Celtic had to come back from 1-0 down after a dreadful first half at Easter Road, in the Scottish League Cup Quarter-final against Hibs. The alarm bells were ringing when Neil Lennon’s side looked at sixes and sevens during the opening 45 minutes, marked by a Daniel Majstorovic own goal. But the second-half recovery coincided with the home sides tired capitulation, and Celtic went on to dominate.
Lennon didn’t rest any players in a competition that has seen every other SPL club eliminated apart from Kilmarnock. It was a return to the (previously) familiar lop-sided 4-4-2 system, with James Forrest used high up on the right.
Thomas Rogne made his long-awaited first appearance of the season having been out injured, taking into account Glen Loovens injury and Charlie Mulgrew suspension. With Mark Wilson’s return to the starting eleven, this made for yet another untried back four, with this being the 11th straight shuffle.
Lennon started with his first choice “central” three, and with no real other options up front, Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper continued their mis-firing partnership.
Under-fire manager Colin Calderwood had his own take on an asymmetrical formation, going for something between a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3. The main surprise in personnel was winger David Wotherspoon’s use at right-back, but with three “forwards” on the pitch in Gary O’Connor, Leigh Griffiths and Ivan Sproule, this made for an intriguing system.
The core midfield seemed to be aimed at matching Celtic’s, with Junior Agogo ahead of Isaiah Osbourne and Victor Palsson. It was also interesting to see the normal first-choice centre-back Paul Hanlon swapping places with Ian Murray, perhaps in anticipation of James Forrest’s piercing runs.
Finally, in goals, Calderwood opted for Mark Brown over Graham Stack, continuing his cup policy.
Hibs’ explosive opening
Not for the first-time this season, Celtic began with a yawn while the other side burst from the starting blocks. At this stage, without really knowing how Hibs were setting up (perhaps expecting the BBC’s prediction of a 4-4-2 diamond), Lennon’s side seemed taken aback by the strange 4-4-2/4-3-3 mixture: being matched man for man in midfield, man for man at centre-back, yet being punished on either flank.
The secret was: there was no right-midfielder, and all the pace was coming from a (perhaps over-stretched,) galloping David Wotherspoon. Similarly on the other side, Sproule and Griffiths were busting a gut to push in behind Celtic’s predictable, cumbersome back-line.
Celtic, out-manned (mainly) in the centre, couldn’t hold possession and under the ferociously urgent pressing, conceded quick corners and then the opening goal. While Majstorovic (who will take credit for the O.G.) will possibly get the blame, or even Ki at the front post, it was actually James Forrest who let Sproule go at the front post, early on in the corner.
Stepping into Calderwood’s plan
It was the kind of start that Hibs – a similarly under-performing side – needed, but what was follow was more to their liking. Celtic attacked in the precise areas that Calderwood wanted.
Hibs could defend deep and narrow – the three man buffer in the centre of midfield almost urged Celtic wide. Meanwhile, with Ki mostly spending his time as the furthest-left midfielder (rotating with Ledley) and Matthews (who was Celtic’s ‘most free’ player) similarly wrong-footed, the left-flank from a “quality cross providing” point-of-view, was practically a write-off. The Welshman again, not having quite the same impact when used on the wrong side.
Mark Wilson meanwhile was pinned back on the right (mostly) by the threat of Sproule, and James Forrest consistently couldn’t beat Hanlon – there wasn’t too much space to charge into. When Forrest did get in behind, the cross was poor, and besides – Hooper and Stokes aren’t especially good in the air.
Hibs were also inconspicuously breaking up moves and conceding fouls as far away from the box as possible (not unlike Aberdeen’s strategy at the weekend). Celtic – not a team known for it’s height – resorted to lumping in crosses from long-range set-pieces, and were committing defenders into the box.
