For many 2016 has been a year of perpetual woe; the series of deaths of much loved celebrities, from the realms of sport, film and music, who inspired countless lives across the planet, the endless bickering following ‘Brexit’, the election of a certifiable lunatic as the President Elect coalesced with the recent fallout of the despicable, Barry Bennell paedophile stories and the tragic Chapecoense plane disaster, has left folk finding it increasingly difficult to crack a smile.
Fortunately, for all green and while festooned fans, Celtic Football Club has offered a sweet sanctuary from the year’s bitterness. Football is simply twenty-two men who charge around a field, battering into each other at regular intervals in an often-vain attempt to get a ball into the opposing net. The fact that this obscure and often bizarre ninety-minute spectacle can, temporarily at least, absolve people of their worries, never ceases to amaze. In the words of Bill Shankley “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” With that sentiment in mind let’s take a look at the year 2016 strictly through a Celtic lens.
There is something reminiscent of the rise of the phoenix about Brendan Rodgers’, so far, brief tenure at Celtic Park. While life inside Parkhead, before the Irishman’s arrival, was far from a decaying abyss of ash, it was not what the vast majority of fans expected. Life under Ronny Deila had descended into a state of continual frustration; frustration at the board’s lack of real investment, frustration at the tepid footballing displays, frustration at the lack progress on a continental front and perhaps most infuriating was the frustration at witnessing a fundamentally honest, decent man having to live such a public life so out of his depth. By the time the Summer rolled around just about every Celtic fan was ready to feel the winds of change flutter.
Deila’s time at Celtic can be characterised by a couple of damning traits firstly was a worrying, inability to adapt and alter his way of thinking. The other was the huge, overreliance on Leigh Griffiths.
All managers have styles of play and formations that they favour, yet the best refrain themselves from becoming so myopic that they cannot change their methods. It is a curse that is currently afflicting Mark Warburton, where his reluctance to deviate from an ineffectual 4-3-3 is becoming hazardous to his job security. Similarly, Ronny Deila became so enamoured with the 4-2-3-1 formation that you could virtually pick his sides weeks in advance. Opposition, location, personnel available, it did not matter, Deila’s usage of his favoured formation never wavered. While some appreciated his resolve and commitment to his ideals, things eventually regressed to the point where it was seen universally as foolhardy.
This predictability was acceptable with the confines of our own borders, yet whenever Celtic looked out their passports and departed the comfort of the Scottish Premiership, this predictability was swiftly exposed – in often embarrassing circumstances. While every fan knows that Celtic’s away form has forever been the club’s Achille’s Heel, that trend hit disparaging depths under Ronny’s regime. In his two-year spell, amassing thirteen fixtures, Deila’s Celtic iteration failed to win a single away fixture, that did not feature Icelandic opposition.
What was infinitely more worrying was the fact that Celtic’s reputation as a venue nigh-impregnable was also tarnished; 46% of home games were won under Deila’s guidance, yet when victories against Icelandic, part-time opposition are excluded this number drops to 40%, a number far removed from the halcyon days of O’Neill and Strachan. This woeful European record culminated in Celtic finishing bottom of a Europa League group.
European sides, even those without an illustrious shine to their histories, often found ways to negate Celtic’s style. When his favoured 4-2-3-1 faltered, Deila looked unable to change the side’s fortunes with innovative thinking. For a set of fans that, more so than any club in Scotland, have venerated continental exploits, it left an immovable black stain on the Norwegian’s CV.
Whilst it is true that Rodgers has favoured the 4-3-3 formation he has shown enough tactical dexterity to alter his shape. When Hapoel Beer Sheva struck with two bolts from the blue, in the Champions League qualifiers, Rodgers was faced with a choice; shut up shop and be content with the current 3-2 score line, or be bold and throw caution to the wind. Fortunately, the gaffer went with the latter, and with Moussa Dembele partnering Griffiths in attack, forming a 4-4-2 without the ball and a 4-2-4 when in possession, leading the Hoops to score a vital late double. A decision that, as it turned out, solidified Celtic’s place at Europe’s top table.
More recently the loss of rising star Kieran Tierney to injury has seen Rodgers have a brief flirtation with a 3-5-2. This proved disastrous in the Nou Camp during the 7-0 humiliation, yet with Armstrong recently acting as an auxiliary wing-back it has proved rather effective.
Deila’s failure in Europe, at the very least his second campaign, can be attributed to my second gripe – his reliance on Leigh Griffiths. At times last season it felt like the entire game plan was centred around the desire to extrapolate the very best from the balding, goal-getter. And while he did amass an astounding 31 league goals (33.3% of the team’s total) such an overreliance proves problematic. This has been highlighted by Celtic’s recent supreme displays; Forrest, Sinclair, Rogic, Griffiths and Dembele have all chipped in with more than their fair share. This more democratic sharing of net-busting duties has ensured that the club are a far more dangerous prospect. Like a boxer who can land a series of differing, debilitating punches as opposed to a prize-fighter with only a haymaker in his arsenal, this Celtic squad has such a diverse barrage of attacks it is a terrifying prospect for the rest of the Scottish Premiership.
