After 70 minutes of fluid and blistering attacking football, Celtic somehow managed to lose their grasp of the game, if not the three points. With every match a must-win in the pursuit of Rangers at the top of the SPL, having weathered the mightiest of storms a beleaguered Dunfermline fought their way right back into a strange match.
With no real injury updates, Neil Lennon lined up in fairly similar fashion to the win at Inverness. There were 2 main differences – Kris Commons came in for Georgios Samaras on the left, and Joe Ledley replaced Badr El Kaddouri. The first change served two purposes – an acknowledgement that ‘the game is up’ in terms of the long-ball tactic aimed at Samaras, and arguably removed the temptation for the defence to simply hit hopeful balls in the Greek’s general direction, instead focusing on the trademark low, quick passing typified by Stokes’ opener on Saturday.
The removal of El Kaddouri is probably conceding that he simply isn’t reliable enough defensively. The Dynamo Kiev loanee is small, fragile and doesn’t seem too suited to an under-fire defence.
With Charlie Mulgrew, Glenn Loovens, Thomas Rogne and Kelvin Wilson all still unavailable, Victor Wanyama started for the second time in a row alongside Daniel Majstorovic in defence. Incidentally this is Celtic’s 20th starting defensive permutation of the season.
Pars manager Jim McIntyre had to contend with similar injury woes – club Captain Austin McCann was missing from central defence, while Martin Hardie, Craig Easton, Jason Thomson, Kevin Rutkiewicz, Steven Bell and Nick Phinn remain on the casualty list. Andy Dowie returned from injury to start at the back, and Andy Barrowman replaced Liam Buchanan up front.
Sloppy Pars encourage Celtic
Just as Celtic were finding their feet in the game, a sloppy pass from Paul Willis seemed to catch his own defence off guard. Sharp as ever, Gary Hooper pounced on mistake and clinically slotted past Paul Gallagher.
For the second, it was Alex Keddie’s turn to blunder, his loose pass enabling Celtic to counter, with Commons, Stokes and Hooper linking to eventually allow James Forrest to lift the ball past the ‘keeper from close range.
Lennon at this point ordered a tactical change – the decision was probably both a reaction to Dunfermline’s 3-5-2 and the 2 goal buffer really allowing a chance to experiment. Either way, the new formation was completely unexpected.
The new system was defined by the placement of Kayal, Ki and Commons, with the latter drifting inside – essentially to the position discussed in depth here. Kayal dropped deep as a midfield anchor, with Ki, though fairly central, effectively the right-midfielder – tasked with putting pressure on Dunfermline’s left-full back.
This is the hard counter against the 3-5-2 – exposing the relative weaknesses on the flanks. Ledley became more attacking teaming up with Forrest on the left, while Ki and Matthews combined on the right. This is probably the major reason to believe that Lennon’s switch was purely a tactical response to the 3-5-2.
The second indication, though he demonstrated this during the early 4-2-2-2 phase, was the movement of Gary Hooper. By dropping deep, he left Anthony Stokes as a lone striker – meaning that three centre-backs had to deal with only one striker – a wasteful use of ‘resources’.
Hooper’s placement in fact was sometimes level with Commons, Forrest and even Ki, making for a kind of ultra-attacking, fluid 4-1-4-1.
Exposed 3-5-2 taken apart
With Lennon taking the tactical upper hand (albeit thanks to two soft goals), his side really gained momentum. The linking of the front-five (and to a slightly lesser extent, the over-lapping Ledley and Matthews) brutally over-loaded Dunfermline’s defence.
It was all darting, penetrating runs and delicate, intricate passing, picking holes at leisure in a overwhelmed defence. Fantastic to watch – at one point the question was “how many?” – yet the third goal, the real killer goal couldn’t be found.
James Forrest put in one of his best dribbling displays, for all intents and purposes looking like a more direct Aiden McGeady. Commons was finding space for his (ultimately fruitless) trademark long-range drives, and Hooper was central to the vast majority of link-ups. Whatever curtailed his early-season performances seems to have vanished.
However fine the performance – there was an all-round profligacy. Anthony Stokes arguably guiltier than most, but Hooper, Forrest and Ki in the second half (missing a penalty!) should’ve had more.
It’s unclear why Commons was removed at half-time, it could’ve been fitness related, but equally the reasoning could be this apparent “number 10” problem vexing Lennon. Paddy McCourt replaced him, but he too was largely ineffective there. McCourt is almost exclusively suited to the left-wing – feinting outside and working his way inwards. The central “number 10” role demands an unpredictable combination of passing, vision and shooting technique – not really McCourt’s forté.
With McCourt ineffectual, Ki was eventually moved inwards – once again trialled in this role. It almost immediately paid-off, with Ki in the space of minutes providing two delicious defence splitting through-balls into the path of Stokes – who should’ve buried at least one.
Losing momentum – the system’s vulnerabilities
Despite the chances created, and the positive tinkering, the gap remained an uncertain two goal when it should’ve been a landslide. The ultra-attacking approach looked to tire Celtic, and with each fruitless attack, Dunfermline seemed to garner more and more belief in snatching a goal.
In a way, Celtic’s system was flattering. It depended on a lot of bodies being forward, leaving only Beram Kayal ahead of a defence featuring very attacking full-backs. It meant that Celtic’s second quarter was largely undermanned, allowing for more ambitious midfielders to make piercing runs either side of Kayal.
And it was midfield substitute Joe Cardle breaking beyond Celtic’s midfield and into the box that forced Fraser Forster into belated action – making two very good saves. The Pars too, enjoyed the majority of corners in the match, and the inevitable reply came.
David Graham, largely unchallenged in the relative space of midfield was able to thread through to Andy Barrowman to score on the 86th minute. The situation was reminiscent to perhaps Strachan’s final season, or especially Mowbray’s. Blanket match domination followed by unlikely and meek conceding.
But Lennon’s sides have always featured that special extra grit than Mowbray’s, and Celtic were able to hang on for the win. It was interesting in a tactical sense that Lennon so quickly adjusted to exploit the 3-5-2. The change elicited some of the most enjoyable attacking football seen from his side this season. It would be a shame to highlight the defence (or goalkeeper) as the source of losing the clean sheet – the over-ambitious system was probably more to blame. But in theory, Lennon’s tactical choice should’ve seen a massive win, so in a sense it was a bigger victory for him than the scoreline eventually suggested.
Yet this prototype system is unlikely to feature again. It seemed very much geared to counter the 3-5-2, and such an open, unstructured midfield would probably suffer against a side without such obvious weaknesses.
It’s therefore difficult to say if this tactic will be seen again, but at the very least Lennon’s initiative should be applauded, but most importantly the minimum requirement of three points, are on the board.