Celtic v St Johnstone: The bold, experimental XI that should play at Parkhead tomorrow

By Euan Davidson

December 5, 2020

Whether or not you’ll actually be able to see it, if you’re reading this website you’ll know that Celtic have a big game tomorrow.

St. Johnstone visit a fenced-off Celtic Park on Sunday the 5th of December with a measure of confidence. The Perth side have won 3 of their last 6, and look in good shape.

Celtic? Not so much. This league tie comes off the back of a bizarre 4-2 defeat to A.C. Milan, in which an early 2-0 Bhoys lead was emphatically cancelled out.

Hoping to win their first match in nearly a month, the Bhoys need freshening up. Fringe squad options have earned their places in the side, while some senior players need dropped. We are daring Neil Lennon to carry on the experimentation shown at the San Siro. Well, the first 15 minutes anyway.

 

“Three”, says Vasilis Barkas / (Photo by Sebastian Widmann/Bongarts/Getty Images)

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Celtic Park is the last chance saloon for Barkas on Sunday

Greek goalkeeper Vasilis Barkas should just about keep his place for this one. As explored here, Lennon dropping Barkas for the second time would only serve to further destroy confidence.

Goalkeepers need a run of games to truly get going at a new club. While his debut campaign with the Bhoys has been nightmarish, he has time on his side. Against an attacking St. Johnstone outfit, he must make it count.

In defence, Greg Taylor and Hatem Elhamed should start. No, just wait. Hear me out.

Yes, Elhamed was brutal for much of the game against A.C. Milan. However, there were some shoots of promise in that game. His link-up play with Jeremie Frimpong was occasionally excellent, and if he were to improve his positioning, he’d be as solid as he was last year.

Greg Taylor should come into the team as a tactical necessity, which I’ll get to later. In what will strictly be a defensive role, Taylor has proven in multiple seasons with Kilmarnock, and to some degree at Celtic, that he’s an effective LB. That’s all he needs to be tomorrow – no roving runs, just interceptions, tackles and forward passes. He can do that.

For the record, I still think Taylor has a future at Celtic Park. At his best, he’s a decent left-back at our level, and that’s all he needs to be for now.

In the middle, Nir Bitton should keep his place. His aerial ability actually shone on occasions at the San Siro, and he offers solidity that the likes of Shane Duffy can not. Next to him, he needs a rest, but there are no better options than Kristoffer Ajer, who I’d like to point out was abject against A.C. Milan.

That said, I completely believe in his abilities, and if he’s on his game, he’ll stroll it on Sunday.

Celtic midfielder David Turnbull / (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

At the risk of sounding like a broken record…

Neil Lennon should start Ismaila Soro and David Turnbull in a new-look midfield, with Ryan Christie roving the space ahead as a number 10.

To many, it seems like common sense: Brown and McGregor need to rest (I thought they both played alright on Thursday, incidentally). Scott Brown, in particular, has looked well off the pace at points this season. McGregor, his usual central midfield partner, needs a game off as well.

Supporters have clamoured for both the Ivorian and the ex-Motherwell star; it’s time they saw action.

In other “well, duh” news, I think Ryan Christie should be played as a number 10.

Why? Well, it’s because he’s a natural number 10. He’s good there. It’s where he plays. I don’t know how else to explain this.

 

Frimpong: much-needed energy in abundance / (Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Our love was on the wing

At the risk of going full Mad Scientist, I’d suggest playing Diego Laxalt and Jeremie Frimpong as our wide attacking options.

In this – rather unfairly – derided article, I extolled the virtues of our Dutch right-back, and why he should carry on further up the pitch. Sure, his end product needs work, but his runs in possession, his technique and his utter gallus-ness should be rewarded.

Laxalt has always been comfortable as an attacking option for both club and country. With Elyounoussi and Mikey Johnston not quite match fit, the Uruguayan seems likeliest to start further up on the left. Provided, that is, Lennon opts against playing Christie on the left and Rogic in the middle.

The ex-Inverness Caley midfielder looked relatively comfortable on the wing on Thursday night, but he’s better as a number 10. We’ve been over this.

Up front, the brilliant Odsonne Edouard should start. He’s looked much sharper in our last couple of matches (Ross County aside) and when he’s fit, there’s no real debate in my mind about who our best striker is.

A 4-2-3-1 with four full-backs? It’s so crazy it might just work. Lennon might be tempted to go back to the 3-5-2 but he shouldn’t. Using it, our midfield looks stodgy and uninspired, while there’s too much responsibility on the shoulders of our wide players.

If we can distill the first 15 minutes against A.C. Milan into a full match, we’ll be laughing. St. Johnstone are not A.C. Milan, but they’re still a decent side. Hit them early and often, and play with more discipline.

In terms of the bench, we’d like to see Karamoko Dembelé, Cameron Harper and Owen Moffat named in the squad. Of course, you can’t have everything. You’ll learn that on Christmas Day.

Predicted/preferred XI: Barkas, Taylor, Bitton, Ajer, Elhamed, Soro, Turnbull, Laxalt, Christie, Frimpong, Edouard