As Celtic got down to business for the new season with last night’s 2-0 victory over Stjarnan in the Champions League Qualifier, Setting Free The Bears looks back at Ronny Deila’s first season as Celtic manager and in doing so gives us a great insight into what we can expect from Celtic in the new season. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride…
When Celtic appointed Ronny Deila in June 2014, I was as worried as most Celts I know. I was not expecting any big name manager as we have never had a history of appointing big names for the top job. The manager we did recruit with the most impressive background record was probably Jo Venglos and he was greeted as “Doctor Who?” by most fans and all Scottish sports journalists, with the latter influencing the former.
I certainly knew little about Ronny and the only Ronny I had heard of was the legendary Private Eye Manager Ron Knee, aged 59 (The quintessential British football manager began life in the 1960s and has remained the inspirational driving force of Neasden FC and all subsequent football journalism. Knee’s two greatest signings have been the ever-present one-legged goal keeper Wally Foot, and own-goal specialist Baldy Pevsner. Knee’s appearances have been increasingly rare since Ian Hislop took over as Private Eye editor, but he does still occasionally get a run in the first team. Keen observers of Hislop’s diary may notice Knee’s outings invariably coincide with the editor’s holidays.)
But, I was intrigued by Ronny’s Norwegian record and by the background noises signaling his arrival, namely the Roy Keane rumours. His achievements with Stromsgodset are worthy of admiration. He won their top league with a club who had won one top league title in their history (1970) and who still rank outside the top 10 in the list of all-time Norwegian title winners. The club represents a town with a population equivalent to a full Celtic Park. In short, he had won a title against the odds with a club that had no right to such pretensions. He was a managerial/ coaching candidate who would have been of interest to anyone looking at managerial potential in the bigger leagues.
However, though Celtic were being credited with an interest in bringing him to Glasgow as a coach, the noises off stage suggested that this was either as an assistant to Neil Lennon or as assistant to a re-called Roy Keane. Either way there must have been many reservations, amongst the Celtic hierarchy, that he was not yet ready to be in overall charge.
Neil Lennon’s growing frustration with life in Glasgow and his desire to test himself in England and the Celtic fan reaction to a perceived volatile and capricious Roy Keane being appointed (against a split Board or a split between Board and major shareholders??) led to Ronny, who interviewed very well, being thrust forward and being presented as first choice, after a long period of careful evaluation, which was probably a short period of violent disagreement. The mistaken impression of “rabbit in the headlights” would dog his early days at CP, if I can mix my animal metaphors.
In the modern world of blogging, our words are hostages to fortune and there is a permanent record of our thoughts at the time we expressed them in print. My view of Ronny, expressed on CQN was that we would try to emulate the game as played by Barcelona, Borrusia Dortmund and Red Bull Salzburg, pressing to win back lost possession, passing out from the back and being willing to take chances as the emphasis was on getting forward quickly. It is a game plan that demands fitness, mental strength (to cope with the reaction to losing possession when you try an ambitious move), and, above all, experience in learning to press as a team or unit, when to support and when to hold.
In reading Ronny’s outlines for his ideas, I considered him brave, albeit in the “Yes, Minister” meaning of the word and confident (he had already asked the lesser players of Stromsgodset to play this way). I had strong reservations though, that even with better players at Celtic, Ronny was over-estimating the abilities of the squad he had. I predicted on CQN that we would be more attractive to watch, that we would score more goals in the league but we would ship a lot more than we were used to. I felt our defenders would not cope with passing out of defence and I worried that our team would press with reckless indiscipline and not protect space behind them.
I feared that experienced defensive midfielders and centre backs, even at SPFL level, would invite 4 or 5 Celts to press them upfield and would then launch the ball behind us to a part of the field where they had numerical advantage. I was willing for Ronny to take the gamble but I feared that, while we would not lose the league, we would risk a closer league title race and that we would suffer heavy CL level defeats from battle hardened and cynical Italian teams, for example,who were very used to being pressurised and by better players than we had. What I did not foresee was how the CL qualifiers would go. Though these are always risky affairs, I did not foresee at all the comprehensive drubbing we did get.
