It’s fair to say that Brendan Rodgers’ first 12 months as Celtic manager were nothing short of blissful. It’d be remiss of Celtic fans to admit otherwise – despite that initial blip against Red Imps and the trouncing in the Nou Camp – Rodgers’ first campaign was just about flawless. Domestically impeccable, the feat of an invincible treble is rightly held in high esteem. From the day his appointment was greeted by 13,000 supporters at Celtic Park, to the most glorious and dramatic climaxes with Tom Rogic’s winner at Hampden in the Scottish Cup Final, that first season was a bubble of perfection.
Fast forward to the second season of the Rodgers reign and things aren’t quite so rosy.
We maintain a level of dominance domestically, despite it being without last season’s
swagger, but concerns that began as murmuring of discontent have become full scale
disillusionment. Brendan Rodgers time at the club so far has been laced with overwhelmingly disappointing European displays. After a 3 year hiatus from the Group Stages of the Champions League, last season’s teething problems against Barcelona, Gladbach and Manchester City were understandable. 3 draws and 3 defeats was hardly
catastrophic – barring the 7-0 drubbing at the Camp Nou. The buzzwords were ‘development’, ‘learning’ and ‘progress’. That’s what this process had to be about. Growing as a team and as a squad to compete at the elite level. The manager spoke about the importance of lifestyle in becoming Champions League players, in the hope that his young Celtic squad could become a Champions League team.
If last season’s Group Stage showing was a tentative toe-dipping back into Europe’s big
time, this season’s was a belly flop into the deep end. The deep end where you get
swallowed whole if you’re not technically and mentally equipped to cope. The aggregate
score of 12-1 against PSG and the insipid performance at home to Anderlecht were only
mildly tempered by a 0-3 win in Brussels and a decent showing at home against Bayern
Munich. But the problems were laid bare for all to see. The little undercurrents from the
last season have become deep-rooted issues that needed, and still need, urgent
addressing. European football after Christmas was ‘progress’, but if last night’s
performance in St. Petersburg tells us anything, it’s that we haven’t progressed; not
technically, tactically and perhaps most importantly, mentally.
Celtic emerged from the summer transfer window without the one acquisition that all
supporters and commentators could see was the number one priority – a centre half.
Boyata and Simunovic performed well in the latter part of the season as we steamed
towards the treble, but Sviatchenko had clearly fallen out of favour and the
aforementioned partnership of Boyata and Simunovic had it’s fair share of injury
problems. That aside, Boyata is consistently error prone and has never coped well
under concerted pressure from the opposition. It was the one must for Celtic in the
summer and we didn’t get one. Qualification for the Group Stages kept the critics at bay, but not for long. As soon as we stepped into that stage, it was clear we were glaringly
short in that area.
Recruitment was a well known bugbear for Rodgers at Liverpool, believed to be due to
the club’s cluttered scouting and recruitment hierarchy. But at Celtic, this is not the
case. I think the board at Celtic know they have a top class coach in Rodgers and are
willing, for all intents and purposes to let him handle all of the football matters. However,
recruitment still appears to be a problem for him. Dembele, Sinclair, De Vries, Gamboa,
Toure, Eboue, Hayes, Benyu, Ntcham and Edouard were his recruits before January
2018. Aside from Dembele and Sinclair, we can’t say that anyone else has become a
nailed on starter, let alone a rip-roaring success. Ntcham is becoming a more important
member of the team but didn’t become a regular starter until the winter.
Once again, in January the areas where additions were required were glaring. We
added Marvin Compper before the window opened – who was ineligible to play in the
Europa League- and Jack Hendry from Dundee, a promising young player but one with
less than 50 first team matches in his career. The loan signing of Musonda is
considered a coup for the club, and while he is clearly very talented, we don’t know yet
where he fits in. Scott Bain was a necessity given Craig Gordon’s injury and is only a
stop gap. We entered the Zenit tie with one new centre half ineligible and another who
isn’t ready for that level yet. Prior to Ajer’s integration, we had the same back 5 as
Ronny Deila’s team that faced Fenerbache in 2015. With the exception of Tierney, that
back 5 wasn’t good enough then – and it sure as hell isn’t good enough now. These are
issues which we have been facing for 4 transfer windows and counting.
The theme in Rodgers recruitment has always been about getting in the right ‘quality’.
Quality over quantity is what he preaches time and again. It’s irrefutable that he’s added
more quality than quantity. But why? This is answer only those close to the club will
know for certain but for me it’s either one of two things. Brendan Rodgers is identifying
players of the right quality that the club are not willing to pay for, or the club are giving
Brendan Rodgers his pick and he’s not getting the quality he says he needs.
Last season, the team selection every week was just about consistent. There were at
least 7 or 8 players guaranteed to start every game. Notwithstanding those were able to
break in and stay in around the midway mark of the season – namely Boyata and
Armstrong – everyone else was stable. This season has been almost the polar opposite
at times. There’s no doubt numerous reasons for this; number of fixtures, injuries and
form for starters. But we’ve seen all too often that rotated teams disrupt our flow and
we’ve dropped points in far too many games this season because of it. There’s been no
consistency upfront – again injuries have played their part – and in midfield, it’s almost
been a lottery from week to week, with Brown being the only mainstay.
It has been in the striker role where the team has struggled most in terms of changes.
Our top scorer is Scott Sinclair with 18 – who’s having a poor season besides his goals – and James Forrest has 16. Griffiths has 13, Dembele 9 and Edouard 6. Again, injuries
have played their part here but even with all 3 players have been available there’s been
no pattern or regularity for any of them. I know that it must be hard to keep all 3 of them
happy but I suspect that so far this season none of them are entirely happy with their
minutes on the pitch, nor their goal tallies.
The most recent example of this was last weekend’s game against St. Johnstone,
where 8 changes were made from the team that beat Zenit 1-0. It wouldn’t have taken a
crystal ball to see that the shuffled team would put in a disjointed display that ended 0-0.
It’s easy to say that we should still have been strong enough to win the game, but in
reality when you put out a team that hasn’t played together, with guys coming in from
the cold – like Miller and Gamboa – you can’t expect a coherent performance. Rotation is
not the only factor in the dip in league form, but it clearly hasn’t done us any favours.
We’ve dropped points in 9 league games with only Hearts, Kilmarnock and Hibs drawn
more games than we have.
There’s an ongoing debate between the Celtic support that’s becoming increasingly
futile. One camp that lambasts current form and derides those who disagree as unable
to criticise Brendan Rodgers, regardless of performances and results. In the other
camp, we have people who think that everything is fine and that we’re in a great
position, still on for back to back trebles for the first ever. The truth is somewhere in
Just because people are hesitant to criticise doesn’t mean that they think Rodgers is a
deity who can do wrong. And where others are critical, it doesn’t mean they’re calling for
his head. Make no mistake about it, Brendan Rodgers is 100% the best possible man to
manage Celtic right now. We couldn’t attract another coach of his pedigree. Last season
was once in a lifetime and a privilege to witness. But does he have faults? Of course he
Last season is last season. Right now, Celtic have a fight on their hands. Points to
prove. A 9 point lead at this stage of the season should be enough for us to win the title
but there has to be a response from the team in the next few weeks. Big games at
Pittodrie and Ibrox are a test for a team lacking in form and rhythm. The points that
Celtic have to prove are not about the league table. The manager and the players have
got to approach the back end of the season like men possessed. Possessed to silence
the critics. Possessed to win back the adulation of the supporters. And possessed to
make history again.
– Follow @Paul7M7 on Twitter