The tried and tested, ‘Callum McGregor at left back, strategy’ proved predictably reliable last night. Callum is not a left back and throughout the game had no instincts for the position, lacking muscle memory and positional awareness.
His absence from the middle of the park, where he exerts a metronomic control over Celtic, had a greater impact. Neither Scott Brown nor Olivier Ntcham can do this. Two successive managers have now tried this strategy. The outcome is so clear, it is inconceivable that Neil Lennon will contemplate doing so again against moderately difficult opponents. Last night, he learned what you knew.
After the game, Neil said, “In the first-half we were so passive. No tempo, I don’t know where that came from.” I know where it came from: play without your metronome and you lose tempo.
I am sure Scott Brown would have apologised to his teammates after the game. The ‘Forrest, Christie, Johnston and Edouard Show’ got Celtic out of trouble. Cluj looked like conceding every time they were under pressure, but Scott’s handball to concede a penalty fortified the Romanians, who were never again subdued. Scott was also on his heels at the start of the move that led to the first goal, did not stop the cross and did not close his man at the third goal.
With his injury profile, I have been anticipating signs of Scott slowing down for years, but let’s be clear – this is NOT that sign, he still has plenty in the tank. This was no more than a bad day, however, it is time we accepted the fact that the only man in the squad that can dictate tempo from the middle of the park is Callum McGregor.
Callum played more minutes than anyone did in world football last season. For the player, this is a heroic achievement, but it is an awful indictment of Celtic. It means we are too dependent on him, we ask too much of him and we risk ruining him.
Buy someone who can share the burden, or watch Callum and Celtic deteriorate in tandem. And please, learn that having a man play more minutes than anyone else is the world is not a boast, it is a problem.
Going 3-2 ahead, with 14 minutes on the clock, game management should have kicked in. Boli Bolingo should have come on (for Mikey Johnston, if he was tiring), McGregor moved to the middle and Cluj would not have been allowed possession beyond the halfway line. Instead, nothing happened until we conceded again, when an unedifying two substitutes finally broke whatever shape we had. Bayo must be wondering what he has got into.
Last season’s failure at the same stage to AEK Athens was mitigated by our main central defender being on strike and our manager playing games while saying who-knows-what to Moussa Dembele. This time, there is no mitigation
Those who said we were going backwards with Neil are justifiably pointing to this and saying “Told you so”, and that decision sits with our board. Unlike some, I will tell you when they do well, and they often do, a historic treble, treble, is proof, but we were knocked out of the Champions League by a team with a tiny fraction of our budget, due to a strategic planning failure to be ready for this day. After last night, I have no counter argument.
This feels as low a point as Bratislava. It cannot be acceptable.