Friday, 11 February 2011

Lennon learns to focus his energy where it matters

After Celtic’s 2-0 defeat at the hands of Hearts in November, I proceeded to rant about Neil Lennon on a well known social networking site. In it I claimed that Lennon should stop pointing to match officials to explain his side’s inept performances and instead look within. Up to that point Celtic had an impressive record under the guidance of Lennon yet had failed in every big occasion he had lined his team up in, save an Old Firm victory against a Rangers team who had already been crowned champions.

Looking back now I still stand by what I said. At the time, Lennon had developed a habit of blaming officials for every match his side failed to win, rather than looking at his own players and tactics, and along with his chairman had helped fuel suspicion within the Celtic support that there was a conspiracy against their side, which lead some idiots to send death threats to some of the match officials involved.

If only Lennon had heeded the words of former Celtic manager Jock Stein when he proclaimed that “If you’re good enough, the referee doesn’t matter”, considerations echoed by his current assistant Johan Mjallby and set about getting his own house in order, Celtic would potentially be sitting in a more comfortable position at the top of the SPL.

Since the 2-0 defeat at Tynecastle, Lennon has not only subdued his touchline manner somewhat, Celtic have also embarked on a fifteen match unbeaten run, most recently coming from behind twice at Ibrox in the Scottish Cup Fifth Round. Celtic played most of the match with ten men yet still managed to dominate and force the match into a replay. During this spell, especially against Rangers on Sunday, Lennon has shown himself to be a good motivator, tactically astute and not afraid to make big decisions at vital moments within matches.

Celtic began the match against Rangers on Sunday on the back foot, found themselves a goal down to a fantastic Jamie Ness strike within three minutes and could have been 2-0 down, and effectively out of the competition, had Steven Davis’s shot hit then net rather than the bar two minutes later.

Lennon had switched from his usual 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1, a formation which had been successful in his previous visit to Ibrox. Ki Sung-Yeung, arguably Celtic’s best player this season, returned from the Asia Cup and was deployed as the more advanced of the three central midfield players, just off Gary Hooper in attack. When it became clear that this wasn’t working, the Celtic boss moved Ki back into his more suited role as a deep-lying playmaker, pushed Kris Commons into the role vacated by him and Joe Ledley to the left of midfield.

The move allowed full-backs Mark Wilson and Emilio Izaguiree more room to get forward since Celtic were now effectively playing with four central midfielders. Ledley was on the left, with Scott Brown on the right, however, they were both tucked in and not very advanced.

Celtic instantly began to dominate possession and were rewarded when Commons equalised, resulting from a move which involved the three players who had changed positionally, plus one of the full backs.

This forced Rangers to change their own shape as they moved Davis into a central position, part of a midfield three, and El-Hadj Diouf wide with Steven Naismith switching flanks.

Frustratingly for Celtic, Commons was replaced by substitute goalkeeper Lukas Zaluska when Fraser Forster was sent off for bringing down Steven Naismith in a goalscoring position. The penalty was a result of Commons losing possession while Izaguirre was high up the pitch, allowing Naismith and Jelavic to exploit the space he left behind him. The resulting penalty was converted by Steven Whittaker and Rangers led 2-1 with forty-one minutes played.

Rangers began the second half brighter but before long Celtic were dominating again despite being a man down. This was partly down to Rangers’ decision to sit back and soak up pressure but also down to the fact that because Wilson and Izaguirre were so advanced they, counterintuitively, had a man advantage in the midfield area and were happy to leave Daniel Majstorovic and Charlie Mulgrew to stay back and deal with Nikica Jelavic. Brown and Ledley remained tucked in and were now interchanging with Ki and Beram Kayal in a fluid midfield.

Lennon soon made yet another brave decision to go 4-3-2 (although in truth it was more a 2-5-2), bringing Georgios Samaras on for Kayal around the hour mark.

It wasn’t long until Celtic were level after an excellent finish from Brown. When the goal was scored both Celtic full-backs were so advanced, a stranger to Scottish football would have been forgiven for thinking they were both wingers. Izaguirre found himself down the left and crossed the ball to Wilson who had found himself in the Rangers box. When he eventually controlled the ball and created some space, he laid the ball off for Brown who did the rest.

A point-blank save from Allan McGregor then denied Samaras the chance to make it 3-2 shortly after and Celtic finished the game the stronger of the two.

Rangers’ numerical advantage was cancelled out when Naismith picked up his second yellow card for diving but in truth Rangers struggled to do much in the half with either ten or eleven men.

Lennon has finally shown that he can achieve results when it matters and has, since November, calmed down in his post-match interviews and pre-match press conferences. Granted, this morning’s papers lead with headlines of him criticising Diouf, Peter Houston and the match officials, but at least he is now doing it in a manner which is calm and with a bit more dignity. Of course managers are entitled to comment on suspect refereeing decisions but it is when outrageous claims are made in addition to those are made that it becomes dangerous.

The 2-2 draw means that the replay will be the fourth of seven meetings between the sides this season and leaves Lennon in with a shout of achieving a treble in his first full season as a manager. Even though he faced much criticism for his dugout antics and post-match comments towards the end of last year, Lennon has now calmed down and returned the focus back on to what is happening on the pitch. If he keeps the focus where it should be then Celtic may just have unearthed a top-quality manager who has shown that he is fearless when it comes to making brave game-changing decisions.

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