To say that Celtic’s integration back to a 3-5-2 system has been a bumpy one certainly wouldn’t be inaccurate.
Neil Lennon went back to the tried and tested three-at-the-back after the recent international break as Celtic roared up in Dingwall and slammed home five goals without reply.
Granted, that game didn’t come without its defensive hitches. County had several opportunities to score, and but for a sensational performance from Vasilis Barkas, they would’ve had a couple.
We then lost the first goal at St Mirren on Wednesday night before going on to turn the game around and control it. Livingston would come to Parkhead and bag two on Saturday as they also found gaps in what would appear to be a leaky back-line.
But what Lennon has shown is a willingness to stick by it over the last few games. He knows it’s a system designed for defensive gaps, but there’s such confidence in our attacking players going forward that we will fancy ourselves to overpower anyone in Scotland.
That leads us to Thursday night then. Riga away. Europa League third qualifying round. A one-legged shoot-out with no home safety net. Lose and there’ll be plenty of supporters asking real questions of the manager. For some it will be one bad European result many.
Lennon has yet to field a 3-5-2 in a European game since he arrived at Celtic Park back in February 2019. Even against the likes of Sarajevo and Nomme Kalju in the early stages of last season’s Champions League qualifiers, it was always a back four that was deployed. The same went for KR Reykjavik and Ferencvaros this season.
Against Copenhagen back in February when Celtic lost 3-1 in the Europa League last-32 at Parkhead, Lennon again with a flat four. The idea is that it adds an extra body at the back and doesn’t open up so easily to width.
Back four didn’t work vs Copenhagen
Lennon produced a back four against the Danes even when we were battering everyone in Scotland with a 3-5-2 at the start of 2020. The manager showed a real unease about leaving the defence with so little protection against Copenhagen.
However, ironically, we lost the game through dreadful game-management and defenders being out of position. So it’s not as if playing a 4-2-3-1 is error-proof.
Thursday night then will show if Lennon truly trusts this system. Does he feel this Celtic team is ready to utilise it in bigger games? Or is there still that hesitancy in there from the manager? Would he truly drop it just to back to a 4-2-3-1 that has been so turgid to watch in the past? A 4-2-3-1 that still hardly guarantees you defensive solidity?
Some may look at Riga and think “pfft, what’s there to worry about?”. Well, there are actually a fair few reasons we should take enormous care when we travel to Latvia this week.
Copenhagen, the team who knocked us out, came close to losing to Riga in last year’s qualifiers. The Danes lost 1-0 away to Celtic’s opponents. Granted, their 3-1 win at home ultimately sent them through, but Celtic don’t have that luxury. We have to win it on the night.
Riga have also, quite incredibly, never lost a game at home in European football since they were formed in 2014. They’ve played six European qualifiers at home and have managed to win four and draw two. Notable wins outside of their Copenhagen success came against CSKA Sofia and Piast Gliwice respectively.
So this counts as a big game in terms of both difficulty and pressure. If Lennon selects a 3-5-2, it’ll show his intent to stick with this system for the long-term. Should he revert back to a four? It may be the case that the manager just isn’t overly-convinced by it yet.
All will be revealed when Lenny picks his line-up, but we’re set to learn a lot about how trustworthy this system is in the manager’s mind.