Celtic’s dropping of precious points at Rugby Park yesterday was of course disappointing, particularly coming so soon into the new season. There are many reasons for the lacklustre performance and the dry plastic pitch is one that has been rolled out, but the reality is the problems lie much closer to home.
Let’s deal with the plastic pitch first of all. It’s no real excuse for Celtic dropping points yesterday, despite the fact it shouldn’t be something any self-respecting football nation allows in its top flight, we are stuck with up to six games on those surfaces every year.
Does it give certain sides an advantage? Yes, it probably does but does 60,000 inside Parkhead give the Celts an advantage, or did Brockville aid Falkirk for all those years? Do Inverness have an advantage with North Sea gales blowing off the Moray Firth, or do Hearts preferring a Murrayfield length of grass rather than a Wembley bowling green aid their tactics?
Last season Celtic averaged an amazing 2.8 points per game on grass and only 2 points per game on plastic, yet that wasn’t down to Kilmarnock that was down to five points dropped solely against Livingston.
In seasons prior to that, in 2018/19 we averaged the same amount of points on plastic as we did on grass and in 2017/18, we average very slightly higher on the Premiership plastic than we did on grass.
The question we need to be asking from yesterday is around the formation and the personnel within it. Celtic have reverted to the 4-2-3-1 formation this season, having converted to a 3-5-2 formation after January’s winter break. Lennon at the time said he felt Celtic were getting too predictable.
There are reasons for going back to the formation favoured by Brendan Rodgers during his time at the club. Last season Moi Elyounoussi and his form wide of the three supporting attackers helped make the formation effective. His injury seemed to stunt Celtic and with Mikey Johnston often an able enough deputy his own injury record left Lennon limited in options.
Lennon persevered longer than he would have liked too, but with the games in December coming thick and fast and with limited time with the players on the training field, the decision was made to wait until Dubai where a period of concentrated training and tactical analysis would allow the players’ time to develop. It proved the right decision.
From 4th of December when Celtic defeated Hamilton 2-1 at Celtic Park until the 22nd January when we defeated Kilmarnock ironically enough 3-1 at Rugby Park, Celtic had huffed and puffed through games.
Celtic didn’t score more than two goals home or away in nine consecutive league and cup games. After Hamilton we had the backs to the wall 1-0 league cup final win, a 2-0 defeat against Cluj, before 2-0 wins at home to Hibs and away to Hearts. We then won narrowly by two goals to one against Aberdeen at Celtic Park, before winning 2-1 away to St Mirren. We then ended the year with a 2-1 reverse at home to ‘the’ Rangers. Something had to give. Teams appeared to have worked us out to an extent, certainly enough to worry Lennon into changes.
Celtic returned from Dubai, with a new formation, Leigh Griffiths up front supporting Edoaurd and the difference was immediate. When the league restarted, we won three straight games and scored 3 goals in each.
As we moved into February, Hamilton and then Motherwell were defeated by an aggregate score of 8-1 over two games in three days. Clyde were beaten by three clear goals in the Scottish Cup before Celtic won 5-0 against Hearts at Celtic Park in the league three days later. The only real close encounter had been at Pittodrie where Kris Ajer’s goal eventually saw off Aberdeen 2-1, in a game where we appeared to be preparing for the Copenhagen European ties and played both a 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1 formation during that 90 minutes.
The change wasn’t an exact science with a 1-0 win over St Johnstone and we also exited Europe against the aforementioned Copenhagen, but it’s fair to notice that the 3-5-2 formation was dispensed with for periods home and away against the Danes.
The last game at Celtic Park saw St Mirren defeated 5-0 using the new formation. The real test was due at Ibrox the following weekend. Would Lennon use the 3-5-2 or go compact in a 4-2-3-1? We never did find out as Scottish football closed down, but it’s fair to say he probably would have played two up front at Ibrox.
So why is 4-2-3-1 back on the table? Well the truth of the matter is it should be. It is an excellent formation to use, particularly away from home against good quality sides. It stifles opponents, it’s a compact shape and you can spring into an offensive 4-3-3 when you gain possession. The problem is, when you play packed defences or inferior opposition it only allows you to play one striker and it also require a disciplined holding midfielder – often two. You have to sacrifice attacking intent for the security of shutting the back door. In Scotland we don’t really need that in most games. Two strikers particularly at home or against teams who ‘park the bus’ on their own patch causes problems for defences and most teams cause us little offensive threat.
