We got a fascinating insight into the complex layers of management through comments before, during and after the game from Gordon Strachan, and post-match from Neil Lennon. Before kick-off, Gordon was asked about Neil’s decision to play three at the back, a formation that was exploited at the weekend (and praised by me last month).
Our former boss, once manager to Neil Lennon, father of Gavin, now a Celtic first team coach, deflected. “I’m not the manager.” Gordon was there as a pundit, but pulled his punch on this occasion and again at halftime. After the second half, when Celtic improved significantly with four at the back, Gordon declined to judge the starting formation harshly, postulating that we will never know what would have happened had Celtic started with four at the back.
Then Neil Lennon explained what Gordon Strachan almost certainly knew before the match. His choice was not to start with three at the back, but he did not have fit personnel to start and play the majority of a game with four in defence, specifically, a wide right forward. Ryan Christie was not allowed to leave his home for two weeks, at this level, that is a long time without training.
A few weeks ago, we discussed that it was absurd that tens of thousands of Celtic fans knew something to be an absolute truth, which Neil Lennon was oblivious to (think central mid). We agreed (I’m sure we did) that this is nonsense. Instead, we had to accept that the manager sees complex layers that we do not. Who knew there were concerns about the match fitness of Ryan Christie, apart from Gordon Strachan, of course?
It will be four at the back whenever fitness permits. The two central defenders will be Kristoffer Ajer (who was immense last night) and Christopher Jullien. Shane Duffy is struggling. At 28, there is plenty of fuel in the tank, so he may find form, but right now he looks like a player on the bus out of Brighton. Some you win.
In football, or in life generally, the direction of travel is often more important that your absolute position. Are things getting better, or are they getting worse? Therein lies whatever consolation there was in defeat to a superior Milan last night. It was still a defeat, but losing to a better team while competing for large periods of the game, is better than being schooled by a team of never-won-anythings.
We did no more to Milan than Motherwell will do to us next month, but that direction of travel offers some consolation ahead of Sunday.