St Johnstone v Celtic Preview: Spare a thought for left back Scott Tanser, he’s gonna be Frimponged

When the final whistle blows on Sunday Celtic will head into another Nations League International shutdown and Neil Lennon will have time to reflect. Possibly his last chance to do so for some time.

The Celtic manager indicated in a recent press conference that he has been breaking the season down into blocks. In this particular set of fixtures Celtic have played four domestic games and two European qualifiers. Sundays visit to Perth to face St Johnstone could then see the Hoops having negotiated that seven-match block with seven straight wins and that’s what Celtic will be aiming for.

It’s a marked improvement on the previous seven games Celtic played in August, prior to the first Nations League break. Five wins, a draw at Kilmarnock and a Champions league defeat to Ferencvaros saw some lacklustre performances even when results were good.

The recent move to a 3-5-2 formation seems to be paying dividends and it’s clear the performances as well as the results are picking up.

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When it comes to consistency the closure of the transfer window on Monday will also be welcome. Neil Lennon and the players will have one less distraction and the manager will soon be able to plan ahead with a level of certainty and without the sideshow of rumoured exits for star performers.

Today’s match against St Johnstone therefore becomes vital and it will be no easy task for a Celtic side who were delayed an extra night in Bosnia and only arrived back in Glasgow late yesterday afternoon. As such Lennon will only have the players for today before its straight back into match day action and a lunchtime kick off to boot. It’s a torrid schedule and one that’s about to get worse.

Much of the angst around Celtic’s performances has been due to Neil Lennon’s squad rotation, yet given the fixture run Celtic will have until December it may end up being a wise move to have had as many players as possible getting first team football. They’ll soon be needed. All of them.

When Celtic return to action they will start with the first Glasgow Derby of the season before heading into an intense period of domestic and European football. Thursday and Sunday fixtures will be the norm until mid-December. There will be little time for training ground work. It will mainly be recovery work followed by immediate planning for the next opponent.

October alone will see the Derby on the 17th followed by AC Milan, Aberdeen and Lille before November begins with the Scottish Cup Semi Final with Aberdeen. It’s going to be a relentless run of fixtures and all against challenging opponents. As such there can be no consideration for Celtic to drop points in Perth on Sunday.

Davidson’s Rebuild

Sunday’s opponents are a side very much in transition. Legendary manager Tommy Wright has made a silk purse from a sow’s ear for so long that he simply tired of it. He’s been replaced by the St Johnstone support’s first choice Callum Davidson and it’s fair to say it’s taking a bit of time for the changes to take effect.

Aside from Tommy Wright leaving, Davidson has also overseen the exit of 10 players. Amongst the most notable of those leaving was star winger Drey Wright’s transfer to Hibs, midfielder Ross Callachan to Hamilton, while veteran defender Steven Anderson joined Forfar Athletic. Midfielder Matt Butcher also returned to parent club Bournemouth and Danny Swanson was freed.

There have only been five new additions for Callum Davidson to begin his rebuild. Craig Conway has come in from Salford City, Defender Shaun Rooney from Inverness and the surprising signing of the injury prone – but certainly talented – Craig Bryson after his contract was ended by Aberdeen. Two loan signings make up the roster for the new manager and both have come from Davidson’s Millwall connections, Defender Danny McNamara and striker Isaac Olaofe signing from the East London club.

Saints season so far

It’s fair to say St Johnstone have had a disappointing start to the season. They currently sit 10th in the Scottish Premiership with two wins, a draw and six defeats prior to the visit from the Champions.

The worrying aspect for the new manager will be the fact they’ve only managed to hit the back of the net a meagre four times this season and they have lost their last three games without scoring, against Motherwell and Ross County by a single goal, before their most recent defeat came against Livingston, going down 2-0 in that one at the Tony Macaroni.

The Perth club certainly then have a goalscoring Achilles heel but scratch the surface and they don’t lose by much. They have only lost two of those nine games by more than a solitary goal with only last week’s opponents Livingston and ‘the’ Rangers where they lost 3-0 at Ibrox back on 12 August having breached the Saints rear-guard on more than one occasion. Defensively they remain tight.

