Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Can Celtic stick with the same system without Izaguirre?

Last season, Neil Lennon favoured a lopsided 4-4-2 with Kris Commons pushed ahead of what were essentially three central midfielders.  Either Scott Brown or Joe Ledley would inhabit a more reserved and tucked in role on the opposite flank to Commons.  Moreover, Commons would look to drift inside and occupy the space between the opposition defence and midfield.

The narrow nature of the Celtic midfield was compensated for by the advancement of marauding full-backs, Mark Wilson and Emilio Izaguirre.  At one point last season, both would push up the pitch as much as possible – the 2-2 draw in the Scottish Cup at Ibrox last season is a prime example, even if the initial formation in that match differed from the lopsided 4-4-2 – but towards the end of the season, Wilson’s impetus from right-back dissipated somewhat.

4-4-2, and three-band formations more generally, have gone out of fashion with top sides in the past decade, with many clubs now favouring 4-2-3-1, 4-2-1-3 and the like.  The position of Commons, along with the front two dovetailing in Lennon’s 4-4-2, gives the formation an implicit fourth band.

This particular deployment of 4-4-2 is nothing new.  Kenny Dalglish employed something similar during his first spell as Liverpool manager, and again when manager of Celtic for a brief spell.  As pointed out in the embedded article, fielding two out-and-out wingers in a 4-4-2 can be a risky strategy and Lennon himself has resisted such a move on all but a few occasions.

The system has been effective for a few reasons.  Firstly, it permits three central midfielders in the line up and, given the quality that Celtic possess in that area of the pitch, allows them to dominate most midfield duos and trios they come up against.

Now with the full-backs pushing on to offer width and Commons given free rein to drift ahead of the midfield, the system permits Lennon to field a strike partnership.

In an article spelling out the demise of the classic goalpoacher, Jonathan Wilson points out that due to the rise of lone-striker systems, top strikers are now expected to blend classic strike partnerships into a hybrid role – be it a Didier Drogba that fuses the target man and finisher roles, or a David Villa that combines the best of the creator and finisher responsibilities.

Unfortunately, in Scottish football there is a dearth of these types of strikers.  Nikica Jelavic is one exception and the reason why Rangers will sometimes line up with a lone striker system.  Garry O’Connor is another who blurs the target man/finisher boundaries but his quality his waned somewhat since his last spell at Easter Road.

It is no surprise then, that given the lack of this type and quality of striker, that some clubs in the SPL still favour a 4-4-2.  David Goodwillie was a further example in Scottish football of a creator-finisher hybrid before his recent transfer to Blackburn Rovers, but his departure has seen Peter Houston move from a lone-striker system to a front pairing of Jon Daly and Johnny Russell (or, more recently, Russell and Lauri Dalla Valle).

Without doubt, Antony Stokes and Gary Hooper are two of the top strikers in the league and are arguably the best partnership.  Their link-up play and mutual understanding have seen them terrorise many an SPL defence.  However, neither is suited to playing as the sole striker.  Instead, Lennon has tended to favour Georgios Samaras when the need to go with one striker arises.

Lennon did experiment with Hooper spearheading a 4-2-3-1 in the recent win over Aberdeen but soon realised its shortcomings due to the personnel at his disposal and quickly switching back to his more familiar 4-4-2.  Stokes looks uncomfortable pushed out wide and the knock-on effect is that Hooper becomes isolated.

To sum up, the main benefit of Lennon’s formation is that it allows for a strike partnership without allowing other sides a man advantage, or else allows Celtic to retain a man advantage, in the centre of midfield.  Further, the personnel at his disposal rules out any lone striker system, although, admittedly, I know very little about new signing Mohamed Bangura.

The success of the formation last season – Celtic didn’t win the SPL but they amassed a points total worthy of it most other years, won the Scottish Cup and played some of the best football in the SPL – was partly down to the attacking prowess of Izaguirre and the loss of the Honduran to long-term injury has had an adverse affect on the effectiveness of Lennon’s system.

