Celtic kept up the pursuit of Rangers in the SPL after an early Gary Hooper goal was enough to dispose of Dundee Utd. Bucking the dubious trend of starting off sluggishly, the visitors burst enthusiastically from the starting block. But the killer second goal never looked likely and the home side never threatened to equalise, making for fairly drab (and anxious) viewing.
Neil Lennon was forced into changing the lineup that lost narrowly to Atletico Madrid midweek, with the injured Joe Ledley replaced by Cha Du Ri. Adam Matthews deputised at left-back with the Korean on the right.
No room could be found for Scott Brown, the midfielder having just signed a new 3 year contract with the club he Captains. He, like Ki Sung-Yeung is now regaining full fitness after a spell out, and had to watch as Beram Kayal and Victor Wanyama resumed their successful partnership in the centre of the park.
Not many are yet convinced by Lennon’s 4-2-2-2, the system associated with painful memories of Tony Mowbray (whose version bordered on 4-2-4) and back in the midst of time John Barnes. But in Celtic’s last SPL encounter, the attacking formation paid-off handsomely in the 5-0 mauling of St Mirren.
Dundee Utd Lineup
Peter Houston opted for a distinctive 4-3-2-1 formation, having previously tended to begin matches against Celtic using five in midfield. It’s a very similar formation to that used by St Mirren manager Danny Lennon last season, to reasonable effect. The main goal being to sit deep and narrow without the ball in order to congest the centre, and to hit quickly on the counter using Jon Daly as a holding target.
Sean Dillon and Gary Kenneth had recently returned from injury, with the latter making the starting eleven. Danny Swanson and Scott Severin remain out with more long-term injuries. It’s a very different Dundee Utd to last season’s, with Houston struggling to rebuild after significant player departures. Losing to Celtic would see the Arabs sit only 5 points clear of bottom club Aberdeen, who would have a game in hand.
Celtic’s explosive opening
For a change it was their opposition who started poorly, and Celtic capitalised as a result. From the off Utd couldn’t keep possession and the away side attacked relentlessly. Georgios Samaras looked “in the mood”, as he approaches his most consistent form since perhaps season 2008-09.
Stand-in Captain Kayal was also a standout, along with Wanyama. The fact the two are so direct and aggressive in pressing the opposition, compensates for numerical disadvantage in the centre. Here (at least early on) their ball-winning was particular noticeable.
The resulting effect on momentum allowed the more creative players to press on, first with Samaras repeatedly getting the better of Robbie Neilson, and then on the other flank, James Forrest helped create the winner after just 12 minutes. Utd’s vulnerability down the flanks was probably to blame as much as anything as Forrest was given too much time to pick out scorer Hooper. Gary Mackay-Steven and Johnny Russel played particularly narrow – leaving Celtic’s widemen mostly one-on-one with the opposition full-backs.
There was still a lot for Hooper to do – his first-touch(es) reminiscent of his trickiest best last season – nipping the ball away from Gavin Gunning’s feet before lashing the finish across Dusan Pernis.
It would be unfair to say that Utd were totally ineffective – especially on the break. Mackay-Steven in particular (with support from Paul Dixon) was finding reasonable space down the left hand side. Celtic were simply dealing well with the crosses.
Celtic still had one more glaring chance in this frenetic opening attacking period – Forrest again cutting inside, playing a one-two with Stokes (whose return pass was delightful) only for the right-winger to squander a gilt-edged one-on-one. It’s such a crucial string to Forrest’s bow – being adept at cutting in. Where once he was predictable, aiming the majority of the time to go outside and cross (often fruitlessly); cutting in and linking with strikers suits everybody’s strengths.
At this point, Utd looked on the ropes and Celtic took their foot of the gas. Perhaps it was complacency, perhaps it was fatigue (with ten of the eleven starters playing midweek). But either way the mid-period of the first-half descended into a myriad of sloppy passing from both sides, keeping the amount of chances to a minimum.
