On a horrendous January afternoon, Celtic eventually broke down a resolute and prickly St Mirren. It took numerous tinkerings until Neil Lennon found a system that worked – the introduction of Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes on the hour swinging the momentum back in Celtic’s favour after a mid-game spent teetering on the brink.
The match could broadly be split into three equal periods – the initial half-hour of Celtic possession without penetration, the disjointed middle third with St Mirren fiercely on top and just short of capitalising, and finally the period after the first substitution where James Forrest broke the deadlock and wrenched back control.
Celtic Lineup and starting formation
Neil Lennon made three changes to the side that beat Dundee Utd 2-1 last weekend. Emilio Izaguirre was rested, given his recent return from long-term injury, Cha Du Ri was preferred to Adam Matthews for his pace and directness, and Anthony Stokes was dropped to allow James Forrest back into the side.
With Thomas Rogne relatively new to the current setup, his presence made for yet another back-four permutation, hinting at this seasons defensive travails.
It was a return to last season’s most successful shape – the lop-sided 4-4-2 – the most significant difference probably being Forrest on the left, considering Kris Commons (temporary?) fall from grace. But the shape wouldn’t last long.
St Mirren Lineup
The big news for the Saints was the debut of Dougie Imrie, who only finalised his transfer from Hamilton Accies this morning. The only real injury concern was that skipper Jim Goodwin remains on the sideline.
Danny Lennon hasn’t been afraid to experiment to take something from Celtic this campaign, and today was no different. By no means a conventional system, a 3 of Kenny McLean, Graham Carey and Paul McGowan sat roughly ahead of anchorman David Barron. Dougie Imrie drifted between the front and midfield line high up on the right, lining up directly against Joe Ledley.
Opening quiet domination for Celtic
The powerful gales defeated the purpose of any aerial lobs to Samaras, and so Celtic were mainly content in keeping the ball on the deck and patiently picking out passes. Ki and Brown are particularly adept at creating availability, albeit it proved impossible to penetrate St Mirren’s (effectively) 4-1-4-1 setup.
Brown was typically trying to find space between the lines, often taking his opposite number Tesselaar with him, but with the area being Barron’s domain, Celtic’s best threat was down the right-flank. McLean from a narrow position struggled to break out and contain Cha, but regardless the Korean’s delivery was consistently lacking.
St Mirren were aiming to hit on the break, with either McGowan or Imrie supporting small (but clever) front-man Steven Thompson. But in the early period the only threat came from a corner – with McAusland’s half-volley kept out by Forster.
Lennon throws caution into the wind
Both managers are keenly aware of the importance of a Celtic goal in the opening spells, and so Lennon must’ve become frustrated, that for all the possession, apart from Thompson’s attempt at an own-goal, there was nothing near an end product. The tinkering began and Forrest – whose game tends to suffer on the left, was brought over to his favoured right, leaving Ki Sung-Yeung as the left-most midfielder. If Forrest may not be suited on that side, Ki is definitely not.
All of a sudden, the comfortable and controlling away side looked disjointed and fragile. As half-time drew near St Mirren were the side with momentum behind them, and Celtic’s defence looked rickety.
There was time therefore before the break for another brief tweak – the anonymous Georgios Samaras feell deeper into his preferred inside-left position, Ki was liberated through the centre, leaving Brown a clearer defined central attacking role. This elicited Celtic’s best chance of the half, with no takers for Forrest’s superb clipped cross.
This change too proved to be short-lived as Lennon tinkered again – Forrest now operated behind the striker (more as a bona fide second striker than say, a number 10) in a kind of 4-2-3-1, or to stretch numerical definitions to the limit 4-2-2-1-1…
But St Mirren continued to hit-back. The pressing of the midfield and attack was tireless, with Celtic often having to resort to feeding back to Rogne or the goalkeeper, with the former’s distribution in particular needing work. Forster upped his claim for Man of the Match with the Saints threatening again – Joe Ledley’s tendency to tuck in (to support the centre-back) afforded Dougie Imrie enough space for a shot on target, but best of all was the reaction to another deflected shot.
It was the final straw for Lennon who removed Ki and Samaras – not even waiting for the hour to make the switches.
The change allowed for an attacking 4-2-2-2 system that seemed to be the best fit from the outset (hindsight appreciated). If Brown and Forrest are to play in the same team, it’s surely preferable to have both in natural positions.
Though Anthony Stokes didn’t score or manage an assist, his movement provided a helpful out-ball, and his rekindled partnership with Hooper added an extra dimension to the attack that St Mirren struggled to deal with. The balance of power had shifted back in Celtic’s favour.
There’s an undercurrent of support behind the idea that the Captain Brown is “accommodated” in the side, at the detriment of others. The accusation seemed unfair today given he seemed to be Celtic’s most creative outlet between the lines, constantly taking up forward positions (whether from a right or central starting position). But the two goals really put the idea to bed.
First casually sweeping down a half-clearance from Craig Samson, into the path of James Forrest on the edge of the box. The pass under pressure, had to be accurate, and it fell delightfully for Forrest to break the deadlock.
In the dying minutes as Celtic piled on the pressure, Brown re-created his signature ‘Broony’ moment from February’s 2-2 draw with Rangers. Finding possession on the edge of the box, before curling a placed left-footed shot past the ‘keeper. With the obligatory celebration of course, all that was missing was a sewer-rat.
It was fitting that Brown and Forrest combined for the opener, as the two were Celtic’s most positive outlet overall. The goal settled the nerves, just before the point of frustrated overspill.
Lennon’s eagerness to change was interesting because at that point Celtic were dominating with only 30 minutes played. It recalls the Gordon Strachan era, a manager who would sooner see out a dominating match with the belief that with the control and unchallenged defence, the crucial goal would eventually come. Often, with his squads superior fitness he’d be right, though the lack of overt penetration always was a cause for issue with the support.
It’s two different schools of thoughts, and here Lennon (not for the first time) demonstrated an ambitious, attacking mentality. He identified the lack of creativity and didn’t waste time waiting for improvement. He had Frazer Forster to thank in keeping the score level.
Not every SPL team will defend so doggedly and with such industry as St Mirren today. Danny Lennon will feel unfortunate to to have taken something from the match. But in throwing caution to the wind, Neil Lennon’s tinkering looks to have been justified.