The Celtic answer to terrible pitch and strange pre-match Kilmarnock comments
Few discussions in Scottish football are as drawn out as the discourse over plastic pitches.
The continued use of artificial surfaces has long since been used as a stick with which to beat the league – an indictment of Scottish football’s perceived lack of progress compared to other similar European top-flights.
For the moment, the surface will remain a factor for the ten teams in the league with grass or hybrid pitches to contend with, and a leveller for the two other sides – Kilmarnock and Livingston – to utilise.
Celtic’s struggles on plastic pitches are well-versed at this point too. Although it’s not an enormous sample size, the Hoops have only won three of their last six visits to Kilmarnock, and only once since 2007 in Livingston. Whilst the Lions spent a significant period out of the top-flight and with no cup ties between the sides since that 4-1 win, Celtic went five games without a win at the Toni Macaroni from the Lothian club’s promotion to the Premiership in 2018.
This changed in March, however, as Ange Postecoglou’s rampant Celtic won comfortably away to Livingston to end the 15-year hoodoo on their way to the Scottish Premiership title – a match which could hold the key to how the champions can produce a similar result in Ayrshire tomorrow.
On the day, Celtic fielded a significantly altered line-up, with Ralston, Rogic, Bitton and Forrest coming into the side at the expense of Juranovic, Hatate, O’Riley and Abada.
Daizen Maeda continued as the lone striker and opened the scoring early on following Callum McGregor’s saved penalty. An OG from a threatening Ralston cross and a James Forrest shot across the keeper made sure of the points as the Hoops ran out 3-1 winners – Livingston scoring a consolation late on.
Celtic have already found the right approach for Kilmarnock test
Despite conventional wisdom suggesting that the best way to counter a plastic pitch is to be more direct, circumventing the surface altogether, this was an approach adopted in the 1-0 defeat in West Lothian the previous September, still Celtic’s last Premiership defeat.
Instead, Celtic stuck to Postecoglou’s philosophy and compressed the pitch with a high defensive line, as Maeda dropped deep – clustering around Livingston’s players and forcing them to hit the ball long to Joe Hart or risk facing a turnover of possession with multiple Celtic players in close proximity.
We already know that Kilmarnock will be combative in a similar way to Livi, with some strange pre-match admissions that they’ll be out to “make fouls” to stop Celtic.
The Lions also employed a man marking system out of possession, something tomorrow’s rival manager Derek McInnes is no stranger to, seemingly anticipating a deluge of crosses as there had been in the previous fixture with Albian Ajeti standing in the width of the six yard box. This allowed Celtic to work their familiar rotations in wide areas, pulling Livingston apart and isolating players 1 vs 1 – opening space in their opponents backline.
With Rogic and Bitton since leaving the club, it’s likely to be a more familiar line-up for the Hoops in Ayrshire, with David Turnbull and Matt O’Riley in front of McGregor in the “6”.
Whilst the debate between Kyogo and Giakoumakis will continue to rage, the Japanese has a similar skillset to his fellow countryman Maeda and will almost certainly play through the middle at Rugby Park, dropping off to similar effect.
Whether Postecoglou’s side have actively pondered the Livingston performance in the lead-up to tomorrow’s game or not, it’s a result that shows that with the right approach, there is little to fear from a plastic pitch.