To quote the late, great David Robert Jones, “where are we now, where are we know” 4 weeks into the competitive season with Brendan Rogers’ new look Celtic? This time last year, we were in a very similar position – played a few friendlies and won 4 of 5 (this season P7 W3 D3 L1); played 5 competitive games, winning 4 and drawing 1 (this season P5 W3 D1 L1) so the stats tell us that the records of RD and BR in the first part of the season are, broadly, similar. However, as we all know, stats only give us a one-dimensional viewpoint of what has actually happened. So what lies behind the stats?
If we look at the friendly games, the opposition this year has been of a slightly higher calibre than it was last year, and we have played a couple more games with the performances against Wolfsburg, Leicester and Barcelona being good tests against decent (and in the case of Barcelona, excellent) opposition. In none of these games did we look 2nd rate; we played well and beat a decent Bundesliga outfit; against the EPL Champions we more than held our own; and against Barcelona we didn’t look out of our depth. The main concern though is that we only kept 2 clean sheets in 7 games, conceding 8 goals and scoring 9.
Champions League Qualifiers
Last season we won 6-1 on aggregate against Stjarnanfrom Iceland and then had a nervy time in Baku, drawing 0-0 after a 1-0 win at home. This season, the debacle on the Rock of Gibraltar is history, but the comprehensive and comfortable win at Celtic Park saw us safely through to face Astana, a team half-way through their season. That was a very similar trip to the one we made to Azerbaijan last year and again, we came away with a very creditable draw with a vital away goal, so all in all, a better result away to the Khazaks than the Azeris. In the home legs, we had 1 goal victories against both teams with the game against Astana being a far more bruising affair against a stronger and more physically “robust” team that would have most likely beaten us last season – the soft core of the team under RD would have, in my opinion, been exposed. So overall, 6 goals scored with 3 conceded this season against 7 scored and 1 conceded last season.
The difference between last season and this season (apart from the personnel) was the ability of the manager to put out teams who were fluid in their shape and could be changed throughout the game to meet the tactical requirements presented by the opposition. Game Intelligence by the manager was a significant factor in both games against Astana.
The first SPL Game
Unlike last season where we opened our campaign at home, unfurling the flag and beating Ross County 2-0; we looked anything but comfortable and Willie Collumlet Craig Gordon away with a yellow card when he should most probably have seen red. This season saw a bruising encounter with an agricultural Hearts team at Tynecastle where, this season, most SPL teams will be fortunate to come away with anything other than bruises and injuries. However, the team was solid and competitive scoring 2 excellent goals and only conceding a penalty won by cheating. Whereas last season I left Celtic Park feeling less than happy with the performance against Ross County, yesterday I was delighted at the way the team performed and thought we were good value for 3 points.
The Team Line-ups
The core of the team this year is significantly different. The start of last season saw the back line (always a straight 4) with Lustig, Van Dyjk, Boyata, Mulgrew and Izziaguirre being the favoured personnel. This year, only Lustig has been in the team on a regular basis with O’Connell and Tierney being pretty much first choice; injuries to Boyata and Simunovic meant Ambrose was a regular feature but Efe has suffered at the start of this season and now looks out of the picture with the timely arrival of Kolo Toure. Brown and Armstrong have both been regular starters over both seasons with Forrest also getting a run under both managers. McGregor has been regular this season and Paddy Roberts (sans injury) was pretty much guaranteed a start. Bitton, Johannsenn and Rogic have all featured this season but Mackay-Stephen has not featured at all (due to injury) but was regular under RD. Ciftci was the preferred striker last season until the domestic ban ruled him out and Griffiths came in for the domestic game. This season Ciftci has been relegated to the bench with El Griffalo and Mighty Moussa being our preferred options; the arrival of Scott Sinclair after a protracted chase proved to be a match winning outcome yesterday. His excellent debut goal showed why Rodgers chased him so hard. Griff has started the season looking as dangerous as ever and Dembele looks to be warming up nicely and will, in my opinion, create and score a good number of goals this season.
Where Are We Short?
Craig Gordon has given the manager a conundrum already this season. His ability to pull top drawer saves out of the bag is unquestionable and has made a significant difference already. However, his decision making and positional sense (especially at cross balls) will continue to cause us problems this season. The goalkeeping coach needs to work with him on this and with Bailly injured, we need decent competition for the keeper.