Lennon has since deployed Charlie Mulgrew at left-back.  The former Aberdeen defender is comfortable on the ball and possesses a great delivery but lacks the pace and drive that Izaguirre provides.  His more reserved approach to that of the Honduran may go some way to explaining why Commons has been less valuable so far this season.  More specifically, there is no one bombing beyond him and giving opposition full-backs a dilemma.

Alternatively, Lennon could move one of his right-backs, most likely Mark Wilson or Adam Matthews, over to the left.  The problem with this approach is that the overlap would thus become less of a danger to opposition defenders since Wilson or Matthews would find themselves having to cross with their weaker foot or else cut inside on to their stronger side.

Either way, Celtic will miss the attacking threat from left-back that Izaguirre provides.  Subsequently, it seems that Celtic are now inviting pressure upon themselves down the flanks.  Tic_Tac_Tic reports that the Dundee United full-backs took advantage of the space afforded to them by the Celtic midfield, which left Wilson and Mulgrew exposed.

Either Celtic need to switch to a formation that allows more width from midfield or else look to Adam Matthews or Cha Du-Ri to provide from the right what Izaguirre managed from the left last season.  Cha didn’t exactly inspire in the recent win over St. Mirren and although Matthews comes with glowing reports from south of the border, he is still a teenager and has only started two competitive matches this season.

Wilson, the other option at right-back, has fallen out of favour at Celtic Park recently and, as mentioned earlier, doesn’t get forward as much as he did at certain points last season.

So what next for Neil Lennon’s Celtic?  Most of their performances this season have been uninspiring and it appears that their formation has lost much of its effectiveness which, it is argued here, is largely down to the loss of Izaguirre and its knock-on effects.

As I write, however, it is transfer deadline day.  Celtic could recruit a left-back before the day is out, even if the signing of Dundee United’s Paul Dixon now seems unlikely.  If Lennon fails in his bid to bring in an attacking left-back, he will have to tinker with his formation in order to compensate for the loss of the width and drive that Izaguirre provided from that position last season.

Or perhaps Bangura will be the man that allows him to deploy a lone striker system and introduce two wingers to his starting line up.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Hearts 2 Hibernian 0

Hearts deservedly defeated a toothless Hibernian side in the first Edinburgh derby of the season.  Even though the football on display was not of the highest quality, it was an intriguing ninety minutes with plenty of commitment from both sets of players.

Paulo Sergio made eight changes from the 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane but only one change from their previous league outing.  Ian Black returned from suspension and took his place in centre midfield alongside David Obua and Adrian Mrowiec.  The inclusion of Obua suggested a 4-2-3-1 formation, however, the Ugandan international was deployed in a more reserved role in a tight central midfield three, meaning that the home side lined up 4-3-3.

Colin Calderwood made three changes from the league defeat to St. Mirren last week, dropping David Wotherspoon, Viktor Palsson and David Stephens in favour of Sean O’Hanlon, Junior Agogo and new loan signing Richie Towell.  There was also a change in shape for the Easter Road side as Matt Thornhill was moved out to the left of midfield in a 4-4-2 formation.

The respective shapes meant that Hearts enjoyed an extra man in the centre of midfield.  Further, their full-backs pushed on at every opportunity, forcing Thornhill and Ivan Sproule into defensive duties for most of the first half.  The result was that Hearts edged possession.

Hearts focus down the left but get joy down the right

It is clear that the new manager is trying to instil a pass-from-the-back approach at Tynecastle, equally clear that some of the players aren’t suited to it and are finding it difficult to shake off their old habit of lumping the ball down the channels.

Club captain Marius Zaliukas, no stranger to the odd howler, was guilty of a few stray passes in the first half and Andy Webster, his central defensive partner, hit a few high, inaccurate passes in the direction of Andy Driver.

The exclusion of John Sutton, even from a place on the bench, is further evidence that Sergio is sceptical of fielding a target man as his lone striker and that he wishes his side to retain possession and create opportunities through passing moves, as opposed to feeding off knock-downs and second balls.

Conversely Hibernian took a direct approach, choosing to field two big strikers that they were all too happy to hit with long, direct passes.  Agogo would look to drop off into space but his movement was tracked, more often than not, by Mrowiec.

