This head coach analysis will better inform the reader of Neil Lennon’s style of play. It will provide and make use of his statistics from the 19/20 campaign. By doing so, we can develop an objective foundation that will allow for an accurate tactical analysis and evaluation of his philosophy and tactics. Before we jump into it, lets recap on the Northern Irishman’s previous jobs.
During his first tenure at Celtic from 2010-2014, Lennon won three league titles and two Scottish Cups, boasting a 70% win record. He would resign in May 2014, before signing a contract with EFL side Bolton Wanderers.
Unfortunately, leaving by way of “mutual consent”, Lennon’s four-year deal ended after two years in charge. During that time, Lennon’s side recorded a 22.8% win percentage. However, it would be unfair to judge the Northern Irish manager in this instance, as there were more significant problems outside of his control going on behind the scenes.
Lennon joined Championship side Hibernian in June of 2016, gaining promotion and establishing the club in the Premiership the following year. Six months into his third season with Hibs he resigned and joined Celtic again.
Some were apprehensive about the board’s decision, particularly after their failure to qualify for the UEFA Champions League, losing to Romanian outfit, CFR Cluj. However, the squad went on to dominate domestic football, continuing their winning form from last season and squashing the negativity that surrounded the appointment. Although suffering minor bumps during winter, they steadied the ship and won the league on points per game. Despite how that may sound, the reality is that they achieved a 79.1% win record and were on their way to scoring over 100 goals and collecting over 100 points.
System and formations
During the season, he predominantly used the 4-2-3-1 structure. However, following their loss to Rangers in December, Lennon changed their system, favouring a 3-5-2. As a result of the change, Celtic look stronger in every department of the pitch. They have a partnership up top, youthful wing-backs, capable of recovering runs as well as bombing forward, and a three-man midfield backed up with three centre backs, which enables the Glaswegian side to dominate possession. Lennon continues to use it to date. Therefore, this piece will analyse Lennon’s philosophy from the matches in which Celtic used the 3-5-2.
Lennon’s side enjoys more substantial spells of possession. They average 529.81 passes per 90, completing a league-best 86% of them. Their speed of play is the fastest in the league, recorded at 17.6 passes per minute. Moreover, they prefer to play short than direct, averaging 33.38 long passes per 90 (lowest in the league), completing 53% of them. Instead, they’re patient and play laterally, averaging 217.52 per 90.
Celtic have shown their dominance in possession, establishing an average of 64.1% possession per match, holding on to the ball for 45+ seconds 261 times, the most in the league by a massive 55. Keeping the ball is one thing, but the more important part of possession is to progress it through the thirds. The Hoops make, on average, 85.54 progressive passes per 90, completing 79% of them. Lennon’s Celtic make, on average, 68.38 passes into the final third (league-high), completing 79%.
Above is an example of Celtic’s determination to play out from the back. The left and right backs split into the channels, as the centre-back drops to provide a lateral option for the goalkeeper, Fraser Forster.
By doing so, a central space opens up for Scott Brown to exploit. From here, Brown can turn and combine with Olivier Ntcham, the higher midfielder, or play into James Forrest or Nir Bitton who progress play from the channels.
In the picture above, note how Celtic use three defenders and two midfielders to secure possession in the middle third. Because of this, the wing-backs and higher midfielders maintain possession with a backwards pass if space in front doesn’t present itself. When they have the ball centrally, as shown above, Celtic will hit it into the channels, where the wing-back will combine with the closest forward and midfielder.
Lee Griffiths charges towards the box, as do Forrest and Ntcham. Brown travels forward to provide a pivot to switch the angle of attack. However, he is restricted as to how far he can go because another role of his involves protecting the back three from transitions.
In the final third
Celtic were thumping goals in; they converted 87 in total despite an xG rating of 71.75. That indicates a high level of quality is present. Let’s examine where it originates, then we can understand how they’ve converted so many chances. Their attacking superiority stems from consistency in offensive duels; they average 76.02, winning 42% of them.
Using their advantage in duels as a building block, they create 17.83 crosses, 35.92 dribbles, 26.50 touches in the box and 18.12 shots per 90. Furthermore, they’ve proven a threat from set-pieces, scoring six, and a threat from range, converting 14 times.
The picture above is an example of Celtic’s ability to create and exploit tight spaces. Lennon’s side excels in technical skill. Therefore, the wing-backs attempt to break into the box and contribute to attacks. In the scenario above, Brown has four options. As Griffiths drops into the right half-space, the opposition considers pressing him. If they press before the pass, Brown can play option B. If they don’t, Brown can play option A.
