Celtic reached the 5th round of the Scottish Cup on Saturday with victory over Partick Thistle, but that hasn’t stopped some fans worrying about the long-term prospects this season.
On the surface, there was plenty to enjoy about Saturday’s 2-1 win at Firhill. Leigh Griffiths scored on his return to the starting line-up. Daniel Arzani made a long-awaited comeback after his injury hell. Patryk Klimala debuted from the bench in a game wholly dominated by the Hoops. 64% possession, 20 shots and 11 on target compared to Partick’s two (BBC) with one of those being the rather dubious penalty awarded against Jeremie Frimpong in stoppage time.
But the fallout from the post-Christmas defeat to Rangers is yet to subside. Being outplayed by your greatest rivals in successive games takes a lot of explaining in Glasgow. There was no obvious change in urgency or creativity following the winter training camp in Dubai and some fans expressed their concerns after the game.
— john mooney (@Seansdaddy1) January 18, 2020
Dire to watch man no shape or system at all, basically 90 mins of sideways passing followed by a failed 1-2 or a blocked shot on the edge of the box
— OE (@OE27037919) January 18, 2020
My worry is, we are half way through a season, we’re in a definite battle and we’re playing with formations.
— Ryan McMullan (@mr_mcmullan) January 20, 2020
Neil Lennon doesn’t appear to share these worries. He was “very happy with the performance,” but is there merit in the complaints of supporters despite Celtic continuing their remarkable winning streak in domestic cup competitions?
Change in shape causes more uncertainty
After the failure of his 4-2-3-1 formation against Rangers, Lennon radically switched up his system. A winger-less formation had Tom Rogic at the tip of a diamond behind the partnership of Odsonne Edouard and Griffiths.
Lennon commonly played with two strikers in his first spell in charge at Celtic Park. Returning to this style might have been a partial response to the £3.5m spent on Klimala as signings like Eboue Kouassi demonstrate that a large transfer fee doesn’t grant you automatic first-team football. But Klimala himself said that he wouldn’t sign for a club where he wouldn’t be first-choice. Perhaps that gives an indication into Edouard’s future at the club beyond the summer. Either way, it’s clear Klimala will not settle for playing the Frenchman’s understudy.
However, if Lennon plans to accommodate the Pole and/or Griffiths, that will mean big sacrifices elsewhere. Continuing with a diamond would leave James Forrest, Moi Elyounoussi, and Mikey Johnston struggling for a spot. Given how influential some of those players have been so far, it would be odd to cut them off. Conversely, playing with wingers and two up front would leave five key figures – Scott Brown, Callum McGregor, Olivier Ntcham, Ryan Christie, and Tom Rogic – battling for two midfield slots, with the impending arrival of Ismaila Soro only adding to the competition.
The best option, surely, is to stick with what worked so well in the first half of the season, with some adjustments for the derbies. A record of 17 wins from 20 league games hardly requires major surgery. A look across the city shows you the benefits of having a settled system. Some players will be left unhappy, but Lennon must work out his best system and stick to it quickly.
Defensive reinforcements are a necessity
Saturday’s cup tie provided Lennon with yet more headaches at centre-back. Kristoffer Ajer was forced to miss out and his replacement Nir Bitton limped off after only eight minutes. Jozo Simunovic made a timely return from his own injury to substitute for the Israeli but is suffering from a severe lack of match fitness. With a midweek trip to Kilmarnock around the corner, however, that could leave Celtic in a precarious position given that Simunovic’s history of knee and ankle issues mean he is unlikely to be risked on the plastic pitch at Rugby Park.
Lennon stated that Ajer was due to return to training on Monday which should give him time to recover for Wednesday. Games are coming thick and fast, though, so reinforcements are a must. The dependability of Christopher Jullien is a positive, but with the title race on a knife-edge, Celtic can’t risk aggravating more injuries by overplaying or rushing back his partners.
The intensity of the fixture list is set to crank up in the next two months. Celtic have no more than four days between games from now until the middle of March. Handily, that week break coincides with the build-up to the next Old Firm derby. That only makes this eight-week period even more vital. Lennon must sort the issues in formation and central defence in that time or risk more fan wrath.