A Tactical Look: Lennon is playing a dangerous game with Celtic; summer signing misused

By Euan Davidson

November 24, 2020

Celtic haven’t won in the league at Easter Road since 2014, yet on current form, a draw was a massive disappointment.

Going two down before mounting any sort of comeback, the Bhoys toiled to create chances in the first and only came to life after conceding twice and changing formation; a worrying sign on multiple fronts.

Let’s break down what happened tactically on Saturday.

Christie looks lost on the right

Shoehorning Tom Rogic and Ryan Christie into the same side was always going to be a tall order, as two attacking midfielders who like plenty of time on the ball, and to play through the middle.

The continued experiment with Christie on the right isn’t working, and he’s not to blame.

With Neil Lennon preferring a system in which our full-backs overlap, Christie looked lost, and unsure of who his opposite man was meant to be, much less his responsibilities in that role.

About 20 minutes in, he made a gut-busting run to cover Frimpong’s man and concede a throw-in. At other times, he looked unclear about which spaces to operate, with Frimpong making runs on the wing and cutting in to create opportunities.

While much has been made of the young Dutchman’s recent form, I thought he actually looked most like making something happen, but while he did it, Christie wasn’t able to make his usual incisive passes into the opposition box, and Ajeti suffered for it.

Talking of Ajeti…

Ajeti drew another blank against a domestic defence and apart from a skied effort in the first half, it wasn’t for lack of trying. As much-derided as the 3-5-2 was, Ajeti needs to play with another striker next to him – and that’s not a criticism, it’s just how he plays.

Despite playing three very attacking midfielders behind him, there was a Too Many Cooks situation developing in the first half, and it wasn’t clear where his supply was coming from. Hibs defended valiantly, but we didn’t make it especially hard for them.

If Ajeti was to play next to a deeper-lying centre forward who can run between the lines and pick out the Swiss striker for easy finishes, I’ve no doubt he’d be able to put away chances, but he’s not a lone striker.

Celtic striker Albian Ajeti / (Photo by Steve Welsh/Pool via Getty Images)

Our full-backs lack discipline

It seems harsh to point out flaws with both our full-backs, considering how well Laxalt did for much of the game, but the fact is that we conceded two sloppy goals, and continue to follow damaging patterns.

In the 4-2-3-1 set-up, both our full-backs need to be able to defend and keep a line effectively with our centre backs, namely Nir Bitton and Kristoffer Ajer, but Ajer’s frustration after conceding our second spoke volumes.

Too often, Laxalt and Frimpong’s adventuring came at the cost of exposing Bitton and Ajer and causing mismatches in our defensive third.

Playing a back 3 theoretically sorts this to some degree, with an extra man to help mop up for any shortfall, but playing a 4 means the onus is on our full-backs to be more selective with their runs forward. Frimpong especially disappointed in this aspect, but it’ll take time. Makes you really appreciate Mikael Lustig, really…

Celtic manager Neil Lennon / (Photo by Craig Foy/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Training shape has to be a focus

Simply put, too many players didn’t seem to know what Neil Lennon’s tactical agenda was, especially after half-time. Throughout the game, Callum McGregor operated far too wide on the left, as Laxalt hugged the touchline and Elyounoussi attempted to cut inside to make things happen.

Without a true right-sided midfielder, the space behind the striker became congested and, as explored above, it caused issues, namely that Ajeti found chances to be at a premium.

In short, this side has immense man-for-man talent but in terms of shape, they often don’t look as if they know where they’re meant to be.

3-5-2 saved the game

Vast swathes of the Celtic support, myself included, have been unrelentingly cynical about Neil Lennon’s preference for a 3-5-2 but it actually suited us in the latter part of the game and saved us from the ignominy of another chastening defeat.

When Griffiths and Edouard came on for the beleaguered Albian Ajeti, we looked more incisive, and it was easier to see where chances would come from.

Griffiths’ boundless energy, his willingness to receive the ball from deeper positions and drive forward created space for a coherent midfield to operate.

Celtic at Easter Road / (Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Laxalt was able to play a role more suited to him, as an all-action winger who could afford to neglect some defensive impetus, and Edouard’s industry was an encouraging sign going forward.

While it would still be fair to say that the Celtic support en masse aren’t sold on 3-5-2, it seems inevitable that Celtic will return to that shape on Thursday against Sparta Prague.

A crumb of comfort was Neil Lennon’s decision-making late in the game, but by then a win was beyond us.