[Frontpage]Mowbray Out of His Depth

Celtic went to Ibrox today under pressure to perform. They capitulated very meekly against a Rangers side who showed more determination and the most basic appreciation for football tactics that was required to earn all three points. There will be complaints about the referee, and there should be, but even a win by Celtic would have masked serious deficiencies in the playing squad and in the tactics deployed.

Injuries affected Celtic’s starting lineup and forced the manager into selecting two 19 year-olds at centre back but the reality is that Glen Loovens has never convinced he is remotely good enough to play in the SPL, particularly against Rangers, and Jos Hooiveld has rarely played for Celtic. It was Tony Mowbray’s decision to overhaul his back four in one month in January and it’s a decision which hasn’t paid off. The yougsters at the back stood up to Boyd and Miller today but it’s not fair on either that they learn their first team trade together. Significantly it was one of the more unnecessary pieces of business - swapping Braafheid in for Danny Fox - that backfired today. Braafheid’s performance had echoes of Michael Gray’s famous ineptitude in Lyon a few years back. Hopelessly exposed defensively and nervous and hurried in possession.

And even still there were opportunities for a balanced Celtic sign to earn a win today. But Mowbray doesn’t do balance, either in his transfer selections or in his tactics. Scott Brown took his place in the middle of the park alongside Landry N’Guemo and did his best to avoid touching the ball in any meaningful way. The few intereventions he made were characteristically sloppy as he ran into trouble needlessly and repeatedly, one such incident creating the opportunity for his sending off, Lafferty and Dougie McDonald combining very effectively to produce a snappy red card.

But sympathy for a poor refereeing decision should not distract from the fact that Brown and N’Guemo have proven they cannot operate effectively together. In fact the more telling point is that N’Guemo looks comfortable alongside Crosas or Ki (or Donati at the start of the season) while Brown has yet to develop an effective partnership with anybody in his years at the club. The inclusion of Brown in the team upsets all the natural balance. You have to cover him with either a passing playmaker alongside him (like Ki) or with a player who will make the tough challenges like N’Guemo. Brown masters no single aspect of midfield play, in fact he’s not even close to competent at some, so it beggars belief that he is constantly chosen to marshall the most important area of any team.

Outside this pairing McGeady was ineffective on one flank and Kamara fulfilled a similar role on the other wing. Kamara to his credit put in a huge amount of work off the ball today but he’s not a natural winger and he’s more interested in heading straight for goal than in retaining possession. Paired with McGeady on the opposite flank you stumble across a very large problem - Celtic had nobody capable of passing the ball in the middle of the park, with the exception on N’Guemo who is limited in his range and accuracy. This may be a derby with blood and thunder and diving cheats but a little bit of subtlety is required in every game. Mowbray cast it all aside today.

Papac and Bougherra were impressive for Rangers defensively but Davie Weir looked every day of his 39 years and Whittaker was exposed early on by the running of Kamara. The key to Celtic’s hopes today should have been the retention of the ball and isolating the Rangers defenders by stretching them as wide as possible across the back. Instead the full backs were forced to thump the ball forward to the energetic Fortuné who chased lost causes all day. Brown turned his back on his defenders every time they were in possession, it’s not in his nature to look for the ball in traffic as his passing doesn’t allow him to move it on quickly enough.

Accepting all those errors in the formation of the starting team there was still scope for improvement. Aiden McGeady had a forgettable day, restricted in part by the lack of a threat inside, but it also looked like Rangers had done their homework. However replacing your only natural winger with another centre forward who has done nothing on Celtic’s wing to suggest he’ll ever be effective there looked like an act of desparation from Mowbray. There was still a half hour to go when the Celtic manager introduced a fourth striker to proceedings. That might even be considered adventurous if two of them weren’t asked to play as orthodox wingers. In one switch the shape disappeared completely.

Scott Brown’s sending off forced Mowbray’s hand for his final switch but the damage had been done already. The two strikers playing out of position were retained and Fortuné was withdrawn from his natural position to be replaced by the young Korean. Few will argue against the need to introduce a second central midfielder, many will dispute that there more obvious candidates for the axe. The makeshift back four at the start of the game was now a makeshift back eight with players playing out of position, in unfamiliar partnerships, and seemingly no method behind the madness.

The winning goal was little surprise by the end. At that stage a Celtic team trailing Rangers by seven points showed little interest in winning the game. Robbie Keane was alone up front, in a role he has previously proven he’s not ideally suited to. The midfield were busy familiarising themselves with eachother and their new positions and the back four finally started showing the signs of tiredness that had been creeping in all game.

Celtic can’t afford to turn up at Ibrox with McGeady and Brown as ineffective as they were today but there was a clear lack of organisation and spirit about the team which betrayed greater problems than a mere loss of form. There were credible performances from Boruc, Thompson, Rogne and O’Dea and reasonable efforts from N’Guemo, Keane and Fortuné but individuals matter little when they’re so badly organised and disspirited. Tony Mowbray took a gamble in January and lost. The Celtic Board now need to conclude that their own gamble on Mowbray has a beaten docket too.