Helsingborg 0 – 2 Celtic: Possession key but goals win matches

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.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic opening 4-5-1 / 4-3-3

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.

Helsingborg lineup

Helsingborg 4-4-2

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.

Early goal

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

Return to 4-4-2

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.

Tactical notes

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.

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About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
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16 Responses to Helsingborg 0 – 2 Celtic: Possession key but goals win matches

  1. Why no mention of Mulgrew, he allowed a Helsingborg man goal side of him 7 times over 60 minutes.

    Tactically Mulgew had to push up a lot in the first half to put pressure on any players finding gaps behind our midfield. But he couldn’t do it, the Helsingborg players were good when they found that space but Mulgrew was always in a bad position, had no vision and his reactions were really slow.

    Then for buildup play as we seen against Ross County, he is probably our biggest playmarker right now. In the first 60 minutes he didn’t do that either because he was to nervous to be controlling the flow of the game.

    So we were heavily reliant on Mulgrew, he had a bad game which unsettled the whole team. Until he moved into midfield and we got a second goal.

    So my question is, can Mulgrew be a ball playing defender in Europe or can we even fit that type of player into our team in Europe.

    • Jellyandicecream says:

      Surely the issue was not no one of Mulgrew’s ball playing capabilities, but rather of the sitting midfielder (Kayal) not reacting to him stepping up either when he closes down space or brings the ball out of midfield. This issue should be resolved in the second leg with the introduction of Wanyama, who for his age is well disciplined in terms of keeping his position, unlike Kayal.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Hi, I agree that Mulgrew didn’t play that well, so it’s a fair point. Lennon on camera “for fuck sake Charlie!!!!”

      but I didn’t think he lost that many key headers in and around the box. I think the issue was with runners from deep not being taken responsibility of by Kayal and Brown especially, both looking a bit off the pace, lazy even. Mulgrew couldn’t act as playmaker because he had a striker on him all the time, as opposed to Ross County where he was spare.

      We maybe expect too much playmaking from him, but can’t forget he’s a centre-back, and playmaking duties should’ve been shoudlered by the midfield. I kind’ve touched on this in the piece, that we are too eager under pressure to go backwards to a centre-back – but we had none spare! And so we were panicknig outselves at the back.

      Jelly is spot on that Wanyama is far more suited to the role, as opposed to positionally insensitive hasslers like Kayal and Brown (and to an extent Ledley, who has never played as sitting midfielder)

  2. peter hughes says:

    I also felt that charlie was exposed by wanyamas absence, I feel victors return will give are centre backs more cover in the return leg.

  3. Patrick says:

    I was vey frustrated by Kayal last night. He has no positional sense whatesoever. I agree that we need Wanyama because, despite having four hardworking centre-mids, he’s the only sitting midfielder we’ve got.

    I think one of our problems is that we get away with having this pressue mdifield in the SPL. A two man central midfield of harrirers is fine in the SPL because teams won’t pass around you. In Europe, though, Kayal’s chasing of the ball is a liability.

    I think the effect of the substitution was to remove any decision-making from the midfield three. They were supposed to be filling-in for each other and working out who to track between themselves, but these responsibilities seemed beyond them. By going to a two man central midfield you all but remove the decision making, they’re just to match up with Helsingborgs.

    I wish Lennon would take a more long-term view in our domestic matches as use the same shape as he’s going to in Europe. He obviously feels this should be our shape away from home, and the players obviously need to work on it, so we should be using it in the SPL in order to get used to it. We’re going to cause ourselves problems if we play one way in the league and another way in Europe.

    • tictacticuk says:

      I agree with most of this, except I think our 4-4-2 works in the SPL because it leaves our two CM’s to do what they do best – charge around like firefighters. No surprise then that when a more composed individual is brought in – like Ki for example – they are seen to be “overrun”. But I really enjoy the quote “going to two man removes the decision making” – spot on!

      I also agree with last paragraph that we need to do more planning, instead of these ad-hoc strange formations. A bit of consistency, as you suggest is utterly required.

  4. Craig McKee says:

    Fantastic result despite what clearly a formation and team selection disaster from Lennon last night.

    1. Celtic cannot play one up front, wether it is 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 we just don’t have the players for this system. Hooper is an excellent striker and my first pick for every game but his tallent is in the box scoring goals not holding up, beating men or running onto balls.

    2. The formation diagram at the top shows a central 3 in midfield with Kayal sitting deeper with Brown and Ledley in a slightly more advanced position, the point was to give depth to help keep possession and shield the centerbacks from runners. In reality the 3 played in a dead straight, flat line removing any benefit in having 5 in midfield. I would be interested to find out if Kayal was given instructions to sit deep as I think his positioning was catastrophic to our formation.

    3. It must be hell to be a fullback in this current Celtic team, especially in the formation and team selection from last night. The the combination of playing against 4-4-2, Sameras and Commons playing wide and not covering the attacking fullbacks and both being expected to overlap to the byline on every attack leaves the centerbacks constantly exposed. Both Matthews and Izaguirre were doubled up on constantly, the change to 4-4-2 and Forrest wide right demonstrated his.

