Celtic are SPL Champions after smashing Kilmarnock 6-0 at Rugby Park. Neil Lennon’s side had to shake off their recent dull form to inflict some kind of revenge following the recent League Cup defeat, fittingly doing the job at the location of this season’s lowest ebb – where Celtic were held to a 3-3 draw in October.
It was never likely that the Anthony Stokes / Gary Hooper combination would surive, and so it proved with Stokes dropped for Ki Sung-Yeung, allowing Georgios Samaras to start up front instead.
The surprise though was the formation – a 4-4-2 diamond which could equally be described 4-3-3. It had been a niché system for Lennon, normally prescribed against 3-5-2, but the decision here was to combat Kilmarnock’s very narrow, very midfield heavy 4-3-2-1 – and to take advantage of it’s limitations.
The timing of giving such a centrifugal role to Kris Commons, played just behind the strikers in the number 10 role, has been apt – having nowhere near scaled the heights of the second half of last season. Commons has only now approached that level of attacking menace.
Celtic were quite short in defence, with Victor Wanyama suspended, Emilio Izaguirre still recuperating, Thomas Rogne unable to shake off a knock and Daniel Majstorovic out for the season. The defence therefore practically picked itself (with Adam Matthews being preferred to Cha Du Ri and Mikael Lustig at right-back).
Kenny Sheils hoped to retain as close a system as possible to the one which surprised Celtic in the League Cup final, but with numerous injury concerns had fairly limited options.
Unfortunately Paul Heffernan couldn’t recover from a thigh injury, meaning Dieter van Tornhout took his place at the peak of the Christmas tree. Elsewhere, Zdenek Kroca, Danny Buijs, Ryan O’Leary, Manuel Pascali, and David Silva (no not that David Silva) are all out.
Celtic came firing out the starting blocks. Of particular significance was the space Commons was finding between the lines (again, almost acting as a 3rd striker), and Mulgrew’s freedom to get forward in possession, and this aggressive opening has been something of a rarity.
In Mulgrew’s case, it was Sheils’ (ambitious) system that allowed such room. Gary Harkins is used in similar fashion to Commons in Celtic’s frequently used “lop-sided” 4-4-2 formation. That is, cutting into the centre of the park, often vacating defensive duty.
Harkins was drawn into an area already comfortably manned by the Celtic defence – Scott Brown the shield/holding midfielder and the two centre-backs who were only dealing with a lone striker.
To be clear – he was Mulgrew’s man. But on the counter Mulgrew had all sorts of licence to get forward. This outnumbering also limited Harkins considerable talent.
This situation where Mulgrew took responsibility for Harkins created an overlap for Celtic elsewhere – Killie’s 3 (or 5) midfielders matched Celtic’s, leaving Commons in a number 10 role the freedom to cause damage.
Why the difference from Killie’s clear “formational” success during the Cup Final? It’s mainly down to Kilmarnock’s full-backs and how they operated.
Commons, Samaras and Hooper took an exagerrated amount of responsibility for tracking back depending on who was on which side. The main emphasis was on Celtic’s right-hand-side, with Ben Gordon a proven threat.
However, Kilmarnock weren’t keen to push a defender forward – managers as a general rule of thumb don’t want to leave 3 vs 3 at the back, never mind against a side who are on paper more talented and with the threat of Samaras’ pace. Also, this again emphasises the importance of Commons – without the ball an extra man in midfield, in possession a 3rd striker, and in general free to roam.
Early goals kill contest
Tactics aside, as is mostly the case for teams trying to contain Celtic, it’s so vital to keep a clean sheet for the opening period. An early goal undermines the defence because you’re forced to “come out of your shell” and the worst happened for Killie after poor defending. Mulgrew found freedom in the box to head in a Ki corner.
It underlines the slender margin between success and failure – compare Hooper’s early miss in the Cup final and the progression of both sides after that point. An exercise in Celtic becoming more and more frustrated, with Killie gaining confidence in inverted proportion.
Contrary to the Final, Kilmarnock were nowhere near as determined, and Mulgrew’s excellent header set the tone for Celtic and the 3 Celtic-saturated stands to grab the initiative.
Apart from opening the scoring, Mulgrew was having a tremendous match – turning provider for the second (a Loovens header after a corner broke down) and then scoring a most sublime individual third. With Harkins having no interest in tracking back, Mulgrew had the freedom to run at opposite full-back James Fowler, cut inside and curl a delightful right-footed shot into the far corner.
By this point it was damage limitation, and Lennon had the peace-of-mind to dripfeed in some young and fresh legs. Brown was replaced by Filip Twardzik in the second half, with Stokes (for Samaras) and Blackman (for Mulgrew) to follow.
For Celtic, it was a day when everything went right – Lennon’s tactics were spot on and a perfect antidote to Sheils’ tricky system. The early goal was scored, and every set-piece was a bona fide danger. Finally, every individual put in a strong performance, and the substitutions were all successful.
Kilmarnock, for some reason or another, have turned out to be something of a barometer in Celtic’s progress this Championship winning season. From the 3-3 nadir, through to December’s win at home where Celtic had clawed back the 15 point league deficit to just 1.
Then came the Cup Final defeat – evidence that while this young team have come so far, there’s may still remain that soft naivety which must be eradicated before European qualification begins next season.
And then today, after all the troubles it’s a day of triumph and togetherness. A climax to the long journey, with everything going right in almost story-book fashion. A truly stunning performance to match the stunning turnaround in Celtic – and Lennon’s – fortunes.
It’s the final true competitive day of the season, and if Lennon can build on this young and exciting success of a squad, then this really could be just the beginning.