A glance at the scoreline might suggest an uncharacteristically comfortable away European performance from Celtic though it was anything but. Despite Neil Lennon’s pledge to keep possession and starting with a numerical advantage in midfield, his side never looked comfortable against an unexpectedly positive side.
Gary Hooper and Scott Brown returned after missing the draw with Ross County, allowing the 3-5-2 to be set aside once again. Thomas Rogne came in for Kelvin Wilson, Victor Wanyama was suspended and Mikael Lustig dropped to the bench.
While a return to the comfort and reliability of 4-4-2 was speculated in the video preview with STV, Lennon looks to have settled on a go-to away European formation – designed mainly with possession and defensive stability in mind.
While attackers Georgios Samaras and Kris Commons are put in favourable positions, this does ask difficult questions of Hooper as targetman.
Also as stated in the STV preview, Helsingborg are a 4-4-2 team, and the surprise was that they kept this shape without really making any defensive tweaks, and this was probably to allow both new striker Nikola Đurđić and “main” striker Thomas Sorum to join forces.
There were two changes from the 2-1 defeat to league leaders Elfsborg with utility player Daniel Nordmark and tricky winger Rachid Bouaouzan being dropped.
Alejandro Bedoya was shifted to right midfield (to accommodate Nikola Đurđić) and Erik Wahlstedt came in at right-back.
Very early on (and perhaps like HJK), Helsingborgs played with fear, and Celtic’s 2nd minute goal strangely seemed to lift the pressure. Left-back Jere Uronen was caught ball-watching as Samaras’ delivery was allowed to reach Commons, who opened the scoring too easily.
Celtic’s biggest failing throughout the first half, was in being unable to make use of the extra man in the middle of the park. So often in matches the ‘extra man’ is one of the centre-backs, and therefore moving the ball backwards has been the go-to safety when under pressure.
But with both centre-backs (and to an extent the full-backs) occupied, Celtic had to be more clever in finding the extra man (Kayal). Why did he not sit between the lines picking up possession with impunity? The reason is probably connected with Brown – both players love charging forward, snapping at the opposition, which positionally can be easy to exploit and ironically (with a transfer all but finalised) Ki Sung Yeung would’ve been an ideal ball hoarder here – a player who loves to sit deep finding pockets of space to hold the ball and distribute it into more suitable areas.
The inability to confidently use the spare man (and inability to safely go backwards) manifested itself in turning the ball over inefficiently – i.e. trying to hit Hooper through long and hopeful passes. The diminutive Hooper isn’t the kind of hold-up player who can work from scraps – the passes have to considered and accurate, and he therefore had a torrid time failing to hold up poor deliveries.
From own-half set-pieces (such as goal-kicks) Samaras was the clear target every time with no shorties to be found – and Bedoya was dropping deep to challenge Samaras in the air, and having great success. The result then from Celtic’s relatively safe set-pieces was again, turning over the ball.
The score was kept at 1-0 thanks to some excellent stops from Frazer Forster in a man of the match performance, and with Kayal struggling with a knock, Lennon made a change at half-time to prevent what appeared to be an inevitable equaliser.
Midfield advantage discarded
Reverting to 4-4-2 had all sorts of advantages: more support for Hooper, it asked questions of Helsingborgs comfortable defence, it moved Commons closer to goal and 45 minutes was just about the right length of time for James Forrest to make his return from injury.
Now, Celtic’s natural direct instinct was being more rewarded, with Samaras and Forrest on each side providing pace, and slightly more hold-up capability with two forwards.
Defensively, the midfield now had a man each – no more lazy letting go of runners as was evident in the first-half – and when it comes to “man to man” competition all over the park, generally qualtiy shines through, and Celtic were able to close the possession gap (through distribution from the back was still poor).
Both Ledley and Mulgrew went on to hit the crossbar, and James Forrest had an excellent attempt on the counter, firing against the keeper after skinning his full-back and despite not playing that well, Celtic probably edged the overall “key chances” stat.
Helsingborgs would’ve been depending on keeping it tight at the back and grabbing at least one big opportunity, but the opposite occured – lapses in concentration in defence while not having the required luck in front of goal.
The gap between the sides was drawn by Celtic’s strange discomfort using 4-5-1 – possibly related to having 3 so similar central midfielders, at times lacking positional discipline. Most other 4-5-1 teams have a balance of styles in the middle – a creator, a hoarder and a destroyer for example (interesting thoughts on that subject here from Rob Marrs)
Shifting to 4-4-2 removed that imbalance, and while the more conservative formation away from home was welcome, in truth 4-4-2 would’ve been the more natural formation to begin with. It’s not often that a (with respect) technically inferior team will press ahead with 4-4-2.
Apart from the impact of James Forrest (which Lennon spoke favourably of), and the use of Charlie Mulgrew in the centre of the park once Ledley went off injured (again, bemoaning the lack of Ki) the most notable feature was Commons continuation as a second striker.
Lennon had previously shoe-horned a number 10 position into some of Celtic’s starting shapes in order to get the most of Commons, but an easy compromise is simply using Commons as a second striker. He’s more different to Hooper than say, Anthony Stokes, and has that freedom to move across the breadth of the park, seeking out gaps.
Though the first-half was disappointing, an excercise in how not to keep possession only highlighted the reality that goals win games, and Lennon will be grateful for Helsingborgs undermining faults at the back.