Juanma Lillo was at a Spanish second division team, Cultural Leonessa, when he became a football pioneer. If you’ve never heard of him that’s cool, but I am betting you are fully aware of the tactical variation he is credited with inventing; the 4-2-3-1.
“My intention was to pressure and to try to steal the ball high up the pitch,” he said. “It was the most symmetrical way I could find of playing with four forwards. One of the great advantages is that having the forwards high allows you to play the midfield high and the defence high, so everybody benefits.”
But he had a warning too. “You have to have the right players. They have to be very, very mobile and they have to be able to play when they get the ball. You have to remember that they’re pressuring to play, not playing to pressure”.
The 4-2-3-1 has become the most ubiquitous tactic in football. That’s one of the reasons it’s no longer as effective as it once was. For a long time the 4-4-2 was football’s pre-eminent style and then there was a period when the 3-5-2 was in vogue. Attacking full-backs, inside forwards and the restoration to prominence of the advanced playmaker turned the 4-2-3-1 into the world’s most successful, and copied, system. Those days are almost over.
Entire squads have been built with that formation in mind. Celtic’s is no longer one of them though, because the defensive midfielder we have is 35 and can no longer cover ground with the same speed. Rodgers’ variation played Callum McGregor in a more advanced position than Lennon does; he has him playing as a second holding midfielder … which can work in the 4-2-3-1 but blunts it somewhat. The real problem is, we’ve been using to too long.
Ronny Deila brought the 4-2-3-1 to Celtic Park; people sometimes overlook that.
This wasn’t a Rodgers system; his version was more attack-minded and stylish but it was Ronny who introduced it to our club.
In his first spell at Parkhead Lennon played two strikers every week. Deila broke with that Celtic tradition and Rodgers tweaked it. Lennon continues to use it.
In certain matches it works brilliantly; when people wonder why we were able to beat Lazio home and away and yet lost to lesser teams at home, the answer lies in the two different mentalities Lennon has used with the system; against the Italians he played with more innate caution.
He wasn’t exactly defensive, just a lot more careful.
Against Cluj and Ferencvaros, in particular, too many of our players were too far up the pitch and we were left cruelly exposed to quick counter attacks.
In Scotland, the system is almost completely useless because teams have been over-exposed to it and now understand that to blunt it they only have to put men behind the ball and choke off the delivery of our wide players.
How many attacks have you seen run into that brick wall, ended with an attempted cross into a penalty area filled with opposition footballers?
A single striker amidst that lot is a bust.
The variations of the formation which have the most success these days are those where the single striker is a big bruiser, with high technical skills; the quintessential success story is Bayern Munich, with Muller on one flank and Coman on the other and Lewendowski in the middle.
That’s a devastating partnership as was demonstrated against Barcelona last month.
We lack the personnel for this, and now that Scottish teams have found an effective – and simple – counter to it we’re going to drop points we otherwise wouldn’t if we continue to use it. Yesterday, in the first half, it took a moment of individual brilliance to unlock the Motherwell defence, on our home pitch which is bigger than the away ones we travel to and thus allows us to move the ball about and open up defensive spaces.
Against teams on those small, tight parks and especially the ones with the synthetic surfaces, we struggle. Badly at times. That, too, will cost us, unless we change.
What happened yesterday in the second half? Even once we had a striker on the pitch I felt we were struggling. Then the manager did something we’ve all been dying to see him do; he changed it to a two up front system, went to the 3-5-2 and suddenly the whole dynamic of the game was turned on its head. Motherwell defenders suddenly didn’t know whether they were supposed to mark Klimala or Ajeti, and we started finding gaps as a result.
Look at the positioning for the second goal; with defenders on the Polish striker and trying to keep an eye on Forrest, they were at sixes and sevens. Ajeti found that hole and got the ball in the six-yard box with nobody on him. Bang. 2-0 and game over.
The counter attack which sent Klimala one on one with their keeper was brilliant, the link-up play just perfect, the Motherwell team completely at sea. The big man should have buried it, but when he’s fully up to snuff he will put those away for fun.
Ajeti looks like a typical penalty box predator. He will destroy teams when he’s got a regular striker partner and when his match sharpness peaks.
We look a different team with two men up front. We look a better side, there is a greater balance to our play, we are more effective as an attacking unit and three at the back means there is less chance of us being exposed to opposition counter attacks.
Celtic will secure 10 in a row if we play with this system.
This week we should complete the signing of Shane Duffy on loan; it’s a big deal for us. The player will give us the aggression at the back which we’ve been calling out for and it will let the manager move more confidently to a defensive back three, which is critical to the two up front and the three-man central midfield.
It’s clear that one of the things we’ve been waiting on was the signing of the centre back, that having two fully fit strikers ready to go. Lennon’s perseverance with the 4-2-3-1 looks odd until you consider that he’s trying to find a better balance in the squad first.
The 4-2-3-1 still has a future, of course.
I expect it to be used in Europe, in the way it was against Lazio last season.
But we have to stop treating our lesser known opponents with such cavalier disrespect.
These sides are too good to be playing with everybody up the park.
We had that game won in midweek; all we had to do after equalising was play possession football until they were dead on their feet. Against Cluj we had the tie in the palm of our hands but wouldn’t just drop a couple of players back and hold on to our advantage.
But in domestic football the 3-5-2 is king.
When we utilised it after January last season it was the game-changer.
It delivered nine in a row.
This season it will deliver ten.
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