Celtic overpowered a difficult Inverness CT side in the Highlands, to become the first name through to the quarter finals of the William Hill Scottish Cup. While the hosts were tough to break down throughout, they proved to be their own downfall with the defence culpable for both goals.
There was no place for any of Celtic’s January signings in the squad that travelled to Inverness, with Lennon quoted as waiting until they are ready. With regards to injuries, Mo Bangura is out for the season, with Daniel Majstorovic returning from a fractured cheekbone. His normal deputy – Charlie Mulgrew – was shifted to left-back (in place of a not-quite-sharp-enough looking Emilio Izaguirre) allowing Joe Ledley to operate in midfield and Kelvin Wilson a long-awaited start at centre-back. Cha Du Ri was dropped in favour of Adam Matthews.
Elsewhere, James Forrest and Anthony Stokes were rotated/rested, allowing Georgios Samaras and Kris Commons a chance to stake a claim in the first eleven.
The formation therefore was a clear lop-sided 4-4-2, with Commons in his natural position high on the left, fleeting between forward and midfield.
Terry Butcher’s side had been in fine form, having not lost a match since the unlucky 2-1 defeat to Rangers back on the 17th of December. The only change from last week’s goalless draw with St Mirren was Graeme Shinnie coming in for Shane Sutherland, and Ryan Esson dropped for Jonathan Tuffey.
Caley Thistle continue to struggle with a lengthy casualty list – Andrew Shinnie, Owain Tudur Jones, Steve Williams, Aaron Doran, Roman Golobart and Chris Hogg all unavailable.
It was a scrappy opening, with neither Celtic’s direct approach or the Highland’s wind and rain, conducive to quality football. With the extra man in midfield Inverness looked slightly more comfortable in possession, while Celtic were looking to get the ball forward as eagerly as possible.
The sharp mind of Gary Hooper looked most likely to exploit the rushed attacking and panicked defending, with the Inverness defence failing to clear their lines and the striker ghosting in behind. He was, unfortunately, pushed too far wide, and his back-heeled cut-back slightly unlucky not to make it beyond the goalkeeper’s outstretched leg.
While Caley Thistle started with Jonny Hayes in the lone striker role, he was interchanging with Shinnie (in the centre) and Gregory Tade (wide left) frequently – with the gimmick an attempt to open gaps, or unsettle the defence.
Lennon’s use of Scott Brown and Joe Ledley
In something of a regular occurence for Lennon, very early-on in the match he opted to alter the midfield. It was strange because Celtic’s attacks seemed only to be lacking a little bit of luck to prove fruitful.
Nevertheless, Lennon demonstrated the flexibility of his midfield by flipping the lop-sided midfield horizontally. Joe Ledley became the tucked in midfielder, Brown moved central and Commons moved over to the right hand side.
The switch also highlights how James Forrest might integrate into the side in the future – with Brown central and Ledley on the left.
The change unsettled Celtic’s rythm, and what briefly followed was Caley Thistle’s best spell of the match. Nick Ross came close having found room between the lines, and then Celtic survived a flurry of corners, and a half-hearted penalty appeal.
Stepping up a gear
As per pre-formation switch, Celtic’s direct approach was consistently a hair-breadth away from breaking the deadlock. Hooper was central, coming close with a well-worked volley, and then his cut-back saw Commons tantalisingly close to controlling the ball and lashing in a shot.
In the end, Inverness were the source of their own undoing, in a comical period of awful defending. Ross Tokeley – the chief offender – feebly letting Samaras to stride through and blast in the opener from a narrow angle. It’s difficult to say if the goalkeeper was culpable; perhaps being allowed the benefit of the doubt due to the confounding curve and power on the shot.
At one point a clearance struck the face of a Caley Thistle defender, going out for a corner. Truly shambolic.
The course of the match varied little from that point, with Inverness trying but failing to utilise the pace of Tade on the counter against a relatively high defensive line.
Testing a 4-3-3
The introduction of Forrest for the imprecise Commons on the hour also saw a change of tack from Lennon. Samaras moved wide-left, with Forrest going high up on the right. Ledley and Brown flanked Wanyama to make a flat 4-3-3.
Normally seen as an attacking formation, it actually served well to contain Caley Thistle’s more forward thinking players. Instead of Inverness having a spare man in midfield, the spare man was at the back – which is precisely where you didn’t want to bumbling Tokeley on the ball.
Unfortunately for Tokeley, he did find himself with possession having cleared up a long Celtic ball. Hooper read the woeful back-pass and raced through only to be knocked down by David Proctor. Scott Brown tucked away the penalty to secure the win.
The other subtlety of the 4-3-3, is that in defending the wide forwards track back more into a 4-5-1 shape. At this stage, when possession is turned over this leaves Samaras (and more significantly) Forrest, quite deep but also fairly open (with the full-backs either out of position or unwilling to track their opposite number into deeper areas). Forrest was therefore able to take a few running starts on the left-back – coming close to scoring in the process.
Lennon will be delighted to progress having travelled to a historically difficult venue (which you won’t be allowed to forget!), particularly without picking up any injuries. While Lennon along with the apoplectic Butcher, have heaped praise on Celtic’s performance, it’s worth holding back on the superlatives.
While the performance was very good, particularly at the back, and while it might be ‘glory-hunting’ or melodramatic to complain about lack of goals in a 2-0 victory, the goals were borne from defensive error rather than quality creation.
The exception was Hooper, whose linkup and desire to get attempts on goal was astounding. But elsewhere it’s difficult to distinguish another strong attacking performance. Given the result, the gripe is minor.
It’s a testing time therefore for Commons, whose trademark position in the lop-sided 4-4-2 is under threat not only from James Forrest but now new signing Rabiu Ibrahim. Samaras’ goal (and short-term signing of Pawel Brozek) is also a reminder to Anthony Stokes that his partnership with Hooper is not set in stone. The suggestion of course, is of a quality squad depth, which Lennon was able to successfully demonstrate this afternoon.