Sunday, 24 April 2011

Rangers 0 Celtic 0

Following all the off-field nonsense this past week or so, a football match took place.  In it, a fantastic performance from Allan McGregor in the Rangers goal, capped by an eighty-third minute penalty save, ensured that Rangers took a point.  Nonetheless it is Celtic who will be the happier of the two sides as it means that winning the SPL title is now firmly in their own hands.

Given the significance of the match, it was a predictably cagey affair with both sides set up not to concede.  Both sides set up as 4-4-2, although their respective deployments were slightly different, especially in midfield.  Neil Lennon opted for Joe Ledley ahead of Kris Commons and Ki Sung-Yeung in favour of James Forrest, admitting beforehand that this was designed to make the midfield more robust.  They started with a narrow and mostly deep-lying midfield four.  Ledley was the most likely to get forward from midfield and tended to drift out wide left.  As is customary in Old Firm matches, Georgios Samaras made a rare start at the expense of top scorer Antony Stokes.

Walter Smith, in what was his final Old Firm derby, made one change from the 4-0 defeat of Dundee United in midweek, dropping Kyle Hutton in favour of Greg Wylde.  The Rangers midfield included Steven Davis and Maurice Edu in the centre, who sat relatively deep, and two wingers in Wylde and Steven Naismith, although the two of them rarely got beyond Emilio Izaguirre or Mark Wilson.  The other main difference between the two line ups were at full-back.  Whereas Celtic’s were expected to get forward, whether they were successful or not in doing this, the Rangers full-backs opted to stay back and allow those in front of them to do the attacking.

Rangers direct while Celtic focus on keeping possession

Rangers had the better of the opening exchanges with Kyle Lafferty, playing as a second striker just off Nikica Jelavic, looking lively.  After around ten minutes, when the match settled and Celtic began to keep possession, Rangers then opted to sit deep, hit Lafferty with long diagonals when they regained possession and feed off knock-downs.

It was a shame that Rangers resorted to this tactic.  Midway through the each half they exhibited their ability to put together quick passing moves that involved Jelavic.  The Croatian international has shown his capacity to link up and bring others into play in recent weeks but Rangers didn’t utilise this nearly enough during the ninety minutes.

Celtic, on the other hand, were intent on keeping possession and forming triangles to pass around the Rangers midfield.  It seems that this is why Lennon opted for players like Ki, who is excellent at keeping possession and creating from deep, and Samaras, who provides a link between midfield and attack, when he is on form that is.  The trouble was that Samaras was poor throughout, even if his manager and captain described him as “brilliant” after the match.

Despite both sides having a spells of dominance, nothing clear cut was created in the first half.  Scott Brown had a decent effort that was wide of the target and Naismith fired wide from a tight angle shortly afterwards.

Second half

The start of the second half was more of the same, Celtic dominating possession and Rangers hitting long diagonal balls towards the forwards.  Rangers should have opened the scoring when Lafferty headed wide from a deep Wylde cross.

Celtic were forced into a change ten minutes into the second period when Ledley aggravated his previous hamstring injury.  Commons took to the field in his place and took up a role that was pretty much the opposite to Ledley: Starting in a wide position and drifting inside.  However, he failed to make much of an impact on proceedings.

Even though the Celtic full-backs got forward more often than they had in the first half, they didn’t get forward nearly as much as expected.  Wilson has been less of an attacking force in a few of Celtic’s recent matches but was prevented from getting forward due to the presence of Wylde and Lafferty, who spent a fair portion of the second half putting in a strong defensive shift.  On the opposite side it seemed that it was Izaguirre’s teammate, Samaras, who prevented him from getting anywhere near the byline.  The Greek striker spent the first half of the second period on the left, not involved in the play, which meant there was no space for Izaguirre to move into.

When Antony Stokes starts in attack with Gary Hooper, he tends to drift right rather than left and, with the nature of their midfield, tends to give them a narrow 4-3-3 shape with the full-backs bombing on.  In the second half today, however, Samaras’s position meant that Celtic didn’t get the best out of Izaguirre.

