WHEN Celtic re-appointed Neil Lennon on an interim basis in February, they were eight points clear atop the Premiership table. Now, eight games later and with three fixtures left to play, they are nine points ahead of second-placed Rangers and on course for another title. Yet, in spite of this improvement in circumstances, their temporary manager finds himself under scrutiny.

There seems to be a growing number of fans and pundits taking aim at Lennon and his tactics, and their groans were not silenced by the 1-0 win over Kilmarnock last Saturday. On an emotional day at Parkhead that saw tributes paid to club legend Billy McNeill, the reigning champions looked nervy and without their usual spark. That, however, had a lot to do with the quality of their opposition.

Kilmarnock are no longer underdogs in these matches. Since Steve Clarke took charge, their league record against Celtic reads as thus: seven games played; two wins; two draws; three defeats. The way they play works, even at Parkhead, and so they saw no reason to deviate from their usual approach this time around.

The visitors lined up in a low 4-4-2 defensive block with a zonal focus meaning they sought first and foremost to retain their shape, only applying pressure to the Celtic ball-carrier whenever they progressed beyond the halfway line and towards the final third. Clarke’s principles were perhaps seen most clearly in the behaviour of his strikers – while other teams would have one of their front two follow Scott Brown wherever he went, Eamonn Brophy and Conor McAleny prioritised their positions. In doing so, the Killie front two ensured they always had good access to press the ball whenever Celtic looked to attack in the central channel.

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Celtic responded to this by attacking predominantly in the wider areas. This was no doubt partly influenced by Kilmarnock’s ability to congest the centre, but was perhaps also down to Lennon’s preferred strategy. During his first spell in charge his side used overloads and rotations out wide to open up opponents, and these were seen again on Saturday.

The hosts started with intent and looked to play quick switches to the wings. This is a clever way to take on arguably the most resolute defensive side in the country, as Kilmarnock’s wingers tend not to track their opposite men. With Chris Burke and Liam Millar tucking in when the ball was on the other side to them (again prioritising the team’s compact shape and zonal principles over a more man-to-man approach), fast balls out to the far wing were a good way for Celtic to create favourable 2v2 situations involving James Forrest or Scott Sinclair.

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Lennon’s side didn’t maintain this tempo, however, and instead settled into a slower, more gradual form of attacking involving fewer switches and more deliberation. Brown began to drop between the two centre-backs, forming a 3v2 against Kilmarnock’s strikers and enabling one of Kristoffer Ajer or Jozo Simunovic license to drive forward with the ball at feet. From here, both full-backs took up high and wide positions, while both wingers came inside.

Callum McGregor and Tom Rogic occupied the channels between the away side’s wingers and central midfielders, essentially pinning two defenders each, while Forrest and Sinclair dragged Killie’s full-backs inside with their movement. This often led to space out wide for both Mikael Lustig and Emilio Izaguirre, though this was rarely taken advantage of due to the fact both full-backs lack the speed and skill to go beyond their opposite men. So, once the ball went out to them, it generally came back inside or was awkwardly hooked into the box and easily dealt with.

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If Lennon is in charge come the summer transfer window, this game underlined that he must strengthen in the full-back areas. Izaguirre simply isn’t a progressive enough back-up to Kieran Tierney on the left, while Lustig would be better if shifted to centre-back – there his positional intelligence and passing ability can be utilised, while his lack of dribbling and acceleration would be less of a burden.

Simunovic, who has appeared rejuvenated in recent weeks, was regularly tasked with driving forward with the ball in a bid to commit a Kilmarnock midfielder. This wasn’t easy against a passive low block, so he ended up trying to thread passes through the opposing midfield line to a multitude of options.

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Alongside McGregor, Rogic, Forrest and Sinclair, striker Odsonne Edouard constantly dropped deep to receive to feet. If the line-breaking pass from Simunovic was successful, Celtic could combine through the central channels or go wide and give their overlapping full-backs un-challenged crossing opportunities.

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Lennon’s men dominated the ball – obtaining 67.9 per cent of possession – and the territory, with most of the match played in Kilmarnock’s half. But while in close proximity to the opposition goal, they struggled to craft clear-cut scoring opportunities. Any real danger was primarily caused by their getting good numbers into and around the box, meaning even deflected shots or poor crosses had a better chance of falling their way. Theirs was a law-of-averages method and, eventually, it paid off, with Simunovic heading in after a period of sustained attacking.

Celtic’s control of the contest was in part fuelled by the willingness of Kilmarnock to go long and surrender the ball, something that has worked well for them against the Old Firm in recent years. However, credit must also go to the quality of the home side’s pressing in defensive transition. Whenever they lost possession, there was a clear organisation and intensity about the way they went about regaining it – one player would close the ball while two or three others nearby would hunt their opposite men, taking away their time and space.

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This focus on aggression and speed was also seen in Celtic’s attacking transitions. Every time they regained the ball they looked to play forward instantly and break into whatever space was available. Evidently, they were trying to take advantage of any instance their opposition were not – for a change – defensively well-organised; this is something the stats back up – only twice this season have Celtic counter-attacked more than the six times they attempted to on Saturday.

By contrast, there was nothing new or unpredictable about the way Kilmarnock played. Nevertheless, it was again refreshing to see them remain composed, even when playing out against concerted pressure. This has been a key feature under Clarke – rather than go long at the first sign of trouble, they used their compactness to pass short and try to work a more patient attacking move. As a result, they often drew Celtic out and created space further up the pitch which was occasionally exploited.

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While Killie kept their heads, Celtic frequently lost theirs. Sinclair’s finishing was wild, Brown’s passing was slack, and Ajer made a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes – first diving in prematurely and then getting his feet muddled – which led to one-on-ones for Burke and Brophy. These individual lapses in concentration only added to the frustration of a home crowd that had seen their side stultified for much of the afternoon.

All things considered, this was a fairly underwhelming performance by Celtic. But underwhelming performances against Clarke’s Kilmarnock have been happening consistently of late. Lennon will shoulder the blame, but for what? A 1-0 win over one of Scotland’s best teams in a game his side controlled is hardly a cause for crisis talks. Neither is the fact his side are unbeaten since he took charge, or the fact they have conceded just two goals in eight league games under his auspices.

It might not be pretty, but it is effective. And that, in a way, encapsulates Celtic’s managerial dilemma going forward. Whether they appoint Lennon permanently will depend a lot on what they value more: aesthetics, or results.