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.