AFTER recruiting Shane Duffy on a season-long loan from Brighton earlier this month, Neil Lennon finally had the correct tools at his disposal to revert to the 3-5-2 formation that proved so successful during the second half of the previous campaign before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

The departure of Jozo Simunovic and the pursuit of Duffy left the Celtic boss short of options at the back when the new season kicked off, forcing the Northern Irishman’s hand in opting for the 4-2-3-1 line-up that he has favoured for the majority of his second spell in the Parkhead hotseat.

That the Premiership champions have reintroduced a tactical system that delivered a ninth successive league title is not especially surprising, particularly when it is one that comes with the added rigour of an additional central defender at a time when the defence has looked a little ropey on occasion.

Given the 3-5-2’s success last term – Celtic won eight of the nine league games where they lined up in the system, scoring 31 goals along the way – the return to the formation was a seeming inevitability this time around. But while the team’s shape is similar to the one that was so decisive in the title race last season, the approach within that framework has been tinkered with.

The most obvious alteration to Celtic’s attacking approach can be found in the team’s newfound insistence on heavily focusing play down the left wing. Apart from the Motherwell game, when Celtic attacks were evenly distributed down either flank, the majority of attacks from Lennon’s side have come down the left.

Part of this is down to the importance of Callum McGregor. The 27-year-old is the most important player within the 3-5-2, providing a crucial link between the midfield and attack and playing a huge role in chance creation on the left of the midfield trio. Much of the more promising phases of attacking play go through the midfielder and when he tends to occupy space to the left of Celtic’s midfield, it’s only natural to see much of his side’s creative play congested in this area of the park.

The problem with this, however, is that the system can easily become fundamentally unbalanced; players who drift left receive more of the ball than those on the opposite flank, leading to those on the right becoming increasingly isolated while the former are saddled with the majority of the responsibility for breaking down the opposition.

This is where Celtic’s creative problems have come to a head this season. It might sound flippant to claim that the league’s top scorers aren’t creating enough quality chances – and maybe it is – but given the wealth of attacking options Lennon has at his disposal, there is still room for improvement.

Put simply, James Forrest and Jeremie Frimpong – the two players most often played at right wing-back – aren’t getting enough of the ball at the moment to significantly impact games. While playing on the right of the 3-5-2 last season, Forrest was receiving 39.4 passes per game. In the same role this campaign, that figure has dropped to 23.1. It’s a similar story with Frimpong (33.8 to 30.9), albeit the effect is not as pronounced.

This change in approach has had a damaging effect on Forrest’s creative output. We only have a small sample size from this season to go on so findings should be taken with a healthy dose of salt, but there is no question that there has been a noticeable reduction in creativity down the right this season, particularly since the 3-5-2 was reintroduced.

Despite receiving less of the ball, Forrest is still averaging roughly the same number of dribbles and crosses per game as he was last season, and while Forrest’s runs have become more effective (66.7% are successful this season, compared to 54.8 last term) his crossing accuracy has fallen off a cliff, dropping from 37.9% to 14.3%. He is yet to register an assist from right wing-back this campaign, his expected assists (xA) and expected goals (xG) per 90 have decreased and he is averaging fewer key passes – passes that lead directly to a shot – than last time around. The same is true of Frimpong but again, to a lesser degree.

There is a section of the Celtic support that tend to evaluate Forrest’s contribution to the team with a greater degree of scrutiny than is often afforded to others but there is no getting away from the 28-year-old’s immense output over the last few seasons. That Forrest finished last season’s Premiership with a combined goals and assist tally of 23 – the greatest return of any player in the league, bar Odsonne Edouard – tells its own story and underlines the importance of getting the Scotland internationalist the service he requires to be an effective presence in attack.

For as long as Celtic continue to approach games in such a lopsided fashion, Greg Taylor will continue to be asked to fulfil a role which he is simply not suited to. The former Kilmarnock full-back is a fine player and is defensively sound enough to play for the champions but in attacking phases of play lacks the necessary credentials to make the most of his time with the ball.

Taylor lacks the athleticism of his predecessor Kieran Tierney and does not possess the pace required to take on an opponent and drive down the byline, nor the consistency to capitalise on such opportunities when they occur.

Some might view criticism of Taylor has unjust, given the fact that he has already provided three goals for his team-mates this season and scored once himself. But to echo an earlier point: does that mean Celtic cannot do better? Lennon has been very public in his pursuit of a new left-back and there is an underlying feeling that were the Parkhead club to bring in a creatively-minded, natural wing-back, then they could offer even more than what Taylor is bringing to the party at present.

It will be fascinating to see how Lennon addresses these issues in the coming weeks, particularly with the spectre of an Old Firm derby lurking on the horizon. So far, Celtic’s imbalanced approach has paid off. But if the system continues to sideline the likes of Forrest and Frimpong, two players who contributed enormously to Celtic’s success last season, and opposing teams get wise to Celtic’s left-sided overload and figure out a method of nullifying it, the problems could quickly mount up for Lennon and his coaching staff. A rethink of Celtic’s approach play might not be the only option that’s left. It might just be the option that’s right.