From sceptic to convert, why 3-5-2 is paying off for Celtic

Since the winter break Celtic have found a level of domestic form that has left their rivals in their wake. Many point to an implosion on the other side of the city but how many teams can really cope with a side who has lost only two league fixtures all season?

That implosion at ‘the’ Rangers comes down to the relentless form of Celtic coupled with the ingrained mental strength throughout the squad. For two seasons now the Ibrox side have competed, even been talked of as challengers’ right up to Hogmanay, much like Aberdeen prior to their return they simply couldn’t keep up.

The ability to keep that going over the full course of the season has been lacking, while at Celtic the winter break has seen the afterburners kick in. The Ibrox club have simply not had the mental or physical stamina to keep up the pace.

One of the major changes that has allowed Celtic to find the extra required in the final furlongs of the championship chase, has undoubtedly been the change to a 3-5-2 formation.

Neil Lennon clearly took stock of things after a lacklustre Glasgow Derby performance from his side on 29 December and decided to use the trip to Dubai to work on a new formation. It was a brave decision considering the amount of success Celtic had had under the 4-2-3-1 formation favoured by Brendan Rodgers and continued by the Celtic coaching team after Rodgers midnight flit to the East Midlands.

Neil Lennon clearly felt getting two strikers into the first eleven would benefit the side for the run-in. The Celtic manager has been proven correct with 12 wins and a draw from 13 games. He clearly sensed a staleness in the side after that disappointing Derby defeat and this was his solution – as the Celtic manager – to the problem.

A return to goalscoring form for Leigh Griffiths has certainly aided the transition. A hat-trick at the weekend in a 5-0 win against St Mirren was the culmination of a period of redemption for the striker and the partnership with Odsonne Edouard is causing defences to question their own coping mechanisms. To date they haven’t found the answers.

From a striking perspective the system is working just nicely. Is that the same elsewhere?

Well for players like Callum McGregor it certainly is. His licence to attack is far more than in the 4-2-3-1 formation. It certainly seems to suit the playmaker to have more freedom to join the attacks. His goalscoring rate has gone through the roof with seven goals since January and he seems to be enjoying the less restrictive nature of his role.

For others there seems little change. Scott Brown still appears to cope with being the predominate defensive midfield cover and Ryan Christie, Olivier Ntcham and Tom Rogic all appear to be coping with the changes with no major downward spiral or upward trajectory.

If there are negatives to take from the switch in formation it’s possibly more evident in the wing back areas. James Forrest’s input is certainly curtailed somewhat by having to cover more defensive duties but there really is nowhere else to fit him into the system other than the right wing back role. It may be something we’ll know better after the visit to Ibrox, as up to now it’s difficult to quantify his defensive capabilities when he’s not been overly tested at domestic level. Should he struggle we know we have young Jeremie Frimpong champing at the bit to show he can be effective as a wing back.

On the left has been the more challenging issue. Boli Bolingoli is so far out the first team picture that you can only assume a summer exit is on the cards, while Jonny Hayes is a player Lennon seems to like but sees him more as a utility option from the bench than a starter every week. A bit of a shame really as for me Hayes and a wing back role would seem to marry. In theory at least.

Lennon’s preferred choice has been the defensively sound Greg Taylor. An understandable decision to get a more defensively disciplined player on one side when the balance is tilted towards attack with Forrest in the right sided berth. The issue so far with Taylor is for his career to date he’s been a left back and with no real deviation from the role.

It took some time when Greg joined the club to expand his full back role into more attacking responsibility, and in a 4-3-2-1 formation he appeared to be just getting to grips with it when the new formation kicked in. Positionally he is sound and his stamina seems to cope with running the line, if there is one criticism it’s a lack of confidence to drop the shoulder beat the man and get to the byline for a cut back. He tends to deliver early and that makes him predictable.

One thing is for certain though Taylor works hard and I’ve every confidence he can add what is required to his game, with the benefit of a consistent run in the side and belief from the manager.

It’s at the back the trade-off for the extra man up front is perhaps showing signs of strain. In the 4-3-1-2 formation we had a solid defensive partnership in Kris Ajer and Christopher Jullien. Since going to a back three there has been more uncertainty.

Kris Ajer is currently playing as the left sided centre back with Christopher Jullien in the middle and either Nir Bitton or Jozo Simunovic playing the right sided role. It must be mentioned that a back three is an exposed defensive formation, a particular issue when both wing backs are taking a bit of time to settle into their new responsibilities.

However the clear problem is a lack of balance in that defensive line. All options available to Neil Lennon are predominately right footed. Jullien is the only option that appears to be able to use his left foot with any kind of confidence, the others look uncomfortable when asked to.

So far we’ve got away with it. Yes we look shaky on occasion and it can be a bit heart in mouth watching players shift on to their right foot, but at present it’s a trade-off worth having to allow the attacking threats in the side to come to the fore.

So far a brave tactical decision is bearing fruit. The staleness of some of the December performances culminating in that Derby defeat has been eradicated and that is predominately down to a change in formation that has allowed more attacking licence.

Going forward the transfer window will certainly need to see a naturally left footed or indeed two footed centre half join the fold but for now we’re coping.

Sunday at Ibrox will of course be a big test for this formation. You’d expect ‘the’ Rangers to be fired up and show attacking intent. That will test the new formation much more stringently than it has been to date. It may also give even more space for our forward players to hurt the opposition, the opposition will certainly need to consider just that.

Should Celtic prevail at Ibrox using the 3-5-2 formation then it will be here to stay. As sceptical as I was to the change, I’m a convert now.

Niall J


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About Author

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 the finest gift anyone ever gave me when he walked me through Parkhead's gates.

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