The 4-0 scoreline is a tad unfair on ten man Dundee Utd, with Robbie Neilsen’s early dismissal for a clumsy elbow on Georgios Samaras proving pivotal. After a stodgy start, Neil Lennon’s tactical intervention also helped swing the tie in Celtic’s favour.
Lennon made four changes to the experimental side that disappointed against Aberdeen last weekend. Debutant full-backs Andre Blackman and Mikael Lustig made way, along with Kelvin Wilson and Kris Commons. In came Scott Brown, Victor Wanyama, Georgios Samaras and Adam Matthews.
With Ledley occupied at full-back, this left only two real central midfielders available – meaning a return to a less preferred 4-2-2-2 system. Lennon spoke before the match therefore, of the importance of Celtic’s “front four” – particularly with regards to their pace.
Dundee Utd Lineup
Peter Houston’s had plenty practice honing his anti-Celtic strategy, this time settling on a fluid system that defies normal numerical description. Without the ball, probably best described as a 4-4-1-1 (or 4-4-2), yet with the ball Johnny Russell enjoyed a free-role (veering right), and Gary Mackay-Steven pushed high on the left, making for a 4-3-3.
It’s a system designed to have a (obligatory) solid base of 5 midfielders when defending, yet allowing attacking license for the most creative players.
Utd early dominance
Celtic looked to carry the poor form shown at Pittodre down the East coast to Tannadice, being guilty of sloppy passing and lacking urgency. The extra man in midfield as always asking a lot of Celtic’s central two, with Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes again struggling to get involved either with the team or each other.
Utd on the other hand were vibrant on the attack, with Russell key in two ways. Firstly, in linking up with Jon Daly to overload Celtic’s left-side (with Mulgrew and Ledley struggling), and elsewhere in dropping deep between the lines to retrieve possession. Mackay-Steven too, was having an excellent game – challenging Matthews for pace at every opportunity (which had the knock-on bonus of dragging James Forrest back into defensive areas).
With Daly trying to directly engage with Ledley at set-pieces (with Ledley struggling aerially), Lennon was prompted into making a defensive shuffle. Mulgrew moved to left-back, Wanyama dropped to centre-back and Ledley moved to central midfield. The change being implemented after only ten minutes being suggestive of how uncomfortable Celtic were at the back.
But Utd were still the more pro-active side, with Russel squandering their best chanec of the match from close range (with Forster making a superb save) and before Celtic could get into serious trouble – Neilsen rashly elbowed Samaras in the face prompting his dismissal.
The standard conservative response to going a man down against any side, is to lose an attacking player, shifting a 4-4-1-1 to simply a 4-4-1 and try and stay in touch with the opposition.
Going by this logic, the natural sacrifice would’ve been Russell (or at least the sacrifice of his position), and with Mackay-Steven being withdrawn for centre-back Gary Kenneth, you would’ve expected Russell to fill-in on the left flank.
But Houston was ambitious, leaving Russell as a second striker maintaining relative freedom. This placed a burden on the remaining midfield 3, who were expected to shuttle from side to side depending on which flank required defending.
Irritatingly for Lennon, Celtic didn’t respond well – continuing to make poor (impetuous) use of the ball, when it was patience required. Celtic should be quite comfortable when in ‘conservative/patient’ mode against any side, having the technical ability to pass (and tire) any side, never mind a side numerically disadvantaged. But the poor decisions and sloppy passing continued right up until half-time.
2nd half improvement
Generally speaking, the problem with facing ten men is where they become entrenched and ultra-defensive. If you aren’t patient and intelligent with the use of the ball, a motivated ten-man side can prove extremely difficult. Where you’d be expected to find holes, is on their rare forays forward. Furthermore, against a narrow 4-3-1-1, you might expect a bit of joy on the flanks.
The two hypotheticals combined to allow Celtic to take the lead. Russel and Daly pressed (probably) too high up the park with Matthews and Forster under pressure. The ball was quickly worked down Celtic’s left-channel to find Stokes, and with Utd still in the throes of re-organisation, his cross was controlled and turned in by the onrushing Ledley. There was merely 10 seconds between the time Ledley triggered the counter-attack with a pass on the half-way, and the point that he received back possession in Utd’s 6-yard box – telling of his trademark bursting runs into dangerous areas. A sigh of relief for Celtic, and a tad harsh on Utd.
As could be expected, the goal thwarted Utd’s passion and the ambitious 3 man midfield drained the energy, meaning Celtic’s quiet front four could finally start playing.
Aside from the opener, one area that Lennon would’ve been happy, was the deliveries from set-pieces. Mulgrew was continually whipping in good balls, with the likes of Samaras, Rogne and Wanyama getting closer and closer to success. Unsurprisingly, one such cross after a soft free-kick, was headed in by Samaras for the second, out-jumping Kenneth where the ‘keeper may have been expected to come out.
A final tactical twist for Houston, was an injury to Gavin Gunning, who was replaced by former Celtic trailist Milos Lacny. Daly had to fill in at centre-back, in Chris Sutton fashion. Utd still had enough gas for two very good chances from close range – first with Russell blasting over, and then Lacny screwing a shot wide.
Stokes and Forrest were enjoying their new-found freedom, combining for the former to produce one of the worst misses of the season – hitting the bar with the goal-gaping thanks to a good run from Forrest. But Stokes was to make amends thanks to a delicious through ball from Ledley, curving his run to beat the offside trap and firing low beyond Pernis.
The fourth came after a driving run from Samaras was ended prematurely by Sean Dillon, and Celtic’s penalty taker in chief Scott Brown dispatched the penalty.
Despite the excessive scoreline, Lennon will be concerned by the lack of cohesion in the opening 30 minutes (up to the red-card). Despite having so many central midfielders on the books, it’s still telling that in the past 2 matches Celtic have struggled in this area – complicated by the fact that Joe Ledley and Victor Wanyama are often used in the defensive line. Perhaps (if fit) one of Ki Sung-Yeung or Efrain Juarez may have been useful on the bench (with the 5 sub rule, galling).
Houston was brave and clever in keeping the pressure on, despite the numerical disadvantage, and it took a tactical tinker and a good old kick up the rear to get Celtic playing again.
Moving on to the 45th match of the campaign and with a long way to go, it’s evident that some players are jaded – particularly the likes of Hooper and Forrest – high energy players who’ve been consistently in the side. Perhaps the widening gap in the SPL also contributes to a feeling of complacency.
A tricky visit of either St Mirren or Hearts awaits in the next round – Celtic need to freshen up.