From here, Griffiths could combine with Odsonne Edouard or cross it toward the back post for Callum McGregor or Greg Taylor to attack from. Option C is the riskiest of the options, given the number of players surrounding Celtic’s talisman. Surprisingly, this is the option Brown selects. Unsurprisingly, Edouard holds off the defenders, spinning, shooting and scoring. What’s more, Lennon has his players prepared to change the angle if Brown plays laterally; option D. Ryan Christie drops square to enable the creation of similar patterns from the left side.
When Celtic have the ball in the channels, they overload it with five extra bodies. The left-sided centre-back provides a backward option. Positioned to switch play, Brown supports the centre-back. Edouard drops into the half-space, sucking opposing players out of the box, but, more importantly, creating space for the higher midfielders to exploit.
Their attacking rotations are the most impressive part of their game, and Griffiths and Forrest switch at the far post as Edouard delivers a cross. Their movement confuses the opposing centre-backs, which gives Griffiths an unchallenged header.
This season Celtic conceded 19 goals, with an xG against of 20.10. This suggests two things; either individuals did exceptionally well, or their opponents fluffed their lines regularly from certain or consistent goal-threatening situations. Their defensive duel statistic would support the first scenario, as Celtic averaged a massive 63% success rate in this department.
Moreover, Celtic forces the opposition to shoot on average from 19.38 metres. Surprisingly, they’re also more than capable of winning aerial duels (55%) despite their short style of play. In terms of a press, Celtic allows an average of 7.60 passes per defensive action (PPDA). This indicates their willingness to counter-press and win back possession as often as possible. However, they’re not perfect. One defensive flaw of theirs is the number of goals conceded after set-pieces, six, that equates to 32% of their total goals against.
Lennon has his side defend similarly to Chelsea under Antonio Conte. The centre-backs remain tight and compact. The midfielders defend as a flat three, with the wider midfielders pressing play in the half-spaces. The deeper midfielder denies the space in front of his centre-backs and fills the spaces between the centre back if they’re dragged out of position (see above). The wing-backs drop deep and defend the channels. One striker remains high, enabling an opportunity for counter-attacks and the other comes back, pressing play in the middle of the park.
As we now know, Lennon demands possession and often Celtic will play laterally or backwards when they transition to attack. However, he is a bigger fan of results. Therefore, when a counter-attacking opportunity presents itself, we’ve seen Celtic take full advantage of them, scoring 11 goals, seven more than the league average.
Above, Lennon utilises his side’s incomparable speed. They do this by making sure one player always remains high. Once they recover possession from the opposition’s midfield unit, they play the high forward in. Five other players sprint to support the counter-attack. From here, a combination of Celtic’s speed and technical ability are often too much for the opposition in the SPFL.
Statistically, Lennon’s side loses possession on average 101.37 times per 90. It’s the league’s lowest score. How they react depends on the location. They recover possession 81.50 times per 90. That statistic is the lowest in the league, however, that’s to be expected, given the dominance in possession.
If we delve deeper, Celtic’s recoveries in the final third total 13.54 per 90, which equates to 17% of their total. A figure this high provides evidence of Lennon’s decision to counter-press teams. If they’re unable to recover it in the final third, the side will drop deeper and force errors.
Above, Celtic lose the ball in the final third. Therefore they immediately swarm the opposing player. The two closest players press the player on the ball and the forwards pin themselves up against the options for the ball carrier. Brown cuts the line of a forward pass. Ntcham defends the central area, whilst Forrest does his job by dropping deep, marking the opposition’s winger. At most, the opposition has a long ball forward. However, Celtic’s back three makes it extremely unlikely for the opposition to retain possession.
Because of Brendan Rodgers’ dominance in domestic football, it was, at the time, impossible to think of manager capable of coming in and picking up where Rodgers had left off. Moreover, the brutal public departure of his fellow countryman thrust Lennon into a highly pressurised and scrutinised position.
Despite this, Lennon has been outstanding. He’s made some great signings in Christopher Jullien, Jeremie Frimpong, Mohamed Elyounoussi and Greg Taylor. But more importantly, in the wake of Rodgers’ departure, Lennon is responsible for the new energy both on and off the pitch.
Lennon’s philosophy includes pragmatism at its core. He is result first, style second. Therefore, the Northern Irishman identifies what he has and decides a structure around this evaluation, getting the most out of his players, hence, the continuous changes to his system of play. During the match, Lennon’s sides attempt to dominate possession by being patient, playing at a high tempo, passing short, progressing play into the opposition’s box, avoiding fouls, winning their duels and counter-pressing teams in the final third. However, Lennon isn’t afraid to scrap certain elements of his philosophy in favour of the result.