was nothing short of triumphant.
But Celtic are still in Europe, still chasing in the SPL and Lennons till in a job. If they can show the solidarity, fight and spirit shown in 99% of this match, and Lennon can find a suitable system (or two) to get the best of the consistently performing players, the only way will be up.