Scottish Premiership 2020/21: St. Johnstone vs Celtic – tactical analysis
It was second from the top versus second from the bottom clash in the Scottish Premiership as Neil Lennon’s men could leap above rivals Rangers for a couple of hours at least as they traveled to Perth to take on a St. Johnstone side that has lost their last two games and have found it difficult to score as they sit bottom of the table in terms of goals scored with only 4 scored in 9 league games coming into this tough game.
In actual fact, it was the other way round as the Saints made this a tough afternoon for Celtic on the day. After their qualification into the group stages of the Europa League midweek, it looked like their travels seemed to hinder Celtic as they struggled in this game against a motivated and resilient St.Johnstone side. Celtic tried to create chances but failed to come up with any innovating ways to create and open up this St.Johnstone side as each one of Davidson’s men carried out their roles valiantly.
However, Celtic’s pressure took its toll in the end for St.Johnstone’s backline as Celtic’s two substitutes, first through a Leigh Griffiths header in the 89 minute and Patrick Kimala deep into the injury gave Neil Lennon’s side the necessary goals to give Celtic the win to keep the pressure on at the top of the league as they fight it out with former Liverpool player Steven Gerrard’s side.
This tactical analysis will provide a breakdown of this game focusing on the tactics of both teams and will explain how St.Johnstone disrupted Celtic as they smartly pressed Neil Lennon’s side and made it difficult for them to progress the ball forward to create any meaningful attacks and chances on goal. This analysis will also look at how Celtic tried to beat St.Johnsotne through different methods and slight changes in tactics before Lennon added some fresh legs off the bench that carried the impudence to grab two late goals.
Callum Davidson decided to change his formation back from a 4-1-4-1 to a 3-4-3 as he faced the reigning Scottish Premiership champions as he looked to add more protection at the back. With this change in formation naturally came a change in personnel as the Saints manager made two changes to his side that lost 0-2 away to Livingston last weekend.
The first change came in the form of adding that extra defender as Liam Gordon came into the heart of the defence as he replaced midfielder Liam Craig. The other change Davidson made to his side happened at the opposite side of the pitch in attack as David Wotherspoon replaced Michael O’Halloran who was dropped to the bench.
Neil Lennon decided not to tinker with his formation that is tried and tested electing for the usual 3-5-2. The Celtic manager did however rotate his team to give some players a rest for their efforts making three changes to the side that beat FK Sarajevo 0-1 in the final qualification round of the Europa League.
Lennon’s first change was not that surprising as Nir Bitton went down injured to be replaced by Hatem Abd Elhamed who kept his place in the side. The other two changes Lennon made suggested that the Celtic manager wanted to rest some of his players like Scott Brown and Ryan Christie made way for Oliver Ntcham and David Turnbull who made his first league start since his signing from Motherwell.
St. Johnstone disrupt Celtic
Saints fans would have been anxious coming into this game with the nine-in-a-row champions in fantastic form winning their last 7 games and having a very favourable head to head record against the side from Perth as they have came away with all three points in the last eight occasions. St.Johnstone looked motivated and ready for the challenge from the off as they got in the faces of Neil Lennon’s men as they harried and pressed them knocking Celtic out of their rhythm.
The tone was set by the Saints front three as they employed an organised pressing system. Both Wotherspoon and Craig Conway tucked in close off their respective wings to Saints striker Stevie May to create this narrow shape matching up with Celtic’s back three. Davidson gave clear defining roles to his forward line when Celtic looked to build out from the back.
Both Saints wingers Wotherspoon and Conway did not commit to the high press initially instead electing to staying in there narrow shape until the ball was passed to the wide centre-back on their respective wings which acted as a pressing trigger to go and press the Celtic defenders high. Both wingers clearly curved their press ensuring access to Celtic wingbacks was shut off, we see this in the move below as Shane Duffy passes the ball to Krisoffer Ajer which triggers Conway to go and press the Celtic centre-back and his curved run inward means that Greg Taylor is in the wingers cover shadow.
Ajer’s pass out to this wing has now been shut off and so is forced to go inside. We see another interesting element above of how the front three presses as unlike both wide forwards either side of him, May does not engage in the high press and does not have a pressing trigger per se, his task for the game was to stop Callum McGregor being a passing option not allowing Celtic progress the ball and dictate the play through the middle.
May carried out his role well by either keeping the Scottish midfielder in his cover shadow or man-marking him like he does to great effect in the move above which leaves Ajer with no forward options and so has to play the ball back to Duffy.
Once the ball went back to the Celtic’s central player in the back three (Duffy) St.Johnsotne’s forward players did well to reset back to their narrow shape with the Saints wide forwards maintaining their discipline as they only jumped out of this shape when their pressing trigger was activated again. As a result, Lennon’s men found it difficult to play the ball through the lines like they normally do so well against teams.
The Saints completely disrupted Celtic which was in large part to the work of the narrow front three as aforementioned but another factor to why Celtic could not find any short to medium forward passing options from the back was the roles of the St.Johnstone central midfielders who are tasked with pushing up behind the forward players to create a ‘W’ shape which we can see illustrated below.
This shape ensures the two central midfielders have plugged the gaps and closed the space between and directly behind the front three so Celtic can not thread passes forward through the middle to find their teammates. We see just that in the above move as Ajer moves forward with the ball looking to play the ball forward but due to the Saints central midfielders pushing up and overall shape they block the defenders passing options which forces him to play the ball backward. Davidson’s tactics and well organised shape out of possession kept Celtic in non-threatening areas of the pitch and was successful in thwarting Lennon’s men.
