It somehow feels like the end of an era. In fact, I had that same unnerving, niggling feeling a few weeks ago after the Scottish Cup Final, when we again threw away a two-goal lead. Although on that day, we at least managed to stumble over the line to clinch an unprecedented ‘Quadruple Treble.’
It’s been some ride the last 10 years, and of course, the elusive 10-in-a-row would have been the icing on the cake, but even the most optimistic of Celtic fans would have to concede that after a gallant defeat at Ibrox, 12 domestic trophies on the trot and nine-in-a-row, the dream looks over.
Yet, you never know…
Questions have to be asked of our season, and of that excellent performance at Ibrox on Saturday. To a man we were better (other than Allan McGregor) than Rangers and even when Celtic went down to 10 men, there was little between the teams.
From the depths of defeats to Ross County in the cup, and draws with St Johnstone, Hibs and Aberdeen; through a blundering European campaign that stuttered and stalled, to the unconvincing optimism of the last four wins, I witnessed a group of players on Saturday that had hardly been at the table all season and we have to ask why?
A team that fought and showed a level of commitment and desire that has been sadly missing for long periods of a season that promised so much and has delivered so little. I looked at Ryan Christie, a player with undeniable talent and a guy who has dug Celtic out of huge holes with big goals, chase and harry defenders and win balls on the edge of the opposition’s box. It was a trademark of his, but where has it been? I watched Odsonne Edouard chase, fight and bully centre backs and look every inch the £20m player, when so often he has looked disinterested. I looked at Kristoffer Ajer, screaming and cajoling, leading defenders, winning tackles, making marauding runs and taking responsibility when so often he’s been turning back and taking a step in the wrong direction before throwing his arms in the air and looking for someone else to blame.
Is it coincidence to suggest, that the aforementioned players were among those who were rumoured to have wanted away in the summer among others? The board and the manager stood firm on that one, a decision most of us would have agreed with given the high stakes that came with this year’s league title. Unfortunately, we weren’t to know that too many would throw their toys out of the pram and leave their application levels at the playroom door.
I watched a team play without fear, who were motivated to try and gunsling their way out of the last chance saloon – a predicament they would never have been in, had they given the level of effort and desire seen on Saturday.
Of course, Lenny and his staff cannot escape criticism. I’ll deal with the earlier part of the season later, but let’s analyse the game itself and the key moments that ultimately cost us the win. Firstly, it’s a red card. The pass is played with good weight and is dropping perfectly for Morelos. The direction of the pass is such that even though the angle may be tight – and given that it’s against Celtic he wouldn’t have scored – it’s still undeniably a goalscoring opportunity. Anything else is deflection. Nir Biton is caught on the wrong side. As a central defender on that side of the ball, you cannot allow the striker to be first into the space. Step into him, block the run, or drop off and make sure you get to the ball first. It’s amateur stuff, and for me Ajer is equally to blame. The ball hasn’t been switched quickly, so there is no excuse other than laziness for Kristoffer Ajer to still be 25-yards away from Nir Bitton. If he had moved over as you should when the ball is played wide to Tavernier, to close the gap between him and his fellow centre back, he is in a position where it only becomes a yellow card as he can now impact Morelos. But he’ll probably be ok with the fact that the perception is it had nothing to do with him. Deep down, he’ll know he should have been over. With his pace, it’s criminal.
Now for the corner itself. I’m not party to the inner workings of the Celtic Park staff and their responsibilities. Generally, the Assistant Manager will take control of set-pieces and decide formation, set-up etc with the First Team Coach. You’ll know from analysis all about the opposition’s general set-up, whether it’ll be an outswinger or an inswinger, who their main heading threats are, and you’ll have in mind who picks up who. These can only be finalised once the team lines are in, but it’s only a final touch-up. The work has already been done on the training ground and everyone will know their job. There’s usually a final run through with the boss when the teams come through in the dressing room to make sure he’s happy with your match-ups. Bitton takes Goldson, Ajer takes Balogun, Laxalt picks up Morelos etc… Something, however, has gone seriously wrong at Celtic this season, because our defending of set-pieces in general has been appalling and Ibrox on Saturday was a prime example.
At corners, Odsonne Edouard is usually ‘first man’ in the front post area. It makes sense. Most forwards don’t like the responsibility of picking someone up, they don’t like the ‘defending’ bit. He’s asked to put his head on anything that is underhit (the bane of all supporters, the dreaded corner that hits the first man) and not allow anyone to get into the space in front of him. He’s normally quite good at it. Yesterday however, he was on the post and Calum McGregor was asked to occupy the front space. Calum is a wonderful footballer of many talents, but heading and being a tall, physical presence don’t strike me as being any of them. It’s inexplicable!
To follow that, most teams will deploy their smallest, fastest guy up the pitch on the half way line to make sure the opposition keep two players back. It’s an age-old ploy and something that Jeremy Frimpong does every week for Celtic on the premise that he’s so small, he’d be of little use at a defensive corner anyway.