    4. After taking over at VFB Stuttgart Felix Magath fined any defender who let the ball bounce before clearing it £1000, I would like this please. And if you hump the ball up the park. And if you throw your arms up in the air in a wee huff after losing the ball.

    Clearly our defence had a nightmare lastnght and could be the subject of a post all of it’s own but how are 2 center backs supposed to mark 2 strikers as well as follow the constant runners from midfield. They were beat from the start,

    Ps. Sammy wide left of 5, his only position.

    • tictacticuk says:

      1. Generally I agree, but I think we need to get a “one up front” formation working *somehow* – be it with Hooper, Samaras, Murphy or…. another striker?

      2. I agree, although dead straight might be pushing it! Ledley was positionally fine, but Brown was pushing up at strange angles, while Kayal didn’t appreciate his role as, well, effectively a sweeper. Not tracking one man in particular but responsible for the space – and depending on reading the game. He’s more instinctive than that.

      3. I agree! Probably testament to our full-backs, who i think are top top class.

      4. Ha, fantastic example. But in truth I do have reservations about the……… professionalism of some of our players. Off the record of course!

      P.s. perhaps

  5. paranoidandroid says:

    I agree with a lot of the comments about our mid-field and center-backs. And I thought Kayal played like a little kid last night: running around like a headless chicken.

    But this line from the main artical summed up our problems for me, “The inability to confidently use the spare man (and the inability to safely go backwards) manifest itself in turning the ball over inefficiently.”

    Basically, we kept giving the ball away because of the lack of understanding between our midfield players and our defenders. But in addition to that, I think our players don’t seem to have the basic technical skills to feel comfortable when they’re on the ball in a crowded area. They seem panicked when they have to take the ball in their own half. In contrast, the Helsinborg players all looked much more comfortable on the ball, especially when under pressure. It actually seemed at times like they had twelve players, simply because they can all pass and move comfortably, backwards, forwards, sideways, regardless of where they are on the pitch.

    We won last night, and i enjoyed the result, but I think Lenny’s still got a lot to do to get the best out of this team.

  6. Colm says:

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing but I would have liked to have seen Lenny change formation earlier than HT last night. Within 20min it was obvious Mulgrew and Rogne were being pushed backwards by the very advanced front two of Helsingborg. Once the ball got to their strikers (which was every time Helsingborg had possession!) it was basically 2v2. Add into that the inept tracking through the centre of the park they were bound to be exposed. I would’ve liked to see Lenny switch back to 3-5-2; it would’ve given the central defence cover, while retaining the five v four in midfield. The bonus would have been the additional support for Hooper up front. Wilson would have been the only option in changing the personel if the 3-5-2 were employed, and for me either Brown or Kayal were the obvious culprits to get the chop in the middle of the park. Neither of them appeared fit enough to be able to track runners after surrendering possession. I would have liked to see the “creator, hoarder and destroyer” roles filled by Commons, Ledley & Kayal. The support for Hooper would have been the aerially effective Samaras, meaning we would get 90mins out of our star striker rather than the 50-60mins of thankless graft, chasing hopeless causes.

    I also agree with Patrick that formations need continuity. To ask midfielders to fulfil polarised roles every 3 days can only end in confusion and calamity. To ask a ‘hunter’ midfielder to suddenly sit deep and hold formation for 90mins will only frustrate the player. Lenny must know both Brown & Kayal are hunters. I would like us to look more closely at playing the five man midfield in SPL games, if it is to become our regular Champions League detail.

    • tictacticuk says:

      It did actually cross my mind that for once the 3-5-2 was really suited here! I think you’ve pointed out the benefits quite well, I agree.

      Shifting to 4-4-2 was a fine enough change though, albeit I reckon we should’ve started that way.

  7. celticman says:

    Another great read. It was interesting to read that you felt one of the weaknesses was playing the very similar Kayal and Brown in midfield – both are ball winners who like to push up. However why couldn’t Ledley be the more deep lying one to play the passes and keep possession? In fact, as a central midfielder in a 442 I thought that was his role – let Brown/Kayal/Wanyama (to a lesser extent) chase down opposition players while he stayed back offering a good passing option?

    • tictacticuk says:

      I agree that Ledley has the intelligence to play the more reserved role. I wonder whether it’s his goal threat that prevented Lennon from starting him there though. Ledley’s great at late runs into the box so to hem him in like that may have been avoided.

      In a 4-4-2, yes that is his role but never as a “free” man. He played a very similar function last night, and I thought it was the relationship between Kayal and Brown that was at fault.

  8. glen says:

    i agree with paranoidandroid, kayal and brown were shocking last night, every team i watch playing against us seem to be able to string loads of passes together, our use of possession was woeful, constantly giving the ball away, and i dont know if its just me but our passing and movement off the ball smacks of laziness, charlie mulgrew is better in midfield, brown/kayal are just not good enough, in fact i think the quality of players we have are lacking in the basic technical skills and panic way to easy, and agree delighted with the result and lenny still has a lot to do to improve the team…. as mark lawrenson said last night when we meet a team with two descent strikers up front we could be in trouble…

  9. SFTB says:

    Just wanted to say that I find the unique area covered by this blog very interesting.

    I have no helpful insight to add to the analysis but I still find it interesting and compelling.

    Keep it going and do not mistake lack of comment for lack of interest

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