Celtic 2 – 1 HJK: Second half improvement enough to take advantage

Celtic made a customary sloppy start to the first competitive match of the season, before improving enough to take advantage in what’s turning out to be a tougher tie than expected.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 4-4-1-1 / 4-2-3-1

The lineup was always going to be governed by the fitness of Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes, the former starting in the number 10 position and the latter only making the bench. While Victor Wanyama was never in doubt to feature from the start, it was surprising that he kept the more natural centre-back Thomas Rogne out the side, taking his place in central defence. This allowed Scott Brown to play in the centre of midfield, and in turn James Forrest could be utilised on the right.

Of the possible formations considered in the pre-season summary, Neil Lennon went for the 4-4-1-1 (or arguably 4-2-3-1, the subtle distinction being without the ball there was a clear, flat 4-4 band with the two attackers staying ahead and pressing the opposition defence). The main selling point for Lennon being the close similarity to 4-4-2, only with one forward more withdrawn.

HJK Lineup

HJK 4-4-1-1

Antti Muurinen made four changes to the side that disappointed in the derby defeat to FC Honka. As considered in the HJK preview, it is unthinkable for a 4-4-2 side to persist with such a formation in a difficult away European tie. The compromise here was withdrawing the inexperienced, if proflific striker Joel Pohjanpalo in favour of a more robust central/attacking midfielder in Rasmus Schuller. His instructions, in comparison to Commons, was clearly more defence orientated, with his normal midfield berth consequently taken up by Joel Perovuo.

Elsewhere, centre-back Rami Hakanpää was dropped following his dismissal against Honka, and versatile full-back Tuomas Kansikas was left out in favour of the pacier Mikko Sumusalo; suiting HJK’s counter-attacking intention.

Positive Celtic

The hosts came flying out of the traps, eager to buck the aforementioned trend of performing poorly in 3rd round qualifying. HJK by contrast, initially couldn’t cope with Celtic’s intensity going forward. Particularly the movement and interlinking of Commons and Forrest central and right, almost to the point of swapping positions at will.

The other positive, like against Inter Milan in pre-season, was directness of Emilio Izaguirre and Georgios Samaras on the left flank. Both share the same main attribute of blistering pace, but neither could find an end product for their hard running.

Weathering of the storm

Though it’ll be the most repeated phrase across all media platforms, HJK to their credit weathered the storm, defending deep, narrow and content without the ball – exactly the requirement of the situation, and perhaps contrary to the expected width that the dangermen Demba Savage and Sebastian Mannström like to bring. The effective and organised defending reflective of the fact HJK are already 18 matches into their

The recklessness apparent in HJK’s past few matches is still evident, with Timi Lahti and Mathias Lindström probably being leniently treated by the ref, but equally Wanyama could’ve given away a penalty with a very clumsy challenge in his own box.

HJK’s stubborn and patient approach took the sting out of Celtic’s early thrust, and from around 20 minutes onwards came out of their shell with comfortable, if mostly non-penetrating passing spells. Two fine chances were carved out, the first on the counter requiring Adam Matthews to be alert after Emilio Izaguirre dabbled and lost the ball, and the second a decent drive from Peruvuo keeping Frazer Forster on his toes.

First tinker of the season

Celtic 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2 – 34 minutes through 45

With 34 minutes on the clock and frustration brewing, Lennon made his first tactical tinker, surely as a response to his sides growing insistence on playing rushed, hopeful passes. Samaras was pushed up front to provide a target, with Forrest moved to the left-wing and Commons going right.

The adjustment was of interest because, it wasn’t exactly that the initial formation wasn’t working – more a slipping of concentration and patience. Thus the same negative issues continued for the rest of the half – an urgency to get forward just without the patience or thinking to dictate the match.


Second half

Whether this played on Lennon’s mind is uncertain, but for the second half it was a return to Plan A, but before the change could sink in HJK had taken the lead. Mannström – a known decisive passer – twisted away from Izaguirre and finding the onrushing Schuller, who scored on his second attempt, with luck on his side on the rebound.

This turned the home pressure up a few notches with a more focused urgency returning to Celtic. Forrest on the right had the constant beating of his man, but finding a team-mate gambling on the right path of the final ball proved troubelsome. Commons demonstrated his effectiveness working in the hole behind the striker, by hitting the post from 25 yards.

He continued in this creative role, helping Samaras through to the key area to attack – the area behind HJK’s full-backs. Tearing onto the ball, the Greek managed to produce the all-important final ball that until that point had been lacking, and Hooper tapped in easily.

Soon after, HJK were to commit a fatal sin in effecting a substitution while defending a corner. The old cliché rang true, as Mulgrew headed in from Common’s delivery.

There was tactical mayham towards the end as Lennon pressed for another. On 65′ Stokes came on for Commons returning to a 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2, and then very late on the formation became more lopsided 4-4-2, with Wanyama joining the midfield to make a 3 (and Lustig at centre-back), Paddy McCourt on the left-wing (in place of Samaras), and finally Stokes and Forrest up top quite central.

While a win was always the target, in knock-out competition a clean-sheet can be just as important. The amount of chances that Celtic created should’ve mitigated the conceding of Schuller’s goal, but the 2 goal cushion never came.

HJK played the archetypal European away performance (against stronger opposition) in defending deep and narrow, hitting patiently and only at the right time on the counter, and making one of the few chances count. One flaw perhaps was Savage’s tendency to drift towards the strikers, failing at times to track back which served to isolate Sumusalo as the defender struggled to cope with Forrest.

