Celtic recruitment, five subs and Neil Lennon’s wish for fluidity in formations

As Celtic ended last season Neil Lennon had changed formation to great effect. Following the winter break trip to Dubai and on the back of a Glasgow Derby defeat Neil Lennon had decided things had gone a little stale, Celtic had become predictable. December as a whole had shown just that.

It was not simply the derby defeat that saw Lenny chance tack, indeed had there been more time to drill his team we may have seen the change by the time that derby came around, instead Lennon decided to wait. A change to a 3-5-2 formation followed in January and Celtic didn’t look back.

There were of course other mitigating factors such as our rivals believing the league title was handed out on 29 December and the petted lip of a star striker denied a transfer causing internal ructions at Ibrox, but the change in formation at Celtic was a big deal.

As early as pre-season in 2019-20, Lennon experimented with finding a system to accommodate two strikers. He trialled a 4-4-2 but didn’t appear convinced and reverted back to the safety and success of Brendan Rodgers 4-2-3-1.

Perhaps Lennon hadn’t considered 3-5-2 that pre-season given the lack of defensive options to balance three defenders, however the decision to gamble and play Kris Ajer on the left side of a defensive three paid off, after a fashion.

While Celtic’s midfield was freed and Odsonne Edouard thrived with the introduction of Leigh Griffiths the goals started to flow, but it didn’t cover the fragility of a defensive backline with a right footed central defender playing as a left sided centre half.

In domestic football we just about got away with it, against in the main mediocre opponents. It was not really used against FC Copenhagen and that indicates doubts in the Celtic manager’s mind as to whether he had the personnel to play the formation against strong offensive opponents. It would of course have been tested at Ibrox on 15 March but with the league being halted on the 13th we never saw it in action and as such question marks remain.

This pre-season has seen Celtic in the main revert to a back four. Perfectly understandable given the lack of central defensive options. We still don’t have that naturally left sided central defender or one at least competent enough to trust his left foot. Our most assured left back is probably a better performer in a back four rather than as a wing back. Greg Taylor has made great strides but his inability to beat his man and cross the ball limits his trustworthiness as a wing back.

There is also the matter of Moi Elyounoussi returning to Celtic and returning to form. When Celtic did play the 4-2-3-1 formation much of that success was when Moi was in fine form. After his injury Celtic struggled to create as much in that formation.

This season will be interesting. You’d think Celtic would like to shift between back three and four and keep opponents guessing, they’d also like fluidity to move between the two during games. Doing that, without having to use up substitutions, possibly stopped that in-match transition occurring last season, but in this campaign there is more scope. With nine substitutes allowed and five than can be involved, opportunity knocks for Lennon.

And this is where this year’s recruitment comes into play. We’ve seen the welcome return of the wonderful Elyounoussi and the signing of what looks a good goalkeeper to replace Fraser Forster in Vasilis Barkas from AEK Athens.

It also certainly seems to make sense now that Celtic want another striker. To play two up front we’ll need four strikers to account for injuries, suspension and fatigue in a compressed footballing calendar, also bearing in mind that this season Celtic will not have the winter break to fall back on.

With question marks over the condition of Vakoun Bayo and Patryk Klimala, promising but very much a work in progress, Lennon has concerns. Leigh Griffiths returning to training unfit irked the manager and you can see why now. The recent improvement in the striker’s condition can only have pleased Lennon, but at the back of his mind trust issues will remain.

Albian Ajeti and Ivan Toney seem live options and one or both will allow Lennon to revert to playing with two strikers when the circumstances allow. You’d assume Bayo may well have to be the fall guy, be that a loan or permanent deal you’d assume his wage will have to move elsewhere to justify a new recruit arriving.
Yet from a recruitment perspective there remain two problems.

We still don’t have that left footed central defender, while on the left of a back four we have a solid full back in Greg Taylor and a player ideal to play as a wing back in theory, but one who appears to have disappeared from view.

Boli Bolingoli appears to have been in cold storage since a dreadful Glasgow Derby performance was allegedly followed by a hastily arranged Uber ride home when not included in the match day squad at Rugby Park. Is there any way back for Boli? If not we need to offload and source an alternative. If there is then bridges need to be built and the player reintegrated into the squad and quickly. It is unlikely given the financial climate that Peter Lawwell will entertain three left sided full backs. Something is going to have to give.

With the transfer window open until 5 October there is room for patience, particularly if we intend to access the English market, but for Lennon he must feel he is only two or three players from having a squad that can move seamlessly between at least two formations and keep opponents guessing. You’d imagine he’ll want those players in the squad ahead of European qualifiers at the end of this month. Lennon will wish to fully test his 3-5-2 formation against strong opponents but he’ll be well aware of the personnel in key positions he requires to do just that.

August is beginning to look like it could be a telling month for Neil Lennon and Nick Hammond. Recruitment will be key, both incoming and outgoing.

Niall J

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As a Bellshill Bhoy I was taken to my first Celtic game in the summer of 1987. It was Billy McNeill’s return to Celtic Park as manager and Celtic lost 5-1 to Arsenal . I thought I was a jinx, I think my Grandfather might have thought the same. It was finest gift anyone ever gave me when he walked me through Parhead's gates.

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