With all competitions decided, it was only natural for Neil Lennon to try out new ideas; new systems and players on the fringes. In Sunday’s 3-0 victory at Motherwell, he found success on both fronts – a brand new formation, and a match-winning brace from youth product and debutant Tony Watt.
Pavel Brozek, still clinging on to hope for a place in Poland’s Euro 2012 squad replaced Georgios Samaras to lead the line. There were wholesale changes at the back with Scott Brown, Kelvin Wilson, Glenn Loovens and Mikael Lustig all dropping out. Thomas Rogne and Victor Wanyama came in to make a back three with Charlie Mulgrew, while Emilio Izaguirre and Cha Du Ri were used as attacking wing-backs on either side.
Frazer Forster was benched to allow Lukasz Zaluska some gametime, and of the outfield substitutes, only Anthony Stokes would not be considered “fringe”.
Motherwell were missing their most effective player in Keith Lasley, as he along with Jonathan Page were suspended. Steven Hammell and Lasley’s partner in crime, Steve Jennings returned from suspension.
Stuart McCall continued with the 4-3-3 formation that his side have persisted with for the past 2 seasons, so little surprise there for Lennon.
Differences with O’Neill’s 3-5-2
Lennon has briefly flirted with 3-man defences in his 2 seasons in charge, and clearly a lot has been taken from his time under Martin O’Neill, and everyone fondly remembers that successful system on the road to Seville (Paul Lambert, incidentally, frequently uses a form of 3-5-2 at Norwich).
But this was far removed from O’Neill’s vintage. Starting at the back, on either side of the ‘3’, Lennon was using two exceptionally gifted ball-playing defenders in Mulgrew and Wanyama. On the flanks, two out-and-out speed merchants in Izaguirre and Cha (O’Neill’s was generally one-sided in using Alan Thompson – who wasn’t really a wing-back or full-back).
Indeed, Cha was deployed so far forward that Wanyama was used effectively as a conservative full-back, leaving the 3 centre-backs against Motherwell’s 3 forwards.
Pros and Cons
Lennon’s ambitious formation added more bodies to the midfield and forward areas, and so Motherwell’s central defence (along with holding midfielder Steve Jennings) had an uncomfortable afternoon. The full-backs had two speedy and athletic customers in Izaguirre and Cha, but the main problem was with the movement of Commons and Hooper. Commons acted as a number 10 playmaker, and Hooper pushed up (as a classic number 9) or more regularly dropped deeper (as a false 9).
Motherwell dealt with this in two ways – Jennings had to track two tricky runners, or Tim Clancy having to ‘step-out’ – clearly a method of Lennon’s to try to disorganise or poke holes in the standard two centre-backs/one holder triumvate.
Unfortunately, this didn’t work as well as was hoped for. Clancy didn’t mind stepping out to an extent – as it got the point that Hooper was dropping into the rest of Motherwell’s midfield – either that or dropping so deep as to become ineffective as a player (at one point gifting Humphrey with a great chance).
Hooper is an excellent and improving striker, but there becomes a breaking point in terms of depth of playmaking.
The system also found the very best of Cha and Izaguirre, albeit the former continuing to suffer from being poor in the final third, and the latter still relatively unfit.
Shortly after Hooper’s mishap, Wanyama created a great chance for Brozek – again underlining Celtic’s 3 vs 3 at the back, because it works both ways. Once away from his “opposite number” Omar Daley, he had the freedom of the pitch to stride forward and play a through-ball to Brozek, whose finish was sadly rushed.
As the injured Ki was replaced by Paddy McCourt (retaining the unlikely centre-midfield role), Wanyama almost repeated the feat, setting up Commons who couldn’t get enough accuracy on his shot to trouble Darren Randolph.
On the stroke of half-time Commons and Brozek combined in an example of their vertical movement and interchanging unsettling the Motherwell defence, with the Poles shot hit against the keeper’s legs and out. It’s a shame for Brozek who was getting into the right positions, he was just lacking the bit of luck required to break his duck.
Celtic didn’t particularly recapture the creativity of the first-half during the opening 15 minutes of the second period, barring for a squandered Cha chance that is the Korean in microcosm. McCourt’s delicious through-ball was put into the path of Cha’s Olympic-sprinter-esque burst of pace, but the final ball was inexplicably useless, rolled gently into the goalkeeper’s hands.
Despite Brozek’s promising performance, Tony Watt replaced him on the hour and within 3 minutes and 19 seconds had managed to achieve what the Polish international couldn’t.
By then Henrik Ojamaa had replaced Daley in a like-for-like change, but in the short space of time until the goal the Motherwell sub was simply not paying any attention to his opposite number, Wanyama, at all. Unsurprisingly, it was the same overlap and cross (with Cha tying up Hammill) used earlier, and though Watt’s finish was adroit, it was just as much the quality of the cross that resulted in the goal.
Another 2 and a half minutes later, Watt had the ball in the back of the net again. But this time, it was a success for Hooper’s movement into deeper areas, as the following slideshow explains in ugly fashion:
Motherwell quickly went 4-4-2, not only in the hope of providing a bit of support to Higdon but also in an effort to double-up on the flanks more successfully. But the damage was done and Celtic could smell blood. Commons’ influence was increasing, but sadly he could not open his scoring account for the season, in what has become an incredible swing in form from last season. It’s only here, 50+ matches into Celtic’s season that he appears to be nearing his old self.
Celtic too, switched to 4-4-2 although it’s not clear why. The best explanation might be to find Lustig room in the team (without removing Cha), but it may have been to again go man-to-man with Motherwell; not that it mattered with minutes remaining.
McCourt (now playing on the left, with Wanyama centre of midfield) found Cha at the back-post to back it 3-0, truly ending the contest.
While not too much can be garnered from this performance in the long-term, it’s just another example of Lennon searching for a new system, an alternative to his trademark ‘lop-sided’ 4-4-2. The proposed formation not only has to provide defensive solidity (as in Europe, Celtic will be facing superior sides), but also room for creative and attacking players.
A 3-4-2-1 (or other variants on 3-5-2) ticks some major boxes. It puts a real emphasis on the wing-backs, and arguably Celtic’s best player in Emilio Izaguirre. It has flexibility, with Mulgrew and Wanyama both technically proficient and able to adapt into different roles quickly.
Finally the system can (arguably) provide a solid foundation for a dynamic front-three – most significantly to include a number 10 – a type of player that Lennon has long been coveting.
As far as experiments go, it was a fine success. And Watt’s quickfire double was the icing on the cake.