Celtic returned to Rugby Park on Saturday, the site of their 6-0 drilling of Kilmarnock in April, and a victory which saw them secure a first league title in three years. Kilmarnock were out to redeem themselves at home against what was a full strength Celtic side.
Lennon set his side up in a 3-5-2 formation; a system not unfamiliar to Celtic in league play, but one which they have not used regularly, or too recently. Changes from the midweek clash with Spartak Moscow consisted of Lassad coming into the side for Georgios Samaras. Adam Matthews replaced Mikael Lustig and Wanyama and Ledley returned with Kris Commons out injured and Beram Kayal on the bench. Predictably, Emilio Izaguirre and Matthews were the wide men in the setup.
The formation allowed the two wide men to go forward relatively freely and with a lesser amount of defensive responsibility than is normally required of them. Adam Matthews in particular had some fantastic link up play with Gary Hooper, who dropped deeper to support the Welshman in possession. These two, along with Brown, formed a great deal of Celtic’s attack in the opening period. On the left, Lassad tended to stay a little higher than Gary Hooper, however, Charlie Mulgrew stepped up high to support Izaguirre to compensate.
These positional movements made Celtic unpredictable, and fluid in attack. Not a single Celtic player, other than perhaps Wilson, seemed restricted by their defensive or positional duties.
Perhaps Neil Lennon’s reasoning for playing a 3-5-2 system was to accommodate Brown, Wanyama and Ledley in the team in a manner in which none of the three would be shunted out wide. So often when Celtic play their usual 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, Ledley and Brown are forced to play a wider role (Brown usually on the right and Ledley on the left) when they are both really natural central midfielders.
In this system, Wanyama was the midfield marshal, getting the ball off the back three and distributing it to start an attack, or to calm the play down. He also defended the deepest of the three and supported the defense when they needed it. Joe Ledley was stationed on the left hand side of central midfield. What Joe Ledley is so good at is winning the lose balls and playing a simple pass. He also has the ability to run with the ball, more so than Scott Brown. In this case, he was really the midfield engine which is a perfect role for him, seeing as he does not have the creative flair of someone like Wanyama or Commons. Scott Brown, while generally playing the role that Ledley played in this game, was given a little more free reign to move forward and support the attack. While not a lethal finisher or magical playmaker, he did excel in the role on this occasion. Indeed, Celtic’s first goal came following a move where Hooper dropped deep to exchange with Matthews before he cut if back for Brown to stroke home.
Brown continued to impress when he squared for Joe Ledley across the Killie six yard box to tap home following a slick through ball from Wanyama. This goal was literally crafted with the three midfielders in the shape that they played the entire game: Wanyama as the pivot, Brown high right in central midfield, and Joe Ledley coming on from a deeper position on left field.
Heffernan Chance and Celtic’s Back Three
Kilmarnock started the second half with intent, and Paul Heffernan should have made it 1-1 after Ambrose failed to put the ball out on the right side. Celtic started the second period of play rather shakily and for a while it looked as if the three at the back began to lose steadiness. Lennon will know that while the system turned out to work well on this occasion, it can only really be played if Ambrose, Wilson and Mulgrew are in full fitness and top form. Against stronger sides, such as in Europe, Celtic would be left badly exposed to a counter attack, as the were here when Matthews was caught too far up the pitch and Ambrose failed to put the ball out of play. Another item of note is that while Efe Ambrose has the ability to carry the ball out from the back and take touches past attackers, it isn’t really something you want to be doing with only three defenders. He failed to recognize this, and on a few occasions nearly lost the ball in possession which would have meant only Mulgrew and Wilson were behind him. Not to suggest that the three at the back didn’t have strong games, but there are things that need to be improved upon in this system to ensure defensive security if Lennon wants to continue to play it in Scotland. Having said that, Ambrose, who has been very impressive since joining Celtic, did not have a great start to the second half.
Celtic Substitutions and Last Two Goals
Georgios Samaras came on for Lassad and scored in what was a lovely team move only minutes later. The ball fell to Scott Brown, who showed great skill to lift the ball over an oncoming Liam Kelly before slipping it through to a charging Adam Matthews. Matthews took his time with the cross to pick out an unmarked Samaras at the back post, whose header banged off the crossbar and in. Lennon then brought on Beram Kayal for Izaguirre, a change which altered the Celtic shape and returned it to a 4-4-2. Miku was brought on as a straight swap for Gary Hooper a few minutes later. Kilmarnock pulled one back after the Celtic midfield was caught too high and Matthews and Ambrose were split on the through ball. Kelvin Wilson failed to see Cillian Sheridan drift into the area and the ex-Celtic man nodded home.
Kilmarnock’s goal at the death was consolation, but not wholly undeserved. Indeed, had Celtic visited Rugby Park a few weeks earlier, and still in their league form rut, they would have done well to get three points against a determined Kilmarnock side. However, this was simply a different class display from the Glasgow men. Fluid, incisive and clinical, Celtic showed that they have the players to fit practically any system they choose (at least in Scotland), a luxury that is hard to come by. It is likely that Lennon’s decision regarding his team shape was to shake things up in an attempt to expel what had been continual poor domestic form. However, as long as the five that started in midfield today are fit, he may want to look at playing this system more often.
Man of the Match: Scott Brown