Celtic 2 – 2 Hibs: Not quite enough in reserves for depleted Celtic

Celtic’s 4-4-2 vs Hibernian 4-5-1

Going into the match lacking 8 first-team starters while off the back of Wednesday’s tough Champions League qualifier against Helsingborg, it was always going to be an uphill struggle for Celtic. And with the exception of Kris Commons (still shaking off injury himself), the outfield options on the bench consisted of strictly academy level players.

The tempo of the match, at least for the first hour reflected this, with Hibs content to sit back and hoard the ball as much as possible, and Celtic keeping to the extremely direct strategy put in place of late. It was the classic 4-4-2 vs 4-5-1 scenario, manifesting in good possession for Hibs with little in the way of chances, with Celtic the opposite.

Hibs were lucky to be within touching distance at all over the first 45 minutes, with Gary Hooper hitting the bar and post, Tony Watt squandering a decent one-on-one, and James Forrest also coming close. This all coming in a decidedly tepid match with both sides ticking along barely venturing out of first gear.

Despite the host of chances, Hibs were doing a decent job diminishing Celtic’s attacking threats, with Forrest and Paddy McCourt doubled up on, and Hooper’s irregular dropping into the hole being dealt with quite easily by the sitting midfielder Jorge Claros. At the other end Leigh Griffiths, not at all a traditional lone striker, was struggling to get on the end of any final passes.

Tactically so far, so reasonable for Hibs, but one area lacking in organisation was in defending dead-balls. It was unfamiliar seeing Celtic’s set-piece takers not include Charlie Mulgrew, Anthony Stokes, Kris Commons or the departed Ki Sung-Yeung, but still, Celtic threatened continually via this method. The breakthrough came through a McCourt delivery plopping scandalously low (from Pat Fenlon’s point of view) in the middle of the 6-yard box. Mikael Lustig benefited by tapping in freely.

If anything the match was slowing down early into the second half, and after Wanyama was replaced like-for-like by Jackson Irvine due to a dead-leg, Hibs were handed a fortunate equaliser. For all his positives, Frazer Forster’s Achilles heel is knowing when to decisively snatch a contested ball in the box. Equally culpable was Lustig, who failed to either clear the loose ball or communicate effectively with Forster, and Tim Clancy was in luck.

All four goals were defined by sloppy defending mixed with good (or bad) fortune, with the third being spilled poorly by Hibs keeper Ben Williams, and the fourth Adam Matthews feebly allowing Paul Cairney through on goal.

With Celtic chasing the winner, Commons was brought on for McCourt and pushed up front. Watt took up a kind of Samaras position on the left (an area he enjoys drifting into anyway) with Forrest continuing to cut inside rather than work a path outside Alan Maybury.

Why use an inside-left as a striker and a striker on the left? It’s likely to be a return to the dependency on Commons for clutch moments – pushed higher towards goal to maximise that left-foot. Besides, Watt is more suited to breaking in behind the defence, stretching the defence rather than forcing it narrow (like Commons might).

While ultimately the change (and match in general) proved ineffective for Celtic, there were a host of positives. The success was in creating so many chances with such a depleted squad, and in the continuing development of key youngsters – Watt and Twardzik. From a managers perspective, little else can be done other than put out a side able to create enough chances to win the match. Individual errors (as demonstrated in the goals conceded) cannot really be accounted for. The international break next weekend will be a chance for the squad to recuperate and build towards the Champions League, where such profligacy will not be so easily forgiven.

Posted in Hibs, Match Analysis | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Celtic 2 – 0 Helsingborg: Direct approach to Champions League group stages

Celtic are back in the biggest football competition in the world, after seeing off Helsingborg in Glasgow. Already 2-0 up on aggregate from the previous leg, the priority on paper was keeping a clean sheet. In reality, Neil Lennon set out to attack from the off, with the Swedish guard broken by Gary Hooper after 30 minutes.

Celtic Lineup

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

Scott Brown returned from injury to return to the side, but Thomas Rogne wasn’t deemed fit enough. James Forrest’s recovery continues, earning a start on the right wing with Kris Commons and Georgios Samaras also returning.

Tony Watt, Filip Twardzik, Paddy McCourt and Mikael Lustig dropped out from the team that beat Inverness at the weekend as a result.

Helsingborg Lineup

Helsingborg 4-4-2

Helsingborg coach Åge Hareide has been enduring problems at centre-back recently, with Walid Atta just returning to the team after being suspended for the weekend Allsvenskan loss against Djurgården, and Loret Sadiku pulling out right before kick-off. The inexperienced Joseph Baffo came in to partner Atta.

