When you’re down at the bottom of the table, you need some degree of luck on your side when you come up against the better teams in league. However if you don’t work hard at the basics and give a team space to play you will be punished, and that is exactly what happened to Hibs on Saturday.
With the pressure on both sides as the teams emerged from the Easter Road tunnel there were a couple of interesting selection choices from either manager. The home side started with Derek Riordan and Merouane Zemmama upfront, a strange choice with neither known as an out and out striker; Calderwood will have hoped their movement could cause problems to the Celtic defence.
Neil Lennon welcomed back Gary Hooper to the Celtic frontline and partnered him with Anthony Stokes in attack, relief for the Irishman after his frustrating lone role against Hamilton on Wednesday. Scott Brown started in place of Joe Ledley in the middle of the park, hoping the Scot would add more bite to team.
Both teams started fairly well, Hibs tried to get down the left-hand side, possibly targeting Mark Wilson as the weak link in the Celtic side. Wilson coped well with the early pressure, scuppering Hibs early gameplan. Although they set up in a 4-4-2 so often it looked like Hibs were playing more of a 4-5-1 with Zemmama dropping deep trying to find space in the midfield.
When a forward is continually dropping deep the opposition has two choices, one of your central defenders can step out to cover his runs. This then leaves the other striker 1v1 with the other centre back. You will then find either a full back or central midfielder will cover the space usually pulling the team out of shape.
The other option is for one of your midfielders to cover the forward whenever he comes short. This is the option Celtic took. Both Scott Brown and Biram Kayal (yellow) played this role superb in the first 30 minutes. The majority of the time whenever Zemmama (red) dropped off Kayal was less than a yard away from him. This gave the little Moroccan few chances to pick the ball up and trouble the defence. That left Derek Riordan 2 v 1 against Majstorovic and Rogne, and with Francis Dickoh playing long balls up the field it was an easy day for the Celtic duo.
Celtic were struggling to find ways past the Hibs defence. James Forrest had a few encouraging runs down the right but nothing to trouble Mark Brown. It was Biram Kayal that created the first big chance, a wonderful through ball put Hooper through on goal. The combination of a poor finish and good goalkeeping kept the scores level.
Paddy McCourt is a Celtic fans favourite, and with good reason. His trickery and skill can open up any defence. His highlight reel of goals is a fantastic watch; however his positional sense leaves a lot to be desired. Playing on the left, far too often he would either be found in the centre of the park or dropping very deep on the left flank. When you have a player of McCourt’s quality you want him to pick the ball up 20/30 yards from goal, not in the middle of your own half.
In the first half far too often McCourt (red) would drop far too deep and when this happens it leaves Celtic with fewer options up the park. With players of Kayal’s quality in midfield Celtic don’t need McCourt to come this deep. Luckily in the second half he played further forward and caused Hibs more problems.
Against the likes of Hibs McCourt can roam the pitch and it not be problematic for Celtic, Emilio Izaguirre needs no invitation to bomb forward from left back and provide the width but McCourt will very often not cover Izaguirre’s runs that leaves a space for teams to exploit. That may be fine against teams playing poorly but a team like Rangers or Hearts have the wide players to exploit such gaps.
It is ironic that McCourt’s poor positioning actually set up the opening goal. Five moments of brilliance made the goal possible. When the ball was played to Kayal his superb touch and turn opened the pitch wide up giving him time to pick a pass. Stokes had drifted left filling the space that McCourt should really be in.
A perfectly weighted pass from Kayal freed Stokes wide. With the ball played in low it took two wonderful touches from Hooper to get the ball under control and steady himself before applying the finish. This sort of movement is what Celtic lacked against Hamilton.
Any chance of a Hibs comeback was cut short with only five minutes of the second half gone. An example of why you need to do the simple things well against the better teams.
Kayal (red) had already shown twice what he can do when given the time and space to pick a pass. However Ian Murray (yellow) seemed to think it was ok to not pressure the ball and let the Israeli advance to the edge of the box. Teams constantly show that if you don’t pressure the ball you will pay for it. Left to advance Kayal found Stokes in the box, he was brought down by Lewis Stevenson and he made it 2-0 with the penalty.
Just past the hour mark and the game was over as a contest and again it was an example of doing the simple things right and luck not being on your side when you’re near the bottom.
Izaguirre fired in a corner, Stokes took a good touch and hooked the ball with his right foot over his shoulder and his superb looped into the net. Stevenson was given the job to cover both posts, he choose the wrong one. Quite simply if Hibs had someone covering both posts then Celtic would not have scored the third goal. Little incidents like that are very small but very costly.
Hibs created a chance for Daryl Duffy with ten minutes to go but Forster did well to push his header onto the crossbar. In the end it was all too easy for the league leaders.
If Hibs are to stay away from the relegation zone they will need to learn to walk before they can run.