It’s been a season of ups and downs so far for Celtic, mostly downs, perhaps, but the pursuit of league leaders Rangers is still as dogged as ever. The 12 point gap is commonly explained by various eminent flaws – goalkeeping errors, the much maligned zonal marking system, concentration levels – aspects that in the long-term can be “coached out”. A quicker, more appeasing fix is to replace individuals, with fans particularly vocal about the need for a dominating centre-back and powerful targetman. Yet the club’s recruitment efforts have continually focused on a different brand of player.
Bolo Zenden is the latest tricky attacker to be surveyed at Lennoxtown, following in the footsteps of Freddy Ljungberg and Oliver Kapo, who despite their age showed enough to win temporary contracts. James McFadden too, was overtly pursued – unsuccessfully – making fans curious as to why the obsession with fading flair players, yet little movement in more problematic areas?
The clues stretch back to the summer of 2005, where Gordon Strachan went to great lengths to acquire obscure Japanese midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura at substantial cost. It was his lack of impact in the doldrums of Italy that allowed Celtic to swoop, and hints at how far and wide the net had to be cast to find the right man. Strachan explained:
“He tries to play the forward pass, the hard pass – that’s what I brought him here for. We play him in a position that allows him to roam at times because we know he can create and dig things out that nobody else can.
The left-footed Nakamura was used on the right of midfield, but under the duress of the physical Scottish game, complained that his best position was a central one. But there had never been a worse time for his favoured classic “number 10” or trequartista role than the middle of the noughties. Strachan’s solution, and a broader trend at the time, was to shift his creative fulcrum wide in the search for time and space.
It was a hugely successful tactical tweak and Nakamura left a hero, but there’s been a gaping creative hole in the side ever since.
Neil Lennon’s initial charge as manager, was a salvaging act – recovering what was left of Tony Mowbray’s disastrous tenure. But like his predecessors, the search for a creative focal point has been arduous and like Strachan he eventually got his man, albeit 30 competitive matches into his first full season in charge.
It’s difficult to understate the impact of Kris Commons. The opening goal against Aberdeen in the Scottish League Cup semi-final literally hours after he signed, he appeared in 21 of Celtic’s remaining 22 matches, but crucially defined Lennon’s 2011 tactical identity.
The lop-sided 4-4-2 emerged as the choice formation, with Commons high up on the right allowed to roam inwards, a kind of pseudo-number 10. This tactical response, not unlike Strachan’s, highlights the inherent historic connection between the inside forward (which probably Commons’ best positional description) and the number 10. In the 40’s and 50’s, as described by Jonathan Wilson in Inverting the Pyramid, Flamengo manager Flavio Costa tweaked the WM formation to allow the left inside forward a more pivotal role – termed ponta da lanca, or in English “the point of the lance”.
Richard Williams wrote in The Perfect 10: Football’s dreamers, schemers, playmakers and playboys (of which the title of this piece is taken), that a No. 10’s “presence can transform a perennially negative team into something worth seeing” and boy did Commons have that effect in the first half of 2011. But the on-fire Commons hasn’t returned for the current season, at least not yet, and therefore Lennon’s dependent strategy has been undermined. James Forrest has taken up the creative mantle on that flank but, at 20 years of age and as a conventional type winger, it’s an altogether more predictable approach. The fact Celtic’s strikers aren’t able to thrive on crosses at the minute, further limits Forrest’s effectiveness.
A series of poor results has seen Lennon forced into searching for alternatives to the Commons-centric lop-sided 4-4-2, and has trialled a 3-5-2, 4-4-2 diamond and 4-2-3-1 in an attempt to reinvigorate a flagging side essentially devoid of guile. The eventual settling on the 4-2-3-1 has, like in the broader game, seen a return of the trequartista to some extent – this time behind just the one striker.
Along with Forrest; Ki Sung-Yeung, Paddy McCourt and even Gary Hooper (briefly) were given a shot in this much-vaunted central position, but none can really be classed as bona fide number 10s, and such misuse diminishes their own considerable ability elsewhere. McCourt especially has been heralded as the answer, but for all the infeasible dribbling, he lacks that unique play-making vision. Commons’ spell on the sideline seems to have improved performances, but under a backdrop of rumours regarding training ground bust-ups, weight issues and the usual tabloid speculation, he hasn’t yet won back the favour of his manager.
Classic number 10s, or fantasistas have always been highly sought after, reflected in their transfer values. Gone are the days that Scottish clubs can afford peak “10s” such as Paul Gascoigne or Paulo Di Canio, who even in the mid-90s market fetched over £4million a head.
And so these rare mavericks – those who see what other mere mortals cannot – have to be sourced from elsewhere. Celtic’s relatively fresh international youth-finding policy has yielded unreliable results so far, and besides, there are richer clubs in bigger leagues with more comprehensive scouting networks. The place for that special mind therefore is in the bargain basement – the out of contracts, the dare I say – has-beens. Since Lennon has devised a formation that let’s such a player focus on attacking only, it could be a grand platform to reinvigorate a fading genius.
So while some may regard Lennon’s dealings with the likes of Zenden, Ljungberg et al as a frivolous exuberance, despite the more widely publicised areas requiring improvement, finding that perfect 10 could be of just as much significance.