Neil Lennon will have learned enough on Sunday to give him pause for thought. After wins over Lille and Kilmarnock, we shipped three goals, conceded additional good chances and confidence shattered all too easily the moment Hearts scored their first.
For me, the remainder of our season truncates into the next four games; four more cup finals, if you like. The plan for these fixtures has to be right.
There is no longer a debate about our best defensive formation; moving Kristofer Ajer to right back gives the team a far better shape. This means playing Christopher Jullien and Shane Duffy in central defence. As you may have commented through expletives on Sunday, these two are not a partnership. Not yet, anyway; they have three games to change that.
I vacillate on left back preferences. Greg Taylor is currently the manager’s first choice, if so, play him in each of the four games ahead. If Diego Laxalt gets the nod, give him the opportunity to settle into the position.
If the partnership between Jullien and Duffy needs work, the system the defence builds with their goalkeeper requires even more attention. Neil Lennon opted for Conor Hazard against Hearts, whom he accepted had a degree of liability for two of the Hearts goals. A more experienced keeper would have got his retaliation in first on Naismith and, as every experienced keeper in the business does, would have ‘bought the foul’ for the third goal.
It is time to put Vasilis Barkas in goal behind a settled defence. He is 26-years-old, a Greek international goalkeeper with four seasons’ experience at a decent level, including Champions League football. There is more to come from him than we have seen this season; playing behind a composed defence will establish this.
You, me and the manager saw two games with Ismaila Soro before the Cup Final, enough to demonstrate he is a player, not enough to convince you, me AND the manager he was right for the final. As fans, we are guilty of recency bias: Soro played well recenly, Celtic played well, therefore Soro is the answer to our problems.
This can be true but it can also be false. I fell into this trap earlier this season with Jeremie Frimpong. He was our MVP in wins over Ross County, Livingston and Hibs, but opposing teams adapted, and he’s young, which means form can be variable. St Johnstone had his number in Perth next time out and his gas has been at a peep ever since.
What we have seen of Soro is encouraging, especially the second 45 minutes against Lille, but we have not seen enough to bet the bank on him.
At 35, Scott Brown is a shadow of his former imperious best, which has consequences for Callum McGregor and how we defend, which is the reason there is a clamour to play Soro. e HeIt is accepted that Scott cannot play two games a week for long periods. Consult your textbook, and it will tell you players like this need to be used sparingly, which means Soro is likely to start tomorrow night and against Dundee United on 30 December.
Alternating Soro and Brown directly conflicts with my desire to see a settled team and partnerships establish throughout the side, but desire is a guideline and guidelines can be flexed in certain circumstances.
Playing Soro or Brown at Ibrox feels like a major call. Thankfully, it is not my decision, because I can see jeopardy in both options. If you think the answer is obvious, I suggest you have not considered the matter closely enough. However, this is the kind of decision Neil Lennon is paid the big bucks to make and get right.
Successful teams have a settled defence, central mid and goalkeeper. They vary their attacking players, often during games, so while it is important to get the four more attacking positions right, we do not need consistency of selection in those areas. Neil can throw the dice there against Ross County, Hamilton and Dundee United. We need to see more from on Odsonne Edouard, Mohamed Elyounoussi and Ryan Christie, none are currently playing well enough to know their shirts will be on a hanger on 2 January.
We dodged a trauma on Sunday but the game was full of information about the team and how to proceed. In this respect, Hearts did us a favour in not capitulating. How we use this knowledge will determine the outcome of the title.