Neil Lennon opened his second permanent reign at Celtic with a convincing 1-3 win in the Bosnian capital. Given Celtic’s shaky record on the road in Europe and it being early July, it’s an excellent result and the job is effectively done. Result aside, there were plenty of positives, along with a few question marks, about Celtic’s first competitive performance of the 2019/20 season.
Scott Bain began to look shaky towards the end of last season with a couple of mistakes both in shot-stopping and distribution. In this game, he did make several distribution errors with both misplaced passes and poor decision making. Craig Gordon would be an incredible back up should Celtic be able to keep him but he may want regular football. The goalkeeping position is one that needs attention.
The first thing to note was the unusual back line. Celtic’s new Belgian left back signing, Boli Bolingoli, got his debut with a reputed style of play built primarily on pace and attack prowess. Perfect for a Celtic fullback, or even wide midfielder,
Nir Bitton made a return to centre back, along with Jozo Simunovic, which meant that Kristoffer Ajer would either be part of a back 3 with James Forrest pushed wider or a makeshift right back. Anthony Ralston is clearly not trust anymore by Lennon than he was by Rodgers.
The first half defensive shape consisted of a back 3 with Bolingoli pushed into a more advanced wide position. The problems arise through James Forrest not showing the instinctive positioning of a wide midfielder. With the Sarajevo defence sitting deep and structured, a packed-out midfield in front of them, width was needed from Celtic to tretch the team and open gaps.
While Boli had no problem hugging the touchline, Forrest often found himself a little too narrow. This was remedied in the second half when Ajer found himself in a right back role and Bolingoli (shortly to be replaced by Johnny Hayes due to injury) sat a little deeper. The support behind Forrest allowed him to take up his more natural winger role and he could get a bit more involved in the attacking play.
While Ajer was comfortable in both positions he played, Simunovic looked much less certain. Christopher Jullien’s signature should provide added stability but if a back 3 is going to be preferred at all this season – which could be likely given the right back situation – then this position could do with more strength and depth. Bitton as a centre back wasn’t awful, considering his range of passing and ability to play out with the ball at his feet, but he is a natural midfielder and Celtic need to break the habit of playing players as makeshift defenders.
Sitting in front of the back line were Callum McGregor and Scott Brown. Neither had their best game in a Celtic shirt but I fear that there are deeper problems to be addressed. While McGregor often floated around the centre of the park, Brown was much too static both on and off the ball. On several occasions, McGregor picked up the ball and had to move around a very still Scott Brown. It’s hard to say whether Lennon wants to use Brown as an anchor for the team: sitting in front of the defence, regaining the ball and laying it off to teammates.
If this was Lennon’s instruction then Brown did very well but it’s worth questioning whether the position is necessary in a dynamic and attacking side such as Celtic or whether it’s a little obsolete. In the latter stages of the competition, where Celtic face far better teams, the role may play a bigger part but I’m not sure an anchor man belongs in the first round of qualifying, or even domestically.
Ryan Christie played as an attacking midfielder in front of Brown and McGregor and was a man of the match contender. Christie’s energy off the ball is something Celtic have missed, especially against rigid defences like Sarajevo’s. When Brown and McGregor held the ball deep, Christie was often the only players trying to create space. He seems to have an innate sense for finding dangerous positions which shows in his decision making before even receiving the ball. Paired with McGregor’s more incisive forward passes, the two players could be an enormous asset for Celtic this season.
Another issue arising from players around Christie being too static, meaning the Sarajevo defence was not being stretched and space was limited, was that when a forward pass did cut out several midfielders, it was played back on the first touch because the receiving player had their back to the goal with no space and no teammates close by.
We’ve touched on Forrest’s positional awareness as a wide midfielder but it’s worth mentioning the new signing. Bolingoli sometimes found himself not quite exactly where he needed to be in relation to receiving the ball. At this stage, I’d be happy to put this down to a new player getting bedded in but he need to be careful not to always rely on his superior pace to make up for imperfect positioning. In terms of energy, he could not be faulted. Throughout the first half, he was possibly the only player other than Christie who consistently and actively looked for the ball and opened up spaces for teammates to pass into.
Johnston’s performance was enough to cement his position as a starter for me. He showed glimpses of his ability last season and is starting to show more it consistency the more playing time he gets.
His playing style is mercurial and he can be a big boost for a Celtic side who last season often ran out of ideas against a stubborn team ‘parking the bus’, lacking the creative instincts needed to unlock the defence. Patrick Roberts, more so in his first season, was an excellent tool for this but since his injury ridden, lacklustre second season, and ultimately his departure, Celtic have struggled in this area. Tom Rogic is worth a mention in this category but for a range of reasons his contribution has waned the last season.
Celtic’s equaliser in Bosnia didn’t come from a fantastic passing move, or tactical breakthrough, but from Johnston’s individual brilliance. The goal deflated Sarajevo and allowed for much more open passing play in the second half.
Odsonne Edouard gave what can only describe as a performance typical of him: solid, consistent and composed. His ice-cool finishes are quickly becoming his trademark and, where other strikers snatch at one on ones too quickly, the Frenchman is more than happy to take his time and ensure the mark on the scoreboard.
Bolingoli and Johnston were forced off by minor injuries, with Johnny Hayes and Lewis Morgan introduced to the game. Hayes played a more traditional left back role as a back 4. He’s a winger shoehorned into another position and his style of play is not suited to the fullback role: nothing he does seems natural. Additionally, his traditional style of heading down the line and crossing it is less suited to Celtic’s style of play.
Morgan was confident and positive with the ball at his feet. On a couple of occasions he didn’t have his head up enough looking for space but to counter this he was more or less aware of where he and his teammates should be. A major advantage to his game was his ability to switch to the right flank when Forrest was substituted for Scott Sinclair.
Sinclair played in a way not seem since the invincible season. His energy and speed cannot be disputed, but here we also saw positive movements in taking on opposition defenders rather than him slowing to a stop and going backward that we have become so used to over the last 18 months.
Overall, Celtic did seem to struggle to get to grips with playing three centre-backs and still tend to revert to the slower passing system that Rodgers drilled into the squad. A strong right back is needed to play the formation that the squad is used to.
McGregor playing in a deeper role helps initiate good attacking moves and Christie in an advanced position brings a much-needed energy. Inverted wingers cutting in create problems in the half spaces opening up the gaps for Edouard and Christie.
Such inverted wingers do need supported by strong fullbacks so keeping Kieran Tierney and signing a quality right back is needed to have a successful transfer window .
Rustiness was expected in a season opener, but overall there were many positives. For Neil Lennon to impose his own tactics and ideas he has to play to the strength of his preferred system and remove some of the traits and habits from Rodgers’ reign, without changing things for change’ sake. After the first game of the season, I am much more optimistic about this season than I felt before it.