Celtic made it 10 SPL wins from 10 after picking apart a rugged, if overly negative Dunfermline side. In the furious January weather that currently batters Scotland, the home side followed a frequent ‘anti-Celtic’ model of sitting deep, packing the midfield and (aiming to) hit on the counter. Only, the latter, attacking element was lacking and what proved to be a fatal level of space was afforded.
After Beram Kayal picked up an injury in the Glasgow derby (note: still waiting on @someone_who’s £100 contribution to charity following a twitter bet that Kayal wasn’t actually injured!!) , Lennon had to shuffle the pack.
Anthony Stokes came into the side, meaning Georgios Samaras moved out left, James Forrest swapped flanks to the right, and Scott Brown moved into the central spot vacated by Kayal; making for the ambitious (dreaded?) attacking 4-2-2-2.
The back five remained unchanged with Emilio Izaguirre on the bench, eager to reclaim the left-back slot that has rightfully been his. As first team players trickle back into match contention, the ‘good’ problems only increase for Lennon, with the likes of Izaguirre, Kelvin Wilson, Ki Sung Yeung and (soon to be) Mikael Lustig and Kris Commons, facing a daunting task breaking into a winning 11.
Jim McIntyre had to work around an extensive injury list, with Paul Gallacher, Austin McCann,Nick Phinn, Steven Bell, Steven McDougall and Kevin Rutkiewicz all absent, and Craig Easton and Joe Cardle only fit enough to return to the bench.
Contrary to Celtic’s form, McIntrye’s side hadn’t won a match since the 5th of November, and the SPL’s bottom club would have to avoid the poor mistakes that cost dearly last time out against Celtic.
It didn’t take long for Celtic to grab authority of the game – and while Dunfermline’s wayward forward passing didn’t help, the main reason for all the possession was just how deep the home side were sitting – or at least the three central midfielders.
There are two relevant benefits in the central three of a 4-1-4-1 (versus a central two): in possession, the anchorman should be free or, if marked, free up others and this numerical advantage should convert to easier ball retention.
Out of possession, the anchorman should be acting almost as a sweeper – ensuring any tricky attacking forays between the lines (e.g. James Forrest cutting in) should be met with a stiff challenge.
But Gary Mason wasn’t able to provide either benefit due to his sides exaggeratedly deep lines, and instead of being a free man in the midfield – he was a free man in defence, helping shut out the threat of Stokes and Hooper.
Considering their attacking threat, that’s not such a bad thing (and the fact that the pair had a limited impact in open play is testament to this notion) but in terms of Dunfermline’s own attacking (or possessional) aspirations, the perceived numerical advantage in midfield was completely lost.
Unlocking a “low block”
It wasn’t just the Pars’ defenders (including Mason) sitting deep – without the ball the striker wouldn’t cross the halfway line. This made for the traditional ‘low block’, and instead of throwing bodies forward, Celtic enjoyed relative ease in possession. Brown and Wanyama were not being pressed aggressively, the there was always an out-ball in behind.
The initial problem was the Samaras route being used too often. This has tended towards a cross-field ball from the right centre-back position, only, Rogne’s distribution isn’t of the quality of Mulgrew’s. Between the heavy wind, Rogne’s passing and Samaras’ uncharacteristic inability to hold-up the ball, Dunfermline though lacking possession didn’t appear in open play to be under that much threat.
Faced by a deep-set defence, the swathes of possession wasn’t yielding clear-cut opportunities. But they struggled to deal with each of Mulgrew’s set-pieces, with a goal coming off the back of one such. Samaras nodded the cross down to Stokes, who’d cleverly skulked away from the aerial challenge. Still having it all to do, he curled in delightfully from 18 yards. Reminiscent of the ‘over-the-shoulder’ hook against Hibernian this time last year, it’s become something of a trademark to ghost away from the mixer, into space enough to fashion an effort into the far corner.
When faced against a team hell-bent on not conceding, it’s such moments of genius that derails even the best laid plans – and also reason why Stokes is so vital in unlocking such defences.
Dominance culminates in soft goals
Part of the Pars’ failing was the inability to get support towards Barrowman up front, though the nippy David Graham’s forays inside were the only vague source of threat.
Celtic’s midfield meanwhile were afforded plenty space – Wanyama (criminally) given enough time to unleash a howitzer from 30 yards – tipped over the bar – and the set-pieces kept coming without reply. Wanyama went again unchallenged to knock in a wicked Mulgrew free-kick from close range, very poorly defended.
After 50 minutes Gary Mason was removed in favour of Joe Cardle (who went on to the left-wing), though the system stayed the same, with Martin Hardie now the holding midfielder. The subtle positive change encouraged the Pars’ best chance of the match. Hardie had an attempt on goal which his manager felt was a turning point in the match – a chance for the crucial ‘third goal’ – but in truth the shot from twenty yards was barely a half-chance.
McIntrye introduced another striker in Andy Kirk with 30 minutes remaining (for Paul Willis), going 4-4-2, but to rub salt into the wounds and to cap off a superb day of set-piece deliveries, Mulgrew fired in a free-kick that should’ve been saved quite easily by the unfortunate Chris Smith.
It wasn’t the hardest fought victory for Celtic yet there are so many positives: the avoidance of a derby hangover, the cameo return of Emilio Izaguirre, 3 goals without reply, the dominating overall performance and the fans impact on East End Park, in which a reminder was sent out to Scottish football of the benefit of such a large and enthusiastic travelling support.
Celtic next face Peterhead in the Scottish Cup Fourth Round.