Nine straight wins, 29 goals scored and only four conceded. It’s fair to say Neil Lennon’s switch to a 3-5-2 has been an unequivocal success. Celtic have been revitalised since returning from the winter break and have built a commanding 10-point lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership.
After faithfully sticking with the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 perfected under Brendan Rodgers for the first part of the season, injuries to his wingers partly forced Lennon’s hand into making the changes. However, there was also a need to freshen up the side after performances began trending downwards in December. The culmination of an Old Firm defeat at Celtic Park prompted much soul searching in Dubai. The reaction has been spectacular.
“We just felt we were getting a little stale with the 4-3-3,” said Lennon about his tactical changes. “We just looked at it and looked at the personnel we had. We can always go back to that or we can stay with the three [at the back]. So we’re flexible with whatever formation we want to play. If you’ve got three really strong centre halves, that gives you the three in midfield and if you have pace out wide – which we do – then you can utilise that as well.”
It presents Lennon with an interesting dilemma ahead of their return to Europa League action. The Hoops romped to top spot in Group E playing a back four. Lazio were defeated twice, and they are now challenging Juventus at the top of Serie A. Celtic travel to Copenhagen on Thursday as favourites for the first leg of their last-32 tie, but which system should Lennon choose?
There must be a huge temptation for Lennon to stick with what has worked so well over the last month, even if the Europa League is a step up in class to what they’ve been used to. The changes have showcased Celtic’s unrivalled strength in depth and allowed several players to flourish.
Callum McGregor has been one of the main beneficiaries. The 26-year-old is used to playing in a midfield tandem with Scott Brown and hasn’t been scoring as regularly as previous campaigns. But the addition of Olivier Ntcham has loosened the reins on McGregor. Along with Odsonne Edouard, he has been Celtic’s star player recently with three goals in his last three appearances.
Edouard has also been allowed some extra creative freedom thanks to the presence of Leigh Griffiths. The Frenchman can roam around the attacking third linking up with his midfielders while Griffiths occupies the centre backs. After only starting one league game before Christmas, Griffiths has been named in Lennon’s starting line-up for the last seven. He has rewarded his manager’s faith with three goals and two assists (Transfermarkt).
Edouard has chipped in with seven goals of his own in that time frame to bring his tally for the season to 23 (Transfermarkt). Their developing partnership has been fantastic to watch. It would be a shame to break up two players on great form, especially when facing a Copenhagen defence who haven’t played competitively since December thanks to their own much longer winter break.
🗣️ NL on formations: “We looked at the formation with the injuries to the wingers and changed it a little. We’re flexible with the new formation and we can adapt back to the 4-3-3. With a back four in Europe we’ve been very good so we’ll always look at it.”
— Celtic Football Club (@CelticFC) February 13, 2020
That’s what would happen with a change in system, though, as Griffiths would likely drop to the bench. Lennon’s insurance is the knowledge that Edouard has demonstrated his capability as a lone striker on numerous occasions. This would probably be the safe option, particularly for the away leg. It will provide more security and protection to a back three short on pace and potentially vulnerable to counter attacks.
The obvious benefit of returning to orthodox full-backs and wingers are the players Lennon could recall. Celtic have navigated the last few weeks without the likes of Moi Elyounoussi, Ryan Christie and Jeremie Frimpong.
The former two were both highly influential in the first half of the season. Christie’s energetic performances stood out, particularly in the Europa League. He was arguably Celtic’s leading player of the year contender until injury and suspension limited his recent game time. Frimpong – newly registered after missing the Europa group stages – has been the surprise revelation at right-back. His inclusion would help reduce James Forrest’s defensive responsibilities.
The dilemma over which formation to use is a great one to have. The squad has shown their ability to adapt to different systems, even switching back and forth during games in the recent wins over Hamilton and Aberdeen. The likelihood is we shall see a return to the familiarity of a back four which can be reassessed ahead of the second leg next week. Perhaps more important than the tactics, though, is the confidence flowing through the Parkhead dressing room. The swagger of the eight-in-a-row champions appears to have returned and no matter the personnel chosen, they are ready for a Europa League assault.