It would a real injustice if Neil Lennon did not get the credit for his Celtic tactical transformation
Manager showed nous and nerve by going with Griffiths in a 3-5-2
It is too simplistic to conclude that Celtic would be in clover if the coronavirus shutdown resulted in the 2019-20 Premiership being called on current standings – as is the direction of travel.
Yes, that outcome would (will?) land them a ninth consecutive title. However, the protests ensuing from some quarters against Neil Lennon’s team being “handed the title” doesn’t square with the footballing finesse that had them on course to grab it with both hands.
There is no precedent for a team squandering a 13-point lead – even with their closest challengers having a game in hand – across the final couple of months of the season. Indeed the biggest turnaround in the three-points-for-a-win era is seven points.
How Celtic established such a monster lead across 2020 will fade from memory if they are not able to reel the championship in through their on-field endeavours.
And that would do a real injustice to the transformation that Lennon has effected on a team many believed had been found out when suffering a home loss to Rangers for the first time in nine years in the 29 December derby that put a vibrant Ibrox side in charge in the title race going into the winter break.
The Celtic manager concedes that, across the final month of last year – which also brought a jammy League Cup final victory over a Rangers team that completely outplayed them – he began to think his team had gone “a little bit stale”. His means to refresh them, though, was bloody and arresting.
It is easily forgotten now the accepted wisdom that existed at the point that Lennon switched from 4-2-3-1 to 3-5-2 and relaunched the Celtic career of Leigh Griffiths to make the switch.
The striker was considered both washed-up and unable to dovetail with a strike partner. Meanwhile, 3-5-2 was a system that no-one had ever promoted as being tailor-made for Celtic’s personnel with the requirement for three centre-backs and the need for the attack-focussed James Forrest to bring a defensive dimension to the role of wing-back.
If the changes had not produced the desired effect Lennon would have been slaughtered. A fact now entirely overlooked because Celtic have harvested 28 league points from a possible 30, winning nine and drawing one of their ten Premiership encounters post-break. Add to that three Scottish Cup victories that have seen them progress to a semi-final against Aberdeen – at some time in the distant future – and their scoring rate of more than three a game domestically in 2020, and Lennon’s reconfiguring of his team ought to be the tale of the season. The devastating pandemic understandably will ensure it won’t be, but that doesn’t take away from the nous and nerve shown by Lennon in going with Griffiths in a 3-5-2.
“I like the formation – I like it because it works…” said the Celtic manager, who laments the one blemish of 2020 that came with Europa League elimination at home to Copenhagen, a night when he did not set-up with Griffiths alongside Odsonne Edouard.
“But you have to roll the dice sometimes. And it wasn’t simply a case of saying: ‘We’ll give 3-5-2 a go today’: we put a lot of work into it,” says Lennon. “It was in my mind [before Griffiths’ return] because I thought we were starting to look a bit stale – plus I like playing with two strikers. We can always go back to a four, though.
“We’ve just had to be really patient with him [Griffiths] while he had to knuckle down and show the right desire and I believe there’s more still to come from him in terms of fitness. But he’s a natural born goalscorer and you can’t buy that. Plus I thought the formation would suit us.
“It’s brought the best out of Odsonne Edouard as well. He’s a top, top player and having Leigh beside him has taken a little bit of the workload off him. Plus our midfield is as good as anyone’s: with a combination of Scott Brown, Callum McGregor, Ryan Christie, Tom Rogic, Olivier Ntcham and Nir Bitton.”
Griffiths acting as the focal point with Edouard then able to drop deeper to engage early in attacks has paid off in goals. The eight netted in 11 starts by the Scotland striker – the last three in the form of a hat-trick against St Mirren in the final game before football was suspended – represents his best returns in three years. In tandem, Edouard has embarked on his best scoring streak of the campaign, with 11 of his 28 goals bagged since January. It has made him Celtic’s nine-and-a-half.
“Once he fully matures physically, he’ll be a proper No.9 in his own right,” said Lennon.
“He’s only just turned 22 and there’s growth still to come in him so he’ll be the main striker during his peak years.
“They [Edouard and Griffiths] have done all right together. I was delighted when they both got on the scoresheet against St Mirren the other week, especially with Leigh getting a hat-trick, because I knew how much that meant to him. He’s nearly there.
“But you tend to find that clever players will be on the same wavelength and it’s something you can’t coach because they’re linking up by making split-second decisions on the pitch and it’s not something I would take credit for. ‘That move there? Oh yeah, that’s something we practised on the training ground.’ We do work on combinations occasionally but, ultimately, it’s down to them. Griffiths is a bit of an enigma but he’s a goalscorer and he’s always a threat.”
Steven Gerrard has suggested Celtic’s reconfiguration was a response to Rangers’ ability to impose themselves on their rivals in their past two meetings. The assertion doesn’t take account of 3-5-2 being Martin O’Neill’s default formation across his first four years at Celtic wherein Lennon was a crucial midfield component.
Or the fact that the 48-year-old is a keen student of Italian coach Antonio Conte. “[My experiences under Martin O’Neill] entered into my thinking, plus the lads had tried it a few times under Brendan Rodgers,” added Lennon.
“I think Brendan had it in mind to play Odsonne alongside Moussa Dembele up top and he did it a couple of times before Dembele left [in August 2018].
“I like the formation. I used to watch Antonio Conte’s teams a lot and they always used it. We played against his Juventus side in the Champions League when they beat us. Bayer Leverkusen also played a back three at Ibrox the other week, which was interesting – it’s not all 4-3-3 nowadays.”
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