So unsatisfied with the showings of most of his team of late, Neil Lennon has taken the rare step of threatening to publicly name and shame his guiltiest underperformers. It’s an empty threat: there’s not a person associated with the club that isn’t living up to expectations. But fans demand more. Anthony Stokes’ steely one-man show in the second-half against Kilmarnock, as admirable as it was, had it the wrong-way round.
Celtic are currently a flimsy, flimsy side. When not starting sluggishly (falling behind in the last 7 matches to Hibernian, Rennes, Kilmarnock and Hearts) they are chucking leads (in the last minute to Udinese, or with a whimper against Aberdeen). They have won just twice in this 7 game period, in utterly unconvincing fashion.
Picking through the bones of the latest mishap – Saturday’s draw with Hibernian in the SPL – what went wrong this time?
One selection dilemma that continues to grate is the familiar midfield conundrum; which generally revolves around the shoe-horning of central-midfielders. Here, Joe Ledley squeezed into the starting lineup at wide-left with Ki Sung-Yeung in the middle but like mid-week within minutes of the opening, the two swapped places. It’s a shame that at all times one of the duo – Celtic’s most eager performers of recent weeks – has had to suffer out of position.
The inconsistency at the back also persists: the consecutive “shuffle” count now sits at 12 matches, and the unfamiliarity is often telling. The return of Thomas Rogne has however been a welcome boon, here partnering Charlie Mulgrew – another of the current squad putting in acceptable levels of performance.
Colin Calderwood’s tactics were rather close to succeeding in the 4-1 League Cup defeat (despite the score-line), and he tweaked his formula further – removing Ivan Sproule in favour of another more centrally orientated midfielder making for a more conventional “squashed” 4-1-2-1-2 diamond system. Again, the system is designed to congest or over-power the midfield, protect the back-four, while retaining reasonable firepower up-front.
Arguably, more than Calderwood’s apt strategy, Celtic’s own lethargy curtailed their first-half performance. There’s been plenty speculation as to the root cause – “interest” in playing, niggling injuries, contract situations, faith in system, etc. Whatever the factors, they’ve combined to undermine Lennon’s grand plan.
The most notable “under-achievers” appear to be two of last seasons biggest stars: Gary Hooper and Beram Kayal, but others, like Anthony Stokes and James Forrest are blowing hot and cold. Furthermore Adam Matthew’s misuse at left-back is contributing to a side that “feels” disjointed. But Lennon’s decreasingly lop-sided 4-4-2 is at an equal pace becoming increasingly predictable, especially without Kris Commons.
Mid-week James Forrest eventually worked out that cutting inside could be more productive but Calderwood was this time wise. Danny Galbraith had a fine game working in tandem with Paul Hanlon to keep Forrest quiet, or at least force him outside. The same principle hindered Ki (and to a lesser extent, Adam Matthews) on the left.
The 4-4-2 in essence encourages wing-play (including the use of attacking full-backs) yet Celtic’s wings were clipped. Most tragic of all is the final destination of attacks. Celtic didn’t want to go wide, yet Hibs openly encouraged it – and if or when crosses made it into the box, Messrs Stokes and Hooper are two of the most unlikely strikers to score via headers.
With Stevenson diligently shielding the back four and Isaiah Osbourne, Galbraith and Junior Agogo out-battling and out-numbering Celtic’s centre, Hibs were able to quite easily force a stalemate, which would be the spring-board for counter-attacking Celtic’s very public Achilles heel: the fast/high ball over the top. Thankfully, Mulgrew and Rogne are (so far) more adept at dealing with this mode of attack, but it was a clever (or obvious) out-ball for Hibs, which the tricky Leigh Griffiths and unpredictable Gary O’Connor were more than happy to chase down.
The few that Lennon threatens to “out”: are they under-performing or are they not being given the platform to shine?
The manager’s strategy on Saturday was comprehensively absorbed by Hibs.
Paddy McCourt’s inevitable introduction (again, stretching the width) was more desperation than inspiration, and while Georgios Samaras provided a slightly different angle of attack, it’s been a long time since he’s struck fear into the heart of SPL defences. Lennon had been toying with alternative setups: 4-4-2 diamond, 4-2-3-1 and has used 4-3-3 in the past, yet it’s bizarre that despite the available players overwhelmingly being unsuited to the current 4-4-2, that when in doubt, it is the default.
It’s the same scenario the board face: stick with something that has once been successful (as poor as it performs now) in the hope that it will eventually improve. Lennon has other options and ideas to try, but do the board?