Motherwell 1 – 2 Celtic: Brutal ‘Well can’t deny Celtic

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.

Celtic lineup

Celtic 4-2-3-1

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.

Motherwell lineup

Motherwell 4-5-1

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.

Georgios Samaras

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.


About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
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13 Responses to Motherwell 1 – 2 Celtic: Brutal ‘Well can’t deny Celtic

  1. Colin Garvey says:

    Do you feel this team can gain consistency and grind out a few results even swapping players over i.e Kayal for Ledley and McCourt for Commons even until the more vital players return fully fit so hopefully we can gather pace and have a good title run in

    • tictacticuk says:

      Hi Colin, cheers for commenting

      Aye, it can certainly be done, but Lennon has to work on those problems. I don’t mind the rotation i.e. Kayal/Ledley Ki/Wanyama etc, but it’s some areas where we’re weaker – centre-back, probably a bit light up front as well.

      But providing the players can stay motivated, there should be no reason that the corner really is turned. Lennon has no more room for failure.

  2. Hi, Why do you think Lenny’s so reluctant to give Paddy more chances? You can’t really expect a Paddy-run if you give him only 10 minutes per game. Even if he’s as vulnerable as they said last year, imo half an hour would be the minimum the guy deserve! Hail, hail!

    Great article anyway! Thx for it!

    • tictacticuk says:

      Hi, thanks for reading!

      I think his start against Rennes proved a few points. Firstly that Paddy starting does not equal auto-win 😛 Secondly, he has 1 real position and that’s left-winger, and arguably thirdly, he’s best coming off the bench with more than 10 minutes to work with.

      Hopefully he can prove me wrong, maybe he’ll get another chance in the “10” role, but we’ll see.


  3. celtic ed says:

    good display by celtic,ref was very poor, motherwell got off with murder,still feel celtic need a goalkeeper and tall forward, what about john sutton and kello from hearts sutton is good for 20 goals a season and kello is one of the better goalkeepers well done celtic

    • Colin Garvey says:

      hmm good call Ed with Sutton and Kello still not convinced with FF and Sammi just plays well when he feels like it always looks like a grumpy wean lol

    • tictacticuk says:

      Not bad shouts, especially Kello. Problem with players like Sutton – was he really better than Murphy for example? I don’t think he’s any better than Stokes/Hooper especially. And the fact he can’t get a game at mini-huns probably tells a story too!

  4. adam rush says:

    Hi Guys-I’ve been following Celtic for 50 yrs and I am totally sick sick sick of it !! THe carte blanche given to Jennings,Lasley and Higdon by the “referee” just reinforced the bitter anger and
    resentment that I’ve felt so OFTEN in the past decades.Scotland/Rangers are quite indifferent to the concept of a LEVEL-PLAYING FIELD and will pull every filthy,nasty,underhand trick they can think of- BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY to do the Tims down.O.K. we,ve got a totally dishonourable foe-a piece of filth to deal with-fine.

    Celtic fans-make dvds on your pcs and send them to FIFA and UEFA with written comments on the visible refereeing manipulation.Get recordings of the “forces of darkness” and the endless stream of “helpful” decisions that seem to accompany their efforts in the SPL (Scottish Protestation League). If UEFA and FIFA have a chance to observe the vagaries of fate in Scottish Football and who benefits from said “acts of God” then I’ll accept I’m an excessively PARANOID Celtic fan,BUT I WANT THEM TO SEE IT ! When Murderwell played “them” they conceded 8 fouls.On Sunday Celtic were given 20 and should have had another 7 ! That is SO OVER THE TOP it’s beyond embarassing. They are so biased against Celtic that you can see it’s compulsive and pathological.Let’s see what Europe thinks ! Do it guys-as of now an unrelenting media war and WE HAVE THE TRUTH ON OUR SIDE. It may not be enough-we may have to live with more of this shite.All; we want and ever wanted IS A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD ! Is that really so much to ask in 21st century Scotland ?

  5. Sirbeardybhoy says:

    Hey tictacticuk,

    Great site and a continuously excellent summary of our tactical approach to matches!

    I have been thinking about the shape of our team since last season, and have been at a loss to explain the lack of continuity to our performances from game to game.

    Personally speaking, I think that 4-4-2 is a rather outdated formation. Especially in the SPL where almost all our of opponents play five ‘battlers’ in the middle of the park – looking to out-muscle us and harry us into mistakes.

    Even the top European sides play the 4-3-3/4-5-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid.

    One of the misconceptions seems to be, that if you don’t play with more than one typical striker, then it is a negative formation. However, the game has changed massively and there are very few out and out old fashioned no.9 strikers playing the game now. The game is now about movement and ball retention, resulting in far more ‘wide players’ scoring the amount of goals old fashioned strikers used to.

