Kilmarnock lifted the Scottish Communities League Cup on Sunday, after making Celtic pay for a stale performance which lacked focus and urgency. That’s not to take away from Kenny Shiels’ side, who were the opposite – precisely organised with carefully considered and well-defined roles. Most important of all; with both sides profligate, it was Kilmarnock who seized one of the many clear goal-scoring chances which won the spoils.
Celtic were without a number of key players – Daniel Majstorovic and Beram Kayal’s season has been ended prematurely, while Emilio Izaguirre continues his rehabilitation. 3rd choice right-back Mikael Lustig and Ki Sung-Yeung returned from injury.
As expected, Neil Lennon set-out with his preferred lop-sided 4-4-2 tactic, with Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes the focal point in attack. Joe Ledley started on the left of midfield, while Charlie Mulgrew was chosen to deputise at left-back, allowing Kelvin Wilson to start.
Ryan O’Leary and Manuel Pascali remain Kilmarnock’s long-term absentees, while prolific striker Paul Heffernan received an injection in order to be fit enough to play. Dieter van Turnhout was fit enough for the bench, while Dean Shiels comes straight back into the side from suspension.
While many commentators labelled the system a particularly dour ‘Sheils’ 4-5-1, the manager has previously made efforts to bridge the gap between midfield and a lone striker – here, rather ambitiously using two attacking midfielders as part of a 4-3-2-1 (Christmas tree) – his son Dean, and the tricky Gary Harkins. (Typically managers might use a 4-4-1-1)
With the fine conditions and “cup final” vibe, both teams had an early attacking vibrancy. If anything, Celtic were probably too direct while Killie were enjoying a sizeable amount of possession. The gameplan for the underdog as always, is to survive the opening third (at least) and try and frustrate. These intentions were almost undone after a shocking pass from Udinese loannee Mahamadou Sissoko. His slack sideways pass along the 18-yard line was snatched by Hooper, whose shot was blocked. Credit to Cammy Bell for lightning quick reactions, darting from his line and surprising Celtic’s striker.
That massive chance preceded a flurry of opportunities for both sides. Two headers were the pick – one from Stokes which forcedBellinto another sensational save, and then Sissoko. The gangly centre-back was clearly the target of Kilmarnock’s set-pieces, though he was generally dealt with O.K. Celtic’s use of corners was slightly different, and something of an “in-vogue” strategy. The idea is to use your striker to block the defending goalkeeper, with the opposition marker also contributing to the congestion. This removes the goalkeeper from “collecting” duty close to goal, meaning precise crosses can be delivered into areas normally considered off-limits. Good defending combined with a little good luck, and Mulgrew’s deliveries while being supplied to specification, were made to look wasteful and too close to the ‘keeper.
The Christmas Tree
Sheils’ 4-3-2-1 formation proved problematic in a number of ways. The first, and most obvious is that it’s an inherently narrow system which concedes the flanks. Not only were the 3 ‘sitting’ midfielders deep and constricting space, they also provided the all important ‘outnumbering’ of Celtic’s central 2.
Sheils and Harkins in the Killie band of 2, when in possession supported the striker but without the ball dropped back down the flanks in an attempt to keep Celtic’s full-backs in check, though it was hardly man-marking. Joe Ledley suffered in being drawn into the central scrimmage, and James Forrest when not doubled-up on, couldn’t get the better of Ben Gordon. The onus then, was probably on Celtic’s full-backs to get forward, but the potential was there to leave the remaining 3 defenders against Kilmarnock’s front 3 – an unacceptable ratio of forwards to defenders. Kilmarnock’s width was being provided by their full-backs, with both Gordon and Fowler able to get forward on the counter with reasonable ease.
Celtic looked to the front pairing of Hooper and Stokes for attacking creativity, but crowded out and playing too far apart, there was virtually no linkup – none of the quick thinking that justifies their unconventional pairing, and probably the third match in succession that the combination has failed to inspire. Lennon’s search for attacking impetus saw Forrest switch over to the left (a frequent rouse) pitching Ledley in the centre with Wanyama, and Brown wide-right, and in one of the few positives Brown was emerging as the best player on the park – beating players, driving the team forward and posing a threat in the final third.
