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.
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.
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.
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.
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.