Celtic made hard work of beating a stubborn Aberdeen, meekly allowing the Dons to come back into the game before Charlie Mulgrew’s 72nd minute winner. Neil Lennon had spoke at length before the match about his sides poor record returning from European duties having lost the three previous times, so despite the uncertain performance, the 3 points matters most.
The search for an optimal formation continues, with the lop-sided 4-4-2 almost tailor-made for Kris Commons (who was suspended) initially rejected in favour of the 4-1-2-1-2 diamond that has worked to reasonable success recently.
On the one hand, it gets the most from Victor Wanyama – shielding the back-four, making use of his keen positional sense and strength in the tackle. On the other, Lennon (again) opted to use James Forrest at the peak of the diamond, which this blog has previously speculated does not make the most of either the formation or the player.
Notably, Celtic were once again unable to carry a back four over from the previous match, a luxury which has only occurred once this season (from Sion to St Mirren,) a worrying statistic over 17 competitive matches. It wasn’t a good day for Badr El Kaddouri, who even when available (after being cup-tied against Rennes) watched as an out-of-position Joe Ledley took up left-back responsibility. The rise of Wanyama has complicated the central-midfield problem for Neil Lennon, who recently has been loath to drop Ledley, Ki Sung-Yeung, Beram Kayal or Scott Brown, so using the Welshman at left-back circumvents the problem – for now.
With Mo Bangura and Georgios Samaras injured, Lennon continued with Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper up front, with young forward Paul George making the bench.
Craig Brown was only without long-term absentee Jamie Langfield, and two more short-term casualties in Yoann Folly (chest infection) and Peter Pawlett (hamstring). It meant that, unlike the serially rotated Celtic, Aberdeen fielded the same eleven who defeated Dundee Utd 3-1 the previous week.
Though the corresponding fixture last season ended 9-0, that embarrassment was one of the final nails in Mark McGhee’s coffin, and though Aberdeen under Brown continued to be fairly easy pickings last season, there would surely be no repeat of last October.
No European hangover
Celtic started brightly, dominating possession but Aberdeen’s gameplan was to unsettle the opposition through tough tackling. It’s ‘wounded’ teams in Celtic’s kind of predicament that can react badly to such cynical play, but with the referee keeping his cards mainly in his pocket, the home side still managed to cope reasonably well.
For all the early domination, Celtic were struggling to create any real chances – except that is – for the goal in the 17th minute. With Kayal, Stokes and then Hooper linking up with intricate short-passing before laying up Ki, it’s the kind of technical attacking football one would expect from players of such ability. It was an excellent goal, almost impossible to defend against, yet a mode of attack not seen enough from very capable players.
With a scarcity in chances created from either side yet Celtic generally maintaining possession, Aberdeen were still able to manipulate Celtic’s diamond system. It’s not often that Celtic enjoy a (perceived) numerical advantage in the middle of the park which was at least evident on paper. In theory James Forrest was Celtic’s free-man but in practice Celtic’s midfield had it’s priorities in a twist.
Take the left flank – Frazer Fyvie was matched with Joe Ledley leaving Ki with the responsibility of checking the runs of right-back Ryan Jack. At times this made Ki, effectively, a left-midfielder which is far from his ideal position. Kayal suffered in similar fashion on the other side, at least in the first half. This stretched the diamond width-ways.
Along with Scott Vernon dropping back into Wanyama’s domain (almost making a 4-4-1-1) Celtic’s central midfield was under more pressure than the narrow system would suggest, and Forrest’s role between the lines became an exercise in helping out the midfield.
From Aberdeen’s perspective, this left the full-backs as the most productive outlet. Ricky Foster was in particularly rising to prominence in the first half. Celtic’s central problems were exacerbated by the tough-tackling Kari Arnasen, who was seemingly immune from the wrath of the referee.
Return to lop-sided 4-4-2
Lennon, in an erringly familiar move was forced to revert back to the tried and tested 4-4-2. The presence of Ki as the left-most midfielder did lean towards the “lop-sided” system yet Forrest’s positioning on the right was pretty much level with the rest of the midfield, in which case it was plain old 4-4-2. It’s almost becoming the case that the “lop-sided” system is inseparable with Kris Commons (at least from the current squad).
By the time of Aberdeen’s equaliser, Celtic had missed a couple of glaring opportunities: Ki had scuffed (a fairly difficult) opportunity high into the stand, and Gary Hooper couldn’t connect with a Stokes cross with the goal at his mercy. There was an unlikley suspicion that Celtic needed that 2nd, and as each chance passed, the equaliser seemed increasingly inevitable.
It was the nature of Ryan Jack’s goal that irked the most. Ghosting past two of Celtic’s more dependable and robust tacklers in Ledley and Wanyama, before squiggling a shot past Frazer Forster who didn’t even dive. Perhaps it’s a harsh criticism, but the ease in which Forster gives up on lost causes (as per the Rennes own-goal) is a noticeable negative aspect of his attitude.
Race against time
Rather than knocking the wind from Celtic, Jack’s goal seemed to irritate the hosts into positive action. The domination in possession was ramped up, and with 30 minutes on the clock it almost seemed that Aberdeen’s goal came too early from their perspective.
Just as the old ‘game-changer’ Paddy McCourt was introduced (for Wanyama), Mulgrew blasted in the winner. Ki’s cross was met by Daniel Majstorovic (Glen Loovens early replacement) and Mulgrew was able to find the net from an acute angle at the back-post.
Ironically, the criticisms leveled against McCourt is that he’s not defensively capable, yet immediately his presence was not required having already taken the lead. But credit to McCourt, he set about trying to prove the critics wrong. Always a handy out-ball on that left-hand side, his driving runs caused Aberdeen all sorts of problems – not least where he turned a flailing Darren Mackie inside out in spectacular fashion. Significantly though, he was quick to return to position and diligent in his tracking back.
If anything, Celtic were pushing for a third – mostly through McCourt, who (being hyper-critical) could’ve been slightly less greedy in front of goal – but Aberdeen were spent.
In almost a cut-and-paste conclusion for this blog, the same worries still remain in most areas of the team: the inconsistent defensive choices, (arguably) uncommanding goalkeeping, the lack of clear first-choice formation and strategy, and the lack of attacking depth.
As good as Stokes and Hooper are up front (with Stokes doing well in particular yesterday), in matches where they aren’t given supply, or are over-whelmed by the defence, their lack of contribution can be telling. It wasn’t a great day at the office, but equally Lennon had no real alternative – which in a squad of Celtic’s size isn’t a good sign.
There are of course positives: the 3 points, another goal from the midfield, a reasonable defensive display. But Celtic’s fragility is far too apparent. A consistent first XI and optimal formation is surely the priority now. It’s strange that 17 matches into the season that the questions still remain.