It’s important to stress that not all of Deila’s term was tragic. His main hiring point was his ability to enhance the potential of young players (as he did with current Real Madrid wunderkid Martin Odengaard) and to a certain extent that was achieved. His coaching put the building-blocks in place to allow Tom Rogic to become the league’s best playmaker. Likewise, Kieran Tierney has repaid the early faith placed him by developing into a fullback capable of scaling the highest of heights. And while Karamoko Dembele has set the internet abuzz with his YouTube reel, Jack Aitchison looks capable of maturing into a forward able to lead the line for years to come. If they continue to improve it may be the case that Deila is remembered for introducing these players to the fore rather than the lacklustre manner of his general tenure. Finally, it is important to stress, is that ultimately, he managed to achieve what he was hired to do – retain the stranglehold in the league title. Now many may argue that, that was the bare minimum yet, as Celts Are Here have stressed on a number of occasions “you can’t win 10 in a row without the 4th and 5th”.
There is a line from the film Layer Cake, uttered by Daniel Craig, that springs into mind anytime I watch this Celtic team take to the field “life’s so fucking sweet right now I can taste it in my spit.” Even the most ardent Deila fan must admit to finding their saliva taste that little bit more delicious. It is hard to pinpoint what precisely it is that has improved things so drastically. While at Liverpool Rodgers’ downfall was largely down to his poor record in the transfer market. This though has proved to be one of his greatest strengths in Scotland; Sinclair and Dembele have been unmitigated hits, Kolo Toure has tailed off somewhat as the season progresses, looking more and more his age. However it is likely that he was signed for his ability to dispense some of his immense experience as it was for any of his on-field contributions. Christian Gamboa looks as though he may be able to contribute, sadly though he has been unable to dislodge stalwart Lustig. His sole flop is the reserve goalkeeper Doris De Vris.
Celtic’s success has not been limited to their intelligent work in the summer, that would be unfair to the existing players who have improved at an exponential rate. James Forrest and Stuart Armstrong have looked vastly improved, yet it is the difference in Scott Brown that has been most impressive. His muscular, composed displays have been a far cry from the ambling mess he was last year. Gone are the days where the skipper would spend the majority of the ninety minutes posturing, goading and seeming to spend every game in a constant display of faux masculinity. He devolved so much that after the humiliating defeat in Gibraltar many were calling for his sale – my voice loud among them. The best barometer for improvement comes in the Champions League where the tattooed general ranks highly for total passes, touches and interceptions – second only to Erik Sviatchenko in the last regard.
What lays out the sheer level of improvement, in the starkest terms, is the fact that eleven of the players who started the 3-0 League Cup final victory against Aberdeen, ten are remnants from the Deila era.
As I have said it has been hugely enjoyable to watch this season, but for any of the leagues rivals, the performances must surely have sent a shiver down their collective spines. The most gruelling aspect will be the ominous feeling that the Hoops are still improving, still evolving. At the birth of this season Celtic were characterised by their cavalier attitude, the “we will out score you” mentality. More mature performances have been coaxed out of the side, to the point the League Cup was held aloft with the enviable honour of not conceding throughout the entire competition.
There was also the whispered accusation that the side were perhaps a soft touch, that when they were not coasting through games, when someone stepped up and put forward a coherent challenge, the Bhoys would crumble. Yet that theory was shattered when they visited Fir Park in early December; trailing 2-0 at half-time and looking distinctly second best, Celtic came out a markedly different side, rallying to produce a thrilling 4-3 victory.
New Year’s Eve will present Brendan Rodgers’ men with the best opportunity to demonstrate to the nation just how dominant they are. A number of boneheaded statements have been ushered from a couple of spokesmen from the blue half of Glasgow. First, current Rangers attacker Kenny Miller said that his side are still in the title race, despite trailing the Hoops by eleven points and having played two games more. Then, just as we were begging to recover from the fits of laughs that, that little comedy routine kick-started, we were treated to a cracker from Kris Boyd. The rotund Kilmarnock frontman made the assertion that there is not a huge gulf in class between the two clubs, that if Barrie Mackay had converted his half-chance in the 5-1 September demolition, (while the score was still 2-1) Rangers would have salvaged something. Much to his chagrin he was swiftly put back in his place by BT’s Mr Marmite Chris Sutton. Another decisive victory should finally hush the doubting masses.
The future is almost blindingly bright with Rodgers at the helm. With one trophy already in the bag the next objective must surely to be securing a long desired treble, a task made easier with the huge lead at the summit of the league table. Looking beyond the next six months, there are more reasons to be cheerful. Rodgers has the faith of the board to allow him to bolster the squad significantly, giving the Bhoys the best possible chance of making the Champions League group stages for a second successive season. Hopefully with this years’ experience and a little bit of luck it can be a group that can be successfully navigated. No one who follows the club has been quiet in their desire to see a historic ‘ten in a row’ achieved. That feat now looks more attainable than ever.
It has been a terrific 2016 we can only hope that 2017 follows suit.