Again, Hareide stuck with the customary 4-4-2, which normally would be a surprise for a side under pressure and away from home in Europe, but given the need to overcome a 2 goal deficit, it wouldn’t have made much sense to change to a more defensive, less comfortable formation.

Celtic direct + Helsingborg press

With 4-4-2 against 4-4-2, there tends not to be “spare” players for either side to utilise in holding possession of the ball, resulting in both sides starting off with a very direct style of player. The high amount of turnovers suited the Swedes, with Celtic generally working the ball to Charlie Mulgrew, who would then launch a long ball.

Helsingborg were playing with a high defensive line, so in theory there was plenty of space for Hooper and Commons to make runs into. But nothing was working out – the strikers were on a different wavelength to the passes, and the defenders were tracking any other runs quite easily.

As the first half wore on, the exception was Samaras on the left whose more capable than any at exploiting high defensive lines. Forrest might be faster by the clock, but the Greek is much more efficient at using his bodyweight to hold off challenges, and in this case was having more success and creating chances for himself.

The quickness in giving up the ball was proving to be a problem as Helsingborg grew in urgency and were actually winning the possession battle, making for a frustrating first-half. At 2-0 Celtic should’ve been sitting back, sweeping the ball around confidently against an impetuous and open side. Instead the ball was carelessly given back again and again.

Lennon took action by switching the ineffective Commons and Samaras, which resolved two points. Firstly, someone more capable of holding up the long-balls (again harking back to the “target-man problem”) and secondly, pushing Samaras nearer to the brink of Helsingborg’s defensive line.

Commons conundrum

While Samaras was excellent higher up (with the goal coming at this time), even when played as striker he continues to drift into his favoured left-channel – the same area that Commons was meant to be operating in. Helsingborg had done the correct thing in negating Commons, pushing up and keeping him away from goal, and while he’s normally considered the most creative attacking outlet in the team, he now had to take a back-seat and let Samaras continue his good work.

Into the second half and a goal up, Lennon tried moving Samaras over into the right striker position, taking up similar positions on that side. But again this left Forrest slightly moot, and the rest of Samaras’ contribution was drifting from side to side, depending on space and circumstance.

End game – Wilson and Wanyama

By now jig was up, and the higher Helsingborg pressed the more damage Samaras (and to an extent Forrest) could do, with Celtic guilty of being a bit profligate in the final third. There also looked to be more focus on keeping the ball instead of the super-direct, high turnover game of the first-half.

At the other end, Helsingborg’s attack was punctuated by two mammoth defensive performances from Kelvin Wilson and Victor Wanyama. Wilson in particular kept things simple at the back, winning the majority of challenges and distributing the ball sideways or backwards safely.

Last season Wilson played 19 times at left centre-back compared to 3 on the right, which may explain the difference in performance and confidence. Why the shift? Last season neither Thomas Rogne or Glenn Loovens (or to an extent Wanyama) are comfortable at left centre-back. And with Mulgrew often deputising at left-back for Izaguirre (and then Majsotorivc’s injury) responsibility landed on Wilson. It’s too early to say whether this is a bona fide reason for the increase in quality, but certainly a contributing factor.

Wanyama while great defensively in displaying consistently tenacious and tough ball-winning, has a lazy fringe to his game. Sometimes a bit too casual on the ball under pressure which at times can be gotten away with, but equally can provide the opposition with chances. Stronger teams winning the ball high up the park will only need one chance to exploit this.

Conclusion

The result justified the means (with another impressive cameo from Tony Watt to boot), and while Celtic Park rocked at the prospect of joining Europe’s elite once again, there were familiar niggly worries.

In the first half there still wasn’t any real intention to keep hold of the ball, not entertaining the idea of adding an additional midfielder to recycle the ball more freely, and too eager to hit long and hopeful passes.

Samaras’ rise coincided with Commons’ relative fall, with the two trying to move into the same spaces – just Helsingborg’s high and compact pressing was more suited to Samaras’ strength.

But the positives vastly outweigh all of this criticism. The Champions League group stage continues to be the benchmark for Lennon’s Celtic, far more important than the SPL were it not for the effect that winning the league has on European qualification. The injury situation is improving, with Forrest slowly creeping back to maximum effectiveness, along with Brown, Rogne et al.

Given the grave importance of qualification, along with the thrilling chance-laden end to the match, it seems churlish to criticise the performance. And so like most people in Scottish football, the time now is to savour the moment and appreciate the strides that have been taken over the past 3-4 seasons.