Maurice Edu struggled up against the Celtic midfield and the burden upon Davis was all too apparent.  Smith responded by bringing on John Fleck for Wylde, moving Lafferty to left-midfield and playing Fleck just ahead of Davis and Edu.  Fleck harassed and harried Ki and Beram Kayal into surrendering possession on a number of occasions and he was eventually moved further back alongside Davis when Edu was withdrawn for El-Hadji Diouf.
Lennon replaced Hooper, another player who struggled, with Stokes and the SPL’s second-top scorer should have been given the chance to add to his tally when Samaras selected to shoot rather than put him one-on-one with McGregor.  Stokes then won a dubious penalty but unfortunately for Celtic, Samaras capped a miserable afternoon for himself by failing to covert.  This is not to take anything away from the Rangers goalkeeper, who made an excellent save to add to his stunning stop from a Daniel Majstorovic header earlier on.


Not the best Old Firm match of the seven this season but a decent encounter in short spells.  Both sides had chances to win the match although Rangers failed to work Fraser Forster in the Celtic goal.  A better performance from Samaras may have seen Celtic take all three points, even discounting the fact that he failed to convert the penalty.  Celtic are now in the situation where if they win all five of their remaining matches they will be champions.  Rangers’ only hope now is that one or more from Dundee United, Inverness, Kilmarnock, Hearts and Motherwell can take points from Lennon’s side.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Dundee United 4 Kilmarnock 2

Three crosses from the right from Craig Conway provided three headed goals for Dundee United before Conway added a fourth with a terrific solo goal.  Manuel Pascali and substitute David Silva pulled two goals back for Kilmarnock but the defeat leaves caretaker-manager Kenny Shiels still seeking his first win since the departure of Mixu Paatelainen.

Dundee United were without Mihael Kovacevic, Morgaro Gomis and Sean Dillion who were all sent off in the 4-0 defeat to Rangers.  Peter Houston also dropped Johnny Russell and brought in Conway, Keith Watson, Barry Douglas and Prince Bauben.  They started in their usual 4-5-1/4-3-3 with Conway and Danny Swanson either side of David Goodwillie in attack.

Kilmarnock replaced goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola with Cammy Bell, their only other change was to replace David Silva with Garry Hay.  Hay took up an unfamiliar left-midfield role designed to nullify the threat of Swanson.  The tactic worked as Swanson had one of his quieter games since returning from injury.  Alexei Eremenko began as a second striker in a 4-4-1-1 formation but seemed to drop deeper as the match wore on.

Dundee United win midfield battle

The match was played at a slower pace than most SPL matches with both sides intent on patiently building attacks.  Dundee United’s usual strategy is to move the ball quickly to Swanson and Conway and get them to run at the full-backs, however, the deep-lying nature of the Kilmarnock midfield and the fact that Hay and Liam Kelly were deployed to help their respective full-backs double up on the Dundee United wingers meant that they were unable to carry this out effectively.

Dundee United’s midfield three in recent months, no matter who has been chosen to play there, is fluid in nature and today was no different.  They got the better of Craig Bryson and James Fowler in the early stages of the match and their dominance forced Eremenko to drop deeper as the game progressed.  The most noteworthy midfield player in the opening forty-five minutes was David Robertson.  He made several great runs into the box and caused the shaky Kilmarnock defence no end of problems.

Three Conway crosses put United 3-0 ahead

Despite Dundee United’s dominance from open play, three of their four goals were headers and resulted from corner kicks.  The first was headed into the net by Scott Severin directly from Conway’s corner and the second was taken short, returned to Conway and headed in from Goodwillie via Conway’s cross, giving Dundee United a 2-0 lead going into half time.  The third, minutes after the break, saw Kilmarnock clear yet another Conway corner before Eremenko was crowded out by a few Dundee United players, leading to another Conway cross that was again headed into the net by Goodwillie for his second of the match.

The third goal was indicative of Kilmarnock’s performance.  They were caught out by Dundee United’s constant harassing on too many occasions when trying to build from the back.  It is a strategy that has served them well this season, however, their execution of it has not been the same since Paatelainen left to manage the Finnish national team.

Conway capped a man of the match performance with a tremendous solo goal within two minutes of the third.  He worked space for himself with a u-turn of a run and fired emphatically past Bell from distance.  Kilmarnock had made a double change at half time, replacing Bryson and the injured Ryan O’Leary with David Silva and James Dayton, but they barely had a chance to settle into the match before their side found themselves 4-0 down.

