Tactical preview: Celtic Vs HJK – Champions League Qualifying

Sebastian Mannström – a tricky right-midfielder – arguably HJK’s biggest threat

At the helm of the SPL Champions, Neil Lennon has gone a long way to ward off his critics. While domestic trophies are the lifeblood – almost expected even – of a Celtic manager, it’s performances in Europe that really elevate the good to greatness. With the deterioration of Scottish football, the stakes are even higher, but for Lennon himself a 3rd “failed” attempt is almost incomprehensible.

In the previous two attempts, the stumbling block has been getting into gear for the first competitive game of the season (the Artmedia nightmare still haunts) and to an extent Lennon has tried to alleviate the danger by carefully increasing the intensity of the pre-season friendlies. The final fixture, a 1-1 draw against Internazionale was a belated return to good form, though the Italians seemed mired in a pre-season slumber of their own.

HJK by contrast, thanks to the intricacies of the Finnish football calendar are 19 matches into the Veikkausliiga campaign and 2 points behind league leaders Inter Turku. They entered the Champions League qualifying in the 2nd qualifying stage, defeating Iceland’s KR Reykjavík 9-1 on aggregate. Their league form hasn’t been so tasty however, having won only 3 of their last 10 matches which includes a 2-0 thumping in the top of the table clash.

HJK Lineup

HJK 4-4-2 in previous match against Honka

Quite simply, HJK are as much a 4-4-2 side as Celtic, shaping up in at least the previous 5 games using a very rigid version of the system. The exception is on the flanks, with Demba Savage and Sebastian Mannström the main attacking threats from midfield.

Savage is known as one who relies on speed, at his most comfortable running onto the ball at pace, and without the ball drifting towards the strikers, eager to be fed on the break and almost envious of their defensive freedom.

Mannström is a different kind of wide midfielder, with excellent close control and the ability to beat a man one-0n-one and squeeze into gaps. Perhaps comparable to Kris Commons in that, what he lacks in pace and power is made up for in intelligence and ingenuity.

What will worry manager Antti Muurinen, based on Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Honka is how prone to cards the central defenders are. Both Rami Hakanpää and Mathias Lindström were guilty of diving in high up the park and under no real urgency to win the ball for their side. Lindström was lucky to receive the one yellow, where as Hakanpää was dismissed late on. The goalkeeper Ville Wallén was sent off on the hour for a calamitous mistake; handling the ball outside his own area. This recklessness will have to be suppressed under pressure on Wednesday night.

Familiar problem

Chasing their fourth title on the trot, perhaps the devotion to 4-4-2 and two strikers up front isn’t so dissimilar to Celtic’s situation. Both teams tend to dominate matches, and therefore retaining two forwards makes sense. But the idea of playing a superior team away from home in Europe, and not considering a five-man midfield, is inconceivable.

On paper highly rated 17-year old Joel Pohjanpalo is first choice, having banged in 13 goals in 27 appearances this season. But having missed the return leg against KR last round, and having a quiet match against Honka, perhaps the youngster may be withdrawn in favour of bolstering the midfielder.

Instead, former Hearts centre-forward Juho Mäkelä might lead the line. His return of 10 goals in 20 matches is respectable, and at 29 (along with his time in Scotland) has the experience required at this stage.

It’s easy to be dismissive of HJK given their poor run of form, but the Finns pack a punch. Physical all over the park, there’s enough talent on the flanks and in the precocious young Pohjanpalo to take advantage of any Celtic slip-ups.

Celtic possible Lineup

The immediate concern is over the fitness of Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes, who were both injured in the draw with Inter Milan. Lennon hasn’t ruled out either playing, with Stokes said to have slightly better chances of making it.

Celtic possible lineup.

While Commons had an impressive end of season and close-season, James Forrest is arguably still ahead in the pecking order for that right-wing slot having had a marvellous past campaign. But the other choice for that side is Scott Brown; given how packed with talent the centre of the park is, the Captain may be accommodated in Commons’ place on the right.

But will it be a return to Lennon’s European 4-4-2 diamond? This leaves plenty of room for the raft of talented central midfielders and room for two strikers plus James Forrest. The safe-bet would be the standard 4-4-2, and while it’s difficult to pre-empt Lennon’s selections, given what is at stake, there shouldn’t be any surprises. If Stokes doesn’t make it, expect Samaras to move higher up with Forrest on the left.



About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
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10 Responses to Tactical preview: Celtic Vs HJK – Champions League Qualifying

  1. JH says:

    Good article. The predicted line-up is too narrow, though. Lennon’s tried to play a very flat midfield in European qualifiers (Braga, Sion) and OF games and it’s never worked. We need at least one natural winger. Commons or Forrest must start.

    Given that Brown, Ledley, Wanyama, Samaras, Hooper and Forster are the players who are certain to start, I’d realistically like to see –

    Matthews Rogne Mulgrew Izaguirre
    Forrest Brown Wanyama Ledley Samaras

    5 in midfield, with that front 3, worked well in the Europa League last season and it’s our best option here.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Cheers, yeah that’s a good shout. Very hard to predict what Lennon’s upto these days though.