Posted in 2012/13, Europe | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Inverness CT 2 – 4 Celtic: Attack is best form of defence

Celtic flatter 4-4-2 pitched against Inverness Caley Thistle’s normal 4-2-3-1

It was a familiar scene for Celtic fans as another precocious young striker dashed beyond his marker to face the opposition keeper one-on-one. Making his full debut against Inverness Caley Thistle, Tony Watt had only made fleeting substitute appearances for the first-team, displaying all the enthusiasm of an over-energised rookie trying to justify his inclusion – all naive athleticism and bluster.

Like a whole host of examples before him, he has age on his side, the technique on the ball is there, and his physique still growing. The question though, was of the intangible “composure” quality, and in slotting coolly past Ryan Esson, Watt stoked the escalating hype surrounding him.

His second demonstrated the other great “intangible” – the ability to be in the right place at the right time, but more impressive than that was his movement, making Gary Hooper loke immobile in comparison. Constantly pushing into the space being vacated by David Raven the right-back (urged forward by Terry Butcher), and wading into a target-man style fight with Simon King. At 6’0 and still young, Watt may not strictly be the answer to the lingering target-man problem, but his differentiation in style to Hooper, Anthony Stokes and Mo Bangura provides his manager with a good problem.

Average Age

The youthful theme continued with other key performers. Victor Wanyama was conspicuous in his veteran like grip on the game, at the ripe old age of 21 while grabbing the opener in the process. Along with Filip Twardzik, who helped setup the second, the two bossed the centre of the pitch in a no-nonsense, safety first way. Richie Foran was an obvious miss for the hosts, his suspension demonstrating the point – a vicious hack last week earning him a red card. Inverness tried to physically impose in the absence of their captain, but the 2nd minute goal took the sharp edge out of the competition.

4-4-2

Though the initial lineup could’ve easily shaped up 3-5-2, Neil Lennon returned to the familiarity of 4-4-2 with an impressively young starting eleven. In truth it was probably the strongest XI available, with numerous injuries (and the sale of Ki Sung-Yeung) hindering the options. Most concerning was probably the unavailability of Kris Commons, a player so central to Lennon’s forward designs.

While the attacking vigour made for a 4-0 margin barely into an hour, the directness also serves as a worry for Wednesday’s match with Helsingborg. When firmly in control, it was still attack, attack, attack, with no thought for a possession-based defence. Aside from restricting the opposition’s chances, it also conserves energy relative to the opposition – it’s more tiring trying to win the ball-back higher up the park.

Inverness’ consolation goals were sloppy; Kelvin Wilson rushed out too far without adequately challenging the striker’s holdup work, and then Wanyama failed to track Ross Draper’s run. The second on paper, was down to Wanyama not even being on the field, nursing a knock, but equally down to communication. Twardzik was marooned in the middle of the park leaving Conor Pepper free to pick out Draper for his second.

The sloppyness however, was forgivable given the goal-lead and amount of young faces on the park. Joe Chalmers got a run out at left-back, while James Forrest was given a chance to improve his fitness before Wednesday, and Mo Bangura continues his underwhelming return from injury.

Lennon and Peter Lawwell may have been trimming the squad of late, but Watt and Twardzik are proving to be plausible alternatives in the long term.

Posted in 2012/13, Inverness CT | Tagged , | 3 Comments

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.

Posted in 2012/13, Europe | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

HJK 0 – 2 Celtic: Patience rewarded with big away win

Celtic are through to the Champions League play-off round after a dogged victory over HJK in Finland. Neil Lennon’s side set out to calmly control possession, and save for a few shaky moments in the second half with the score level, progression was never really in doubt.

Celtic 4-1-4-1

Lennon named an extraordinarily pliable starting lineup, with the possibility of a 4-4-2 diamond, 3-5-2, or a form of 4-5-1. As widely predicted the Gary Hooper / Anthony Stokes partnership was broken up, leaving Hooper up front on his own. This left a classic, sensible, ‘European away’ 4-1-4-1 formation with Georgios Samaras on the left, and Kris Commons in quite a deep position on the right.

What remained was perhaps the first choice goalkeeper and back four, along with a sturdy central midfield three to battle HJK’s expected 4-4-1-1.

As an aside, James Forrest was just fit enough to make the bench, with Beram Kayal dropping out of the starting XI to make room for the Captain Scott Brown.

Comfortable start

A couple of factors made for a more than comfortable start for Celtic. The conservative formation provided a safe and stifling base to keep HJK in check, and the Finns seemed to be struggling with the pressure of having the responsibility to attack. With no easy openings and losing possession easily, Celtic were able to apply pressure through deep runs into space from midfield. First Brown pushed on unimpeded to squander a one-on-one opportunity to score, and soon after Samaras missed a slightly more difficult chance after running into space on the left. The misses were concerning, but not catastrophically so given the tepid pace of the match. Interesting to note, however that in Brown’s case the pin-point pass was delivered long from Mulgrew, who was working out time and space on the ball against the opposition lone striker.

