Hearts 0 – 4 Celtic: Lennon takes Sergio’s 5-4-1 to task

Just when you thought that news of Fabio Capello’sEnglandresignation might overshadow Celtic’s visit to Tynecastle, a remarkable, explosive opening period preceded a fascinating tactical battle.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 4-4-2

Neil Lennon made a single change to the side that beat Caley Thistle 2-0 last week, with the underwhelming (but improving) Kris Commons making way for James Forrest. Though performing similar functions in Lennon’s trademark 4-4-2, Forrest prefers the right hand side, meaning Joe Ledley was asked to play on the left.

Georgios Samaras keeps Anthony Stokes out of the starting eleven, with the perceived fear in ‘big’ matches, that the Hooper/Stokes combination can be too fragile, with the Greek’s athletic ability often preferred.

Pawel Brozek made the bench, while fellow January signings Rabiu Ibrahim (not yet unregistered) and Mikael Lustig (hip) couldn’t make the squad. Emilio Izaguirre missed out as his rehabilitation continues and Daniel Majstorovic is ready again after injury.

Hearts Lineup

Hearts 5-4-1


Paulo Sergio had a bit of a selection headache, with Marian Kello dropped following a bust-up with the board, Ian Black suspended and Kevin Kyle (long-term) and David Templeton injured.


Positive news was the return of Danny Grainger, who featured at left wing-back. It’s never easy classifying systems involving a back three, and one take might refer to the lineup as 3-4-3.  But with the wing-backs performing mostly a defensive function, and Mehdi Taouil and Andrew Driver essentially wide midfielders, Sergio lined up with an approximate  5-4-1.

The first 2 minutes

The contest was blown wide open when Celtic, under an early kosh, managed to turn a goalmouth scare into a goal of their own. Driver’s corner was met by the unmitigated Stephen Elliot, whose header appeared to cross the line. Fraser Forster clawed it away brilliantly, enough to convince the linesman that the ball hadn’t fully crossed the line.

33 seconds later Celtic had torn up the park to snatch the lead. Hearts gave away possession cheaply, Forrest was released frantically on the right, his drilled cross eventually turned in by Brown for his fourth goal in as many matches.

Picking through the bones of the goal hinted early-on at the flaws in Sergio’s system. Grainger, the left wing-back was drawn centrally towards Brown, leaving Forrest with acres of space to exploit, and in a back 3/5, that is a critical error.

Grainger’s marking of Forrest was subsequently more diligent, and what marked Celtic’s 4-4-2 out more than anything was Brown’s desire to push forward and join the attack. Against Hearts’ flimsy looking central 2, he had every right to. But seeing Sergio’s unorthodox formation, Lennon decided to make a familiar change.

The ‘Udinese’ approach

For better or for worse, Lennon has a well planned counter to a team playing with 3 at the back. First utilised against Udinese back in September, the switch to a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond (again) makes use of the flexibility of Celtic’s midfielders.

Celtic 4-1-2-1-2

In defence, the contemporary theory (derived from Total Football) is to employ one more defender than there are attackers, making for example, a 3-5-2 particularly useful against 4-4-2 (3 v 2).

The text-book response to a back 3 introduces 3 attackers, removing the defenders numerical advantage. Celtic’s defence, in contrast, outnumbered Elliot 2 to 1, and also enjoyed the extra man in the centre of midfield.

The disadvantage saw more pressure on Celtic’s full-backs, with overlaps on Mulgrew and Matthews a potential threat.

It was this tactical switch that, while initially appearing needless really ramped up the pressure – and Hearts utterly capitulated. The central midfield pairing of Scott Robinson and Adrian Mrowiec were particularly overrun, with Forrest able to exploit the gap between the lines from a number 10 position.

He then turned semi-provider again, with Wanyama stretching to control Forrest’s difficult cross before lashing in a second goal from 10 yards. With the pressure continuing, Celtic worked a third. Zaliukas gave away possession to Brown (with Zaliukas sloppy all match, and indeed guilty of a similar crime against Celtic in May), Samaras burst into the space behind the right wing-back, and his delicious cross was met by Ledley at the back post.

Sergio reacts

Hearts 4-4-2

With the back 3/5 shredded by Lennon’s clever 4-1-2-1-2 switch, Sergio responded himself. Driver, who toiled quietly, was removed in place of striker Gary Glen.

