Under-fire Celtic manager Neil Lennon leads his side to the North-West of France on Thursday, to take on Stade Rennais in the Europa League. While Sion refuse to give up their battle with UEFA for reinstatement, the Swiss are the least of Lennon’s worries. Celtic have been dreadful of late, seemingly suffering set-backs in every possible respect; be it the extensive injury problems, the poor form of key players, messy contractual wrangles, an unpopular and beleaguered board and the kind of unlucky ‘freak’ on-field incidents characteristic of a team straining under pressure. Latterly, this refers to Anthony Stokes early, infeasible miss on Saturday in the 3-3 draw with Kilmarnock and Charlie Mulgrew’s exceptionally poor back-pass which led to conceding the third. In theory, that’s a swing of 2-goals that would’ve been unthinkable to the confident Celtic of last season.
Some of these concerns are out of anybody’s control, but form and confidence (of individuals and/or the team) can mostly be traced back to the defence – conceding soft goals undermines the rest of the side.
Lennon has previously cited an inability to field a consistent back four – with Cha Du Ri having only just returned from long-term lay-off and Kelvin Wilson crocked since RossCounty. Looking over the match history it’s a fair point:
Of the 15 competitive matches played this season, only once has a back four featured in consecutive games (from the second leg in Sion to the win at St Mirren), the same defence that held Sion to a 0-0 draw earlier. These 3 matches aside, no ‘same four’ selection of defenders have featured together more than once.
Contrast briefly with (for argument sake) Rangers’ competitive matches from the same period: the left-back slot is shared evenly between Lee Wallace and Sasa Papac, left centre-back has seen Goian (centre-back 13 out of 16 matches) partnered predominantly by Bocanegra, and Steven Whittaker’s made right-back his own (backed up by Kirk Broadfoot). Goian, Bocanegra and Whittaker have been teamed in the last 7 consecutive matches!
So who will Lennon turn to for Rennes?
With most frequent left centre-back Kevin Wilson injured, you would initially expect Mulgrew to be used at left centre-back (as per the previous three matches). The complication is left-back – with El Kaddouri cup-tied, and Matthews muted in that position on Saturday, Mulgrew could be the most defensively sound choice. This would require one of Glen Loovens or Thomas Rogne, the latter having not featured at all this season.
Given Beram Kayal’s poor performance on Saturday, normally it would be surprising to see him retained in the starting eleven. But having signed a lucrative new contract, it might be the ideal time to banish the performances that saw him accused of ‘working his ticket’. Ki Sung-Yeung should be confident of starting, and Victor Wanyama’s simple, assuring presence might be required in an attempt to shore up a flagging defence.
Three big players didn’t even travel to Rennes– Georgios Samaras,Kris Commons and Gary Hooper – the trio afflicted with short-term injuries. This opens the door to a player normally pushed aside for the “big” matches – Anthony Stokes. Having ignited Celtic’s comeback at the weekend, he should be a shoe-in.
But Lennon will be caught in two minds – a five-man midfield, away from home in Europe is almost compulsory, yet Stokes has rarely been used as a lone striker (perhaps only ever against Sion for a 30-minute spell in the first leg). This could see him marginalised unlovingly on one of the flanks, or perhaps Lennon will maintain the ambitious lop-sided 4-4-2, using Mo Bangura as the other striker.
A striker more, is a midfielder less, and it would be hard to imagine that Ki, Wanyama, Kayal (or Ledley if fit) would not be the first names on the team-sheet.
The solution of course is a return to the 4-1-2-1-2 (4-4-2 diamond) used in the second-half against Kilmarnock, and more successfully against Udinese. The system has it’s uses: for example it was perfect against Udinese – the Italian’s flanks were occupied by only 1 wing-back on each side matching Celtic’s full-backs man for man. But there’s also the disadvantages: James Forrest, currently one of Celtic’s most consistent performers, is far more effective as an out and out right-winger than a cultured number 10.
