Shoots of improvement: an early look at Celtic under John Kennedy

By Euan Davidson

February 27, 2021

So, Celtic beat Aberdeen 1-0 today, in their first match under interim boss John Kennedy.

From 10 days ago, that’s literally not an improvement [BBC]. Objectively, it was nearly a mirror-image from the previous meeting against Derek McInnes’ Dons. A slightly fortunate goal made the difference here.

But there was enough during this match to get our teeth into. Kennedy showed some very important distinctions from Lennon. There were steps in the right direction, and for once, it’s a game that leaves Celtic supporters with a bit of optimism, as opposed to the drudgery of the Hoops under Lenny.

Approach play already improved

Firstly, the approach play was almost entirely different. Celtic built from the back, and that caused some tricky moments for Scott Bain. Initially, the problem with Bain was that he couldn’t play with the ball at his feet, but generally speaking, he did alright in that regard.

Ajer and Welsh came deeper to collect the ball, and that meant possession was kept more readily. From the centre-backs, the wide players Jonjoe Kenny and Diego Laxalt were given more licence to hug the touchline. Interestingly, Welsh and Ajer averaged almost the same number of passes, with 73 and 72 respectively [WhoScored].

It’s a little reminiscent of Boyata and Simunovic, who saw plenty of the ball during their time under Brendan Rodgers. Building from the back is something Celtic can do against Scottish teams. It’s building the confidence to do in Europe that’s another question entirely.

John Kennedy on the Celtic touchline v Aberdeen / (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Celtic changing shape under John Kennedy

Nominally, Celtic played the diamond today. That provided some much-needed continuity, as changing everything too quickly would’ve been incredibly risky against a good Aberdeen side.

However, as noted in our post-match analysis, there was a particularly interesting change at the 64th minute mark. It was, in many ways, an indication of what’s to come from Celtic interim boss John Kennedy.

When the game wasn’t going our way, Kennedy brought on Elyounoussi and changed to the more dynamic and versatile 4-2-3-1. A preferred formation under Rodgers and Deila, it makes sense that Kennedy went to something more familiar.

Before the game, we projected that Kennedy might use that formation from the off, but in the end, we saw both the old and the new. In what turned out to be a scrappy game, the interim Celtic boss rang the changes when they were needed. Aberdeen were piling on the pressure, and having Diego Laxalt largely responsible at both ends of a flank was too risky.

Laxalt, who had a good game, by the way, was beginning to tire. So, Elyounoussi took on the attacking responsibilities, while the Uruguayan was tasked with stopping deliveries from his left. He wasn’t always successful in that endeavour, but it was the right move to make.

Introducing Soro late on showed the future of the shape of Celtic under Kennedy. Next to Brown in the latter stages, don’t expect Soro to be benched too often. The Ivorian’s work rate and box-to-box instincts are vital to the proposed shape under the interim boss.

Ajer was excellent today / (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Defending set pieces: getting there, slowly

The main difference was key, today. Aberdeen knew to attack us at set pieces, or with balls into the box more broadly. Kennedy had seemed to instruct his players to hold a more disciplined line, with the Dons failing to take advantage of a long-standing fraility.

The execution was much better. We had players on posts, and the likes of Ajer, Welsh and Brown were attacking the ball in the first instance. That makes such a difference, and it’s obvious that this was a priority for Kennedy, as well it should’ve been.

By now, 10IAR has eluded us, and we’ve got to accept that. Even if we had fixed our set-piece problems, it would be a closer-run thing, but by no means a certainty. It’s staggering that it’s taken this long for, presumably, one of the coaches to drill the players on defending aerially.

There was something of Stephen McManus in Welsh’s game today. The youngster seemed far keener to attack the ball in the air; something he’s good at, but not great yet. There was just more confidence about Celtic when defending the ball. That’s a hugely encouraging sign.

Granted, it’s one game. Nobody is getting carried away; after all, it was only 1-0.

But Aberdeen are no mugs, and Celtic had to earn this. With Kennedy’s approach against Aberdeen, there were definitely positives. In a season full of the opposite, we have to take the good things as they come.

READ MORE: The Celtic board have to take it slowly.