The Hibs front two pressed the Hearts defenders, forcing them into the mistakes referred to above, although the rest of the side failed to follow suit.  This meant that large gaps appeared between the Hibs front two and back eight, another reason why Hearts made better use of their possession.

Hearts attempted to play the ball to Driver at every opportunity and get him running at Towell.  He rarely got the better of the Hibs right-back however, as Hearts struggled to create anything clear cut.

The teams had largely cancelled each other out – with Hibs missing the best chance of the half through Garry O’Connor – until around five minutes before half-time when a mistake allowed Hearts to take the lead.

Callum Booth tried to pick out Thornhill inside his own half.  The pass wasn’t the greatest but the recipient was also at fault and allowed Jamie Hamill to disposes him before exchanging passes with Ian Black and cutting the ball back for Ryan Stevenson who finished from seven yards.

Further blame can be thrown the way of Isaiah Osbourne who made little attempt to track Stevenson’s run.

Second half

Hibernian emerged from the second half a different side.  Calderwood moved Sproule to just behind the front two and Thornhill to the right in a midfield diamond formation.  With the Hibernian full-backs pushing on for the first time in the match, they now enjoyed a man advantage in the midfield zone.

For the best part of ten minutes they had Hearts on the ropes, however, as soon as the home side created their first chance of the half, the momentum again swung their way.  From then on there was only ever going to be one winner.

The advantage of enjoying an extra man in the centre of midfield, via a diamond formation, was outweighed by the formation’s major flaw.  The narrow nature of the midfield means that the full-backs become exposed when defending.  With the wide players Hearts possess, and the attacking nature of their full-backs, along with the poor form of Callum Booth so far this season, it was no surprise that Hearts created several opportunities down the Hibs left-hand side.

Three chances in quick succession were created down this side: Booth was nowhere to be seen when Stephen Elliott forced Graham Stack into a save; Stevenson then got in behind the same player to cut back for Elliott, who this time hit the post; and finally Hamill wasted an opportunity by electing to shoot when he should have cut the ball back for a tap in.

Calderwood responded by withdrawing Sproule and Agogo for Akpo Sodje and Leigh Griffiths on the hour mark, moving to a 4-3-3 formation.  The difference between the 4-3-3 formation of Hearts and that of Hibernian was that Hearts’ wide players are more naturally wide players/midfielders who looked to track back.  Hibernian’s were strikers who stayed in attack waiting for their side to work the ball forward.

Hearts increased their lead minutes later when Webster headed in a Hamill corner, an attack that again originated down the Hibs left side, although on this occasion the blame cannot be directed towards Booth.


Yet another comfortable victory for Hearts in the Edinburgh derby.  The home side certainly weren’t at their best but were up against a side devoid of confidence and, it seems, any kind of coherent strategy.

Against Kilmarnock, two of the four goals Hibernian conceded were a direct result of crosses from the right and in this match; it was again their main weakness.  Booth was partly at fault for the opening goal but his second half performance was as much down to his manager’s decision to leave him exposed after the change in formation.

After all the pre-Towell talk of Hibernian requiring a right-back, it now seems that the opposite side needs to be addressed.

Hearts’ new approach under Paulo Sergio is beginning to take shape although it is yet to be seen whether or not the players’ mentality can be altered to fit how he wants the side to play.  The centre-backs are not the best ball-players and the lack of a deep-lying playmaker to aid transitions to attack may also be detrimental.

Obua was played in a deeper role and had a decent match but has failed to hit anything near a good run of form in his three years at the club.  Scott Robinson may possess the required attributes but is still largely untried as a first team regular.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Rangers 1 Maribor 1 (2-3 on aggregate)

Rangers huffed and puffed against a mediocre Maribor side but failed to take enough of their chances to progress.  Maribor sat behind the ball for most of the ninety minutes and hit Rangers with a sucker-punch early in the second half, which proved decisive in the outcome of the tie.

