Aberdeen ended Celtic’s 17 match winning streak in the SPL, after claiming a draw at Pittodre. With Neil Lennon concerned with fatigue within his squad following the midweek internationals, the Dons took advantage of an unfamiliar and jaded Celtic. Though Celtic appeared comfortable taking a first-half lead through Anthony Stokes, Gavin Rae’s shot deflected on the stroke of half-time proved to be decisive.
There were two main surprises in Lennon’s starting XI. First, Charlie Mulgrew was named in the midfield and second, debuts were handed to full-backs Andre Blackman and Mikael Lustig. On the left, with Emilio Izaguirre travelling back from international duty and unavailable, his two natural deputies were named in midfield. This provided the opening for Blackman. Lustig’s inclusion was probably based on form in training, considering Cha Du Ri not being included in South Korea’s midweek excursion.
With Scott Brown injured, Ki Sung-Yeung and Efrain Juarez also unavailable, this made for a ramshackle midfield – Lennon deploying a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 which isn’t really favoured. While Mulgrew did play 90 minutes for Scotland midweek, he was preferred to Victor Wanyama (who made the bench) having featured in Kenya’s World Cup qualifying win over Egypt.
Similarly, James Forrest and Thomas Rogne started despite gruelling mid-week performances, with Joe Ledley also having given 15 minutes to his country.
Craig Brown made one change to the side that drew 1-1 at St Mirren last week. Youl Mawene was replaced by Rory Fallon, prompting a chain-reaction in Brown’s system. Scott Vernon dropped to right-midfield, Ryan Jack reverted to right-back, and Kari Arnasen (and Gavin Rae) dropped deeper, making 4-4-1-1 become 4-1-4-1.
Brown has a tendency to use forwards on the flanks against bigger sides, with the intention that in the attacking phase the player in question can break into the box as an auxiliary striker. Fallon also has the advantage of being more effective defensively, covering more ground and generally being more aggressive.
Peter Pawlett and Josh Magennis returned from injury to make the bench, although Stephen Hughes, Michael Paton, Chris Clark, Isaac Osbourne, Russell Anderson, Rob Milsom and Yoann Folly all made for an extensive injury list.
While ultimately many factors were pulling at Lennon’s gameplan, the initial concern was the shape of the midfield and it’s influence on the rest of the side. Mulgrew and Ledley’s extreme one-sidedness ensured play was channelled overwhelmingly down the left-side of the pitch. One might argue that many sides have two predominantly left or right footed central midfielders, but that ignores a few key issues.
Most central midfielders are either fairly two-footed (at least with short passing), or have devised ways to work their passing opportunities carefully. The problem with Mulgrew is that he is a) a defender and b) very one-sided. The problem with Ledley is that for a central midfielder, he is very one-sided. Aberdeen’s keen pressing made sure that Celtic were never comfortable enough in the centre to have the time to make considered, ‘ideal’ passing.
This run of play was complicated by the personnel on the pitch. One would have to consider the right-hand side to be Celtic’s stronger – the in-form Forrest and Swedish international (albeit debutant) Lustig. Contrasted against the rookie Blackman (who saw an exaggerated amount of the ball) and the out-of-form Commons. Though Blackman never shirked (and it’s unfair to compare), he doesn’t yet have the initiative or timing of, say, Izaguirre. You want the attacking left-back to be dictating the runs of his opposite number (Vernon), which indirectly is a defensive action.
Considering he saw probably the most possession of any player, it was still a good early performance, if slightly naive.
The final complication with the Mulgrew/Ledley combo, tells as much about the lack of Mulgrew at the back. Rogne and Kelvin Wilson’s distribution continues to be a problem, a situation always highlighted against a side with one striker (i.e. an extra man in midfield). Outnumbered, neither Mulgrew or Ledley could drop deep to take charge of the ball (like Ki might), and so responsibility fell on the two centre-backs, which invariably leads to long-balls to Hooper and Stokes.
Mulgrew had an early chance, curling in a free-kick against the far-post.
It’s probably something of a cliché to cite Craig Brown’s sides as being well-organised, but Saturday’s display was an excellent example, with the keyword being “compact”. The definition of compact, is the vertical space between the back-line and forward line – the active area of play – which Aberdeen kept to a minimum. Deployed poorly, or overly negatively, it can see a team parked outside it’s box with 9 outfield players crammed in chucking in tackles, and a striker marooned on the halfway.
But Aberdeen were different in that, the whole side operated and moved as a unit, with a well defined space between each band. In their best spell (in the second half), Considine and Reynolds were stationed on the halfway, making for a congested Celtic half, in which it was impossible to play out of. Celtic clearances would be mopped up, and the attack mounted again.
Celtic’s goal came from a mistake from Andrew Considine (always dependable!) which is probably telling. His wayward pass made it’s way to Commons, who in a brief flash of creativity twisted, turned and released Stokes who took it round the keeper.
2nd half frustration
Unfortunately for Blackman, he just wasn’t ready to be the sought after “out-ball” for Celtic. His unlucky own-goal, which he can only be partly blamed, summed up his afternoon. In truth, Lennon should probably have removed him at half-time (Wanyama eventually came into the centre of midfield, with Mulgrew going left-back) but with the timing of the O.G. would come across as punishment.
The change came on the hour (Lennon could arguably have been resting Wanyama for as long as possible) but it was clearly needed. The change also released Mulgrew somewhat from a position he’s never played in before, and looked uncomfortable throughout. Wanyama on the other hand, quickly established himself as one of Celtic’s better performers.
Commons was the next to feel Lennon’s wrath, making at least two dreadful, lazy blunders which turned Celtic attacks into desperate causes for defence, and was immediately hooked, with Dylan McGeouch coming on onto the right flank (Forrest went left).
McGeouch is another youngster showing promise on the fringes, and he tried hard to impress. But his determination to pull-off another miracle run (see the St.Mirren 5-0 match) saw him hanging onto the ball probably longer than necessary. The intent to create something was hugely appreciated though, in a team bereft of ideas.
Cha Du Ri’s replacing of Lustig prompted a final push for the winner, with the team finally appearing to function acceptably. The exhausted Forrest, finally had the chance to beat his man, and Cha also provided energy down his side. But the surge proved too little too late.
Ultimately Celtic were caught up in the perfect storm – an excellent, determined Aberdeen performance coupled with a long list of various ailments. From the internationals and injuries, to plain-old balance issues within the starting XI. While the weather had a part to play (being particularly unhelpful for both long ‘opportune’ passes and short, technical stuff) it’s another example where the Stokes and Hooper combination has been comfortably snuffed out.
The two need service and unlike Samaras, who poses an aerial option, they need quality, composed and intelligent service – as per the through ball from Commons. With four (five including Wanyama) top quality central-midfielders missing, the onus was on the flanks – and a shame that debuts had to come in the full-back areas.
Strangely, the equalising goal came completely against the run of play, and you wonder if Celtic could’ve made it to half-time, with even such a depleted squad perhaps an 18th successive win could’ve been grabbed.