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It looks like games are not escaping the Perth Saints indeed it appears they are staying competitive in most matches. There may then be food for thought ahead of Monday’s transfer window closing for the St Johnstone board to push the boat out just a little and supply a bona fide creative midfielder for Callum Davidson and see if adding some inventiveness to what is a predominately industrious midfield doesn’t make an immediate impact on results.

The stats for the season at least scream out just that need as they are not shy of forwards. They have five on their books in a 22-man squad, including Stevie May and Callum Hendry, both players who can score goals but will need a decent pass or two to fulfil their jobs. To continue in this vein with a stubborn midfield lacking imagination and relegation must be a real possibility.

How they shape up

The first 5 games of the season saw Callum Davidson try and make his mark. Tommy Wright’s pragmatic approach looked to be shelved as St Johnstone played all five fixtures with a 3-4-3 formation. Adventurous it certainly was, especially when you consider they went to places like Ibrox and played Hibs and Aberdeen playing that way. But there is a fine line between adventure and idiocy and Callum Davidson may have realised he was landing on the wrong side of that argument.

In the last four fixtures played Davidson has adapted to an attacking 3-5-2 and won against St Mirren and again the following week where they lost to Motherwell. For the next encounter, a 1-0 home defeat against Ross County, they continued with three at the back but played a flat 5 across the middle, before last weekend dispensing with a three-man defence altogether and experimenting with a 4-1-4-1 formation against Livingston. The 2-0 reverse may well see them revert to a back three once more.

One to watch

Stevie May and Michael O’ Halloran are both good players and more than capable of causing Celtic problems, however the best player in the St Johnstone squad is without doubt central midfielder Ali McCann.

At only 20 years of age McCann has already developed into a fine reader of the game, he doesn’t fear a physical battle and is brave enough to get his foot on the ball and spray passes around. McCann lacks creative support and though you’d expect that to come from David Wotherspoon, his midfield cohort has never quite believed in himself as much as others do. As such he hasn’t ever quite fulfilled his undoubted potential.

McCann however seems to have that belief and if he continues as he has been, he won’t be plying his trade in Perth for much longer, his talents will see him perform on a higher stage at some point and soon.

One to target

Former Port Vale left back Scott Tanser has been with St Johnstone since 2017 and if there’s one player who will be worried on Sunday morning at breakfast about the shift ahead it will be the Saints wing-back. A most ordinary of defenders he would certainly suit a pragmatic Tommy Wright eleven, when asked to go beyond that he’s simply a workmanlike pro.

Jeremie Frimpong will be learning all about his opposite number this weekend and will be more than ready to take advantage of his opposite number’s limitations. If St Johnstone do play a 3-5-2, expect Frimpong to face Tanser up and take advantage of the space behind. With a decent final ball Frimpong may find he has a goal creating influence come Sunday’s lunchtime kick off, possibly more.

In recent weeks Celtic have started to add performances to the points and although all Celtic fans really want from a trip to Perth is to return with three points, there is an opportunity to supply both on Sunday. St Johnstone are firing blanks in front of goal and such barren spells eat away at confidence. Sunday will see an opportunity for Celtic to turn the screw.

Neil Lennon has had defensive concerns around injuries to both Bitton and Jullien of late and even if Sunday comes too soon for a Christopher Jullien return Hatem Abd Elhamed will be a more than able deputy. Further forward Frimpong will have an important role to play as there is mileage to be had from his opposite number Tanser, and Odsonne Edouard looked to have found his spark again as soon as the monkey off his back of a goal came against Sarajevo on Thursday night. With Scott Brown sitting centrally and Callum McGregor and Ryan Christie being allowed more freedom Celtic have removed their left-hand sided predictability and will now leave teams guessing as to where the danger will come from.

Getting a win prior to an international break is always important, when it’s also the last encounter before a Glasgow Derby it becomes essential. St Johnstone may prove stubborn but Celtic will break them down. It should be a comfortable win on Sunday as long as there isn’t much lethargy from our European travels. A 3-0 win shouldn’t be beyond Celtic and Frimpong might add a goal to his recent fine performances. However the game pans out Celtic just need to claim the points, we can debate performances another day.

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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