Friendly findings – back to square one?

The record

The record

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.

Celtic 3-4-1-2 versus Rangers in April

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.


4-4-1-1 (or perhaps 4-2-3-1) used in 1-0 defeat to Norwich

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.

How Commons and McCourt re-arrange to switch 4-4-1-1 to 4-1-4-1

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.

4-4-2 diamond

Celtic Vs Kilmarnock 4-1-2-1-2 – April 7 2012

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)

Flat 4-4-2 used in 1-1 draw with Inter

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.


About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
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20 Responses to Friendly findings – back to square one?

  1. ruggygman says:

    who writes this tosh..??? lost 95% of your audience half way through…….. stick to champy manager on the p.c

    • Kieran says:

      Tell me where else you can get a tactical analysis of all of Celtic’s formations that have been used under Lenny with their pro’s and con’s.

      You would clearly rather read crap match reports in the Record that focus on attendance rather than tactics.

      This is a proper footballing blog for those Celtic fans who actually care about how we play and not just the result, I could of read another ten pages of this, how any footballing fan could get bored of reading stuff like this especially about his own team is beyond me.

      I love waiting for the new blog after every game, best read on the internet for me, keep up the good work mate. Looking forward to the Helsinki blog tomorrow.

  2. Ronald Campbell says:

    Good stuff, Tictac. Keep these articles coming.

  3. Mutley says:

    this guys been playing too much football manager

  4. tom says:

    Still think our coaches lack the ability to implement systems properly.
    We need a better implementation of these systems to have them function properly.
    We need help on the training ground with an experienced coach added to our existing staff.

  5. There will be plenty of room for practicing the 3-men defense in the SPL this year. Shouldn’t abandon it just because of the Amsterdam performance. The Dutchmen have been playing the same style since kindergarten so it’s not very surprising that they seemed lively in that formation, while we were desperately looking for our options.

    • tictacticuk says:

      I agree. I didn’t notice at the time of writing though but Lennon held up his hands and took blame for using the wrong system. I think everyone knew that after 15 minutes! That’s not to right off a 3-5-2 but it’s certainly easy to exploit sometimes.

  6. Brendan says:

    I’ve found the perfect number 10 for Lenny to buy and he is young and affordable: Legia Warsaw’s Rafal Wolski. He is like a 19 year old Lubo and would transform Celtic and allow us to play different formations. You should really check out his clips that are available on the net or even watch some of Legia’s matches. Jordan Rhodes would be the striker for us to buy to allow us to go 433 or 4231. Those two and a dominant stopper (liked the look of Efe Ambrose) and a back up left back and we’re laughing. Really hope we sign some players after we get past HSK Helsinki. We need them.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Sounds like an interesting player, and Celtic of course have very good connections in Poland. Must keep an eye out for this guy… who doesn’t love a 10?

  7. Brendan says:

    Also the team shape you refered to as a 4diamond2 against Kilmarnock looked more to me a 433, rather than a diamond midfield, but the two formations have a lot of similarities and only subtle differences, so we’re probably both correct. Besides that petty quibble of mine, I really enjoyed the formation we used that day against Kilmarnock and we won 6-0 as a result of it, so I was dismayed when we didn’t use it often after that match.

    The three man midfield was rigid, with a slightly deeper destroyer (Brown) surrounded by two busy passers (Ledley and Ki) and the forward three were fluid and flexible in their positioning and movement. Although, Hooper mostly stayed central, dropping deeper occasionally, Sammy mostly staying wide on the left also tracking back and cutting in, with Commons moving all over the pitch in a free role.

    If Stokes was in there instead of Sammy it would have looked more like a two man forward line, rather than a trident. I was pleased to see it because I’ve longed for us to move towards using 433 as our base formation. It gives us a lot of options and different combinations of players. We could change the functionality of that midfield around by using two destroyers (Wanyama or Brown) and/or hybrid (Ledley, Kayal) players protecting a single regista like Ki or Paddy. Also the three man forward line could offer more width by using two wingers with a central striker or more scoring punch with an added striker or strikers instead of an attacking midfielder and/or winger with the lone striker. Much more adaptable and fluid than the 442 that we seem to favor.

    The three man defense is making a come back in popular usage which is surprising and interesting, because I thought that the prevelance of 433 had killed the usefullness of a back three. We finally have the two wider center backs in abundance, but we still lack someone dominant enough to play in the middle of the three. Until we discover that defender and a number 10, then the 3412 won’t function as intended.

    There are interesting challenges ahead for Celtic tactically, although it all depends on personel, because you have to fit the formations to the players at your disposal and not the other way around. With a few additions, it would give us more flexibility and effectiveness when we have to use a formation other than the comfortable 442. Using a two man midfield will not auger well for us in Europe, because we’ll be at a numerical disadvantage in the most important area of the pitch in most matches. Lenny has to find a suitable alternative, especially for Europe. We cannot persist and soley rely on 442, espcielly in European competition.

    Thank you for your insight and contributions. I look forward to your articles before and after every match. Keep up the excellent work. Hail! Hail!

    • tictacticuk says:

      Thanks very much for taking the time, lot’s of stuff I agree with. I also enjoy the idea of a 3 man forward line.

      The example I listed as the 4-4-2 diamond, I think even in that match report I had in brackets (4-3-3) – and I guess the difference is really subtle. In that example with Forrest pushing so high up (and Hooper dropping) it was a really dynamic front three. But for me it was a continuation of the 4-1-2-1-2 that Lennon’s been working on, with 1 player deeper and behind a front two.

      Will be interesting to pay attention to over the course of the new season,…..

  8. Denny says:

    Great article TicTacTic. I have seen Paddy in the number 10 role a couple of times, and thought he was born to play it. Paddy would be good back up to Commons in that role, and better that Forrest (again, as a number 10).

  9. Greg says:

    A bit of uncalled for negativity there from a couple of initial posters. It is a pity when so much hard and honest work clearly goes into making such a fine blog…and not just for Celtic fans either. Surely the old adage that if you have nothing either nice or constructive to say it is better to say nothing holds true in this case. Well done. I for one enjoyed this latest post and I am sure many more people than me consider essential reading.

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