Despite having a relatively trouble free pre-season (2 wins and 2 draws) and a safe start to the CL campaign (away and home wins against Reykjavik), Ronny suffered his first Celtic defeat in a friendly with St. Pauli four days before our 2nd qualifying round game against Legia on 30th July. For 10 minutes of the Warsaw tie, that looked like a mere blip, as we took an early away lead and were doing ok.
Unfortunately we lost an equaliser almost straightaway. We remained very competitive for the first 30 minutes until we lost another goal and, shortly afterwards, Efe Ambrose to a red card. With Legia missing a penalty, we kept it to a respectable 2:1 scoreline until 6 minutes from time and lost a 4th goal in injury time to go down to a 4:1 defeat.
Legia had taken 21 shots at our goal and had scored 4 out of their 7 on target. Even taking into account a 10 man performance, I was appalled by the level of our defeat. In between the return match at Murrayfield on 6th August, we managed to ship 6 goals to Spurs in a friendly before losing our home tie 0:2. When was the last time Celtic had shifted 12 goals in 3 consecutive games?
While friendlies do not concern me overmuch, the performance I witnessed at Murrayfield was the poorest I could remember in Europe for a long time. I saw a very good PSG outplay a poor Celtic in 95 and I saw Neuchatel put 5 past a hapless team in 91 but only Artmedia and Utrecht, in this millennium, were comparable, and they were both away fixtures.
The stats alone do not convey the disjointed mess that was our Murrayfield performance. We played 11 vs 11 for the full 90 minutes, we had more attempts at goal and more shots on target than Legia and more corners. Yet no Celt at the game felt we were the superior team. We remained ineffective in going forward and Legia played as though the tie was already in the bag. Which it should have been were it not for one feckless and careless substition of an ineligible player, Bartosz Bereszyński, we would have gone out of the CL on a humiliating performance. I am not given to hyperbole but I believe this was the most inept home European performance I have witnessed and many would agree.
At that low point in the season, I was shaken into believing that this might be too big a job even for an impressive and confident man like Deila. He must have had similar thoughts himself.
Though he would have been shaken further by our careless use of our ill-deserved reprieve against Maribor, that defeat, to a goal 15 minutes from time, was neither as inept or as big a shock as the two Legia ties had been. In any case, Celtic had started to turn this early dangerous corner. A 3:0 win in Perth was followed by a 6:1 rout against a Dundee United team who, despite losing heavily, were able to supply us with 3 valuable signings within the next 11 months.
We suffered setbacks following the Maribor elimination – a 1:0 loss to ICT – Ronny fielded a team packed with fringe players – and a draw in Dundee but a 2:1, but a September win against Aberdeen salvaged a first win in 5 games and we made a good start to our Europa campaign with an away draw against the top seed and two home wins.
Every month brought a fresh blip with Hamilton winning at Celtic Park in October but, overall the direction was up and the play was improving. Ronny was proving to be more resilient than his critics had painted him.
In November an away draw with Astra saw us almost certain to qualify from our Europa group though we did our best with a home defeat by Salzburg and a bizarre away defeat in Zagreb (7 goals shipped in 2 games) to throw away our advantage. Virgil’s late winner in a crucial Pittodrie match should have led to further improvement but both those Europa group defeats followed that.
December saw us lose to Zagreb and Dundee United. We even ended the year meekly with a 0:0 home draw to Ross County. At this stage in the season, most early Ronny doubters still had a lot of ammunition to throw at him and his record.