So, what do we do yesterday? Frimpong is back defending and finds himself marking Joe Aribo! There has to be six inches between them. It’s the biggest mismatch in Scottish football since Kevin McAllister was asked to pick up Dave McPherson in an Edinburgh derby.
I heard it said it was unlucky that it deflected off McGregor’s arm and drifted past Barkas. That’s not bad luck, it’s consequential. Poor organisation and even poorer application. Would Aribo have got in front of Edouard if he’d been in his normal position? Would he have beaten someone, anyone, who isn’t six inches smaller than him in the air? Who’s making these decisions? Why has there been no improvement defensively throughout the season at defending corners and free kicks? Mind boggling, frustrating and avoidable, but like so much of the season it was entirely predictable that our downfall yesterday would be self-inflicted.
I have to now give a bit of disclosure before I preamble what has gone before us – I am a Neil Lennon fan and have backed the board on most issues that have arisen over the last decade. I’ve been lucky enough to have been in his company and have shared a manager’s office with him for a post-match chat on a couple of occasions. The success over the last 10 years would not have been possible without Neil and the backing of the board, and to have guided us through a situation in those years – without the financial clout that the TV and media companies bring, post-Rangers – and still post the numbers they have on and off the pitch, allied to domestic dominance, was fantastic. I am also fairly certain that almost every Celtic fan was pleased at the end of the transfer window, when we had spent more than ever, retained all our major assets and covered every position identified.
Perhaps we can blame them for appointing the new Director of Football? Has he underestimated the standards required to make Celtic competitive both domestically and in Europe? The recruitment has not been good enough given the outlay and whatever the answer, we have now reached the crunch point.
Neil, is also not without criticism. To persevere with a back-three earlier in the season when it was patently obvious to most that it wasn’t working, was at best stubborn, and at worst, culpable. We were pedestrian, mundane and devoid of ideas. Some players were clearly angling for a move, whilst others were in the huff. This against the backdrop of a pandemic which denied the fans the opportunity to kick their arses in person and kick-start the season.
There’s a basic tactical premise when you play with three at the back with Celtic. Almost every team will play with one striker against you. That means in your own half you are generally playing 3-v-1. The flip-side of that means in the opposition half, the ratio becomes 9-v-7. IN THEIR FAVOUR!
No wonder we could hardly score a goal.
Defeat to Ferencvaros was inexcusable, and pedestrian, late wins in Riga, Sarajevo, Dundee and Perth papered over the cracks. We could all see it but why couldn’t the Celtic staff? The run which followed, has, unfortunately defined our season. Two wins in 12, including a disastrous Europa League campaign, defeat to Rangers and exit from the League Cup at the hands of Ross County, meant that on the back of draws at Aberdeen and Hibs, we were on the brink. It’s at this point the board and I differ. Lenny looked a broken man.
Implying in the aftermath of interviews that players who had earlier wanted to leave had chucked it. They needed direction, motivation and help, and right there, at that point, Lenny didn’t look like he was the man to do it. The board should have taken him from the firing line, done the honourable thing for him and saved him from himself. He was too loyal to too many players for too long. When you see the impact Turnbull and Soro have made in recent weeks, you have to wonder why they were kept under wraps for so long.
He was never going to resign. Too proud and too much of a Celtic man to do that and walk out on the club he loves. Unfortunately, too many of our fears from early in the season have now come to fruition and the Board need to take the responsibility for their part in that. They too have shown loyalty, which to all intents and purposes under normal circumstances would have been admirable and noble. But this time it just didn’t feel right, and now we find ourselves 19 points behind with a huge January transfer window coming up.
The Board have decided that a review would take place in the New Year and now, on the back of delaying a decision that should have been made six weeks ago, we find ourselves in an even greater impasse. Do we give Neil the money to spend in the January window and let him continue? Do we give him no money and let a man who deserves so much more respect, amble towards the inevitable in the summer? Do we give him money to spend, and hope for a miracle whilst knowing he is unlikely to guide us to the Holy Grail and therefore put us six months behind in planning for next season? Or, do we take the plunge, make the decision to change manager now and sell those who don’t want to be a part of the next chapter?
Some of them have patently let down both the manager and the supporters in their apparent haste to find pastures new, judging by the levels they reached at Ibrox on Saturday. The next week or two will see decisions made that are way above my pay level. Decisions that in my opinion, either way, should have been made six weeks ago after we lost our domestic domination to Ross County.
The fear factor of playing Celtic has gone. If we galvanise, prepare, recruit and refresh the playing squad, we have a group who showed at Ibrox that it won’t be long in coming back. However, after what’s gone on in the last six months, an awful lot of people at our football club need to take a serious look in the mirror. Players, management, directors and staff need to ask themselves one question – “Did I give it my all?”
On the evidence of what I watched on Saturday, collectively, I’m not sure there are many who won’t see someone else when the mirror looks back at them.