Sunday, 2 October 2011

Hearts 2 Celtic 0

After an inept performance versus St. Johnstone last week, Hearts were always likely to make changes.  Mehdi Taouil, David Obua and Stephen Elliott dropped out with Rudi Skacel, Eggert Jonsson and David Templeton starting.  Paulo Sergio stuck to his usual 4-3-3 formation but moved Ryan Stevenson into a lone-striking position.  The other significant difference was to move Adrian Mrowiec slightly further forward, using Jonsson as the deepest of the midfield three, but more on that below.

With Joe Ledley, Bream Kayal and Scott Brown unavailable, Neil Lennon was forced into a 4-4-2 with two out-and-out wingers.  Kris Commons returned to the starting line up and Badr El-Kaddouri came in at left-back.  Fraser Forster replaced Lukas Zaluska in goals.


The pros and cons of Lennon’s 4-4-2

Whether out of design or necessity, Lennon’s decision to field Commons and James Forrest brought about a degree of tactical success.  Danny Grainger and Jamie Hamill have thus far been effective at getting forward and putting dangerous balls into the box and, given Celtic’s vulnerability from crosses, their being pinned back negated that threat to a certain extent.

The knock-on effect was a shortfall in the centre of midfield.  Sergio decided to go with three defensive-minded midfielders and instructed Ian Black and Mrowiec to press the Celtic central midfield.  This left Jonsson as a spare man to sweep up in front of the defence, which was effective for the most part.

Victor Wanyama had a very good first half, both with and without possession, but the Hearts tactics stopped his partner Ki Sung-Yeung from getting on the ball and dictating play.  A further consequence was the supply to Gary Hooper was cut.  Hooper thrives on through balls and linking up with his strike partner but he grew increasingly frustrated with his lack of time on the ball.
The first half was pretty even, with both sides creating a few chances, the best of which fell to Mohamed Bangura.  Forrest collected the ball after a poor defensive header from Grainger and sent in a delightful cross but the Sierra Leone striker’s header was pushed around the post by Jamie MacDonald.

Hearts’ strategy

Much has been made about Paulo Sergio’s change in style since he took over as manager, but any attempt to patiently build from the back was, at least temporarily, abandoned as Hearts looked to move the ball quickly to Skacel and Templeton.

John Sutton was again left out, however, Stevenson was deployed as the lone-striker, perhaps a sign of the new manager conceding that a physical presence is required in attack.  The Hearts back line and goalkeeper was not as averse to hitting long, direct passes up towards him.

Hearts’ play was less laboured, less predictable and, most significantly, more effective.  Their decision to vary their play more meant that they enjoyed more time in and around their opponent’s penalty area than last week. 

Second half

The second half began with a sustained period of pressure from the away side, forcing MacDonald into another couple of saves.  Then, against the run of play, Hearts took the lead on fifty-eight minutes.

Skacel was about to be substituted when he fired a low strike across Forster and into the net.  Celtic’s main weakness this season has been their inability to defend crosses and again they failed to deal with one here.

The cross in question hung in the air, giving the Celtic defence plenty of time to react, but Daniel Majstorovic again displayed his indecisiveness by failing to attack it.  Templeton cushioned the ball, laying it off in the same movement, for Skacel to finish.

Lennon reacted immediately by withdrawing Bangura for Antony Stokes, a switch he may have made regardless, but the Irish international was given little time to make an impact before his side were reduced to ten men.

His manager had revealed before the match that Commons may not last the ninety minutes but surely he didn’t mean it in this sense.  In stark contrast to last season, Commons has so far had a torrid campaign and there was only ever going to be one outcome after his reckless lunge on Mrowiec.

Celtic then moved to a 4-2-1-2 formation, with Forrest in behind Stokes and Hooper, and continued to enjoy the majority of the possession.  El-Kaddouri was then removed and replaced with Paddy McCourt as Celtic switched to a back three, but they failed to break Hearts down.

Sergio’s response to the red card was to move to a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1formation – Ian Black moved to right-midfield with Skacel just off Stevenson – and attempt to defend the lead.  A risky move considering the danger that Celtic still possessed.  It paid off, however, as Hearts grabbed a second goal on the counter.

A long ball from Grainger was chased down by Templeton and his clever back-heel was collected by Stevenson, who remained composed before finishing. 

Conclusion

There was much tactical interest and plenty of excitement in this encounter.  Neil Lennon may have been forced into a 4-4-2 with two wingers but it helped in nullifying the threat of the Hearts full-backs.

This led to a shortfall in the centre of park which worked to Hearts’ advantage.  Paulo Sergio decided to field three battlers in central midfield and this denied Ki time and space, which he finds and exploits in most matches, ultimately cutting the supply to the strikers.  Celtic’s failing, other than the red card, was again an inability to deal with crosses.

Sergio abandoned his patient pass-from-the-back approach in favour of a quicker, more direct strategy and it suited his side.  The interest, going forward, will lie in whether or not he continues with this approach in future matches, at least until he has the players to do otherwise.

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