On seeing Sergio’s change to 4-4-2, Lennon returned to his initial system. Generally, where formations match, if the balance of power isn’t a stalemate, the team that comes out on top is the team with greater individual quality. Quite simply the ability to beat your opposite number (only in every position on the park).

3-0 up however, Celtic took their foot off the gas, allowing Hearts a lot of possession in the second half. But like the first-half, Celtic were potent on the break and dangerous with set-pieces. Hearts at times over-commited in attack, with Samaras’ pace a threat on the counter.

Seeing out the win

Another interesting avenue of attack explored by Celtic recently, is through the use of long-throws. Adam Matthews has the most impressive long-throw, probably in memory with Mulgrew on the other side decent as well. Akin to England’s Stoke City and Rory Delap, this adds an extra set-piece threat to the playbook.

Samaras went close with a thunderous drive and Ledley hit the post from close range, while Suso Santana had perhaps Hearts’ best chance of the second half, slicing Taouil’s lazily defended cut-back wide.

Mulgrew’s (and to a slightly lesser extent Forrest’s) corners and set-pieces were excellent throughout, with the fourth goal coming from such a corner. Wanyama headered the ball goalwards, with Hooper alert enough to prod the ball beyond the defender on the line.

There was time to see new signing Pawel Brozek in action, though with Celtic mostly containing and reactive, his priority was tracking back (particularly when Matthews left the pitch temporarily with a blood injury) and pressuring Hearts on the ball.


It was Celtic’s 13th consecutive league win, and Lennon considers it “probably” the best performance in his time as manager. The team performance was of such quality that it proved impossible to single out a Man of the Match, although a quick poll would suggest Scott Brown as the favourite.

And with a growing list with the likes of Stokes, Ki Sung-Yeung, Majstorovic, Izaguirre and Commons trying to break back into the side, Celtic’s squad hasn’t look so strong in years.


About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
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21 Responses to Hearts 0 – 4 Celtic: Lennon takes Sergio’s 5-4-1 to task

  1. Rob Connell says:

    Just want to say that these game reviews are always great to read & very insightful. I often think that ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ should be required reading for football journalists as well as coaches, and it’s good to see knowledge of formations and tactics applied to our games so well. Have you considered writing pieces in advance of games, identifying what formation / tactics / personnel you would anticipate (or recommend) being used against particular opponents, and why?

    Thanks again for raising the level of coverage and discussion available – love your work.

    Cheers, Rob

    • tictacticuk says:

      Hi Rob, thanks for reading/commenting. I really appreciate the kind words.

      I agree that the tactical knowledge in the mainstream is often ridiculous, sometimes even with former professional footballers. Often it’s the effort that isn’t there. For example, one of the co-commentators against Inverness last week stated Kelvin Wilson rarely plays at left centre-back, but that was well wide of the mark.

      Craig Burley is usually quick to identify formations/changes, sometimes doesn’t bother. Often in the written media (tabloids at least) you can forget any mention.

      I used to do previews for the biggest matches (Rangers, Europe) though that usually requires research into the opposition’s last few games (enjoyable for the European games) but hard to get a hold of full matches involving SPL clubs. Plus this all takes a serious amount of time – I’ve got work to worry about 😛

      Anyway, I really appreciate the feedback, thanks again.


  2. David says:

    Excellent as alwayas but one little issue… “whose header appeared to cross the line” replace this with “whose header crossed the line”..

    • tictacticuk says:

      In short: you’re damn right.

      Not in short: I do believe there’s a gray area there. The TV angle wasn’t definitive!

      I appreciate the bias fully pulling through there, so I’ve left it at “appeared”, ha.

      Cheers for reading


  3. paranoidandroid says:

    Good article. I really enjoyed reading it. I think it’s the first article I’ve ever read that covered what both managers were doing to try to counter each others tactics- very educational.

  4. jimmybhoy says:

    Great artical, but can you tell me who took over as captain when Brozek replaced Brown ? – no paper report mentions it.

  5. Vincent says:

    Another great article. Really informative, you put the so-called sports journalists to shame.

