St Johnstone 2 – 1 Celtic: Saints’ hard-work is wake-up call for lazy Celtic

While Benfica had a weekend off to prepare for Wednesday’s crunch Champions League group opener, Celtic fell to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of St Johnstone in Perth. Kris Commons’ early opener appeared to set Celtic on their way, but instead the reaction was complacency with Gregory Tade and then Rowan Vine earning St Johnstone the deserved 3 points.

Celtic lineup

Celtic 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2

Neil Lennon faced a swathe of selection problems. Efe Ambrose hadn’t returned from international duty, Thomas Rogne was benched after speaking to the media while away with Norway and the injury list piled high: Adam Matthews, Beram Kayal, Joe Ledley, Georgios Samaras, Dylan McGeouch, Paddy McCourt and Anthony Stokes were all unavailable. The one positive though, was the return of Scott Brown having missed out on international duty through his ongoing hip problem.

St Johnstone lineup

Initial conservative 4-5-1

The big news at Mcdiarmid Park was of the flu virus that had decimated training earlier in the week. 7 players had suffered, though by kick-off a full-strength side was assembled – at least on paper.

Callum Davidson missed out through a knock, and Murray Davidson was substituted after only 21 minutes having failed to shake off that illness.


Opening the scoring after only three minutes, Celtic’s early eminance was down to playing confident deck football, making use of Commons and Hooper. It’s this sharp and smart passing that has long-term enabled Celtic to take advantage of a four man midfield. The strikers can make penetrating runs against a defence unsettled in open play, and the midfield can spray passes across the width of the pitch.

But the positivity was short-lived, very quickly descending into a sluggish complacency. The Saints by contrast had four main areas of success:

  • Taking advantage of exposed full-backs (James Forrest and Kris Commons guilty of not tracking back)
  • Tough ‘borderline’ tackling and sensible professional fouls
  • Inability to deal with Tade (not directly linked to goal)
  • Vine’s really clever movement between right-back and right centre-back

Aside from Celtic’s careless attitude, the first point is probably the most preventable. The other three were more down to St Johnstone’s own accomplishment.

Tade and Vine

This second formation from around the 30 minute mark until half-time was the Saints at their most positive and very difficult to contain.

Vine’s gravitation from left-wing to second striker, prompted by Steve Lomas, defined the Saints formation.

His job was to unsettle Mikael Lustig (often overloaded with the help of Tade, Liam Craig or Dave Mackay) drifting towards Kelvin Wilson to make two up front, and then dropping into any gaps left by Lustig.

This movement was best demonstrated in the equaliser. Forrest lost the ball weakly on the half-way, with Lustig out of position. Vine drifted into the space vacated by Lustig dragging Wilson out wide.

Tade was left one-on-one with Mulgrew, with essentially the width of the 18-yard box to play with – Izaguirre inexplicably not in a position to drop in and team-up with Mulgrew to make 2 vs 1.

This man-for-man approach when clearly prevailing in every personal battle, coupled with lazy tracking back meant St Johnstone could attack with ease.

Tade’s contribution apart from the goal was to give the Celtic centre-backs a horrible time. A ball of restlessness, scrapping for every long-ball put his way, and when the ball is put over the top or in behind, the tenacity to not allow Celtic’s centre-backs to calmly resume possession and build an attack.

Second half struggles

At 1-1 and in the ascendency, St Johnstone actually came out after half-time in a traditional defensive 4-1-4-1 formation. In part perhaps, to weather a Celtic storm that never arrived, in part due to the threat of the virus restricting energy levels, but also because they were so comfortable. There wasn’t a need to press high and risk opening gaps when the chances were already coming easily.

Celtic’s frustration only increased, with Wanyama and Commons guilty of petulance. At stages late one, Wanyama was consumed by red-mist, dishing out vigilante justice against Craig, and Commons tried to let fly with a 45-yard set-piece with the entire team out of position. To add insult, in trying to stop the counter-attack he fouled again, earning a poor yellow.

Vine’s hugely deserved winner was a sublime curled finish, but again poorly defended. Mulgrew’s challenge was soft, and with (substitute) Thomas Rogne and Wilson again chasing shadows, Vine was left one-on-one with Lustig in a seriously dangerous area. Frazer Forster’s very bad positioning, tight in at the near-post opened space and encouraged the wicked finish.

Last 10 minutes – 4-4-2 diamond

It’s fitting that it has taken this long to mention Nicolas Fedor’s debut, because he had almost zero impact on the match. Tony Watt’s late cameo added a bit of mischief, with Celtic in the end shaping up in a kind of 4-1-3-2.

For all the technique and trickery within that final side, Celtic hardly looked like breaking even – all composure had completely vanished.

Commons might point to a missed penalty opportunity with Steven Anderson pushing him over in the box, but St Johnstone were the better side all over the pitch and merited the win.

Lennon thought it may be a case of one eye on Europe, yet with the injury situation most of the starting XI will still expect to play.

“They will be all right for Wednesday and up for it but that’s the wrong attitude to take, they should be up for these matches as well.

“Today’s performance was needless and I am very disappointed for the first time in a long time with them.”

About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
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11 Responses to St Johnstone 2 – 1 Celtic: Saints’ hard-work is wake-up call for lazy Celtic

  1. Very curious but not altogether unwelcome situation, with Celtic reserving pretty much all there good play for Europe. However, often the cause of that in previous weeks was the fielding of a weakened team in the SPL which was certainly not the case in this fixture. Will be interesting to see if they can pick it up for the Benfica game.