    I think that up top and in defence, we are probably weakest. Our midfield, in-spite of a lack of cohesion is, on paper, the strongest element of our team. A combination of Kayal, Wanyama, Ki, Ledley, Brown, McCourt, Commons, Forrest and Samaras is enough to dominate this division if utilised properly.

    I would stick with the current formation and use the International break to work on strategies, team shape, working as a unit etc and play this way until we put a consistent run of results together.

    I actually would go as far to say that the 3-5-2 utilised under MO’N could be a possibility in the current climate. Recently both Uruguay and Barca have played variations of the 3 at the back, implementing a 3-4-3/3-4-1-2.

    Our biggest problem this season has been turning large amounts of possession into goals and, at the same time, conceding a high percentage of chances conceded. This has even resulted in us dropping points in matches where we have conceded only a couple of shots on goal whilst having double figure shots at the opposition goalie and near 60% possession. I think if we were to bite the bullet and play variations of the 4-5-1 away from home and possibly the 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 at home it would give us a much better balance and base to convert our possession into points.

    Regardless of whatever formation NL chooses to use, I am unsure of the value of the 4-4-2 unless the balance is bang on. This would require a left footed left back/left wing combo and a right footed right back/right wing combo that is fully in tune and functioning.

    At the minute we don’t have that…

  6. Joe M says:

    Hi tictacticuk,

    Adding to the comments above, congratulations on an excellent blog! I enjoy reading about the actual shape and tactics of the side and the reasons behind results, rather than the usual “they didn’t try hard enough, players not celtic quality” that most other sites mention after a draw or defeat.

    About the game, and Celtic in general:
    Do you think that the reason for the low number of clear chances that Celtic create this season is down to tactics or personnel (or both)? To me it looks like our attacking 4-4-2 can’t work without Samaras, yet for some reason he is nowhere near as dominant as Jelavic in the air. Playing Stokes/Hooper with 2 wingers just seems like a recipe for a draw, especially playing smaller teams who pack the box.
    I feel that Rangers generally play better than Celtic against the smaller teams especially away from home because they tend to sit in quite a bit more. And their personnel suit this counter-attacking tactic too. We have a better midfield from the point of view of keeping possession, but the way we currently play, we would need a lot more technique and skill up front and in attacking midfield to create lots chances against a very defensive opponent. I’d love to see Nakamura & Larsson in the current squad, since they were two of the best Celtic have had in the final third and would transform this team.

    You’ve pointed out before the risks of playing a high line at the back, and with two struggling wingers and attacking full backs, it seems that if we play 4-4-2, there is a tendency to get caught in possession at some point which can straight away give the opposition a 3 vs 3 or 2 vs 3 counter attack, mainly because we play so high and at least one of the full backs will have joined the attacking move. One other clear weakness I’ve noted since Strachan’s tenure is the fact that our midfield can look very isolated at times, I though against Motherwell Wanayama and Kayal sometimes got their pressing wrong, pressing way too high up the pitch, something which I’ve seen Scott Brown & Joe Ledley do a lot too. The thing I don’t get about this is why Lennon would instruct his players to play like that when as a player he hardly ever crossed the halfway line!
    Is this “high pressing” a sign of a low work-rate from the strikers, or defenders getting tired from playing too high a line? Would like to hear your thoughts on this, as I always thought a team playing a high line should really congest the midfield, but somehow Celtic don’t do that, at least not for the full 90.

    From reading your blog in the last few weeks, it definitely looks like Lennon is trying all kinds of experiments, trying to fit square pegs into round holes. I’m not sure whether I’d prefer that this is because the squad is weak, or the manager is just lacking in experience. Neither bode well for the league this season.

    Anyway, great stuff with the blog, keep it up!

    • Sirbeardybhoy says:

      Hey Joe,

      I agree with you that it is not a lack of experimenting from NL that’s the problem! We seem to have a different shape/personnel on a weekly basis now and that is a bit worrying.

      In part this is due to the injuries this season, but I’m a firm believer in playing players in their natural position – even if that means changing the shape of the team to fit the players.

      At the moment we don’t have a natural left back. Matthews has done very well for us this season, but when tasked with playing this position, he always has to cut in to his favoured right foot. If you add to this the fact that so far we have had Ledley and Ki (natural CM’s) playing on the left in recent weeks it highlights a distinct lack of natural width.

      The loss of Izaguirre and Commons (for reasons unknown), has been a real setback to our style of play in my opinion.

      Last season we had a very good balance. On the other side of the pitch we had Wilson and Brown having, arguably, their best season in The Hoops. They too have only been seen sporadically which hasn’t really helped the situation.