Having survived the early storm, Houston took the opportunity to shuffle his formation. And the switch to 4-4-2 served a number of purposes.
Utd’s attack had largely boiled down to getting high balls to the isolated Daly, but Majstorovic had him contained fairly well. Support from an additional striker could in theory make something of any knock-downs.
Defensively, the change made it easier to protect the flanks, with Mackay-Steven and Flood now able to double-up on Celtic’s widemen while also tracking the runs (less successfully) of Cha and Matthews.
Finally, Celtic’s players with the most freedom were the defenders (seeing as they had a spare man in the centre of midfield). Going man-for-man meant less time at the back for Celtic, forcing ever increasing numbers of pass-backs to Fraser Forster, and therefore long-punts – not something Celtic like, or have any success in doing.
With Utd more settled in their system, and the individual mistakes flowing on both sides, there was little in the way of chances created.
Lennon’s controversial switch
On the attack, Utd were poor and Celtic therefore were relatively comfortable. But with only a 1 goal advantage, there was always the fear of an unlikely, undeserved, 2010-11 style equaliser.
For all the perceived comfort, Celtic needed that second goal and after 66 minutes Lennon decided to make a controversial change. In order to accommodate Scott Brown, Glen Loovens was removed with (the excellent) Wanyama dropping to centre-back.
Initially it appeated difficult to see the benefits of disrupting a settled and comfortable looking centre-back pairing. Was it an attacking switch? In midfield terms, Brown is marginally more attack-minded than Wanyama and at the back, Wanyama marginally more comfortable with the ball at feet than Loovens. It was also suggested in the media that Loovens had been guilty too many times of losing possession; Lennon’s decision to substitute being a particularly harsh punishment. The manager actually revealed post-match that the change was prompted by the physio, though Loovens (at the time) acted puzzled.
The change turned out to be inconsequential – Utd threatened vaguely with set-pieces, and Celtic were good until the final pass. Kayal stood-out, not only his belligerent, bullying control of the midfield, but tirelessly ploughing forward, supporting attacks.
Phase 2 of Lennon’s tactical shuffling saw Samaras swapping place with Forrest, but the two were tired and well looked after by the Utd defence. The final change, phase 3, had Stokes replaced by Ki Sung-Yeung – another of Lennon’s ‘good problem’ midfielders.
It was a frustrating day for Stokes, his continued linking with Samaras being particularly useful. The trick is to move left (approaching the opposition right-back) when long-balls are played towards Samaras. This generally puts the right-back at a two-on-one disadvantage, meaning Stokes can work with Samaras’ knock-downs.
But he, like the rest of the Celtic attack, had a wasteful day in the final quarter.
Ki’s introduction revisited the lop-sided 4-4-2, which is becoming increasingly rare in the face of the more preferred 4-2-2-2 or European 4-2-3-1.
Regardless, it’s still a formation that arguably gets the most from Brown, and last season with Commons on the left, remains the system that extracted the best football from Neil Lennon’s Celtic.
The formation was given a run for the final 20 minutes of so, at no more success than the rest of the day’s work. Houston meanwhile had introduced Stuart Armstrong and Lauri Dalla Valle for Mackay-Steven and Scott Robertson respectively: again, while bringing an element of freshness to his side, not impacting on the flow of the match.
The overriding value of the encounter was the three points. Considering how flimsy Celtic have been returning from Europa League duties, the three points were acceptable. It was slightly worrying that the same ten players as Thursday overtly seemed to tire – the old consistent selection versus fresh rotation argument.
Another bonus was the return of Brown (at the expense of Loovens) – divisive in terms of ability amongst Celtic fans, undoubtedly highly rated by Lennon. And finally a clean sheet away from home is always positive – Forster was never troubled which underlines the defensive performance throughout.
As intriguing the match was in a tactical sense, and despite the question-marks over performance and substitutions, Lennon and the fans remain content with the result.