Ally McCoist was without Lee McCulloch, Davie Weir, Sasa Papac, Jordan McMillan and Kyle Bartley through injury, and was also missing Steven Naismith and Steven Whittaker through suspension.  As well as this, Ross Perry was named on the bench, meaning that Carlos Bocanegra, Maurice Edu and Kirk Broadfoot were restored to the starting line up as McCoist demonstrated his desire to field experience over youth.  They lined up in their usual 4-4-1-1 formation.

Maribor made one change from the 2-1 victory in Slovenia, Ales Mejac missed out and was replaced by Nejc Potokar at right-back.  They lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with Zelko Filipovic sitting just ahead of the back four and Dalibor Volas dropping off Rober Beric in attack.  When in possession, the wide men of Maribor would come inside – like Villarreal’s interiores – and overload the central areas.

With a first-leg lead to protect, it was no surprise that Maribor’s strategy was to sit as many men behind the ball as possible while refusing to pressure their opponents unless they moved past the halfway line.

Rangers, on the other hand, looked to pass the ball out from the back – in a similar fashion to the win in Inverness – with Steven Davis the player dropping to collect the ball from the centre-backs.  And just like that match in the Highlands, Rangers lacked a cutting edge in front of goal

Their approach was to get Gregg Wylde on the ball as much as possible and two of his crosses in the first twenty minutes should have been converted.  Kyle Lafferty failed to commit himself to the first in the seventh minute, and Edu later sent his free header straight into the arms of Jasmin Handanovic.

Added to this, Rangers enjoyed a succession of corners but failed to take advantage of Maribor’s vulnerability in these situations.

Rangers’ injury woes were added to when Perry replaced Lee Wallace around five minutes before half-time.  The enforced change meant that Bocanegra was moved to the left-back and from that point on, Rangers missed the thrust Wallace had provided from that position and, relatedly, the support and overlap for Wylde.

Nikica Jelavic and Lafferty dovetailed throughout the first half, linked up well at times and between them created another two excellent opportunities that Lafferty squandered, one of which was a one-on-one with the goalkeeper on the stroke of half-time.

Second half

Whereas most of Rangers’ play in the first half was focused through Wylde on the left, two chances early in the second half were created down the right, both involving Kirk Broadfoot, which Lafferty and Davis failed to trouble Handanovic with.

Rangers were then made to regret their missed chances when Volas opened the scoring on fifty-five minutes. 

The few times Maribor found themselves in possession in advanced positions, their most dangerous player was Dejan Mezga – one of the interiors – who would start wide, drift inside to collect the ball and beat players.  He was fed half way inside the Rangers half and managed to draw three Rangers players towards him before slipping the ball to Aleds Mertelj.  The twenty-four year old then took advantage of the space afforded to him by the holdup play of Mezga and drove at the Rangers defence before finding Volas, who finished in the bottom corner.

If Maribor were not ultra-defensive before, a 1-0 lead (and 3-1 aggregate lead) meant that they were now, and with as many time-wasting tactics as possible thrown in.

Rangers panicked for a short spell but then soon settled into their passing that had brought about many opportunities until then.

One player who had been largely ineffective was Juan Manuel Ortiz and he was replaced by David Healy with just over twenty-minutes remaining.  Lafferty was moved out to the right but increasingly found himself in central positions alongside Jelavic and Healy as the match entered its final stages.

Rangers did manage to pull a goal back, when Bocanegra bundled in a Wylde corner, but a late rally couldn’t save their European blushes.  This time, of the chances created, Healy was the most culpable as he displayed a severe lack of composure when one-on-one with Handanovic.


McCoist’s tactics are hard to argue with: His side created enough chances to win two or three Europa League ties, they just failed to take them.

Rangers looked to get the ball wide to Wylde and hit their two large strikers with early crosses.  As well as this, Lafferty and Jelavic would take turns to drop deep and wide, link play and draw defenders out of position.

All this worked, it was the finishing that let them down.

In saying that, it wasn’t the most interesting match tactically.  Maribor sat ten men behind the ball in attempt to stifle Rangers.  It didn’t work as Rangers carved out several clear-cut opportunities.  Their Euro exit must be blamed on poor finishing, rather than a fantastic defensive performance from Maribor.