In January we won 4 out of 6 games played but all our wins were SPFL games and the defeats were friendlies. February saw 5 domestic wins and two thrilling ties with Inter which we lost 3:4 on aggregate. Again we saw that clever operators, like Guarin and Palacio could roam through our defensive set up easily. We continued to ask a lot of Gordon, Denayer and Van Dijk with full backs becoming part of our attack rather than helping out. Even the deployment of Brown and Biton in the defensive midfield two, replacing the ineffective Johansen, who blossomed as a support attacker where his pressure tackling was richly rewarded with a POTY award (he was more effective as an auxiliary forward role than his defensive screening had been), could not lessen the feeling that we had a sieve, at least on paper. And a paper sieve is not much use to anybody.
March saw another 4 wins out of 6 recorded and we remained on course for the treble as we landed the League Cup in a final vs Dundee United, even though we could not field the cup tied Armstrong and Mackay-Steven.
April saw 5 wins out of 7 as we failed to beat ICT twice. The draw in the league at Inverness was not damaging to anything it seemed but it may have seen ICT gain enough confidence for them to beat us in the Scottish Cup Semi-final on the 19th April. Though being able to play with two goalies also helped. This was a black day for Scottish referees and it will be recalled with frustration for many years to come.
We ended our season with 3 wins and a draw in May, gaining some satisfaction by beating bogey team ICT 5:0 but it could not really compensate for the Scottish Cup tie result earlier.
As the season ended, we had won the league by a convincing 17 point margin, even though a resurgent Aberdeen, who have strengthened again, had gone on a 12 game unbeaten run and had matched us with an 8 game winning run. We had won the League Cup and were robbed of a very winnable but rare treble. We were playing more attractive football and, though reservations continued about Ronny, nobody was deriding him as a PE teacher, over-promoted diddy team manager, or as a naive idealist. At least no-one who could find a seconder for such delusions.
And, as for my predictions, I would claim I was mostly right. We scored 84 league goals which is respectable but not as high as I felt it might go and our Scottish Premiership record of 17 goals conceded was far fewer than I had envisioned. But both Ronny’s authority and the team playing style were being welcomed more widely than was the case back in the dark days of August and September 2014.
The class and form of Gordon, Denayer and Virgil Van Dijk, ably screened by Brown and Biton, greatly contributed to these impressive Premiership figures. Goals were shared around the team and this led to some anxiety about a perceived lack of a 20 goal a season striker and calls for a “2 up front” system, as if this starting position deployment automatically makes you any more offensive in your play.
But those who doubted Ronny, which was a different group than those who had dismissed him based on early results and some prejudice, still had legitimate cause for concern.
The defence that conceded only 17 goals in 38 domestic league matches had conceded 23 goals in 14 European ties ( I am using the actual Murrayfield score rather than the awarded 3:0 win). Following the two clean sheets against Reykjavik, we managed only one more clean sheet in Europe via a 1:0 home win against Zagreb.
This pattern of domestic defensive frugality turning into a near certainty of concession in Euro ties confirms my early suspicion that, against clever players, we will still get exposed and suffer. Without the Gordon, Denayer and Van Dijk partnership it remains highly predictable that we will get found out against better teams.
That is not to say that Ronny is wrong to persevere with his longer term plan to make us a bolder, quicker, more all-action outfit. I can foresee us giving a big team a good fright on our day but I remain worried that we will ship too many Euro goals to allow us to sustain fear in our opponents.
Domestically, we are unlikely to better a 17 goal conceded season, but a few more big wins and two good cup runs will help again. But, before last night’s game against Stjarnan, I remain concerned that teams we are about to play in the next qualifying round might scupper our hopes before we are allowed into the ring that gives us a chance to bloody the noses of bigger teams.
I remain in approval of the Ronny experiment and I hope the fans are bold enough to let him build Team 2 and Team 3 to get nearer his vision. I hope we are in good form by the time the 3rd qualifying round is upon us and I believe we can get a good win against a bigger team in the group stages. But I am not confident of us reaching the last 16 because of our defensive exposure.
We have a ways to go before we become a true Ronny Deila baked team. Might as well, strap in and enjoy the ride.
Sure, the alternative might be to re-visit the Roy Keane option.
Written by Setting Free the Bears. July 2015.
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