Terry Butcher’s aspirations of shutting down Celtic on the banks of the Moray Firth were swept away when midfielder Greg Tansey was controversially sent off after only 36 minutes. Neil Lennon’s side were then able to improve to secure a straightforward 2-0 victory.
With Celtic’s injury list still fairly ravaged, defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama was drafted in at centre-back, alongside Daniel Majstorovic. The situation is so grim that Sunday’s back four was the 19th permutation of the season (or 23 matches).
Of equal concern was the return to the dreaded 4-2-2-2, or 4-4-2 featuring 2 “out and out” wingers/forwards. The closest thing in contemporary football to a 4-2-4. It’s a system notorious for being overrun in the middle, with October’s defeat to Hearts a case in point. Joe Ledley and Beram Kayal however, are perhaps the most robust, energetic central pairing possible.
Georgios Samaras started for the third time on the trot, used again as a target or out-ball, for the back four (and goalkeeper) to aim long passes to.
Chris Hogg and Thomas Piermayr returned from suspension, with Hogg getting straight back into the starting lineup. Lee Cox and Nick Ross were available but unused returning from injury, unlike Owain Tudur Jones and Aaron Doran who remained sidelined.
Though mainly resembling a 4-1-4-1 system, Butcher’s central midfield three rotated fairly dynamically; with Davis generally staying back as the anchorman and Andrew Shinnie most prone to charging forward.
Most interestingly, Josh Meekings – normally considered a central defender – was utilised at right-back. Clearly Lennon’s recent use of Samaras as an aerial outlet hadn’t gone unnoticed, and the 6ft+ rookie Meekings had the task of keeping Samaras in-check.
Standard sluggish beginning
Celtic’s current openings usually follow one of two paths: a very quick capitulation, or, casually and surely slipping from contention. Sunday went down the second route, after initially looking fairly comfortable, Inverness were allowed to impose themselves. With Anthony Stokes wasteful, Johnny Hayes found enough room to trouble Fraser Forster with a powerful drive.
The combination of Georgios Samaras and the 4-2-2-2 were both Celtic’s weakness and strong-point. While Samaras was able to setup an early chance for Stokes, he slowly became the easy way out for Celtic. With the midfield clearly out-manned and the Stokes/Hooper combination up-front not a realistic option for the long-ball, Samaras became Celtic’s only real method of attack.
It wasn’t that Meekings was containing the big Greek, it was more that Celtic became far too predictable, and the likes of James Forrest, Stokes and Hooper – who thrive on quick passes to feet – weren’t really able to thrive.
Tansey’s red-card was the 5th given against Celtic’s opposition in only 6 matches. The most cynical detractor’s will suggest this is evidence against a perceived bias against Celtic (in some corners), but in all but Sunday’s example, the red-cards were just deserts.
Parallels of the Tansey decision could be drawn with Gary Hooper’s late conceding of a penalty against Udinese. There is no such thing as ultimate justice in football, and to use a cliché, players have to “play the odds”. Hooper stupidly, if arguably within the confines of the law, leaned into the Udinese defender Neuton, forcing the referee into making a decision. Based on the evidence ahead of him, the referee called a penalty.
Similarly, Tansey forced referee Stevie O’Reilly into making a difficult decision. As long as players needlessly tread close to the line, from a managerial perspective it probably doesn’t matter whether you crossed the line or not. A small percentage of the time, human (refereeing) error will see an incorrect call, which is where Tansey got unlucky.
Suddenly, the Inverness packed midfield had gaping space to exploit, and Celtic’s open, ambitious formation didn’t look so vulnerable.
Stokes (and Hooper)
Stokes and Hooper are often accused of being too similar to work together. On the face of it, that’s not too unfair an assessment. Both are renowned for “poaching”, but both are adept at close control and creativity. But Sunday was an example of both players operating at opposite ends of the scale – with Stokes quite clearly the goal-hanger of the two.
Stokes too, has been hailed as man of the match, and it’s difficult to argue with the match-winning two goals scored. He has also judged (largely) to have had a poor first half, missing many opportunities in front of goal. How come there was a dramatic improvement in performance in the second half, enough to become contender for MOTM?
In truth, there was no change in his contribution. He made the same runs, and made the same attempts at goal. In the first half he missed a lot, in the second, he didn’t. Bear in mind this isn’t in any way a criticism of Stokes. He provided what was asked.
He does however, have a lot to thank his team-mates for. Hooper enjoyed probably a more “unsung” role, but he along with Forrest (in the second half at least) was the catalyst towards breaking the dead-lock. Lennon described the link-up prior to the first goal as “classic”, and it’s exactly the kind of quick passing and close control that the front three/four are striving to achieve on a weekly basis.
Samaras perhaps didn’t recover from the seemingly innocuous blow to the face that saw Tansey dismissed, and since that point he seemed uncomfortable and uninterested. When he lost possession and didn’t track back, it’s unclear if that ‘typical’ Samaras reaction nudged Lennon into making a swap. Perhaps it was the aforementioned fact that Celtic had become too predictable, or maybe that Meekings containment was working. Either way, with Lennon chasing the opening goal, Ki Sung-Yeung came on, with Joe Ledley moving to left-midfield to see the return of the lop-sided 4-4-2.
The Korean’s impact to the side was immediate. Dropping very deep, into areas that 10-man Inverness couldn’t really press effectively, Ki had the space to pick passes, dictate play and keep the ball down – the complete opposite to the ‘Samaras’ strategy.
Within 6 minutes of coming on, Ki had threaded the pass to Hooper that led to Stokes’ tap-in for the opener, ending Butcher’s scant hope of clinging onto a point.
Protecting the slim 1-0, Lennon took no chances moving the more defensively sound Joe Ledley to left-back at the expense of the flimsy Badr El Kaddouri, with Paddy McCourt moving to left-midfield.
The harsh red-card was ruinous for Butcher, his dogged, counter-attacking 4-5-1 being reduced to a soft-centred damage-limitation exercise. In the second half, he switched his wingers to little effect and Gregory Tade ploughed a lonesome furrow.
What will be glossed over, is how poor Celtic looked in the first 36 minutes. An unacceptably slow start, Inverness were on course for the now standard SPL approach to playing Celtic: play hard, play on the counter, possibly sneak a goal through set-plays (Inverness would take defenders up with set-pieces lofted from their own half!) and watch Celtic implode.
The fortunate red-card let Celtic off the hook, and in fairness a dose of good luck was a long time coming. But the issues remain. A lack of consistent defence, a lack of strategic consensus and the predictable timid opening may still finish of Celtic’s season before Christmas.