It was Forrest, Commons and Samaras who were Celtic’s greatest success, and again referring back to the pre-season summary, highlights just how useful a geuine lone striker could be for the side, and also the gradual move away from 4-4-2 and towards something more fluid and fashionably European.


About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
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15 Responses to Celtic 2 – 1 HJK: Second half improvement enough to take advantage

  1. agropelican says:

    This was a good game for our first competitive match of the season.

    Lacking in concentration at times our players were guilty of holding on to the ball far too long, causing panic in defence and frustration in attack. Neil will sort this out and we will have another competitive game under our belts by Wednesday.

    If we keep our discipline, composure and concentration, we have more than enough skill to progress to the next round.

  2. paranoidandroid says:

    I’d feel a lot better if we’d scored again, but we did okay. I’m looking forward to reading your tactical summaries over a, hopefully, successful season at home and in Europe.

  3. martybhoy says:

    We did ok in spells but like the first poster suggests we were hesitant and were guilty of being careless at times. A decent second half performance though, after going a goal behind there was more intensity in our play. A third goal would of made life a lot easier in the return leg. I was surprised by the substitutions as i felt with the 4-2-3-1 formation we were really causing them problems. We have a lead a slender one at that. I think we can score over in Helsinki but we must make sure we dont get careless and concede. Keep up the good work with the match analysis really enjoy reading them. Hail Hail!

    • tictacticuk says:

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that the change of shape was probably unnecessary. Would’ve been nicer to have some like-for-like subs. Don’t think there was any need for Lustig at all…

  4. gerry says:

    We need to be able to slow the game down a bit more and control the pace of the game. We can’t play at 100 mph for the whole. Unfortunately brown and ledley are are poorest centre mid duo for doing so.

    Hoopers isolation and general display also highlighted the need to be able to employ a lone striker. But I did enjoy the game and thought there was a lot of positives to take. Plus its great to have two centre backs who are comfortable on the ball and willing to step into the midfield

    • tictacticuk says:

      1st paragraph – that’s exactly why I enjoy Ki in the side, as the deepest midfielder always providing an option for a pass.

      2nd – agree. RE: the cb’s though, not sure Wanyama looked that comfortable. Looked very much like a midfielder masquerading as a centre-back.

  5. The Raga says:

    Excellent blog mate. Always more astute and in-depth thanthe regular pundits and I always look forward to your posts. I just wanted to say that I think Adam Matthews and Scott Brown deserve a special mention as well. Matthews was excellent defensively and Scott Brown barely put a foot wrong during the whole game. thanks again

    • tictacticuk says:

      Cheers, after I read this comment I did have to go back on twitter and iterate that Adam Matthews was probably my MOTM. So much energy up and down the touch-line, and the maturest defender on the park. Read the game superb.

      Brown… I think he’s a very good destroyer, the kind of mix of aggression, action and leadership that we need.. just I’m doubtful of his attacking ability. Other midfielders offer more in that sense, but Brown an incredibly important part of the mix.

  6. Mikjjon says:

    Just discovered your blog and I must say it is the first time in my life that I have read a match report that gives decent insightful information on team shape and tactical intention (just discovering new media) Very encouraged with your observation – “highlights just how useful a geuine lone striker could be for the side, and also the gradual move away from 4-4-2 and towards something more fluid and fashionably European.”
    Look forward to future match reports.

  7. Craig McKee says:

    Further to your tweets “3) The 2 wide players got in behind on a number of occasions (rare) but couldn’t read Hooper (and vice versa)”

    Im so glad you highlighted this as I felt this was a real problem with our attacking play last night and played a large part in Celtic not converting attacking pressure into real goal scoring opportunities. While extremely quick to counter attack from opposition corners, I thought that we took so long to get to the byline from open play that the centerbacks were back in position and marking ready for the cutback. Only playing one center forward didn’t help with this.

    It seemed that the longer the match went on with this pattern the more likely Forrest and Samaras were to cut inside and have a shot. It still feels like the players don’t understand what’s required from them when we play any other formation than 4-4-2.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Totally agree! If we’re going to play a wee nippy striker alone up top, the crosses need to be hard and fast, behind the defenders and depending on Hooper’s instincts and movement to tap it in. Samaras’ early ball a decent example in fact!

      But yeah, while the change in formations has been a good learning experience, still not comfortable enough for my liking.

  8. Patrick says:

    Interesting comment RE lone-striker.

    I’m about to commit an act of heresy here; but I’m not convinced about Hooper. He certainly the best goal-scorer we’ve got right now, but I think he limits us in many ways. He’s no use in the air and lacks pace in behind defences, which means we’ve always got to partner him with someone. The pretty much forces Lennon into some form of 4-4-2 Because of this we’re outnumbered in the middle and have to attack out wide, which isn’t particularly effective because, like I said, Hooper is no use in the air.

    If we had a lone striker we’d have much more tacitcal flexability. I think it’s absolutely imperitive that Celtic move away from the 2 centre-mids idea as soon as possible. We’ve got to start playing with 3 central midfielders, even if one of them is playing pretty high up. We’re far too direct at the moment, party because of the 4-4-2 shape; it forces you into aggressive wing-play because it’s too difficult to work the ball across more central areas.

    I do like Hooper as a player, but I think his drawbacks have a massive impact on the way our team is forced to play. It’s a catch-22 situation, I don’t think we’ve got a better option in the squad but in many ways I think we’d be a better team without him.

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