When Neil Lennon is mentioned, the first thing that probably comes to your mind is an angry, short fused Northern Irishman who used to play for Celtic then managed them to Scottish league and cup glory, oh, and who can forget him leading Celtic to that famous 2-1 over Barcelona.
Well now he’s at Bolton, after leaving Celtic in the summer of 2014. I‘m here to analyse how he brought so much success to Celtic and how he has transformed a lacklustre Bolton Wanderers into a team that will most certainly be amongst the playoffs (at least) next season, using what many would deem as ‘Hipster Tactics’.
Scott Brown Is Scary Enough On His Own, Never Mind With Him Having A Brick Wall Like Lennon Created At The Back
When Neil Lennon took over at Celtic in 2010, it seemed like destiny. He was replacing Tony Mowbray, a manager who never really seemed to know how to properly prepare his team tactically. Lennon was full of hunger and desire, and that was the first thing he brought into the dressing room. But the most important thing he brought to the team was a sturdy defence, one that could win you championships. Lennon and his trusty assistant (Johan Mjällby, left on the picture above) always bring a solid structure to teams, wherever they go. Whether they are playing a 3-5-2/3-4-3 or a 4-4-2 formation, Lennon drills into his players a defensive structure upon which the team builds its attacking foundations, but more on that later.
As shown from the picture below, we see that by keeping his defenders in a near perfect line of 4, the team cannot be caught out by the striker running in behind, by keeping the perfect line and moving in unison they allow less room for strikers to run looking to escape the offside trap. Also, it’s not just the defenders in a perfect line of 4, the midfielders are also in a near perfect line of 4, quite close to the defenders. This takes away any room for creative playmakers in the middle of the park and it doesn’t allow strikers to get the ball at their feet and run at the defence.
By playing with 2 embankments of 4 quite close together, Lennon’s teams forced the opposition out wide, taking away any threat directly up the middle. This image is Celtic vs Rangers 2011 – Celtic won 3-0. Look at how regimented the players are, how connected they remain in unison though the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch.
Even though on paper a 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation seems very different to the 4-4-2 on how you would set up defensively, Lennon made it work so he had the same outcome as his 4-4-2 formation – force the opposition out wide, take away any route of attack down the middle, and make the opposition 1-dimensional.
Lennon adapted his formation depending on his personnel and opposition, but now at Bolton, he seems to be favouring the 3-5-2/3-4-3/5-3-2 formation, which he used with much success vs Barcelona. In the image below, we see 3 CBs within touching distance of each other, 2 wing backs jammed in (inverted wing backs) and 3 CMs playing no further than 10 yards in front of the CBs. This tactic suffocated any players who played a central role, giving them no space whatsoever, essentially telling the opposition to go out wide where they would be forced to cross into a crowded space of defending bodies.
The 3 Barcelona players I have highlighted are deprived of any space to work with, meaning they had to go out wide, only to see the resulting ball into the area cleared by one of the 3 commanding centre halves. It meant a lack of possession for Celtic in this game, but they recorded one of the club’s most historic wins of all time.
The same applies for the next picture, it is exactly the same formation, with 3 Liverpool players devoid of any space to work with, and resulting into the ball played out wide. This image is from the FA Cup replay between Bolton and Liverpool, with the Wanderers narrowly being defeated 2-1 by a wonder goal from Coutinho.
The Attack – a Poor Man’s Martinez’s Way Still Does the Job Very Well for Lennon’s Teams
Neil Lennon isn’t just about his defence however, he liked to install an attractive brand of football at Celtic, and he has started to introduce the same style to Bolton. Lennon likes to play a compact defence that aids his style of short, neat football, with passes kept along the ground to maintain possession.
Lennon is definitely not a long ball enthusiast. He drills an accurate short passing game into his team, with the ball getting out wide to his energetic wingers to whip balls into the area to his poacher-like centre forwards. If you watch the following clip, it is a perfect example of a Neil Lennon’s team goal. It involves energetic players, and the ball kept on the floor, a cross into the danger area and a quality finish from the poacher up front. It is a great example of a counter-attacking goal, breaking from a defensive position quickly into an attacking phase.
