4 questions surrounding Celtic's new-found preference for 3-5-2

Analysis of Celtic’s new preferred formation and what it means for the Parkhead squad

Thursday, 17th September 2020, 3:24 pm
Celtic have used the 3-5-2 the last two games, against Ross County and St Mirren, emerging victorious in both. Picture: SNS
Celtic have used the 3-5-2 the last two games, against Ross County and St Mirren, emerging victorious in both. Picture: SNS

In the last two matches, Neil Lennon has shifted his Celtic team into a 3-5-2 formation and, after using the system towards the end of last season, stated his believe that it’s the best available to get the most out of his players.

Early results would make it hard to disagree with that assessment. They’ve won twice, scoring seven goals and conceding once.

Celtic: Get the latest team news, match previews and reports

Celtic: Get the latest team news, match previews and reports

That being said, there were times in both matches where the champions didn’t quite look at their best and there are still a couple of kinks to iron out. This was also a squad largely assembled on a predilection for playing a variation of 4-5-1. As a result, there are a few questions to answer before the support can feel fully comfortable with the shape going forward.

Is another forward required?

Celtic have four first-team strikers on their books and that should be enough if Leigh Griffiths can get himself fit, remain in a good headspace and make up for the lost time of the previous two seasons. That's a pretty big 'if' though, and supporters are loudly speculating that the Scottish international is coming to the end of his Parkhead career.

Odsonne Edouard and Albian Ajeti promise to be a very potent combination once the latter gets up to full match-sharpness. However, there are still a number of question marks around Patryk Klimala. There have been flashes, and the Motherwell game certainly showed that playing the Polish striker is much preferable to playing no striker at all, but he doesn't seem to be at the same level as most of his team-mates.

He's looked at his most impressive coming off the bench to run at ragged defences and exploit the space left by opponents chasing the game. The St Mirren game highlighted that he struggles to make his presence felt when opponents sit in the low block and dare Celtic to break them down.

At best he should be considered fourth choice for the Hoops if they're going with two strikers consistently. That, tied with the Griffiths situation, should mean Celtic are in the hunt for another goalscorer.

Is Greg Taylor enough of an attacking threat?

Taylor is a very good Scottish Premiership left-back, but he's still got some ways to go before he's a consistent threat on the attacking end in the same mould as a Kieran Tierney or even Emilio Izaguirre (pre-injury). Playing at left-back, this isn't much of a problem. He's a really solid defender and battles way above his weight class. At wing-back it becomes more an issue.

The advanced stats paint Taylor in a good light when it comes to chance-creation per 90 minutes, but that's because opponents actively plan to funnel Celtic down the left. They know it's the weakest area of the attack.

Top of the transfer list should be a new attacking full-back following the departure of Boli Bolingoli. You could say Celtic were a little unfortunate to be pushed into this situation by the Belgian's antics, but the truth is that he rarely looked good enough to star for Neil Lennon's side and his departure should have come before the Covid-19 protocol breach.

Is the best use of James Forrest?

Forrest has all the tools to be a terrific wing-back. Though he's lost a touch of pace he's still one of the fastest players in the league, he works very hard and is one of the most switched-on wingers defensively that we've seen in the Scottish top flight this past decade. However, Forrest has adapted his game the past three seasons and is now a dominant attacker when he drifts inside, racking up goals as well as assists. He's able to do this because there is added protection on the right flank with a full-back behind him in a 4-5-1. While he'll still have the option to move closer to the strikers in the current system, his defensive responsibilities will limit number of times he can do so per game.

It worked against St Mirren – Forrest made a central run to head home the winning goal – but it remains to be seen if it works long-term, especially against teams who show a bit more attacking intent than the Buddies did on Wednesday.

Why has the defence looked susceptible?

Fans shouldn't be too concerned about this just yet. Even though Ross County threatened on Saturday, the extent of it was widely exaggerated. They only created one clear-cut chance when Ross Stewart shot straight at Vasilis Barkas and, besides, Celtic were defending a 2-0 lead for the majority of the match. The onus was on County to create. It would have been dreadful for the home side if they didn't at least ask the visitors a few questions when they were desperately trying to get back into the game.

Against St Mirren it also looked shaky at times, especially when Lee Erwin put the hosts into an early lead. But, again, there was a dearth of clear-cut openings from the home team across the 90 minutes.

A better side would've taken greater advantage of Celtic in each of the last two matches. However, they utilised two sets of three centre-backs playing together for the first time. It will take a bit of time to get that understanding and games against the likes of County and St Mirren (with all due respect) are exactly where Lennon should be looking to find that.

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