Antonio Conte’s subtle influence on Neil Lennon’s developing Celtic philosophy
Neil Lennon’s switch to a 3-5-2 in recent weeks has been one of the core emerging sub plots of Celtic’s season and his own revelation this week alluded to a subtle influence in the tactical shift.
On the chalkboard
The Hoops’ most dramatic and headline-making result of the season so far arrived away at Lazio in November, with Olivier Ntcham notching a sumptuous late winner at the Stadio Olimpico.
It was a blockbuster moment of unadulterated brilliance and passion that will live long in the memory for supporters, but it also provided an early indication into the direction in which Lennon’s brand of football was moving.
The implementation of a 3-5-2, 3-1-4-2 or even 5-3-2 formation, depending on your interpretation, carved out the road to gladiatorial success in Italy, and the Celtic boss has deployed a similar setup in the SPFL since his side returned from the winter break.
And while speaking to BBC Sport regarding the effectiveness of the recent changes, the 48-year-old lauded Inter Milan boss Antonio Conte as a master of an approach plenty of managers instinctively shy away from.
“Antonio Conte’s Juventus was very successful with it [3-5-2], he’s getting great joy out of it again with Inter Milan and obviously he won the English Premier League with it at Chelsea.
“He’s sort of mastered it really. But I’m not saying it’s set in stone for us going forward this season. We’ll see how we get on with it.”
Changing the tactical landscape
Given the Italian’s rich success in the game, it’s impossible to argue against Lennon’s glowing verdict. The manager lifted the Premier League with Chelsea and clinched three consecutive Serie A titles with Juventus between 2012 and 2014, while a fourth Scudetto is a realistic possibility with the Nerazzurri this season.
That Lennon has directly cited Conte as an elite benchmark suggests he has been influenced by his achievements while utilising a three-at-the-back system.
After all, it is almost unheard of for a Premier League manager to successfully champion a system bearing resemblance to that which Conte religiously deployed in the 2016/17 season. The emergence of Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United this season, however, suggests the triumph was more than just an anomaly.
Yet there is more to his potential influence than initially meets the eye.
Which formation best suits Celtic?
Cast your mind back to 2013 and you’ll find yourself confronting Celtic’s crushing 5-0 aggregate loss to the Old Lady in the last-16 of the Champions League – a two-legged tie which illuminated the gulf in class between the two sides and the quintessentially rigid structure that Italian sides have become, whether by virtue of the blind adoption of stereotypes or genuine statistical analysis, revered for.
Lennon was outwitted by his opposite number as Conte barked and scuttled up and down the touchline with the unbridled enthusiasm of a newborn rottweiler.
The visitors scored after just three minutes to sting the vibrant Paradise crowd, and they offered stern resistance before scoring two goals in the final 15 minutes to effectively kill the tie at the halfway stage.
It provided a lesson in European tactical thinking which must have resonated with Lennon, and it seems the memories of an imperious, immaculately-drilled Juventus side remain with him seven years and two days later.
The Northern Irishman may not have directly labelled Conte as his chief tactical influence, but his latest admission is telling about the subtle role he’s played in Celtic’s recent switch to 3-5-2.