Saturday, February 19, 2011

Old Firm Preview: The Celtic View

The fourth Old Firm game of the season is almost upon us. And what a season defining game it could be.

In the first of the Scottish Football Blog's three part preview I'm pleased to welcome Michael Gunn from TicTacTic - described by The Guardian as "an excellent tactical analysis overview site of Celtic" - to give us the hooped view.

With Rangers' games in hand theoretically putting them one point ahead of Celtic at the summit of the SPL, Sunday's encounter at Parkhead is one which Neil Lennon will feel is a must-win, but for Walter Smith, a must-not-lose.

Bearing in mind Celtic's ten man dominance in the most recent Old Firm derby, there has never been a better time to really go for the jugular, backed up by a capacity crowd baying for vengeance after losing 3-1 on the same turf in October.

Lennon has since gone through a myriad of trials, errors, new signings and tinkerings trying to find a formula that can not only do it in the SPL, but also in the big games. That shambolic loss at Celtic Park was preceded by a 16 match unbeaten run stretching back to the previous season. But the strange 4-3-3 with Stokes and Samaras on the flanks proved to be soft and exploitable.

Following this 4-3-3 we've seen forms of 4-2-3-1, 4-5-1, 4-4-2 and even a 3-5-2 in an attempt to shore up a porous defence. But finally Lennon has settled on two main setups, with well drilled individuals playing in the right positions, and an ambitious young squad.

The first is a straightforward attacking 4-4-2 with the flourishing Stokes and Hooper pairing supported by a disciplined midfield. Scott Brown playing on the right adds defensive stability in an area that other teams like to flood and meanwhile on the left Commons and Izaguirre provide so much movement and firepower, the opposing sides flank is neutered. This is the formation being used essentially against any “non-Rangers” side, and one the fans seem keen to see. But with the recent spate of goals, who can blame them?

The other main formation is a more conservative 4-4-1-1 that served so well against Rangers' in the cup with an unorthodox 4(!) centre-midfielders, Ledley, Ki, Kayal and Brown squeezed onto the pitch. It's a stout, possession based formation with at least 3 proper scrappers. Initially this led to Hooper being isolated, but with Commons working out where the space was and coming into the game, Rangers could not cope.

But to go with the cliché, where Old Firm selections are concerned expect the unexpected, so it's difficult to predict a lineup. Apart from the obvious Stokes or Ki / 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 conundrum, the most under-threat position will be Charlie Mulgrew's. Although he's been solid so far, he will be seen as a weak point and in a “siege” type situation a lá the opening 5-10 minutes of the cup game, his pure, defensive abilities will be under question, and therefore Lennon may opt for bona fide centre-back Thomas Rogne, who should be fit by now.

Finally a special mention to Georgios Samaras who's New Year heroics seem to have been his only contribution this season. A fantastic “counter-attack” player, his height might be useful (given how aerially vulnerable Celtic were at the start of the month) but unlikely to start on Sunday.

These derbys usually see managers on either side selecting conservatively, so with the expected counter-attacking, deep Rangers 4-5-1, I suspect Lennon will start out looking for possession and solidarity with a 4-4-1-1. Stokes, McCourt and Samaras the impact options.

Lineup (predicted): Forster, Izaguirre, Mulgrew, Majsotorvic, Wilson, Ledley, Ki, Kayal, Brown, Commons, Hooper

Thanks again to Michael. You can find TicTacTic here for "critical analysis of all things Celtic." Or follow @Tic_Tac_Tic on Twitter here.

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