The purpose of the diamond in fact, is to make the most of those genius number 10’s (that Scotland seem incapable of producing) and sadly, Celtic currently don’t really have that type of player. It’s a wicked problem – no “target” striker for a 4-5-1, and no maverick for the point of a diamond. The type of player available suggests a flat 4-4-2 system, yet the immensity of the match probably requires that combatitive 3 man centre.
The lop-sided 4-4-2 has always acted as a compromise between the two – imagine the diamond simply with James Forrest (the 10) hugging the right touch-line and the left-most central midfielder (say, Joe Ledley) shuttling out left. But it veers dangerously towards an unbalanced, arguably poorly organised 4-4-2. The courting of James McFadden fits in with the ‘diamond’ system, and even a fit Kris Commons or Paddy McCourt would add a twist of guile to the position.
Stade Rennes prepared for tonight’s Europa League encounter by beating local rival Lorient2-0 at the weekend. Qualifying for Europeby finishing 6th last term, they currently sit 5th in Ligue 1.
In Scotland, Rennes will be most prominent for being a regular summer fixture in the tabloid rumour mills. Midfielder Yann M’Vila was heavily linked with Arsenal, reportedly turning away a £20m bid from Arsene Wenger. The powerful central midfielder – not dissimilar in style to fellow Frenchman Patrick Vieira – will not play against Celtic, being rested by manager Frédéric Antonetti.
Antonetti is consistent in his strategy across competitions, favouring a direct 4-2-1-3. M’Vila would normally be first choice in the band of two alongside either Alexander Tettey or Tongo Doumbia, with the latter two likely to start.
Stephane Dalmat just ahead has been the ‘1’ in previous Europa League action (in the 2-1 loss to Udinese), although Vincent Pajot has been used there in the league. But it’s the front three that really punishes sloppy defending. Former H.S.V. winger Jonathan Pitroipa and Jires Kembo-Ekoko provide electrifying pace down the flanks, are both equally deadly on either side and look to cut in to meet counter-attacking through balls.
As the main striker, Rennes enjoy the choice between two mobile, hardy strikers of the exact type that Celtic lack. Youssouf Hadji was a constant thorn in Udinese’s side, although Victor Montano is generally considered the first choice.
In similar fashion to their opponents,Renneshave an unsettled back-line through injury and suspension. The full-backs have been rotating on both sides, Onyekachi Apam is injured, and John Boye and Captain Abdou Mangane have both had recent spells out through injury.
Unfortunately for Lennon, Rennes’ method of attack looks to target Celtic’s precise achilles heel. They look to draw the opposition up the pitch in order to place precise through-balls over the top or down the channels. Think Marcus Hannenan’s opener on Saturday, where he drifted inconspicuously into space before connecting with a long through-ball.
The passing and vision of M’Vila has been a useful part of this strategy, but equally Julien Feret, Pajot and particularly Dalmat are capable of creative vertical passing from the centre – and was the precise method that Dalmat fed Hadji for the opener against Udinese. It’s this through-passing from mid-to-deep central areas that Celtic need to cut out at source.
Neil Lennon’s selection dilemma(s) again highlights how damaging this lack of a first (and second!) XI can be. It’s impossible to establish a strongest eleven because the side has been universally awful – with the exception of one or two individuals.
There was an early season attempt to find a ‘Plan B’, to provide a more robust base for European competition. But in the process ‘Plan A’ fell apart at the seams – mostly undermined by this flakey, irregular back-line. As speculated on this blog earlier in the season (although increasingly becoming the case) the Europa League is competitively moot. It’s initial purpose combined ideas of prestige, an avenue for money and a benchmark for performance. But for Celtic, and Neil Lennon in particular this has quickly become an exercise in damage limitation – a potentially fatal distraction from the real business of winning the SPL.
Rennes were the better side against Udinese and (reportedly) Atletico Madrid, yet lost in Italy and drew against the Spanish. Feeling aggrieved, it’s Celtic’s defence who’re likely to suffer the brunt. Often (optimistically?) it’s under-siege type situations that bring the best out of ailing defences although concentration and organisation has lately been in short supply. It’s been said before too many times already, but while the competition itself is currently of little importance, Lennon will be hoping for a season-defining performance – it will be needed.