Too little, too late from Kilmarnock

Kilmarnock had also reshuffled their side at half time, moving Tim Clancy to central defence, Hay to his usual left-back role, Kelly into central midfield, meaning Silva and Dayton took up their positions on either wing.  As the second half wore on, Dundee United became increasingly defensive but always looked like they could sneak another goal on the counter.  Silva added more impetus to the Kilmarnock attack and reduced the deficit with a terrific strike from around twenty-five yards.

The away side had stuck to their patient approach throughout and were eventually rewarded although by now Dundee United were happy to defend their lead and see the match out.  Manuel Pascali headed in a second for Kilmarnock from a Jamie Hamill corner in the dying minutes but it was too little too late from the Ayrshire side.


Kilmarnock were extremely poor for an hour and seem devoid of confidence since their change of manager.  There was a ten minute spell in the first half when Goodwillie was off the pitch receiving treatment in which Kilmarnock still found themselves hemmed in by Dundee United.  It wasn’t until the final twenty minutes that Kilmarnock began to cause their opponents any real problems but by that time the deficit was insurmountable.

Usually, Swanson is the main driving force from the Dundee United midfield five but his threat was negated by the deployment of Hay on the left of midfield for Kilmarnock.  Instead it was fellow winger Conway who provided three assists and a goal which provided the victory.  A mention should also go to David Robertson who got forward at every opportunity to trouble the Kilmarnock defence.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Tactical shorts - Celtic 4 Aberdeen 0

Here’s a quick look at two of the factors in Celtic’s 4-0 victory over Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup semi final yesterday.

Aberdeen’s high defensive line exposed

As has been persistently mentioned, the red card after nineteen minutes ruined the match.  Aberdeen started well and defended admirably between the sending off and half time.  Before and after this period, however, was notable for their high defensive line.  Time and time again they were caught out by balls over the top and in-behind the defence which the centre-backs struggled to deal with.

Celtic began the match with a high tempo and direct style which saw Gary Hooper and Antony Stokes beating Andrew Considine and Zander Diamond for pace too often.  Stokes should have scored with a one-on-one opportunity with Jamie Langfield and another chance led to Hooper winning the penalty and subsequent ordering off of Considine, which again should have lead to a goal.

When Charlie Mulgrew opened the scoring after forty-nine minutes, Aberdeen had no option but to attempt to get forward more often and again found themselves caught out on a number of occasions by the pace Celtic’s front two.  The second penalty, which brought about the third goal, also resulted from a ball over the top.

Kris Commons

Celtic started the match in their lopsided 4-4-2 with Scott Brown tucked in on the right, virtually as a third central midfielder, and Kris Commons wide left.  Commons started wider than he usually does, staying very close to the touchline and whipping in a number of dangerous crosses throughout the first half.

After the ordering off of Considine, Celtic were patient in their build-up play yet struggled to unlock the Aberdeen defence.  After half time Celtic not only moved the ball quicker, they adjusted the position of Commons, moving him more central and this was the key to them finally seeing off their opponents.  Admittedly, the first goal was the result of a set-piece, however, the sings were already there in the opening minutes of the second period leading up to the goal.  Commons caused more problems from central positions, not least because his direct opponent was now Scott Vernon, naturally a centre forward, who had moved to central midfield after Craig Brown had reshuffled his side.

A further consequence of the tweak in formation was that Emilio Izaguirre now found himself with more space down the left and he got forward much more often than he had during the first half.  As has been noted in the past, the key to stopping Celtic is to prevent Izaguirre's forays upfield.  When 11 v 11, the Celtic defence looked narrower than I had noticed it to be all season, but with Aberdeen playing with one less striker and Commons slightly infield, this created the space for Izaguirre to move into and in the end Celtic destroyed the ten men of Aberdeen.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Motherwell 3 St. Johnstone 0

Motherwell booked their place in the Scottish Cup final with a comfortable 3-0 win over St. Johnstone at Hampden Park. Despite the three goal margin, Stuart McCall’s side didn’t have to perform to the best of their capabilities to see off their opponents.  All three goals were avoidable and included two goalkeeping errors from Peter Enckleman, who we know is no stranger to a blunder or two.

Teams and formations

St. Johnstone welcomed Jody Morris back into the centre of midfield with Chris Millar missing through injury.  They lined up 4-1-4-1 with Morris patrolling the area just in front of the defence and Colin Samuel leading the line.  St. Johnstone’s midfield was quite narrow considering there was five of them, with Liam Craig and Danny Invincible more inclined to drift inside than stay out wide.

