Okay, let’s start with the 3-5-2.
I’ll cover this tomorrow in more detail no doubt, but when we played the 3-5-2 last season it was clearly a system that was designed to work in the SPL and in select European games. But there are opponents you do not play that system against if you know what’s good for you, and when I saw at the start tonight that Lennon had done so I had a sinking feeling.
2-0 down at half time, and we looked a disjointed, disorganised shambles.
Players were being asked to do unfamiliar jobs and it showed, most notably with the shocker of a second goal where two of our defenders were pulled right due to the absence of full-back cover and a simple pass inside took them both out of the equation.
It was Duffy’s job to cover in the middle; his absence left a gaping hole to exploit. It was Callum McGregor, not one of his defensive partners, who tracked back to help him. That summed up the whole of the first half for me; we were a mess.
Tomorrow I’ll take a closer look at the systems … but Lennon saw what had to be done at the break for once and made the change he should have made at the weekend; he went back to a system he and the players are completely comfortable with and where everyone knows his role. And not only did we look more stable at the back – albiet for that shocker of an ending – but we looked somehow more potent going forward.
The old movement was there again; players knew where they were meant to be and more important, where other players were going to be. The one-twos between Elyounoussi and Rogic were almost like practiced minuets in high speed.
One moment summed it up as completely as the inside ball catching our defence summed up the first half; Ryan Christie’s cheeky little back-heel, which the player behind was moving onto … Ryan had no way of knowing if the player was making that run, but because that’s where the player was supposed to be he took the chance and it was one of the best bits of football we played in the game.
There is no doubt that the 4-2-3-1 has been sussed by most Scottish teams, who simply pack the defence and wait for us to run into a brick wall. There is no doubt that the 3-5-2 variant we played last season works against those defences.
But these players know the 4-2-3-1 inside out and against good teams it gives us far more balance than the crazy tactic of going three at the back against a team who utilises width and can pull you over the pitch. Our centre backs do not know what they are supposed to be doing against that, and we suffered for it these last two games.
This is particularly hard on young Welsh, who isn’t necessarily a bad footballer but who for the second game in a row was playing in a tactical system his fellow players clearly find it hard to comprehend, especially the midfield and the defence.
I think we tweaked the 3-5-2 from last season and have come up with a version that is too static and rigid and that the players do not properly understand. Look at the injection of fluidity when we went to the 4-2-3-1. But there was another element, too, of course.
We took off Scott Brown. We moved Ntcham back to a central midfield role instead of asking him to play as link-man with the forwards. We pulled Callum back to the defensive job … it takes out of the running as an attacking force, yes, but it allowed us to bring on Tom Rogic, who is intelligent, fluid and can control the ball in his specialist area of the pitch, behind the strikers and between them and the midfield, where he is eminently comfortable.
If the formation change brought us more stability and familiarity, that was the substitution which brought us our fluidity back. And it worked.
If we play that way against Aberdeen we will comfortably beat them. The manager has to decide what system he plays, what formation he plays and what personnel he utilises within the system and formation he picks. We would do well not to experiment or mess about here … a return to a 4-2-3-1 system, at least until we have the full complement of central defenders available, would not be the worst thing in the world because the players get it.
I think we could get the same fluidity in the 3-5-2, of course, and I’d see us play that system every day of the week against domestic opposition … except for the Ibrox club who’s three up front and three in the middle seems to have Lennon flummoxed. There is a simple solution; to go like for like and match them player for player in the same formation … we’ll see if Lennon ever tries it.
But against teams who can punish you with width and who have the talent and the movement up front to turn out your lights, three at the back is dangerous stuff. When we beat Lazio home and away last season we played the 4-2-3-1. It has its uses, it has its occasions when it’s an entirely appropriate system and I could not believe we didn’t go with it at the weekend, with so many players out, and that we did not start with it tonight.
Lesson learned? I get tired writing that. I get tired asking the question. How can something be obvious to laypersons who don’t have coaching badges and experience? Why did the manager risk it against a team like Milan? And especially when the same back line had proved vulnerable at the weekend against a team Milan wouldn’t see in the road.
In the end, the team looked to have gotten some of its verve back due to the change of system. But there are clearly issues which need to be resolved. The goalkeeper looks like a rabbit in the headlights at the moment, and I was grateful to Craig Gordon for giving him some sage advice during the week. He knows what it’s like playing under this weight.
Shane Duffy is already in danger of being the new guy Celtic fans love to hate.
He was terrible tonight, totally flat-footed for the second goal and for the third. What’s the matter with him at the moment? We all know there’s a footballer there, that this guy is a good player and will be a good signing. That is, unless he proves to be another overpaid EPL player who thinks this is a holiday up here. He should already know that’s not on.
He needs to find the performances that made him an effective centre back in the EPL and captain of his country, and he needs to do that fast.
Because he is not impressing people.
Indeed, if we had a couple of our other defenders fit I think his position would be under threat already, and perhaps that’s what needs to be the case before he finds his form. We know that this guy isn’t a ball playing footballer and he never has been; it’s no coincidence that the best guys in our team at doing that are former midfielders.
But he isn’t even doing the simple stuff right at the moment, and that’s a big concern.
Overall, I said I’d be happy with a performance … and what we got was half of one, or rather scattered bits of one in the second half. But I saw enough to remind me that these are good players, capable of playing good football … as long as they all understand the roles they are in and how those roles blend into the larger whole of the team itself.
The change of formation worked.
The change of personnel within that formation definitely worked. If he goes with the team that started tonight on Sunday we could struggle.
If he plays the core of the one that ended it, we’ll win comfortably.
What are the odds he goes with the former rather than the latter?