Drawing out the centre-backs for such occasions suited Hibs, as observed on the counter-attack. Not only did Hibs generally leave three pacy players waiting upfield (as opposed to Celtic’s two full-backs), but they were very quick to release the ball (not dissimilar to Cha Du Ri’s own goal against his own team). With the attackers on the half-way line, the off-side rule becomes moot. It’s uneasy to imagine how Lennon could’ve dealt with this better, but perhaps leaving more players back – and back deeper or playing corners/set-pieces short, with a view to using technique over brawn to eke out goal-scoring chances.
Griffiths in particular squandered a gilt-edged one-on-one chance with Forster (who made numerous good saves), and at that stage a 2 goal deficit might’ve been too hard a blow to come back from. Perhaps Hooper could’ve made more from a couple of chances – at least one in a rare good chance created by Forrest on the right, and another when put clean through by Beram Kayal. Such is the case with teams down on their luck, Hooper’s half-chances came and went without much fuss.
Second-half revival – the ‘cut-in’
Celtic were on the ropes by half-time, but not for the second occasion this season, Lennon managed to inspire a second-half revival.
A major complaint of the first-half was, that the few times Forrest could get on the ball, he was taking it out wide into difficult crossing areas. Perhaps a more suitable idea would be to mimic the player he has (currently) replaced – Kris Commons, and cut inside to remove the need for aerial play.
Incidentally, the change in wing mentality bore immediate fruit, with Forrest on the 46th minute cutting in quite easily (and then back out onto his right-foot) to blast a shot past Brown.
Perhaps Hibs couldn’t keep up the same tempo (especially the knackered Wotherspoon) and the goal further dented their ambition. In fact, within the hour Forrest had scored a second – again through cutting in – working a nice one-two with Hooper and stunting his run just enough to beat the off-side trap.
It was a triumphant 15 minutes for Forrest, albeit immediately reminding the Celtic team of the fragility of Hibernian. Strange that it wasn’t apparent in the first place!
Final 30 minutes
The game was up for Hibs, and at this stage Lennon seemed to realise that with Hanlon providing next-to no attacking threat, or Wotherspoon on the other side, a centrally focused 4-4-2 diamond could get the most from a now resplendent James Forrest.
Beram Kayal, who save for setting up Hooper earlier, had a fairly disappointing game, was replaced by Victor Wanyama who is probably best used at the base of the diamond system. It also allowed Ki to come in slightly from his left-sided exile, no longer the deep-playmaking spark and now being used without rest as a kind of utility midfielder.
The antagonistic Sproule eventually earned a second yellow and was correctly dismissed, and with Hibs imploding Celtic were scoring for fun. Stokes first with an unchallenged header from Ki’s corner and then Hooper getting on the end of a long-ball from Matthews – the turn of the Hibs defence to push up unnaturally high in search of an equaliser.
Lennon then had time to experiment with a 4-2-3-1, using Paddy McCourt on the left-flank (on for Hooper), and Cha Du Ri on the right (on for match-winner James Forrest). McCourt in particularly teased the defence with his tricky running, Cha toiled on the right looking slightly out of touch, but ultimately the match was over as a contest. Hibs ploughed on with an optimistic 4-3-2 formation.
It started so well for Calderwood – his system perfectly nullifying Celtic in the right areas. The two strikers put pressure on Celtic’s two centre-backs – meaning an increase in balls played back to the under-pressure Forster. The midfield was more than congested, and the strikers isolated.
Sadly the high intensity, high-pressing system drew too much energy from a struggling side, and Wotherspoon looked particularly exposed as the match wore on.
It has to be asked (again) how Celtic can start matches so poorly? Sluggish, predictable and seemingly easy to rile. Though the defence coped rather well, it’s again a worry that the defence has been rotated once again – long after the time that Lennon convinced himself of the need for a settled back four.
Last seasons stars are still under-performing (Hooper, Kayal) some seem exhausted (Ki) and some error-prone. In the end, it was a fantastic score-line, but frustratingly the same old questions remain.