Last season, Neil Lennon favoured a lopsided 4-4-2 with Kris Commons pushed ahead of what were essentially three central midfielders. Either Scott Brown or Joe Ledley would inhabit a more reserved and tucked in role on the opposite flank to Commons. Moreover, Commons would look to drift inside and occupy the space between the opposition defence and midfield.
The narrow nature of the Celtic midfield was compensated for by the advancement of marauding full-backs, Mark Wilson and Emilio Izaguirre. At one point last season, both would push up the pitch as much as possible – the 2-2 draw in the Scottish Cup at Ibrox last season is a prime example, even if the initial formation in that match differed from the lopsided 4-4-2 – but towards the end of the season, Wilson’s impetus from right-back dissipated somewhat.
4-4-2, and three-band formations more generally, have gone out of fashion with top sides in the past decade, with many clubs now favouring 4-2-3-1, 4-2-1-3 and the like. The position of Commons, along with the front two dovetailing in Lennon’s 4-4-2, gives the formation an implicit fourth band.
This particular deployment of 4-4-2 is nothing new. Kenny Dalglish employed something similar during his first spell as Liverpool manager, and again when manager of Celtic for a brief spell. As pointed out in the embedded article, fielding two out-and-out wingers in a 4-4-2 can be a risky strategy and Lennon himself has resisted such a move on all but a few occasions.
The system has been effective for a few reasons. Firstly, it permits three central midfielders in the line up and, given the quality that Celtic possess in that area of the pitch, allows them to dominate most midfield duos and trios they come up against.
Now with the full-backs pushing on to offer width and Commons given free rein to drift ahead of the midfield, the system permits Lennon to field a strike partnership.
In an article spelling out the demise of the classic goalpoacher, Jonathan Wilson points out that due to the rise of lone-striker systems, top strikers are now expected to blend classic strike partnerships into a hybrid role – be it a Didier Drogba that fuses the target man and finisher roles, or a David Villa that combines the best of the creator and finisher responsibilities.
Unfortunately, in Scottish football there is a dearth of these types of strikers. Nikica Jelavic is one exception and the reason why Rangers will sometimes line up with a lone striker system. Garry O’Connor is another who blurs the target man/finisher boundaries but his quality his waned somewhat since his last spell at Easter Road.
It is no surprise then, that given the lack of this type and quality of striker, that some clubs in the SPL still favour a 4-4-2. David Goodwillie was a further example in Scottish football of a creator-finisher hybrid before his recent transfer to Blackburn Rovers, but his departure has seen Peter Houston move from a lone-striker system to a front pairing of Jon Daly and Johnny Russell (or, more recently, Russell and Lauri Dalla Valle).
Without doubt, Antony Stokes and Gary Hooper are two of the top strikers in the league and are arguably the best partnership. Their link-up play and mutual understanding have seen them terrorise many an SPL defence. However, neither is suited to playing as the sole striker. Instead, Lennon has tended to favour Georgios Samaras when the need to go with one striker arises.
Lennon did experiment with Hooper spearheading a 4-2-3-1 in the recent win over Aberdeen but soon realised its shortcomings due to the personnel at his disposal and quickly switching back to his more familiar 4-4-2. Stokes looks uncomfortable pushed out wide and the knock-on effect is that Hooper becomes isolated.
To sum up, the main benefit of Lennon’s formation is that it allows for a strike partnership without allowing other sides a man advantage, or else allows Celtic to retain a man advantage, in the centre of midfield. Further, the personnel at his disposal rules out any lone striker system, although, admittedly, I know very little about new signing Mohamed Bangura.
The success of the formation last season – Celtic didn’t win the SPL but they amassed a points total worthy of it most other years, won the Scottish Cup and played some of the best football in the SPL – was partly down to the attacking prowess of Izaguirre and the loss of the Honduran to long-term injury has had an adverse affect on the effectiveness of Lennon’s system.
Lennon has since deployed Charlie Mulgrew at left-back. The former Aberdeen defender is comfortable on the ball and possesses a great delivery but lacks the pace and drive that Izaguirre provides. His more reserved approach to that of the Honduran may go some way to explaining why Commons has been less valuable so far this season. More specifically, there is no one bombing beyond him and giving opposition full-backs a dilemma.
Alternatively, Lennon could move one of his right-backs, most likely Mark Wilson or Adam Matthews, over to the left. The problem with this approach is that the overlap would thus become less of a danger to opposition defenders since Wilson or Matthews would find themselves having to cross with their weaker foot or else cut inside on to their stronger side.
Either way, Celtic will miss the attacking threat from left-back that Izaguirre provides. Subsequently, it seems that Celtic are now inviting pressure upon themselves down the flanks. Tic_Tac_Tic reports that the Dundee United full-backs took advantage of the space afforded to them by the Celtic midfield, which left Wilson and Mulgrew exposed.
Either Celtic need to switch to a formation that allows more width from midfield or else look to Adam Matthews or Cha Du-Ri to provide from the right what Izaguirre managed from the left last season. Cha didn’t exactly inspire in the recent win over St. Mirren and although Matthews comes with glowing reports from south of the border, he is still a teenager and has only started two competitive matches this season.
Wilson, the other option at right-back, has fallen out of favour at Celtic Park recently and, as mentioned earlier, doesn’t get forward as much as he did at certain points last season.
So what next for Neil Lennon’s Celtic? Most of their performances this season have been uninspiring and it appears that their formation has lost much of its effectiveness which, it is argued here, is largely down to the loss of Izaguirre and its knock-on effects.
As I write, however, it is transfer deadline day. Celtic could recruit a left-back before the day is out, even if the signing of Dundee United’s Paul Dixon now seems unlikely. If Lennon fails in his bid to bring in an attacking left-back, he will have to tinker with his formation in order to compensate for the loss of the width and drive that Izaguirre provided from that position last season.
Or perhaps Bangura will be the man that allows him to deploy a lone striker system and introduce two wingers to his starting line up.