Given the shambles surrounding domestic competition in Scotland, Europe has become more significant than ever for Celtic. Not just for Neil Lennon, who after two disappointing continental campaigns needs to prove his managerial credentials outwith the SPL, but for the club’s ambition to buy, develop and retain players of a Champions League calibre. More of that in a future blog.
But of Lennon’s 2 attempts, each has been undermined by slumbering opening showings. In 2010-11 it was a 3-0 bruising by eventual Europa League finalists Braga, and last season a humbling by lowly FC Sion. Only the Swiss club’s ejection from the competition saw Celtic progress, which served to mask somewhat those lacklustre performances.
So the 2012-13 pre-season was designed with two specifications in mind: banish the customary early-season laze – and also to continue the development of a new choice formation.
Aside from Martin O’Neill’s famous 3-5-2 circa 2001-2003, Celtic is steeped in 4-4-2. Europe calls for greater flexibility – more defensive systems against stronger teams, or ‘horses for courses’ type options. Celtic’s inflexibility has been telling, with Lennon initially unable to find a workable alternative to his once lop-sided, but increasingly flat 4-4-2. The 4-4-2 diamond brought favourable results, but neither 4-3-3 nor 4-2-3-1 looked comfortable – particularly without a suitable lone striker.
Towards the end of last season, Lennon started utilising a back three. One of the mid-season themes was an attempt to play a number 10 (hence the 4-4-2 diamond and 4-2-3-1) and the 3-4-1-2 provided this framework. The advantage over 4-2-3-1 is that 2 strikers can be retained.
But this wasn’t Lennon’s first attempt at a 3-5-2 – the season before, the experiment flopped against Inverness. The main difference is in the personnel used at the back. The first attempt used Jos Hooiveld, Daniel Majstorovic and Thomas Rogne – 3 players who don’t like having the ball at feet. But the demands on the outside centre-backs require mobile players who can carry the ball if required.
In Charlie Mulgrew and Victor Wanyama, Lennon has this amalgamation of traditional centre-back, technical ability and mobility. (To a lesser extent, Mikael Lustig and Filip Twardzik possess the same qualities.)
Note that the central player is a more classic, imposing defender. On the right (against Rangers) it was Loovens, but Thomas Rogne and Kelvin Wilson also fit the bill.
Lennon finished the season using this setup, suggesting a possible new ‘first-choice’ formation, and it was also first pick in pre-season. It was used in the first match in Germany, and more significantly against Ajax.
Ajax are no longer in the slump that saw them titleless for 6 seasons. They are in good form, Champions and put in inspiring displays in last season’s Europa League. They also happen to be massive 4-3-3 exponents – the 3-5-2’s nemesis.
It wasn’t until Ajax scored 3 that he abandoned the 3-5-2 in that match, and in truth it should’ve happened sooner. Perhaps Lennon was testing the system to it’s extreme limits in a friendly environment. Or perhaps too much faith was attached. Coincidentally or not, the 3-4-1-2 wasn’t seen in the following fixtures against Norwich or Internazionale.
While 4-2-3-1 wasn’t given much airtime during last season’s desperate grasp for a new alternative, it has been tweaked towards more of a stand 4-4-1-1. Again, the main attraction is the space for a traditional number 10, but it’s also designed to give the attacking presence of 4-4-2 with a beefed up midfield – that 5 man midfield always helpful in Europe.
At it’s most fluid, the midfield three (i.e. the two central midfielders and the number 10) rotate and revolve, ebbing back to a 4-1-4-1 in defence and in attack pushing the 10 towards the striker and the deepest midfielder stepping up. Other sides (Manchester Utd a good example) are more rigid in their midfield approach and the 4-4-1-1 is effectively 4-4-2. And this is another attraction – Celtic are well versed in 4-4-2 so simply removing a striker for another midfielder doesn’t have such a big impact.
The question though (and downside) is who to play furthest forward? Against Norwich Daryl Murphy’s ability as a targetman was examined, but despite being 6’3” is yet to impose himself on defenders like a good targetman should.
The alternative is either Samaras – who has won back faith in a frustrated support by being so effective wide left – or Stokes, Hooper or Bangura. None of whom are suited to the role. It’s this lack of genuine targetman that limits Lennon’s options and continues to be the transfer window priority.
Which leads on to a compromise formation. The ability to play with two strikers instead of one, the ability to use a classic number 10 while maintaining a combative central 3 in midfield (and even a deep-lying playmaker) – the central midfield 3 so crucial in avoiding being overrun against stronger sides.
Lennon first had the freedom to use this formation in quite a niche situation. Udinese last season were renowned for Francesco Guidolin’s unique 3-5-1-1 formation, and with one wing-back on each side the only real wide players, Lennon was confident in matching them man for man.
The diamond is a very narrow system, often depending on workhorse shuttling midfielders to help out with the width when without possession. Matching up to Udinese’s extremely narrow formation therefore made sense. But against other sides the flanks are far more vulnerable, with both back 3 formations and 4-4-2 diamonds extremely rare – or more accurately, teams tend to field full-backs and wingers together making the flanks more secure.
The downside therefore is the outside “shuttling” midfielders in the diamond spending more time pushing outside and helping their respective wing-back, than controlling the game from the centre. The best example of this was in the scrappy 2-1 win over Aberdeen in October.
While the deepest midfield position suits a number of players – particularly Ki as a regista or Wanyama as a destroyer – the peak of the diamond is more problematic, despite Lennon’s seeming intent on making use of a number 10. In short, Commons had a dreadful season last time round, and the second-best candidate – Forrest – as splendid a player he is, is twice as effective on the right wing.
So without a confident, ‘jewel in the crown’ number 10 ready to take that role (and the increased pressure on the outside midfielders), the sacrifice becomes pyrrhic.
Flat 4-4-2 (and wide variations)
As Ajax brutally punished the limitations of Celtic’s 3-4-1-2, the default reaction, the comfort blanket was a return to the lop-sided 4-4-2. Scott Brown took up position on the right with James Forrest going left.
The two banks of four stuck against Norwich, but the best performance of the pre-season was reserved for Inter. Was it the reassurance of a return to 4-4-2? Either way, there are numerous reasons that it’s a good fit.
It is the easiest (some would argue only) way to play with two strikers, and Celtic’s two best really have to be played with a partner – normally each other. It also sees the best of Samaras on the left, Forrest on the right, Brown on the right or Commons (either side).
Even old faithful has it’s disadvantages, as Inter (who initially were also 4-4-2/4-4-1-1) would point out in ironic fashion. After being bossed for 45 minutes, Inter went for the 4-4-2 diamond, with substitute Gaby Mudingayi coming in behind Esteban Cambiasso, Freddy Guardian and Wesley Sneijder. The numbers game favoured Inter – more so when Commons went off injured leaving Celtic down to 10 for the remainder of the game.
It was the perfect summary of Lennon’s quandary. A reminder that 4-4-2 is the most familiar, most natural formation. But European teams are so tactically astute; quicker and more comfortable when adapting. Even Gordon Strachan, the staunchest 4-4-2 devotee was forced awkwardly into another system on the continent, recalling Gary Caldwell deployed as a holding midfielder.
This may be the sad conclusion of the pre-season experimentation. The 3-4-1-2 was battered, the 4-4-2 diamond has always had it’s flaws and there isn’t the striker available to justify playing with one up front. Helsinki, a 4-4-2 side are unlikely to require any major tinkerings to combat, which is just as well as still the tactical question lingers.