  2. ruggygman says:

    Our start to the season (euro qualification aside) i would go as far to say is totally unacceptable… call it complacency, call it laziness….. the management need to address it, and it must stop now… the starting line-up as outlined by tictactic, is on paper a strong one… however apart from the big-man in goals, there isn’t 1 single part of our team that is functioning right now…. not firing and no-cutting edge up front, little control of play from midfield, need more from wide players, particularly forrest, weak defence, and poor full-backs….. Only big Forster, and possibly commons are actually doing what is required of them…… As scary as that sounds… Its fact.!

  3. Maria says:


    Do you think the issue is the players or the manager (incl. coaches)? How tactically competent is Neil Lennon? Is he able to communicate his strategy to the players – do they know what’s expected of them – are they buying into it? Can he motiviate the players? Essentially are we getting better under Neil? How would you rate Neil compared to other managers in the SPL? What would these other managers accomplish if they had our wage bill, youth setup and training facilities? Where would you rank Neil Lennon’s managerial capability in terms of Mowbray, Strachan, O’Neil, back to Macari and Brady?

    I have been to the two home SPL games this season with my Dad and I question the team tactics, the players motiviation and have for the last three seasons.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Hi, thanks for the comment.

      First few questions – I think Lennon has a broad range of tactical ideas and a particular sense of how his players fit in – but right now I’m wondering about the timing and appropriateness of certain strategies. For example, the 3-5-2 has been punished a few times already this season and wasn’t changed quick enough (Ajax especially). My main gripe is that there is still no “primary” formation. I know that the 4-2-2-2 is often turned to as a solution and is probably the most comfortable all-round, but it’s still not comfortable enough. Many managers go entire reigns using one formation, and while tactical flexibility is obviously fantastic – surely the priority is achieving that primary formation? I don’t think Lennon’s achieved that yet, which into the third full season is a worry.

      It’s difficult to compare past managers because the financial landscape (on an internal and external level) has changed so much, even as recently as Strachan. In extreme brief – O’Neill had relatively strong resources, Strachan had a rebuilding/downsizing job, and Mowbray had a fresh slate to begin a legacy which fell on its face…. Lennon has the same objective as Mowbray which no other managers really faced: building through selling.

      Great post though and again I appreciate you leaving a message.

      • Maria says:

        Thanks for your reply Tictactickuk… Yes, I totally agree about your point about no primary formation and the importance of achieving that first and then adapting from it – Martin O’Neils 3-5-2 was an ideal example. Your point about Strachan is sound too. I understands Lennon’s challenge about the Building through Selling – the Porto model – potentially a highly financially rewarding model and we may see good football too. However (my apolgies for sounding negative) I still have doubts about the motivation of the players and Neil’s ability to motivate them. Does the approach to the player’s and coaching staff’s psyche need modernising – similar to the olympians (cycling not swimming), a sports physcologist allocated to each player? Too many games Neil has been unable to get the players to raise their game!!! I believe that the team reflects Neils thinking and mood – does this make sense.

        Finger’s crossed for Wednesday night.

      • tictacticuk says:

        This is one (erm, of the many!) areas internal to Celtic that I am not so well-versed, and it’s something I guess I depend on traditional journalists and their digging skills to find out about. However I’ll get in touch with Celtic and see if they’d answer any questions.

        Because it’s a great question. How can the exact XI and exact formation go from (for arguments sake) losing against St Johnstone to winning against Benfica? (fingers crossed)

        I had the pleasure once of working with a sports psychologist employed by Inverness C.T. (the premise being that sports psychology is transferable to business) The terminology used is “mental fitness”, which if you put equal weighting alongside ‘normal’ fitness, as you suspect it highlights the importance of psychology.

        Has anything changed from O’Neill>Strachan>Mowbray>Lennon? I hope to find out soon! I agree that this is a department apparently lacking this season…

  4. jinky44 says:

    Was that black strip. Dump it Celtic.

  5. paranoidandroid says:

    I hope over the course of the season to learn more about football formations by reading your articles. At the moment though, I dont have much of a clue about the more complicated tactical aspects of lining up a football team.

    However, I think this Saturday and last week were down to Neil Lennon’s same old, simple problem: playing with a very weak midfield. He seems to have this crazy obssession with trying to play with two forwards and two light-weight wingers. He might try to call these wingers midfielders, but to my money Commons and Forrrest, good forwards that they are, couldn’t make a competent midfielder between them.

    They dont/cant defend, and we get left with two midfielders playing against four or five opposition players coming through the middle. This in turn pulls our center-backs out of position, and eventually, we lose goals and drop points. Playing this way is dangerous and stupid, especially away from home We’ve dropped a lot of points doing it. Remember ICT anyone? We lost the league that day- playing with a weak midfield.

    My knowledge of coaching is limited, but I always thought the “golden rule” in any team sport (and even in chess) was “Dont attack on the wings until you control the middle- or you’ll get your ass kicked on the counter attack”.

    Neil Lennon has proved that this rule is true many times, but he still tries to play with two wingers that spend most of the game standing around doing nothing, and even worse, he still hasn’t noticed that every time he does it, we drop points.

    It’s all very well Neil roasting the players for not trying. But I think he needs to wake up and take responsibility for using a formation that makes it impossible for them to control, or even compete for, the middle of the park. If he doesn’t wake up we’re going to drop a lot of points when the going gets tough and hard graft and hard tackling is required in the middle of the park.

    • Great post, especially on the chess analogy.

      Lennon needs to think about using one forward, but Hooper has occasionally shown that he cannot operate on his own up front.

      I think Ki’s sale is having an indirect impact on results.

  6. agropelican says:

    Agree with paranoidandroid, when we struggle it is always with a 2 man midfield and 2 light weight wide players. We only get away with it when Sammi is left mid. Play with 2 wide if you must but make it part of a 4-3-3/4-5-1 with a DM and 2 CM.

  7. Pingback: Ross County 1 – 2 St Johnstone 22/09/2012 |

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