Where Celtic lost two points; tactical lessons from Sunday's disappointing draw
Another domestic meeting, and another laundry list of problems with Neil Lennon’s Celtic.
Callum Davidson’s efficient St. Johnstone are no pushover at this stage of the season, but this was an opponent that the Bhoys should have easily handled. Instead, we drew 1-1, and Rangers opened up a 13-point lead.
Albeit, that’s having played two extra games. Boli Bolingoli’s holiday to Spain has meant that Celtic writers have had to deal in hypotheticals for most of the season.
Still, the bad habits that Lennon’s men have developed this season remained in an eerily quiet Celtic Park on Sunday. Let’s get into the nuts and bolts of Sunday’s draw.
Formational problems persist
By this point it’s become clear that Neil Lennon is desperate to play a 3-5-2, or at least a variation of it. More clubs in 20-21 have gone for a formation with numbers in the middle and two up top. Striking partnerships are back, and that’s great news. It’s fun.
That said, Lennon really should’ve done his homework this time. St. Johnstone’s ‘Christmas Tree’ formation, a 3-4-2-1 (WhoScored?), matched perfectly against Celtic and they used it to their advantage.
Knowing that Celtic try to develop most of their play through central areas, Davidson continued with his approach, flooding the middle of the park with numbers. This meant that whenever Celtic carried the ball through the middle, there were at least two men in blue able to press. If one went to win back possession, another would be able to clog the lanes of space where a pass might come.
In doing this, St. Johnstone frustrated Celtic. Celtic may have had 17 shots on goal, but most of them were fruitless attempts from the middle. Indeed, Celtic’s only goal in this match was a flukey speculative header from Mohammed Elyounoussi.
Celtic should have been more clinical, sure. But St. Johnstone’s set-up is designed to soak up pressure in the middle, and move the ball out wide. They did it well, and that was a key reason for the result.
Neil Lennon’s best XI includes Leigh Griffiths
Team selection was another undoing for Lennon. He persisted with Scott Brown and Tom Rogic, but it was the introduction of David Turnbull and Leigh Griffiths that saved the point.
Leigh Griffiths is valued as an 18-yard predator, an instinctive goal-scorer who gets into great positions for easy finishes. Or, he gets into bad positions and puts it away anyway. However, it was his playmaking that really stood out here.
When he came on, Celtic were suddenly a creative force. All that play in the middle started to work; Griff’s flicks and vision were on show in a game that the wee striker could’ve easily turned on its head.
His link-up play with Edouard was, at times, exquisite. Turnbull, in kind, knew where Griffiths was meant to be, spraying passes wide to create running space, or simply showing the ball to Griff, who would bamboozle the St. Johnstone defence with his gallus trickery.
If Lennon wants fluidity between the midfield and attack, his best option is to start a midfield which includes Christie (who played fantastically well) and Turnbull, with Griffiths providing the link. For too many matches, Edouard has looked isolated up front.
I’ve no doubt Celtic would’ve won this game if Griffiths, Turnbull and Elyounoussi had started. Whether or not the latter actually could’ve began the 90 minutes, I’m less sure. But what I am sure of is that Lennon must start Celtic how they finished this match.
Defending and preparation: still a problem
Kristoffer Ajer continues to confound. He hasn’t had the same amount of criticism as his defensive partners, but he was culpable for St. Johnstone’s goal, and has been found wanting on many occasions this season.
Frimpong was at fault for the creation of the opportunity, sure. His position was woeful. Worse, however, was Kristoffer Ajer’s lack of effort getting back to the near post, simply watching the ball slide Kane’s way, who needed no second invitation to put the ball in the back of the net.
It’s simple stuff; Celtic’s defence are playing like individuals. Against the counter-pressing Saints, the 3-man defence were at sea under any kind of pressure.
Callum Davidson knew to have his front 3, with O’Halloran and Wotherspoon tucked in behind Stevie May, pressure the player in possession. Instead of retreating to a deeper defensive position out of possession, the front three stayed further up the pitch, watching for lapses in concentration.
May could honestly have snaffled a couple in this game. St. Johnstone, in many ways, were unlucky not to win this one.
If a team like St. Johnstone are having that much of a go against us, then we should really be worried. In any case, it’s how teams will match up against Celtic if the defensive frailties continue.
All credit to Callum Davidson and his coaching team, because it’s obvious they do their homework on opposition. Given how Celtic have looked in recent weeks, it’s clear there are no individual match plans in place. The same was true of Stuart Kettlewell and his Ross County side.
It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. Celtic should be ready for who they’re up against. A one-size-fits-all outlook is outmoded, and doesn’t work.