It would be imprecise to write-off Celtic’s 1-0 win over Aberdeen, as some newspapers have, as a mere result of Jamie Langfield’s 79th minute howler. While the ‘keeper had pathetically failed to keep out Kris Common’s shot worked from a short corner, such a view belies the comfort and dominance that was displayed over arguably Celtic’s sternest title rivals.
It is though, fair to say that not enough chances were produced from either side, with the often razor sharp combination of Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes particularly guilty of failing to enliven the dull season opener.
This feature of the match was no coincidence given Craig Brown’s tactics; a manager with a rich history in attempting to shut down more technically proficient sides.
Since returning to the SPL from his coaching hiatus, his tactics can be summarised as a tug-of-war between 4-4-2 and 4-5-1. Torn between the defensive stability of 4-5-1 and the attacking potential of using two strikers, Brown has recently devised an interesting compromise, with one of the wide midfielders pushing to become a striker in possession, while crucially scuttling back when possession is relinquished to maintain the security of a five-man midfield.
So often over the past 2 seasons, a sitting midfielder has demonstrated the dual function of neutralising Stokes and Hooper’s ability to drop into deeper areas, while preserving a man advantage in the centre of the park.
It didn’t help then, that both Georgios Samaras and Commons are essentially two different forms of ‘inverted’ wingers with both adding to the central congestion. Commons is a more traditional number 10 creator, while Samaras bases his game on speed and athleticism.
Governed by injuries perhaps, (and suspensions in Charlie Mulgrew’s case) it was a return to the 4-2-2-2 that has both frustrated and delighted over recent campaigns.
The attacking width to the by-line would normally be provided by the full-backs, but here Emilio Izaguirre and Adam Matthews were both kept at bay by Aberdeen’s counter-attacking wingers.
But the worst stifling was reserved for the centre of the pitch, and in another recent trait of a Craig Brown side, the line between ‘physical’ and ‘dangerous’ was continually challenged. Samaras was kicked (accidentally) in the face drawing blood, and Beram Kayal was lucky to survive a brutal lunge. Calum Murray was certainly lenient with the cards, contributing to a stop-start match high on physical contests and low in possession.
Like HJK last week, this is part and parcel of the textbook travelling to play a difficult, ball-playing favourite. Physically push the boundaries, defend sensibly in numbers, and try and sneak something on the counter. Aberdeen’s weapon here was the use of the pacy former Celt Niall McGinn, who acted as Brown’s “compromise” between 4-5-1 and 4-4-2, playing as a sort of semi-striker.
McGinn also at times was instructed to swap places with lone striker Scott Vernon, normally in an attempt to take advantage running onto the ball over the top – an area of the game that both Rogne and Wanyama continue to struggle with chasing back.
While HJK were rewarded with quite a fortunate goal, Aberdeen’s never arrived with the best case scenario then turning to keeping a clean sheet.
The Kris Commons effect
10 Celtic players plus substitutes continued to look non-threatening, with Lennon gradually introducing the 4-4-2 diamond, in part to maximise the use of the exception – moving Commons in behind the two strikers.
As deserved it may of been, he was of course fortunate to get the goal, but his good performance poses questions to the manager ahead of the Helsinki trip. What use is (one of) Hooper or Stokes if neither at this moment provide a fraction of Commons’ goal-threat and scheming?
One quiet game against Aberdeen doesn’t change either of Hooper or Stokes’ talent, but the dampening of the ‘Stooper’ partnership has come all too easy in the past. And most foreboding of all, comes at a time of transition to a non-4-4-2 formation. Commons could well have played his way into Stokes’ number 10 shirt for the match against HJK.
The Finns will surely lineup similar to the 4-4-1-1 that brought reasonable success in the first leg, and for various reasons Celtic’s formation should match. The temptation for Lennon will be to make use of a more traditional style targetman, like Samaras or Daryl Murphy, but having scored in the first-leg Hooper should keep his place.
While Lennon’s use of two ball playing centre-backs in the first leg hints at a new strategy of breaking down deep defences, given Wanyama’s struggling in the first-leg and Thomas Rogne’s more straightforward nature, the Norwegian should start.
The borderline availability of James Forrest and Scott Brown again makes predicting the lineup difficult, but the short-distance acceleration of the former will be sorely missed on the right-hand side should he not make it. And if not Forrest on the right, Commons could continue there opening the door for Stokes after all. Finally, as much as a headache it is for Lennon to fit Commons best into the starting eleven, on current form the consolation is that HJK’s Antti Muurinen has to find a way to deal with him.