      For me watching us this season, we seem to have real disorganised look about us. Players don’t appear to be able to hold a coherent shape as a ‘team’. They are doing what they want in any given situation.

      This is pointed out by tictacticuk, when he talks about us not doing the basics correctly. An example of this was not closing down the short corner against Motherwell. We have seen this type of lethargy of the brain many times over this season.

      I don’t know if this is due to a lack of coaching, or players not doing as they are told. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say it’s the latter. Why this is the case, I really don’t know.

      Part of my gripe this season has been the fact that players who have come in and done a good job, seemingly haven’t been rewarded with getting picked for the following matches. I believe in rewarding performance rather than saying that a,b and c are ‘first team’ players and have high sell-on value, so must start if fit.

      The past two matches, Samaras, McCourt, Wanyama and Stokes (playing a lone striker role) have been very good. They must continue to be picked until their performances dip. Then others can get their chance.

      This is the reason we have a squad of players. I have no problem either with rotation, but every player must play their natural positions rather than be shoehorned into the side based on reputation.

      In terms of pushing high up the park, I think that this something we should be doing. The problem has been again the shape of the team. We don’t press as a unit, rather in sporadic bursts of different fractures of the team set up. You point out Strachan and how this was different under his tenure and I agree.

      Certainly early on in his leadership. I happen to think that latterly we became fractured also, which led to us losing our dominance in this period.

      The overall feeling I come back to is team shape.

      We don’t defend or attack as a team and thus, we concede a high percentage of small amounts of chances created by inferior opposition, and don’t turn our possession into goal opportunities. This is also highlighted by the fact we have won very little corner kicks in the last couple of matches – suggesting we are playing in front of the opposition. The lack of movement has not helped either.

      Both of these outcomes normally spell disaster!

      Apologies for the long winded reply, and I’m sure tictacticuk will have a better explanation than myself :o)

    • Little Drummer Bhoy says:

      Joe, the point you make about how Rangers play against the smaller teams in the league got me thinking about some of our better performances this year.

      Some of our best performances have been in Europe this year, with more time & space afforded, less persistent & unpunished fouls and the ability to counter-attack meaning that the team, but particularly players like Victor 67, Samaras and Matthews have flourihed in these games. Also, Celtic have scored a few superb counter-attacking goals this season (Rennes and two against Dundee United at Celtic Park). Particularly against Dundee United at home, where they had us under pressure for a lot of the game, when Celtic broke away with the running power of Brown, and Ki’s passing range, we looked like scoring every time.

      But we’ve been woeful this season at doing what we have to do on a more regular basis, ie, break down stubborn defensive teams, and we have resorted to the kind of pedestrian, sideways buck-passing that we saw so often towards the end of Strachan and during Mowbray’s tenure.

      A lot of this has to do with some loss of form, but also teams becoming wiser to the neat interplay between Stokes and Hooper, which has rarely been seen compared to last season. Also, I don’t think the loss of Izaguirre can be overstated. The consistency, balance, directness and clinical element that he brought to the team’s performances last year… well, I think Lennon’s quite frightening reaction to the news of his injury said it all.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Hi Joe & Paul, thanks very much for the comments – very in-depth! I hope I can cover a small part of the discussion. (and thanks for the kind comments!)

      Joe: I can’t disagree with pretty much everything you’ve said. We’re based on possession football, pressing high up the park, winning the ball back high up the park, and creating those chances (IN THEORY)

      In practice, the Kris Commons (perfect 10) piece I’ve recently added goes a long way to explain why we cannot turn this theoretical strategy into wins.

      For all our possession, we don’t have 2 key components – 1, as you’ve highlighted is the targetman up front. Samaras hasn’t played much this season (and when he has, its been on the left) but he isn’t in the same class as Jelavic.
      2 – as I mentioned in “the perfect 10” piece, we lack a focal point in terms of creativity. Commons done that last season with McCourt a part cameo. But without these 2, against super-deep sides we’ve really suffered.

      The achilles heel of a high-pressed, slow, unconfident defence leaks goals, as does the poor organisation at set-pieces. Heads have gone done, and we continue to concede. The 3 factors are creating a perfect storm.

      And as you’ve also hinted – our high pressed defence hasn’t been congesting the midfield. Simply because opposition don’t play football through the midfield. They play over the top, up and behind our shoddy centre-backs. For example, the goals in the Kilmarnock (and to some extent, Rennes) game shows how simple balls over the top causes havoc. For all the midfield dominance, congestion and general possession, we’re too prone to balls over the top.

      That’s all I’ve picked up on so far I apologise for not trying to answer everything, but I hope I’ve helped!


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