Motherwell started in a 4-4-2 formation that often looked like a 4-2-3-1 when Chris Humphrey and Jamie Murphy pushed on and either Francis Jeffers or John Sutton dropped deep.  Keith Lasley and Steve Jennings sat deep for the most part, allowing the wingers to play higher up the pitch, and dominated despite a man disadvantage in that area.  At times the numerical advantage was negated by one of the strikers, usually Jeffers, dropping deep to keep tabs on Morris.  The other alternative would have been for either Lasley or Jennings to come and meet him, which consequently would have left space for Kevin Moon or Murray Davidson to exploit, but they resisted this and remained disciplined.

Motherwell gifted two goals early on

For the first few minutes it looked as if St. Johnstone were going to take the game to their opponents.  They almost opened the scoring through an Invincible header after a Danny Grainger free kick but their bright start was undone after only five minutes when Enckleman came for a Tom Hateley corner and completely missed the ball, allowing Stephen Craigen to nod the ball home from a standing position.  The finger can also be pointed at Invincible who was caught ball-watching and left the Northern Ireland international unmarked.

The match was over as a contest when Murphy put Motherwell 2-0 up after fourteen minutes.  It was a well taken goal from the 21-year-old but the goal, again, could have been avoided.  After a lucky break following a poor Craigen pass, Motherwell bypassed the St. Johnstone midfield all too easily.  Sutton then dropped deep and fed Murphy, who cut inside with a diagonal run.  Michael Duberry looked to have Murphy in his sights but was impeded by fellow centre-half Steven Anderson before Murphy finished well from the edge of the box.

Two shots for Motherwell = two goals.  All without having to massively outplay their opponents.  Game over.

St. Johnstone offer nothing going forward

Predictably, Motherwell then became more inclined to sit deep, allow St. Johnstone possession and hit on the counter attack.  Morris was now seeing plenty of the ball although there were several occasions where he was visibly frustrated by the lack of options in front of him.  You could see that after waiting for some movement in order to pass the ball forward, he would turn and play a sideways or backwards pass before shrugging his shoulders or stretching his arms out in a ‘what am I supposed to do’ manner.

Samuel looked isolated up front but to be fair he never really offered his teammates any option.  He looked sluggish and rarely got into space.  The few times he did drop deep or wide, the midfielders very rarely attempted to get beyond him.  All St. Johnstone’s first half chances came from set-pieces.

Another goalkeeping error made it 3-0 going into half time.  A long punt up-field from Darren Randolph was nodded down by Jeffers and hit by Sutton on the volley from around twenty-five yards.  Enckleman’s positioning was so poor that he struggled to get across his goal and could only get a hand to it on its way into the net. 

A mostly uneventful Second half

After the third goal St. Johnstone moved Invincible up front and Moon to right midfield, switching to 4-4-2.  At half time Samuel was replaced by Jordan Robertson, who done more for his side after ten minutes on the pitch than Samuel had managed in forty-five, and stuck with the formation they had ended the first half with.

With two target men in attack, St. Johnstone were now more inclined to hit long balls but after a while their play settled and they enjoyed long periods of possession but again without creating much.  Keith Lasley admitted post-match that Motherwell were happy to spend the second half focusing on not conceding a goal rather than adding to their tally.

A few substitutions for either side failed to change the outcome of the match or add to the scoring.  St. Johnstone managed to string together a few decent passing moves with Davidson the main driving force.  The same player struck the bar with a header late on but it was too little too late from a side who had gifted the win to their opponents very early on in the match.


After the match, Stuart McCall conceded that his side were “2-0 up without turning up”.  This is a pretty accurate assessment, even if ‘without turning up’ is a little bit of an exaggeration.  St. Johnstone, and Enckleman especially, gifted Motherwell their goals, making the win much more comfortable than it perhaps should have been.

Starting with a extra man in the centre of midfield should have caused St. Johnstone to dominate that area, but three factors – (i) Jeffers and Sutton taking turns to drop deep and pick up Morris, (ii) the fact that Jennings and Lasley were better on the day, and (iii) that the more attacking Motherwell players offered their midfielders more options – meant that Lasley and Jennings dominated. 

The second half was little more than Motherwell sitting back and protecting their lead and St. Johnstone huffing and puffing but to no avail.