      Overriding thing for me though is a return to the tried and trusted 4-4-2. I think he’ll be trying not to overthink things and try to put out a standard, comfortable team. That’s why I’m thinking 4-4-2 / lop-sided

    • ruggygman says:

      Spot on…… ur team reflects a 4-5-1…
      When Samaras supports hooper, it becomes 4-4-2.
      If forrest attacks the byline, and samaras gets into 18yrd box to support hooper, then its a 4-3-3…….. but ultimately formation and shape becomes important when we dont have the ball…. as i would fully anticipate forrest + samaras joining the midfield to make a mid.field 5, and hence a more solid and robust look about us…
      In my eye’s this is how we played away from home against Udinese….. and clearly suits euro competition football…. where there is a need to be both hard to beat / organised, as well as posing a threat when in possession and moving forward… the fluctuation of a 4-5-1, through to a 4-4-2, and evidently becoming 4-3-3 when in full attack….. was a system mourinho employed at porto + chelsea and has since been copied by many around the european game since. Hate to say it, but was a tactic Walter Smith swore by…. with less than mediocre players, got them to euro final… walter was limited and narrow minded and played same tactics even in spl…… boring boring anti-football…. However over 2 legged euro competiton were there is a need to be cautious at same time as posing a threat….. its the system that brings most effectiveness.

  2. Joe says:

    What about Kayal ? He’d be a cert to start if he played against Inter and may still start.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Of course my predicted lineup may be wrong 🙂 With the semi-injury doubts over both Stokes and Commons I’m almost certain I will be wrong.

      RE: Kayal – he’s just back into the side from a long-term layoff, didn’t feature as heavily as Brown/Ledley/Wanyama pre-season and therefore for me will be bench only.

  3. gerry says:

    If that mob are going to line up playing a straight forward flat 442 we’d be better going with the 3412. Utilise the extra man in midfield and at the back

  4. ruggygman says:

    Without over-complicating things, your man JH hits the nail on the head re probable team…… tactics and formations are over analysed,,, certainly on this page…… a 4-5-1, is a 4-3-3, is a 4-4-2…. trust me.! The very nature of the game is that players perpetually move….. and with movement of players, a formation at the outset evolves into a different formation as players progress and move around the pitch….. at any given time we could have 3 players in final third of pitch, 4 players, 5 players, 6 players etc….. away from formations the key is that the team both attack with cohession and unity, and similarly defend in an organised and disciplined manner. So in my opinion, the over analysis and emphasis on formation is both non-sensical and cringe-worthy…. certainly for anyone who has proper knowledge of football… It is good football players who find space and take up good poitions on the park, and then impliment good decision making when releasing the ball, whether a pass, cross or shot… Its good players who make things happen….
    Not a play on Numbers… which i feel this page is about. A formation is merely a shape / starting position to refer back to when not in posession of the ball… Its a discipline…. its not an exact science or rigid concept.
    In a 4-4-2 what happens when full-back gallops forward to join the play?….. exactly, shape becomes 3-5-2.
    In a 4-4-2 what happens when left mid attacks full-back in attempt to reach by-line?…… exactly becomes 4-3-3….
    Clear enough…?
    I needn’t say any more.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Thanks for addding a bit more to your argument than “tosh”. The fact that you’ve managed to write 500+ words simply in passing comment (when my articles tend to hover around 1000) words is testament that there’s more to tactics than “there are no tactics”.

      When speaking about tactics there are two overriding things to consider. The “bands” of players, and how the bands are positioned generally out of possession. A clear and easy example is 4-1-4-1 where you can see the lone striker, a “normal” midfield band of four, and a holding midfielder. On the attack this isn’t called a 2-1-5 – this is part of the beauty of football and tactics – what attacking benefits different formations can produce.

      (Incidentally/for the record, Mourinho’s 4-5-1/4-3-3 is very famously known just in those terms. Just because a winger joins the attack does.not. make it 4-4-2 at any stage)

      I’ll leave you with quotes from Lennon hismelf about the Ajax game. During the match I said the 3-5-2 was all wrong, particularly against a 4-3-3 (no, not a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2) a 4-3-3 continental, in-form team. Low and behold the quotes from Lennon after the game: “I’ll take the rap for the first half because I decided to change things about. I took a gamble with the back three but you might as well try it just now.”

      Formations don’t matter?

      • ruggygman says:

        Anyway JH team line-up is the obvious choice…… the only argument would be debate whether commons gets nod over forrest, or alternatively over samaras on the left….
        My belief however, is that samaras is our most effective wide left player…… so to narrow it down, its either forrest or commons on the right.

  5. Pingback: Celtic 2 – 1 HJK: Second half improvement enough to take advantage | TicTacTic

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