The Personnel – The Man Who Brought Up Players Like Virgil Van Dijk and…… Efe Ambrose (Poor Neil for Having To Deal With Efe)
Lennon likes specific players – players with energy, enthusiasm, desire, hunger and determination to match his own passion for the team. At the back, he likes his vocal, more traditional keepers (sorry Manuel Neuer and Rene Higuita) who command the back 4 around and aren’t afraid to come out to collect the ball from corners and crosses.
The full backs/wing backs/wide midfielders Lennon requires are players with incredibly high stamina to make sure they can contribute up the pitch just as well as down at the back defending. They need good awareness to pick up their opposite number tracking back, some defensive qualities to be able to do their role of jamming in making life difficult for the opposition, and some technical ability to be able to deliver good balls into the box.
The centre halves Lennon chooses tend to be ball playing centre halves (with the exception of Ambrose), but also very physical ones who can bully opposition strikers out the game. They tend to be quite commanding too.
The central midfielders Lennon uses in his system tend to be physical as – they are used to dominate the midfield and intimate the opposition (Scott Brown for example), while also having the capabilities to do the dirty work at the back and getting up the field to lay off a great assist or pop a 30 yarder into the top corner.
The advanced playmakers Lennon likes to use tend to be home-grown, young talents. The main reason he uses these players is because they are fearless, energetic and provide a spark to the team.
Finally, Lennon likes to have strikers who give the opposition problems by their movement in and around the penalty box; he likes poachers, the strikers who can always get that last flick on into the net and the ones who have great finishing.
Comparison: Brendan Rodgers
Yes, you will probably be thinking “how are Lennon and Rodgers similar?!” Granted, they are very different personality wise, Lennon being very aggressive and up front with his players, while Rodgers quite calm, but they are both very demanding in what they expect from their players.
Lennon and Rodgers go back a long way, they grew up in the same area of Northern Ireland, they both got their coaching badges together and have been friends a very long time. So it’s needless to say that they know each other’s tactics inside out and know each other’s little tricks they have stored up their sleeves. This was proven when Bolton and Liverpool faced each other in the FA cup earlier this year, when there was a 0-0 stalemate in the first game, then Liverpool came out 2-1 victors after a wonderful strike from Coutinho, that was the only thing separating the two sides.
The two are very similar tactically, with them both implementing a short passing game, which is a joy to watch. With their short passing games, it allows the team to hit on the counter, catching teams out when they least expect it. To make this short passing, fast-break-style work, both managers crave pace out wide. It’s something both managers have, especially Rodgers with Sterling, Sturridge, Markovic, Moreno, Lallana, Coutinho and now Jordan Ibe. Lennon does have his fair share of quick players, just not up front, something he may address in the next transfer window.
However he may not need to address this as he has an emerging star in Zack Clough, the teenager has taken his chance with both feet and has impressed me very much with his direct, fearless performances. How Lennon brought Clough into the Bolton team and developed him was almost a carbon copy of how Rodgers brought Sterling into the Liverpool squad. Both Lennon and Rodgers give their Number 10/Advanced Playmaker that licence to roam free, so they will pop up on the wing as well as in the middle of the park. The reason they both do this is because it creates confusion for the defence and makes man marking that elusive attacking midfielder much harder to do.
Both Rodgers and Lennon have a tremendous understanding of the game, the only difference between the two is that Rodgers has had more talent to work with, and in a bigger league, so he got more publicity and hype. Whereas, Lennon grafted hard in Glasgow for 4 years with not nearly as much hype, thus meaning Rodgers’ managerial career has progressed further than Lennon’s has.
Hopefully by reading this you’ve realised Lennon isn’t just another manager who makes his name by his antics on the side-line. Hopefully I have shed some light on the shrewd tactical job he has done, and given Lennon the praise he deserves.
The job him and his extremely underrated assistant Johan Mjällby do exemplifies their footballing knowledge and ability to turn your team into a contender right away with their tight schedule which drills the players very well. (Just for the record, I would like to say that Mjällby will be a candidate for a head coaching job within 5 years, you heard it here first so watch for his name flying about the rumour mill!)
So watch this space fellow hipsters, the short tempered shrewd tactician is on the rise.