Celtic’s try to tweak their play to penetrate St.Johnstone’s organised shape
With St.Johnstone keeping Celtic back in their own half with their organised shape along with their great application off the ball to shut off access to any viable passing options Celtic could not play through the Saints early on. Celtic elected to try bypass and play over St.Johnstone in an attempt to get out of their own half. Playing long balls became the feature of Celtic’s play as it became the only option early on which is a credit to how Davidson set up his side.
Mainly through Duffy (who was normally left free and not pressed by the Saints forwards), Celtic attempted to play the long balls over the top to find a runner in behind as St.Johnstone’s first line narrow shape closed off any short forward options, as we can see in the instance below. This was almost an act of frustration and impatience from Celtic as St.Johnstone forced the champions to go long.
Celtic tried to play this long direct ball numerous times in the first quarter of an hour, it was a hopeful attempt to get forward but it was not that effective as the St.Johnstone backline anticipated this well and were able to drop back to deal with long passes effectively breaking up the attack.
The Celtic manager needed to make some tweaks to his side to enable them to progress the ball forward in a more sustainable way. As more of the game passed by Lennon started to figure out how his side could break down St.Johnstone’s shape and get the ball up to the final third to his forward players.
The Northern Irishman instructed Jeremie Frimpong to push forward to the right-wing and right centre-back Elhamed push wide to convert into a right-back when Celtic had possession. This little tweak increased the space for Wotherspoon to effectively press Elhamed and so this pulled him out of the narrow shape which as a result created a pocket of space in the half-space as we can see below.
Mohamed Elyounoussi dropped from his forward position alongside Odsonné Edouard to this pocket of space to receive the ball off Duffy who plays him the ball. What the Celtic forward has also done by dropping into this position is create numerical superiority in midfield which pulls Saints midfielder Ali McCann out to close him down but he leaves his man. Through this action McCann has left his midfield partner in a 3v1 situation in the middle, Celtic are able to progress the ball forward to the final third as a result of this, in which they are able to win themselves a corner.
With these tactical tweaks, Celtic were able to on more occasions progress the ball forward to the final third but they still could not penetrate St.Johnstone’s defensive unit to create any meaningful goal-scoring chances with Celtic ending the first half with only 1 shot on target.
Davidson’s men run out of steam as Celtic fresh legs grab late goals
With the nature of playing this sort of high pressing system and well-organised shape it tends to require the team employing it to exhort a lot of energy to carry this out effectively and in the first half of this game, St.Johnstone did well to disrupt and frustrate Celtic. However, with the amount of energy expended in that half, the Saints could not carry out this strategy in the same manner so smartly sat in a deep compact block in order to avoid being picked apart by this quality Celtic side.
Lennon’s side have spent the majority of the first half in their own half had the license to camp themselves inside the opposition half as St.Johnstone sat very deep to keep a compact shape as all eleven players for the Saints fell back to make a well organised shape as we can see below. Although St.Johnstone conceded a lot of territory which enabled Celtic to play in their half the manner in which they set up in this vertically compact shape made it difficult for Lennon’s side to breakthrough.
Celtic could only pass the ball around the St.Johnstone and could not breach the box as there were too many Saints bodies to clear or stop any attempts. We see above that Ajer has the ball deep in St.Johnstone’s half after Celtic keeps trying to probe but gets nowhere in trying to break down the Saints defensive unit. Ajer becomes impatient and tries to commit players by dribbling past them to open up space. Ajer is able to dribble by the first Saints player but due to their compact shape, it enables them to swarm the ball area and reclaim possession off Ajer breaking down the Celtic attack.
Celtic needed fresh ideas and so Lennon calls for players off the bench adding strikers Patrick Kamala and Leigh Griffiths and club captain Scott Brown to bring the added impudence to break down this resilient St.Johnstone side. The Celtic manager’s fresh legs instantly looked more threatening as they heaped the pressure on the Saints as they continued to stop the reigning champions.
Davidson’s men looked like they would hang on to get a result, however, there was still a twist in this game as St.Johnstone defending well cleared the ball up to Stevie May who made a run forward and he did brilliantly to fight for the ball and gain his side a free in Celtic’s half to release this pressure off his side defending.
Sensing they might be able to snatch a winner St.Johnstone brought up players for the free-kick into the box but the free was headed clear by Celtic and St.Johnsotne players caught on the transition were out of position. The Saints players get back well but they are still scrambling as the ball makes it way out to Ajer, as we can see below. due to this desperate scramble back there is a miscommunication between two St.Johnsotne players as they both commit themselves to tackle Ajer.
This leaves Elhamed free to overlap the Celtic defender and he plays the ball down the line to the right back. The Saints concentration has lapsed, we can see this illustrated above as Griffiths at the edge of the box (circled in red) is able to make a blindside run into the box as the players that should mark him are ball watching with the players that could pick him up in the box so because of this he is able to ghost in unmarked to head home the decisive goal which Celtic followed with another as St.Johnstone got caught once more in transition as they went looking for an equaliser.
Callum Davidson will be devasted as his side really disrupted and made it a very difficult afternoon for Celtic who struggled to break down and come to terms with St.Johnstone’s well organised shape. The Saints nearly and probably deserved at least a point from that game and could have had more as Craig Conway hit the post just after the half time break. The Saints in a bid to snatch a late goal got caught on the transition and the quality that Celtic hold capitalised on this lapse in an otherwise watertight defensive structure.
Neil Lennon will be very relieved to come away from MacDiarmid Park as that was not a convincing performance but thankfully Celtic have time to get things right over the international break and set themselves up for an important top of the table clash with rivals Rangers in the first old firm game of the season.