We’re rested and refreshed after our winter break over the New Year, and sitting pretty in 2nd place in the Scottish Premiership. Up next in the league? Celtic, away from home.
Since the half way mark update, we’ve squeezed past Hamilton on penalties in the Scottish Cup 5th round, and put another 3 points on the board in the league with a late victory over Hearts. Adam Rooney bagging his 24th goal of the season with an 87th minute wonder strike.
So, we make our way to Celtic Park on matchday 15 in the Scottish Premiership, and here’s how the top of the table looks.
A humdinger of a top of the table clash. 3 points for us, and we’d jump them and top the table for the first time this season. 3 points for the home side, and they’d remain unbeaten and open up a gap at the top, that might well just be too tricky to close.
Here’s how the teams lined up. We’ve obviously gone for our usual tactical set up (I really need a good name for it, any suggestions?). The 1-0 win over Hearts was only 3 days ago so there’s some tired legs in the squad, and because of that, plus with Kenny McLean out with a virus, I’ve had to reshuffle the central midfield pairing. Lewis Milne comes in for McLean in the playmaker role, while Willo Flood replaces Peter Pawlett as our box to box man. Other than that, it’s our strongest line up, with the attacking triumvirate of McGinn, Hayes and Rooney providing the goalscoring threat.
Brendan Rodgers seems to be going with a 4-3-1-2 with Celtic this season, and he’s weirdly chosen FM wonderkid, Kristoffer Ajer, to partner Leigh Griffiths in attack. It’s great to see him putting faith in the Scottish youngsters like Ryan Christie and Kieran Tierney. The latter especially so, seeing as his ability in the non-FM world hasn’t yet been reflected in-game. What a boost he’s going to get for FM17.
We started the game really well, which I’m always really pleased about, the team getting out of the blocks swiftly. 7 minutes in, and we had our first chance. A BIG chance.
The origin of this chance actually came from our own goal kick. I always have my keepers pass it out short to the full backs. Joe Lewis played the ball out to Graeme Shinnie at left back, who in turn found Niall McGinn, who’s come inside from the left as per the inside forward role instructions.
The first screenshot shows McGinn has been given the time and space to control the ball and turn. Look how advanced our wing backs have got, on both sides, in just a short space of time. Really bombing on to support the attack. Lewis Milne has roamed over as the playmaker, wanting the ball, but McGinn’s spotted Rooney’s run up top. Celtic’s back line is all over the place, and their lack of wide men in midfield is causing them a huge issue here. Lustig at right back has been dragged over to cover for Shinnie advancing at left back, Sviatchenko in central defence is closing McGinn down, our left inside forward, Nir Bitton is the most defensive of their three central midfielders, but Rooney has spotted the space in behind him and made the run into it.
His shot beats Craig Gordon, but it agonisingly hits the inside of the post and rebounds into the 6 yard box. Our direct approach in this move has meant there’s a lack of attacking support that’s able to follow the ball in and react.
10 minutes on the clock, and it’s another chance on the board for us.
Our replacement box to box midfielder for the day, Willo Flood has the ball in the centre circle, starting the move. McGinn receives the ball from him, a reminder that just look how central our inside forward is, creating that huge gap of open space for Shinnie to run into behind him. McGinn could have turned and found Shinnie, but instead sprayed a long cross-field ball out right to Shay Logan. Logan finds Hayes inside, who’s spotted Willo Flood continuing his run into Celtic’s box.
Look how free he is when he’s taking the shot. Nobody closing down or tracking his run whatsoever. It’s an absolute sitter. Flood’s attributes for finishing and composure aren’t great. With a little more conviction and ruthlessness, or if we had a superior alternative to turn to, we’d be a goal to the good.
After the two golden chances for us to go ahead, the rest of the first half was a non-event. Celtic had the majority of possession but couldn’t do much with it. We were still in the game at half time, which is something I always aim for against the stronger teams. We’d had the better chances, but were really only limited to those chances. Both teams were cancelling each other out. Like I told the players, we can definitely still win this. Anything could happen in the second half. This top of the table clash was on a knife-edge.
Half time: 0-0
Rodgers took off the ineffectual Ajer at half time for the pace of Gary Mackay-Steven. A strange decision in the first place to go with him upfront, and it wasn’t his day. Mackay-Steven started to cause us problems in the 60th minute.
Our attempt at attacking is thwarted, and this shows one of the downsides of the tactic. Players have committed themselves forward, only really leaving our two central defenders in proper defensive positions. GMS has drifted wide, and has absolute acres of space as Sviatchenko launches the ball to him. Mark Reynolds shifts over to make the tackle, which he handily misses. GMS hits the byline and finds Leigh Griffiths with a cross. Ryan Jack, our anchorman, has tracked Griffiths well and is actually our deepest player. He gets across and brilliantly blocks the shot in front of goal.
The block drops kindly for Stefan Johansen, who’s shot makes it’s way to goal, but is saved well by Joe Lewis. The warning signs were there, Celtic were creating more meaningful chances.
76 minutes gone and it’s the breakthrough, but for who?
Celtic’s long throw into the box from Sviatchenko is dealt with well initially, but we don’t deal well with the second ball at all. He has time and space to pick the ball up and play it to Callum McGregor, who’s found some space. When he picks up the ball, both Griffiths and Bitton are standing offside, but unmarked. Griffiths was always going to get back onside so it would only really spell danger if we couldn’t get out to McGregor quick enough to win the ball, or if he hadn’t spotted Griffiths’ movement.
Safe to say we didn’t successfully win the ball back from McGregor, and he did spot Griffiths’ run. That amount of time and space to take a touch and let Griffiths shoot was only going to go one way, and he scores the opening goal of the game. Poor marking, poor positioning and we didn’t react quickly enough to a long throw into the box. Would it be decisive?
Well, as a matter of fact, it would. The game completely fizzled out and it’s Celtic that get the 1-0 win to go 5 points clear at the top of the table at our expense.
We were atrocious in the second half. Usually, I’m quite confident the players will react to my half time teamtalk, but that evidently didn’t happen here. Was I too cautious? Perhaps. I didn’t want to lose this game, and would have definitely taken a draw. I’d changed things to make us more defensive, trying to have us sitting back and hitting them on the counter, but Celtic just nullified that in the second half. Crosses are a big part of our game, and Celtic played us at our own one. We could only complete 2 non-set piece crosses in the 90minutes, while Celtic found their men 9 times from crosses. Do we need to improve on closing down players to prevent that? Does our positioning and marking need to be better in the middle?
More importantly, would this be the end of our say in the Scottish title race? And could we get our revenge on Celtic when they make the return journey north to Pittodrie?