Celtic strolled back to within 4 points of the SPL front-runners after an enjoyable 5-0 win over St Mirren at Parkhead. It’s difficult to pin-point the highlight; Georgios Samaras’ (match-winning?) opening efficacy, Gary Hooper’s hat-trick or youngster Dylan McGeouch’s astonishing wondergoal? The answer is probably the overall team performance.
The visitors didn’t help themselves, throwing away two cheap early goals and Danny Lennon’s regrettable in-match changes contributed to a painful lesson.
Kris Commons and Ki Sung-Yeung were dropped from Wednesday’s win over Dunfermline. The former looked to have aggravated a groin injury on the stroke of half-time, while the latter was probably omitted for defensive reasons. There’s no doubting that Beram Kayal and Victor Wanyama are two of the toughest, most robust central midfielders in the league right now, which suits an open 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2 to a tee.
As impressive as Wanyama had been at centre-back of late, it is of course his secondary position, with the more ‘natural’ central defender Glen Loovens returning from injury to take place alongside Daniel Majstorovic. The diligent Joe Ledley had to continue at left-back with Lennon seemingly unable to trust Badr El Kaddouri defensively – it’s unlikely the Moroccan will still be here after the winter transfer window.
While on a good run of form, this is actually Celtic’s 21st back four starting permutation in 24 matches (all competition). It was 10 matches ago that Lennon spoke of finding defensive consistency, perhaps he meant in a performance sense.
St Mirren Lineup
Danny Lennon made two changes to the side that beat Dunfermline 2-1 last Saturday – Ilias Haddad came in for injured midfielder Steven Thomson and Gary Teale replaced the similarly named striker Steven Thompson. Hugh Murray and Danny McGregor are the only other major casualties unavailable to Lennon.
Lennon chose a kind of amalgamation of the two previous systems used against Celtic – a straight, ambitious 4-4-2 (where Celtic won 2-0 this season) and a more compact 4-2-3-1 (last season). In fact each of the three past encounters, despite being victories have been struggles for Celtic, and Danny Lennon’s side had already taken points from Rangers this campaign.
It’s difficult to class the system used – in many ways it was a 4-2-3-1, but with former Celtic Paul McGowan and Gary Teale pressed so high up the park, in a way it could be described 4-3-3. In practice, without the ball, it was perhaps 4-5-1, albeit Teale’s positioning in particular was questionable.
Even start broken by Buddies error
Like midweek against Dunfermline, a fairly even early period was interrupted by disastrous defending from the visitors. It was centre-back Marc McAusland who gifted Samaras with possession around the three minute mark, but his colleague David Van Zanten was equally culpable in affording Celtic’s forward so much time and space, who slotted home unfettered.
If that wasn’t enough, within 8 minutes Samaras was again given criminal levels of space to create the second. It’s a familiar problem for full-backs when their opposite number, the nominal left-winger, is hell-bent on cutting inside – you don’t know whether to follow the man inside (opening up space) or to pass him on. Unfortunately for Van Zanten, Stokes was clever, going wide left occupying Van Zanten which left Samaras free.
St Mirren’s right-back was constantly torn between the two, and really should’ve had more help from one of the sitting midfielders.
St Mirren’s tactical travails
There was an over-bearing reason why Van Zanten was so cruelly exposed – the height of St Mirren’s attacking midfield band of 3 (and striker). The idea presumably, was to pressure a defence with a cumbersome reputation into making mistakes. Having two sitting midfielders – in theory – provided a reasonable springboard.
There are however, two general pre-requirements for high-pressing with numbers. In short: being fitter and being technically more proficient than the opposition. Besides, sitting deep and forcing the Celtic defenders into the long-ball would’ve made more sense in the awful November weather.
Instead, the sheer bodies forward opened space for Celtic, and mainly Samaras, to exploit.
After the second goal, Danny Lennon seemed to discourage such forward movement, and the system became far more defensive – a very compact 4-2-3-1 / 4-5-1. While the chances (initially) dried up at that point for Celtic, St Mirren were at least stable. It hinted at the correct system that St Mirren should’ve began with. It’s no coincidence that no further goals were conceded in this time – only in the second half after a strange, eager switch to 4-4-2 did Celtic increase the difference.
There are two schools of thought when chasing an equaliser from a fairly safe (if stagnant) position: change to become more attacking (and therefore, more vulnerable) or continue in “safe” mode, hoping to contain the (superior) opposition and possibly grab a goal over the course of a half from a set-piece.
A good example of the latter, is this seasons 4-2 defeat to Rangers. While only a goal behind, Celtic received a red-card. Instead of consolidating, Lennon went more attacking, chasing the equaliser – which only served to weaken the team (and concede another).
Either way, Danny Lennon ambitiously went “man for man” with a 4-4-2.
Danny’s second mistake
Of late, for anyone paying attention, Celtic have two main, current, attacking trademarks: the long-ball to Samaras (with Stokes feeding) and the (for want of a better term) tiki-taka close passing between the likes of Stokes, Hooper and Forrest.
It was clear from the outset that high-balls were to be avoided, and therefore the Samaras method was out (understandably). This left the “tiki-taka” attack.
It’s not as if Hooper and Stokes haven’t been successfully neutralised by practical defending. Hibernian (0-0) and Kilmarnock (3-3) found great success by using very deep, very narrow midfields to restrict space, sandwiching the two small forwards closely between the lines. Going outside with wingers rarely helps, as the two tend not to score from headers.
In fact, of Celtic’s past 14 goals, 11 have been scored by either Hooper or Stokes – and none have been headers.
When formations go “head to head” as in today’s example of 4-4-2 vs 4-4-2, it tends to be quality that determines the victor. And with St Mirren chasing a goal to get them back into the game, all the more space was opened up for Celtic.
Celtic’s attacking movement
Where in the preceding matches, particularly Rennes, Motherwell and Inverness, Gary Hooper has been the most “creative” of the two frontmen. That is; Stokes has (intentionally or not) tended to have been the poacher, while Hooper slightly deeper the linkup.
Today was the reverse, with Stokes tireless running, clever interchanging and drifting left opened up room in the centre, with Hooper now the benefactor. Stokes in fact provided assists in all three of Hooper’s hat-trick.
It would be unfair not to look at the contributors on the right – Adam Matthews and James Forrest were again industrious, and with an exhausted defence struggling to cope all match – the pacy Dylan McGeough’s introduction would not have been appreciated. The youngster on the break grabbed a sensational wondergoal, dribbling from his own half before placing the ball past the hapless Samson.
Post-match, there were a few telling observations from Danny Lennon. Echoing a Neil Lennon statement in recent weeks, that it will shortly click for Celtic and someone’s going to be on the receiving end of a mauling.
“We caught them on the day we didn’t want them” said the St Mirren boss, but equally “regardless of formation or personnel, to gift celtic the goals as we done today it was always going to be an uphill battle.” In isolation it’s a correct statement, but overall performance wise the optimistic tactical decisions were just as damaging.
Whether Danny Lennon’s choices would’ve made a difference or not, Celtic were allowed to play on their own terms; demonstrating just how electrifying their skillful attack can be.