Neil Lennon went 4-2-3-1 in a grueling match dubbed by many as a “must-win”. Stuart McCall’s disruptive strategy tested the visitor’s mettle, but after seeing another goal conceded early, Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper grabbed one each for their side to seal the win.
Lennon has been desperate to rekindle the Anthony Stokes / Gary Hooper combination, and rightly so given how productive the pairing was at its peak. Yet SPL teams have grown wise to their ways – the close interchanging that set them apart has proved to be fairly easy to inhibit, at least at the moment – by tight defending, sitting midfielders, boggy pitches and often lenient referees.
Instead a more defensively resilient 4-2-3-1 has been trialled, most recently with success at Rennes. With Hooper being removed from the starting XI, Lennon is torn over who to play “in the hole”. It’s a role that hasn’t really suited Ki Sung-Yeung, didn’t particularly suit Paddy McCourt and so Kris Commons (used briefly against Rennes) got the start.
Thomas Rogne returned to partner Daniel Majstorovic, and Adam Matthews continued at left-back. The unavailable list remains extraordinarily long, with Emilio Izaguirre, Kelvin Wilson, Charlie Mulgrew, Glen Loovens, Ki Sung-Yeung, Scott Brown and Joe Ledley all out.
The last meeting between the two sides saw Celtic run out comfortable 3-0 winners in the CIS Insurance Cup final, and Stuart McCall opted for a more conservative formation to the 4-4-2ish shape used in May. In that match, after falling significantly behind the switch was made to 4-5-1 – packing the centre areas and using Michael Higdon as a target-man. McCall probably regretted starting in such attacking fashion and so again the 4-5-1 was used on Sunday.
Obligatory tame start
It’s been highlighted for weeks if not months, but Celtic again fell victim to making a nonchalant start. Even at such an early stage the game was marked for it’s scrappiness, and the home side were finding it easy to mount attacks – forcing a number of corners. In even less surprising news, the opening goal was conceded from the fifth of these corners – only this time stemming from the second or third phase after the set-piece. Predictably, the lines weren’t cleared, the defence were slow in pushing out (with Adam Matthews culpable) and Higdon on-side was allowed to header in.
While Stokes equalised almost immediately, the achingly clear problem remains: The slack opening 10 minutes and a goal conceded from a set-piece. See Rennes in Glasgow, Hibernian in the League cup, Atletico Madrid away, or Sion away.
See no evil
Apart from Celtic’s notoriously slow openings, there are also two other well-known frailties: prone to the so-called “European hangover” having dragged out a difficult win against Rennes last Thursday, and also susceptible to being kicked off the park. Aberdeen almost forced a draw using the latter strategy in a recent SPL round of games, with this blog stating surprise that Kari Arnesen managed to firstly stay out of the referee’s book for so long and secondly stay on the pitch for the full 90 minutes at all. His team racked up 17 fouls and 6 yellow cards (with Ryan Jack being sent off) compared to Celtic’s cardless 4 fouls.
Steve Jennings and Keith Lasley emerged in the first half as Motherwell’s chief enforcers, not that referee Charlie Richmond noticed, with James Forrest, Georgios Samaras and KrisCommons feeling the brunt of the laissez-faire approach to violence. ‘Well ended the match conceding 20 fouls to Celtic’s 8, but far more should’ve been given.
The warfare contributed towards a match of few chances, particularly with Michael Higdon spending a bit too much time scrapping instead of leading the attack. Celtic’s best out-let was to by-pass the midfield aiming for Georgios Samaras via high-balls to the left. It’s the second match in a row, the Greek being described last week in this blog as an “inextricable part of Lennon’s strategy”.
It’s a neat trick seeing as opposition full-backs tend to be fairly short, but not here with the 6’+ Tom Hateley. Still, Samaras had the advantage coming inside to meet the ball, with the full-back generally goal-side/out-side the attacker. McCall made the observation (through ESPN coverage) midway through the first-half, but could do little to prevent the tactic.
And it was Samaras who provided the assist for the equaliser, this time from a corner. Not many support the claim that Samaras had previously been kept in a side bereft of height, but the past two matches have taken steps to prove how important he can be defensively and offensively and what a useful tool height is for managers.
Celtic rise, Motherwell stoop
It’s difficult to underline the referee’s contribution to this match without coming across as a biased partisan (hopefully not a hall-mark of the blog!), but the ineptitude was staggering. 2 crystal-clear corners for Celtic were denied, while Lasley and Jennings stomped around without fear.
With the fouls becoming more frequent, Celtic into the second period couldn’t find the breakthrough and the worst case scenario (for fans and Lennon) was slowly approaching.
Apart from the difficulty overcoming Motherwell’s bullying tactics, Celtic’s main problem was bringing KrisCommons into play – arguably the most important attacking cog in the 4-2-3-1. Jennings as a designated sitter has always been the hard-counter to players “in the hole”, limiting Commons to only fleeting examples of positive creative play.
Lennon twitched, bringing on Gary Hooper for Commons and turning the system into the most attacking of his repertoire – the 4-4-2 with two attacking wingers. It coincided with Motherwell’s decline.
McCall’s defence had been holding a high-line (pressing for a congested game) which is tiring with regards to following bursting runs back. Equally, the deep-set central three in midfield were all essentially asked to play a box to box role – primarily defending quickly and aggressively, but also getting forward to link with Higdon alone up front.
But hacking is painful and tiring, and the home side ended up sitting back, losing their legs. Their closest chance came via Lasley kicking over Beram Kayal out wide. The ball was worked to Jamie Murphy on the left who put Fraser Forster into all sorts of trouble with a low cross. If Motherwell and Lasley managed to get away with that….
It was Paddy McCourt (on for Georgios Samaras) who provided the winner. Lasley had just produced yet another red-cardable offence when McCourt brushed himself down and slalomed his way towards the Motherwell box. The defence’s natural reaction is to swarm McCourt, who took the intelligent decision to slide through Stokes instead, whose cross was met by Hooper. It’s the kind of out-thinking that McCourt needs to display more often as he draws in more and more defenders.
Motherwell not only exposed Celtic’s bad-habits and weaknesses, but they exposed Charlie Richmond’s ability as a referee. Forrest and Commons each took unfair challenges that threatened injury but essentially went unpunished. Tim Clancy’s eventual dismissal demonstrated how little disrespect ‘Well had for the rules
Despite the positives; the performance of Stokes, Kayal, Samaras etc, Lennon survived the so-called “must-win” scenario. But (this is getting tiresome to write!) the same old problems persist: slow starting, defending from set-pieces and not quite settleing on a formation. With every game a must-win, Lennon has to find the answers immediately.