KRIS Commons is reflecting on his three-and-a-half years at Celtic. “I came in, did well for six months, did crap for six months and then have been pretty incredible for the next two years,” says the attacker with tongue in cheek.
Self praise is said to be no honour, but the honours that have been bestowed on Commons by others for his remarkable 31-goal campaign mean the 30-year-old doesn’t need to talk up his recent excellence. Today the Englishman adds the Scottish Football Writers’ Association player of the year award to the PFA Scotland accolade, with the 30-year-old also hoovering up his own club’s such prize.
“I’ve won monthly awards before but nothing like this that can go on the mantlepiece with a bit of pride, so I’m very happy.”
Commons talks about everything “just kind of coming together” this season to allow him to plunder a mountainous goals tally. This is in spite of having never classed himself as a striker, or feeling that the role could come naturally to him. Yet, in playing just off the frontline in a number of tactical variations, he has tapped into something that allows him to believe aspects of his play have echoed two of England’s greatest recent goal sniffers.
“To score over 30 goals has been brilliant,” says Commons, who will have one final chance to bolster his tally as Celtic end their title-winning season at home to Dundee United today. “I’ve been in the right place at the right time. I think this year I’ve had that instinct to get into positions that all strikers get into. You talk about strikers like Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler and they knew where to be to get the ball in the back of the net. I’ve kind of been in similar positions – between the penalty spot and the goal line. I’ve been there this season. It’s not something that I’ve been taught this season. It’s just been natural to me this year. I’ve had intuition.
“I scored a few goals early in the season – like the one in the Champions League qualifier against Karagandy – and that gave me confidence. A lot of the time I’ve been playing off one striker so I’ve been expected to get into the box. I’ve been trying to find my way between the centre-halves. We work hard in training and work on things, try things like get across the front man. It’s been about good movement and anticipating things.
“And although people are marking me closely I’ve been working hard to find ways to lose them. I’ve found an extra yard and tried to anticipate where the ball will drop. I’ve scored five or six goals from reacting to goalies palming the ball back out. It’s about being sharp and alert. I probably wasn’t doing enough of that a couple of years ago.”
Commons was signed as a winger but has been crafted into a No.10 where Celtic have derived full returns from his invention and artistry. Indeed, £375,000 spent to bring him from Derby in January 2010 remains a deal of the ages. Early in the season he played off Anthony Stokes in a two-man forward line. That has since been swelled to a three-pronged attack with the addition of Leigh Griffiths. His manager Neil Lennon has talked about adapting his approach to best accommodate his talents and that meant moving Commons inside, for a number of reasons.
“Probably because I haven’t got blistering pace,” he says. “We have wingers left and right – James Forrest, Derk Boerrigter is another – and when you think wingers, you think pace, get the full backs, get to the byelines. You know we weren’t blessed with [Chris] Sutton and [John] Hartson, guys who can put balls in the back of the net with their heads on a regular basis.
“When I came in there was myself, Stokesie and Hoops [Gary Hooper], all of whom are less than 6ft tall. So we had to play on the deck, one-twos and that kind of isolated the wingers because they weren’t getting the ball. So I think we found a system that worked. We had Emilio Izaguirre, Adam Matthews and Mikael Lustig who could get up and down and do that kind of job and me who could be pushed inside. If I can get the ball inside those pockets and turned then I can usually find a pass to create a goal.
“When I was at Derby I was playing just off the big striker. I scored 14 or 15 goals doing that up until December. I was used to it and trying to create the goals from that angle. It was a bit different when I first came in because I got back out on the left. It was like ‘you and Izaguirre are going to be working that side, he is a good player who will give you the ball and just do what you do best.’ I found myself working with Hoops and Stokes but due to injuries I managed to get pushed inside a bit.”
The question now is whether Celtic would dare play a 4-3-3 in Europe. The configuration has certainly boosted their goal returns, but pointedly has also pushed up the figure in their goals-against column. Commons admits to being “not sure” how he can keep up his scoring run other than by working hard. He understandably sound less than sure Celtic can play three forwards when the Champions League qualifiers come around in two months.
“It depends what team you play against,” he says. “You could sometimes say it is a 4-5-1. We kind of played this formation against Barcelona although I didn’t really get much chance to get forward. Big Sami [Georgios Samaras] was on the left. You don’t get much chance because you get forced backwards. You don’t get the licence to go forward. But I think if you do start with real width up there then you can find yourself open to all sorts of counter attacks. Different opposition, a different mix affects how you approach any game.
“If you just went for goals then it could be great going forward but you could concede four or five. I don’t think that would work. It wouldn’t last long. It is a great position to be in. We play great football, have got overlapping full-backs and try to score really good goals. Inevitably, though, you want to win games, get points on the board and qualify for the last 16 [of the Champions League]. It is down to the management and coaching staff to figure out a formation and a starting XI to achieve that.” Whatever they propose, Commons will figure in that.