  6. Johnboy says:

    I enjoyed your analysis, Tictactic, but I didn’t agree with how you saw Celtic’s line-up.
    From what I could see, Samaras spent most of the first half on the left of midfield, starting his runs from deep. Forrest stayed wide right, and this gave the three central midfielders (Brown, Wanyama and Ledley) the licence to take turns bombing forward on the break.
    Which perhaps explains why all three central midfielders got on the scoresheet.
    As such, the formation when Hearts attacked in the first half could be seen as 4-5-1 or perhaps 4-1-4-1, with Wanyama the deepest midfielder.
    As you said, things changed when Hearts went 4-4-2 and Celtic responded like-for-like, with Brozek and Stokes finishing the match up front.
    However, formations don’t win matches. The key to victory for Celtic lay in their determination and athleticism.
    They pressed the Hearts players incessantly and raced forward with pace and conviction once possession had been won. This was especially evident in the lead-up to the first and third goals.
    The team looked very fit, very well organised and very committed.
    Full marks to them plus Neil and his coaching staff.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Hi Johnny, thanks for the in-depth reply!

      I agree that often tactics take a back-seat: the system would be nothing without the fine form of the players last night. You’d be right in saying the players won the match. Speaking strictly on the tactics side of things though, it was a massive victory for Lennon – he got it spot on, from the starting formation to the change to the return.

      I can’t agree with your take on the first half formation 🙂 For example, from 0 – 25ish (Celtic 4-4-2) Ledley was muted. As soon as the switch to 4-1-2-1-2 (or a narrow 4-3-3) Ledley all of a sudden had the space to get forward, and no coincidence he picked up a goal within that time.

      You’re right about Wanyama being the deepest midfielder though with Ledley and Brown either side. And I think we’re almost agreeing on Samaras’ role (as I’ve depicted in the diagram) who was mainly covering the left flank.

      It’s a great discussion point though, so cheers again for commenting!


    • Ar5had says:

      Just to corroborate what has been indicated in this article and the Udinese article here is a quote attributed to Mr Lennon after the hearts game,
      “Lennon said: “It depends on the formation. We changed it on Wednesday because we were up against a back three.
      We went to a diamond with James Forrest at the head of it. It’s a system we used away to Udinese when they had a back three, and Georgios seems to revel in it.””


  7. Scot says:

    First time I have been on this site and I hope you don’t mind me saying my piece as I have been so frustrated since watching the game. I am a life long Hearts fan, but also love the tactical and managerial aspect of the game. Hence I could not believe Sergio’s starting line up. It showed a naivety and a lack of understanding of the capabilities and capacity for change of his players. To switch to a 5-3-1formation for the first time this season and surrender numerical and physical presence in midfield is scandalous,

    Most centre backs in UK are not used to playing 3 at the back. What I have observed is that they neither stick or twist. In theory two centre backs should be able to pick up oppositions two strikers, leaving the sweeper to pick up the pieces. British centre backs are uncomfortable following strikers into midfield, So when the opposition striker drops off they hold their position allowing the striker time and space to hold ball up, turn and run at them or bring midfielders into play. This happened time and time again during this game.

    In midfield, Hearts lacked physical presence to try and match Celtic’s work rate and strength. Scott Robinson is a talented young player but struggles against top sides as he lacks presence at the moment. Tehouil and Driver are not match fit and Steven Elliott is a goal poacher who has to play alongside a target man or the other forward players need pace to get beyond full backs and put in low crosses for Elliott to get on the end of. Another point is Hearts had 3 players, the two mentioned previously and Grainger, who were clearly lacking match fitness. That is too many to start against a strong Celtic side.

    My starting xi would have been Macdonald: Hammill Webster Zaliukas Grainger:Tehouil McGowan Mrowciek SKacel:Elliott and Obua.

    This would mean Hearts retaining their successful back four. Allowing the talented and versatile McGowan to add his physical presence and pace to central midfield. Skacel as top scorer has to play and Hearts should work hard at giving him possession in and around opponents penalty area this can be achieved by giving him a free role behind the striker, from a defensive point of view he picks up the Celtic holding midfield player during open play. Elliott has done well this season coming in from the wing and is certainly a better option than the clearly out of form and unfit Driver, who at this stage in his recuperation is best used as a sub when he can run at tired legged defenders. Obua is a stop gap target man but he has a good touch and should cause opposition problems with his height.

    Having said all that I wonder what might have been had the ref seen fit to allow ‘the goal’ when the ball had clearly crossed the line.

    I am really annoyed at Sergio because he was also tactically naive against Spurs at Tynecastle and we all know what happened there. Sometimes you have to accept the opposition are better and the only way you can achieve a result is to get tactics right, get in their faces, work harder than them and hope for a bit of luck!!!!!!!!!!