Another concern was Hooper’s toiling as a lone striker. As much as losing the holding up battle with the centre-backs, he was losing the battle with the referee who constantly adjudged the striker to be backing in or clinging on. Regretfully, keeping the ref onside (whether you’re fouling or not) is part and parcel of being a decent targetman.

HJK 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1

Speaking of which, HJK suffered an injury blow with Juho Mäkelä being replaced by Joel Pohjanpalo. And the former Hearts man’s experience was lacking – as exciting a prodigy Pohjanpalo may be, the role at this level requires utter selflessness, along with shrewdness and intelligence to get anything out of “the graveyard shift”.

HJK’s choking inability to keep the ball was the polar opposite of last week’s composed display, and it looked like a matter of time before Celtic grabbed the killer away goal. But as half-time loomed, the breakthrough couldn’t be found.

HJK’s big push

Celtic probably felt aggrieved that their mature and patient approach hadn’t yeilded a goal, and the frustration was manifesting in too many scattered long passes and frittering away possession resulting in HJK’s best spell just after the interval.

With too many edgy turnovers, space was opening for HJK to make use of – particularly Rasmus Schüller and Demba Savage although the final ball was frequently lacking. The right-back Sebastian Sorsa was responsible for two of his side’s biggest chances pushing forward from the back (with Samaras guilty of lazy tracking) first in setting up Savage for a decent opportunity, and then squandering the best chance of all – failing to find the net from a free and unmarked position inside the box.

Now HJK have the space to take advantage of, with Svage particular keen to, and Commons/Samaras not tracking back effectively. Sebastian Sorsa a great example, darting into the box untracked to get on the end of Savages cross to miss a glaring oportunity.

Having survived, and realising the error of their impatient ways, Celtic settled down to regroup and take the lead, finishing the tie as a contest. As one of Celtic’s two freeest men on the park (the two centre-backs, marked in effect by 1 player), Mulgrew bounded forward with HJK unable to ascertain whose responsibility he was. After a quick one-two, he made it all the way to the right-wing position, confounding two men with a quick shimmy onto his left, and delivering sweetly to Joe Ledley at the back post.

Aside from the earlier deep ‘creative’ duties, this high-lighted the surprise effect that buccaneering centre-backs can have on switched off defences. Reminiscent of what Madjid Bougherra once did in Europe for the now extinct Rangers.

Another notable and impressive feature, was Samaras’ continued use of the early left-footed cross. Rather than allowing the defence time to get into position, the quick-ball curled into the dangerous area between goalkeeper and defence is Hooper’s preferred method of delivery (as per the goal in the first leg), and it’s effectiveness was demonstrated twice, albeit without a goal.

Conclusion

The tictactic pseudo-preview underlined the exaggerated importance of Commons in Lennon’s thinking, but the match selection here confronted this idea. For once it was a triumph of the overall shape and organisation over pandering to the individual. Here, Commons was given a “graveyard shift” of his own – rather than enjoying a free role, or a striker-ish role, was forced to keep shape on the right, and keep the opposition full-back in check.

Elsewhere, the deep 4-1-4-1 was meticulously maintained, with the excellent Ledley (2nd half) and Brown (1st half) pushing forward at only the most suitable moment. Brown, especially earlier on was harking back to his Hibernian days – pushing into an attacking midfield position that appears so alien now for the established ball-winner. Ledley has a justifiable claim for MOTM, having scored the first, setup the second, and generally putting in an obligatory work-horse performance.

While Victor Wanyama put in another physically controlling display, he was punished rather harshly by the referee in being guilty of 2 fouls and being booked in both instances without hesitation. In isolation, it is true that the bookings were fair (the first a scissor slide tackle – a textbook yellow particularly in Europe, and the second a rash swipe)

Still, leniency is usually expected – especially on the 2nd of just 2 fouls, but what aggrieved Celtic more was the questionable decisions given against Hooper in his targetman tussles, where as HJK mostly (and probably correctly) got away unpunished. There simply weren’t enough yellow card offences on show from the hosts.

Negatives aside, what cannot be mistaken is the focused and patient nature of this away European performance against a good side. The back 6 were accustomed with each other, the system was given priority over attacking speculation, and for once there was no mid-match unnecessary tinkering. Instead the team were left to force the issue themselves – and they delivered.

Posted in 2012/13, Europe | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Commons rise poses questions for Helsinki

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.

Aberdeen 4-1-4-1 transitioning to 4-4-2 in the attack

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.

Celtic’s shape

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

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.

 

 

Posted in 2012/13, Aberdeen, Tactical Preview | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

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.
Conclusion

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.

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