Moi Elyounousi returning to the squad means in theory Celtic can again play 4-2-3-1 and in European football, as we saw trialled in France pre-season, it looks like we’ll play that way. It also looked like against the best of teams we’ll even play a 5-4-1 as we saw against PSG. That’s the pragmatism we wanted from Lennon in Europe and it’s clear he’s planning for it.
The problems we have now is that Lennon wishes to uses these three or four formations (if you include 4-3-3 as a separate formation) he also knows the extra substitutes will play to our advantage and allow us to shift between them all. Predominately it will be between a 3-5-2 and a 4-2-3-1, but we haven’t seen much of the former. Why? Well it’s either we are using the first few games to get the squad used to a system again that they discarded last season, with a view to utilising it in European football in just over a week from now – and there may be merit in that argument – or more likely because we are a little hamstrung in terms of personnel at the moment.
To play a 3-5-2 we are having to risk three central defenders in every game. If you assume that would be Ajer, Jullien and Elhamed, then only Bitton is a player Lennon trusts as cover. Not much room for error then should injuries occur, and in Bitton and Elhamed historically they are a regular occurrence.
Lennon has already mentioned he wanted a defender to replace Jozo Simunovic and he’s said that on the record. Unless he’s happy to count Stephen Welsh as a fifth centre back he’s probably after a couple and feels he can’t risk playing three central defenders until that issue is resolved. I tend to agree.
Lennon has also stated he wants another striker at the club and therein lies the reason for not playing two strikers at the moment. Vakoun Bayo has all but gone and wasn’t trusted enough in any case and Leigh Griffiths has shot himself in the foot and that of his managers tactical plans by being less then professional of late and being unable to be called upon for selection. That leaves Patryk Klimala and Odsonne Edoaurd as the available striking options. Until suitable reinforcements arrive it’s fair to say to gamble and play two strikers in a 3-5-2 formation would leave us open to injury impacting the team.
Lennon wishes to move between two formations, it is clear as day he’d prefer to have personnel available that means not only does he change week to week and keep managers guessing but that he can also move seamlessly between the two during games, taking advantage of the extra subs rule to do so.
Yet for now he’s hamstrung. He has the personnel to play one of his chosen formations, the other he could play but would be putting too much of a risk of opening the side to injury.
And what difference would that have made to yesterday? Well an extra defender in say Elhamed would have freed up a central defender to cover when either of the main central defenders went to engage a striker, allowing Jullien to act as cover rather than the defender called upon to take charge, it was clear he struggled yesterday and not for the first time either.
It would also narrow the gaps and allow the central defenders to cover for the wing backs when they went forward. As it was Jullien was getting all tangled up with the Killie striker, meanwhile Scott Brown was having to assist both central defenders and also support his two full backs when they were pressured.
For a man of his age we’re asking a lot for Brown to be captain, defensive midfielder, an extra full back and central defender when required. In fact, Brown’s form can be criticised, he’s not played all that well in either game this season after all, but he’s certainly been spread to thinly.
In a 3-5-2 you could even argue Brown’s defensive midfield strengths may not even be required at all especially at Celtic Park. McGregor, Christie and Ntcham could play the 3 central midfield roles and allow a second striker, be that Klimala or a new player as and when personnel allows the system to be played again. Forrest and Frimpong could play wide right and Taylor or Elyounosussi could play on the left depending on how defensive or attacking you wished to be on any given day.
The frustrating thing about all of that is that Lennon only really needs a left side central defender and a striker to play both systems. We appear, if rumours are to be believed to be looking to at least three strikers in Ajeti, Fletcher and Toney, yet there seems little movement of note in the central defensive areas. You can only hope we have irons in the fire.
Last season we had a huge overhaul, this season we require minor surgery, yet the recruitment seems a struggle. If that is the English market slow to take shape or targets identified but not concluded we may need to move a little quicker.
Dropping two points at Rugby Park is hardly a meltdown issue but teams will have looked at Celtic playing one formation and they won’t need to second guess how we’ll play. They will be able to plan all week how to counter it safe in the knowledge that for now at least Celtic won’t change plans.
The timely purchase of a striker and a central defender would allow much more scope for a fluid movement between formations and it may well be all that’s needed to ensure the December 2019 predictability we saw resurface yesterday is not repeated.