    • tictacticuk says:

      Hi – to answer your first question; not at all! I’d rather more fans from other teams come here and put things straight if possible, I appreciate that I cannot have the knowledge to equal fans of other clubs! I appreciate you commenting and hope you can again in the future. I guess that also explains why Hearts received a little less coverage in the report…

      You’re absolutely correct about 3 defenders and the UK game – just a distinct lack of, and I’m certain it’s to do with our development of players. Youngsters are taught man-to-man – do it well, do it ruthlessly. And in a 3 at the back situation, all three defenders, particularly the ‘spare’ defender, *have* to have superb spatial awareness and reading/understanding of the game, the qualities of being a zonal marker.

      Since I’ve started the blog, I’ve seen Rangers, Celtic, Aberdeen, Inverness, Hamilton, now Hearts and probably a few others having a stab at a back 3, invariably to fail. In contrast, when I’ve had the chance to watch European football – Udinese (and Italians in general), and a number of Swiss teams (Sion, Basel, Lucerne) adapt as second nature.

      Again, you’re correct in pointing out that this was exemplified in the first half, where Celtic in their 4-4-2 stage had Scott Brown in the middle charging forward into the space between defence and midfield with impudence, and later during 4-1-2-1-2 James Forrest, along with Celtic’s 3 v 2 in the centre done the exact same thing. Traditionally against Celtic teams will make sure to at least equal, though preferably having 1 more central midfielder. For once in a very long time this wasn’t the case here and Hearts suffered.

      I can’t add to your squad selection preferrance because you know your team better than I do, but you’ve made sense completely and echo what I mention above – keeping parity in midfield and additionally trying to use pace or strength on the counter (Obua a good shout, as limited he appears at times). This ties in with your reference to the Spurs game where, yes, the layman wants to see ultra attacking formations against the top sides, but… against better quality you will end up getting thumped.

      Oh and the ‘goal’…… no comment!

      Cheers for taking the time, I wish I had an indepth reply like that every week from opposition fans!

  8. Jean-Pierre LeGuerre says:

    Scot – welcome. I enjoyed reading your comments. Totally agree with most of them – particularly the tottenham analogy….sergio got things horrendously wrong there leading to an embarassment for both your club and scottish football as a whole. Personally (as a Celtic fan) i was gutted that night.

    re this game – i felt templeton was a miss… he would i feel have stopped 1 of our fullbacks getting forward by ‘keeping him honest’ as JJ ensured when he deployed temps wide right against izaguirrie at tynecastle previously. (i am not a Jefferies fan at all, but he got things right that night). Black is a miss for you too, as he disrupts any team he plays against. He breaks the rules however, and would not be tolerated in a ‘proper’ legue like germany, france, spain etc, as he would be red carded every week. in scotland, our semi-pro ill-informed refs let him stay on, and he is crudely effective. Certainly, he is no loss whatsoever to scottish football – a 1980s style clogger, Late on (particularly last 20 mins) hearts remianed tidy, passed in triangles, and tried to play football. the fact that black wasn’t there probably contributed to this. Good to read your post – it is very welcome.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Hi again Jean-Pierre,
      Spot on with missing Templeton/Black. I’d also add Kyle to the list although he’s obviously much longer term. Kyle was central to Jim Jefferies good run of form the previous season, although that entailed adopting less aesthetically pleasing football 😛 And I’m not just referring to Kyle’s appearance…

  9. Scot says:

    Thank you for your responses. I accept that Hearts had key players missing on the day however it does not excuse the manager from making errors in his selection and tactics with the squad he has available. Don’t really want to get into a debate re Black but what I will say is I have always thought of him as a lesser talented Scott Brown ie no difference in their attitude to the game. There are a lot of Hearts fans that do not rate Black but when he is out the side there is no denying he is sorely missed.

    The tidy passing is fine as long as it has a purpose and end product. What happened v Celts was that it allowed them to play their pressing game even further up the pitch and pounce on errors ala Zaliukas for the 3rd goal.

  10. son of VanShugsidonk says:

    C’mon the Celtic, Hail Hail! 🙂

  11. kaneprior says:

    http://economicinterest.wordpress.com/ Recently did an article on the economic bubble football is in, have a read if your interested, would like to hear comments on how Celtic will react to Rangers going into admin…

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