A SWITCH to a 3-5-2 formation this year has helped Celtic recover from their December defeat to Rangers at Parkhead, go on a 13 game unbeaten run domestically, move to within touching distance of a record-equalling ninth consecutive Scottish title and keep alive their hopes of an unprecedented quadruple treble.

Could it now enable Neil Lennon’s men to stop the rot against their city rivals and triumph in their fourth encounter of the season with Steven Gerrard’s side at Ibrox on Sunday?

The Glasgow club’s record against their age-old adversaries in the past 14 months is, on paper at least, respectable. They have won three and lost three of their previous six encounters. On their last visit to Govan back in September they bossed the 90 minutes and ran out deserved 2-0 winners.

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But it could be argued that Celtic have been outplayed by Rangers in no fewer than five of those games.

They only edged the Betfred Cup final at Hampden in December because opposition striker Alfredo Morelos had an off day up front and their goalkeeper Fraser Forster was in inspired form.

In the Ladbrokes Premiership match in the East End last March the visitors, who had fallen behind to an Odsonne Edouard goal and been reduced to 10 men when Morelos was ordered off in the first-half, fought back and levelled through Ryan Kent and were unfortunate not to take the lead.

Only a late James Tavernier mistake, which led directly to James Forrest’s winner, prevented them from earning a draw.

Lennon clearly thought long and hard about why Celtic had performed so woefully in their 2-1 defeat at home before the winter shutdown. Fatigue clearly had much to do with it. Their schedule in the first six months of the 2019/20 campaign had been punishing.

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There was, though, clearly something else about the way his side had been second best to their nearest challengers for the second time in the space of three weeks which troubled him and which made him feel that a major rethink was required.

Asked by Sky Sports afterwards if Rangers had figured out how to play against Celtic, Lennon said: “That’s a fair comment. I think we need to look at how we set up and change the way we play, to address the lack of pressure we’ve put on them in the last couple of games.

“There’s no question we’ve looked at the game and there’s aspects, be it personnel or changing the formation, that we can work on. If you keep playing the same way and it’s not working then you have to change it.”

Change it he did. When play resumed following the shutdown Lennon started selecting three centre backs, Kristoffer Ajer, Christopher Jullien, Jozo Simunovic and more recently Nir Bitton, in defence and deploying Forrest, Jeremie Frimpong, Jonny Hayes or Greg Taylor as wing backs. The results have been spectacular. They have scored 40 goals and conceded just five times in their Premiership and William Hill Scottish Cup matches since.

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Didier Agathe, the right back who played alongside Lennon in the Celtic side which won their first domestic treble in 32 years in 2001 and reached the UEFA Cup final in Seville in 2003, has been unsurprised by the move or how well it has worked.

Martin O’Neill often favoured a 3-5-2 during his trophy-laden spell in charge so his old team mate is certainly familiar with the system.

Agathe feels the Northern Irishman has, in Ajer, Bitton, Scott Brown, Ryan Christie, Edouard, Forrest, Leigh Griffiths, Callum McGregor, Tom Rogic and Taylor, personnel with similar attributes to the great footballers he played alongside during his six years in Glasgow.

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“I like the 3-5-2 formation,” he said. “But formation always depends on what kind of players you have. If you don’t have the right players you can’t play 3-5-2.

“The Celtic side I was a member of did. Martin had strong centre backs, Stanislav Varga, Bobo Balde, Johan Mjallby, Joos Valgaeren, who could defend and were also quick across the ground. You also need fast wing backs and we had those. I was on one side and Alan Thompson on the other.

“When the wing backs went forward you needed an experienced midfielder who could drop back and protect the defence and in Paul Lambert, who had won the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund, and Neil we certainly had them.

“Then you need two good strikers, a target man and somebody who can play off them and score goals. We had Chris Sutton and Henrik Larsson. Then you need a playmaker who can operate behind your front men and Stiliyan Petrov was perfect in that role for us.

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“I know that Neil has decided to go to that system and has been doing very well. The players need to understand how the system works for it to function properly so Neil has clearly been getting that message across.

“How you play in a 3-5-2 all depends on where the ball is and where your opponent is. Plus, you need the right players. But Neil has clearly got the right personnel with the right character too.”

Agathe, a £50,000 signing whose lightning-quick and lung-bursting breaks down the flank set up many important goals, believes the new set-up will enable his old side to beat Rangers this weekend and enjoy more success in Europe next season.

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“Playing 3-5-2 enables you to go to four or even five at the back when you are under pressure and are defending,” he said. “But it also means that you can counter attack through your wing backs. You can still score goals. In my day, we had Alan Thompson, who was a very, very disciplined player, on one side and myself on the left.

“Lenny has been manager now for a long time. I have noticed that he likes his team to have possession of the ball. When you have possession of the ball you need to have control of midfield. Playing 3-5-2 will give them that and enable them to play the ball wide. I think it will help them against Rangers.

“In the Champions League, where the quality of the side you come up against is better and the games are much faster, it will be harder. But the months that Celtic have spent playing 3-5-2 in Scotland will help them to perfect it by the time the qualifiers come around at the start of next season.”

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