Craig Fowler gives his take after Celtic continued their unbeaten domestic form with a Friday night win over Kilmarnock
Celtic defence is Boyata-proof
It’s quite remarkable how much Celtic have tightened things up defensively compared with the opening two months of the season. When the two sides went into the first Old Firm game, everyone was talking about the weakness of Rangers’ defence, but Celtic had only kept two clean sheets in their opening nine to that point, and indeed failed to keep one against their rivals despite hammering them on the day.
Fast forward two months and Brendan Rodgers’ side are currently the proud holders of a seven-game streak without conceding a goal in domestic football. They held on to this record against Kilmarnock despite throwing the much-maligned Dedryck Boyata into the centre of defence for his first appearance in any competition since he limped out of the Scottish Cup semi-final in April. And while the centre-back gave fans heart palpitations with a few of his attempted passes from deep in his own half, defensively he was a member of a unit which held strong in the face of some reasonable pressure from the determined hosts.
Celtic played three at the back - but didn’t change their preferred system
For the match with Inverness CT last time out, Rodgers decided to move to a back three to accommodate both Leigh Griffiths and Moussa Dembele in the starting XI. Afterwards he was asked why he’d changed things up by going to such a shape, to which a bemused Rodgers pointed out they’d been playing with a back three for most of the season.
Celtic play a 4-2-3-1 on paper, but in practice it’s not so straight-forward. Mikael Lustig tucks in from right-back, left-back Kieran Tierney is positioned much higher up the park, and Scott Sinclair drifts in centrally as a second striker. In essence, it’s a 3-5-2 when Celtic have the ball and 4-2-3-1 when they don’t. It’s similar to the on-off switch we usually see in a 4-5-1/4-3-3.
Against Killie, it was the exact same system, though Callum McGregor was granted greater license to roam forward than even Tierney is typically afforded, or possibly he took it upon himself to be so gung-ho as a naturally attack-minded player. The difference was having a natural midfielder at the advanced left-back position, leading many onlookers to assume it was a 3-5-2. Which it was, just not anything different.
Killie laid out a possible blueprint
Kilmarnock went with a similar line-up to the one which caused Rangers many problems at Rugby Park earlier in the season. Gary Dicker sat in front of the back four as an extra layer of protection, behind a line of four energetic and exuberant young midfielders tasked with pressing the hell out of their opponents and making life as difficult as possible. They particularly did this to good effect with the sitting midfielders, Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong, high up the park. As a result, Celtic weren’t particularly effective building from the back due to sloppy passing. Forcing Brown and Armstrong, who made plenty of errors themselves, into relinquishing possession to the less comfortable Boyata and Erik Sviatchenko enabled the hosts to frequently win the ball high up the park.
The problem with the plan was that it robbed Kilmarnock of their only reliable playmaker this season, Souleymane Coulibaly. The attacker is too small to lead the line by himself, while Lee Clark obviously didn’t trust him to stay stringent in his defensive work. Without Greg Kiltie, it meant there was a lack of cutting edge once they won the ball in advanced areas. Craig Gordon was rarely tested and though they earned respect for the performance, it didn’t win them any points.
The positive for Celtic’s unbeaten streak is that even if better sides implement such a strategy, they likely won’t be coming up against a centre-back pairing of Boyata and Sviatchenko. Kolo Toure and Jozo Simunovic are much better on the ball, both from a composure and accuracy standpoint. They can take advantage of what the opposition allows in a manner which Sviatchenko and, especially, Boyata couldn’t. An unappreciated weapon in football is a centre-back who can step out from the back, and Celtic have been great at using such players for years.
Clark has assembled a young yet disciplined side
Though he has done so in a thoroughly unorthodox manner - basically attempting to pull together more extras than Gandhi - Lee Clark is beginning to put together a young but disciplined unit. Though a cutting edge may have been lacking against Celtic, there were still flashes from the likes of Jordan Jones, Adam Frizzell and Greg Taylor, the latter two of whom are still teenagers, while fellow youngsters Lee Hendrie and Luke Boyle enjoyed solid games at the back.
Coming into the season, it looked like Clark would have to rely on the likes of Kiltie, Boyd and Miles Addison to be the spine of the side, with the young recruits filling in around. Instead, those three have all suffered injury problems, with Kiltie likely to miss the entire season. The home-grown talents and summer signings took time to mesh, with a few being sent home, but it finally looks like it has come together.
Tom Rogic’s job at No.10 is safe
Patrick Roberts came into the season as the player ready to make the biggest splash. He was a £12million talent who’d shown more than enough in his initial six months to suggest he could be a Player of the Year contender this campaign. Instead, the form of Forrest and Rogic pushed him into a reserve role. With Rogic only arriving back from international duty with Australia on Thursday, Roberts was given a run out at the No.10 role behind Moussa Dembele. He’s mainly played on the wing for Celtic, but it’s a position which many believe will become his strongest in time, even if he didn’t do much to wow the crowd at Rugby Park.
What Roberts brought to the table was the ability to make a darting run out to the right wing, allowing Forrest to attack inside, thereby swapping over and puzzling the Kilmarnock defence. This played a huge part in the goal, with Armstrong attacking the space created by the movement to score from inside the area.
However, in Celtic’s overall play, it was clear they missed the unique combination of size, skill and awareness Rogic brings. Roberts lacked space in which to operate, where as Rogic can take a direct ball in tight areas and fight off defenders with greater ease. The absence of such a sticking point was an issue for Celtic.