Lennon’s problem and changes
The beauty of Sheils’ system, was at times Kilmarnock could attack 2 centre-backs with 3 attackers, as per Heffernan’s chance on the cusp of half-time. Kelvin Wilson pressed midfielder Sheils on the edge of the Celtic area, leaving space for Heffernan to exploit, forcing a fine save from Forster.
This, along with the continuing problem of having two “limited” central defenders prompted Lennon into introducing Ki Sung-Yeung for Rogne on the hour, moving Wanyama to centre-back.
The change saw a swing of momentum back in Celtic’s favour, with Ki more capable of dropping back and taking responsibility of starting moves from deep – and Celtic couldn’t find the opener. Ledley was guilty of a glaring miss, and Bell denied Wanyama.
Belatedly (80th minute), Samaras replaced Hooper, but wasn’t used as a striker. He moved out to the left, with Forrest shifted inside playing almost-level with Stokes making for a kind of 4-2-3-1. It didn’t appear to make a huge amount of sense, removing a ‘true’ striker when chasing a goal (particularly as the tiring Forrest has never convinced behind the striker), but two major events would ruin the plan.
Final 10 minutes – Celtic’s downfall
It wasn’t a surprise when Mulgrew made a good chance for himself – seeing as Celtic’s full-backs were the “freest” players (at least after shaking off Harkins or Shiels), able to dribble quite easily into the Kilmarnock box – and again Bell made an excellent stop at Mulgrew’s feet. The move perhaps underlined the requirement for more positive and attacking intent from the full-backs.
But Killie still threatened, and the first killer blow was of course the goal. Again an example of their attacking midfielders in the band of 2 being allowed a free run at Celtic’s two centre-backs.
Johnson’s overlap on the left wasn’t tracked well (bearing in mind Kilmarnock’s spare man in midfield), and his cross met the onrushing van Tournhout (a like-for-like replacement for Harkins). The fluidity (enabled by having a spare man) of Kilmarnock’s midfield meant it wasn’t clear who should’ve been picking up the scorer – on paper it should’ve been Ledley or Mulgrew depending on communication, but posing the question is the triumph for Sheils.
The second fatal blow was the injury to James Forrest after all three substitutions had been made, leaving Celtic a goal down, a man down, and with 1 striker with time ticking away.
Much has been made of Stokes’ late penalty call – with Lennon almost blaming it single-handedly for the defeat – and in fairness to Willie Collum, it was a tough call to make. There was contact with the player (arguably minimal), yet no contact with the ball, though the incident happened at such a pace in such a ruck of bodies it was hard to make out. A telling piece of circumstantial evidence was that Stokes hit the deck at all – one would imagine if he had any choice in the matter that he would’ve went for goal. The decision was probably a fair one.
Overall this could be considered a tactical victory for Shiels, and perhaps an example of unfortunate decisions for Lennon. It’s not as if Celtic hadn’t seen the 4-3-2-1 before, with Dundee Utd, St Mirren and of courseKilmarnockhaving previously fielded the shape.
The emphasis is always on midfield congestion, and therefore the onus on the wingers and full-backs to create. A natural solution (albeit difficult to effect in-match), would be a 4-3-3 – matching the bodies in the centre of the park while keeping the width. However; of all Celtic’s recently trialled formations, the 4-3-3 is the one found to be the least comfortable (so far). A problematic complication is Celtic do not have a clear recognised lone striker, one who could take advantage of supply from wide areas.
There were tactical concerns all over the park – the overloading of the centre-backs, the general outnumbering in the centre of midfield, the inability for the full-backs to get forward, the inability to get James Forrest on the ball, and the Hooper/Stokes’ isolation.
Yet Celtic created enough quality chances to win the match. Hooper’s early miss wasn’t as easy as has been made out, yet it was key. Ledley’s too in the second half, and Bell’s heroic performance proved galling. Forrest’s injury was salt in the wound; telling of a day where nothing went right.