The middle of the defence has been sorted with the arrival of Toure and the emergence of O’Connell and with Lustig, Janko, Tierney and Izzy we are good for the full-back positions. The return from injury by Sviatechenko, Boyata and Simunovic means that central defence is sorted. What will become of big Efe? Sadly, I think he’ll go, but I really like him – he always gives his all for the hoops!
Up front with Griffiths and Dembele in the centre and Sinclair, Roberts and Forrest as wide men we look good. Ciftci has looked more promising this season already but I think another striker will be required.
Midfield continues to be a problem. Scott Brown seems to be back to his best and looks solid in the middle of the park. Bitton and Johannsen are both undoubtedly great players but haven’t shown yet that they are up to the task this season. McGregor and Armstrong look favoured by Rodgers in the midfield but the jury is still out on both of them. They have struggled, particularly in the games against Astana. Rogic has been in and out and again, just doesn’t seem quite right. Overall the midfield looks to light and will struggle up against more physical teams and teams who move the ball about quickly. Brown needs a strong defensive midfielder in there alongside him; someone with experience and the ability to dig in when needed. Can Rodgers bring that out in Bitton and/or Johannsen? I think we need to go out and spend to bring a suitable player in to cover this position.
Rodgers has clearly shown his tactical knowledge and game intelligence. The team will fluidly move between 3-5-2 and 4-4-2; or from 4-2-2 to 4-3-3 depending on the line-up and game requirements. Substitution and formation changes have been bold and have changed games when required. This is a far cry from the rigid 4-2-3-1 formation of Ronny Deila and his seeming inability to make tactical substitutions or changes during the game. Rodgers has changed Celtic from being a predictable one-dimensional outfit to one that changes to meet the tactical requirements of the game and personnel.
He has transformed Scott Brown and James Forrest; 2 or 3 weeks ago there were calls for both to move on; however, the last 2 games have seen both players playing very well and being instrumental in positive results. Can he do the same with Johannsesn and Bitton? He has shown he is willing to trust the younger players (a 19 year old and two 20 year olds in the back four against Astana) with two 19 year olds (Roberts and Dembele) further up the park. He is also comfortable in putting players out on loan to gain first team experience.
Although it is very early, his 2 signings so far in Toureand Sinclair have made immediate impact and been instrumental in the last 2 victories. He says he needs another couple and I’m happy to leave that to his judgement. I won’t be surprised at another big signing in the next few weeks. I also think he will let a few players go. Possibly Rogic, Johannsen, Ambrose, Mackay-Stephen and Henderson (this would most likely be a loan). Ciftci is another who could be on his way out if we bring in another striker. I also expect a few young lads (Nisbett and Aitchison for example) to work their way into the team on at least a domestic level.
He is also superb with the media; his refusal to be drawn on the “Old Firm” questions; his deliberate use of the phrase “honest mistake” talking about the referee; and the general way he is articulate and knowledgeable in front of the SMSM is a joy to watch. I have heard a few people say he is like MON in that respect; I believe that he is better. I will bet that his calm demeanour after the defeat by Lincoln Red Imps lifted somewhat in private when he told the players what was expected! They seem to have responded.
Where Are We Now?
Well, are a long way short of the finished article BUTwe have made significant progress in the last 4 weeks. There is a solid team spirit and a solidity in team performances; there are a few weaknesses but under Ronny, these weaknesses were exploited and we often snatched defeats and draws from the jaws of victory. The addition of Toure and Sinclair will lighten the load on Scott Brown and the calmness that the manager exudes seems to be filtering through to the whole squad. The ball doesn’t seem as much of a “hot tottie” as it was last season and the football being played is more effective and controlled. Panic doesn’t seem to set in quite so much! The emergence of the younger players such as Janko and O’Connell is more than heartening!
The major tests have still to come – Hapole Be’er Shevaand Aberdeen over the next few weeks will show us where we are really at. If we can get through those 3 games with positive results it will be a magnificent start to the season AND to the Rodgers era. The Board have been positive in employing Rodgers and backing him in the transfer market. Now it’s our turn as the fans – Keep the Faith and get right behind the team; by the time the Tribute Act come for their first visit to Celtic park in September I am confident we will be top of the League and looking forward to Champions League Group Stage football. We can then give them a mauling and send them back to Govan where they can reflect on where they really are at!
Where are we now? We’re on the road again, we’re on our way to Paradise…
Written by VFR800