Transfer window closure brings stability and options

Yesterday’s signing of Diego Laxalt completed Celtic’s transfer business this, extended, summer, ensuring that the club successfully strengthened every area of the squad that had required reinforcements – goalkeeper, centre-half, left-(wing)back, central midfielder, winger, centre forward – whilst also, significantly, keeping hold of all key members of the squad.

Until last night, Greg Taylor had been the only recognised left back at the club. The addition of Laxalt should not only provide more balance to the starting XI, with direct running at pace not now solely consigned to the right-hand side of the park, but also allow Taylor the time and space to develop his game whilst providing a reliable back-up to Lennon’s new man.

In the early stages of the summer, I wrote about the cautious optimism that Celtic’s signings of Vasilis Barkas and Albian Ajeti encouraged. However, ever the reactionary, following our defeat to Ferencvaros, I latterly discussed some perceived issues regarding our transfer policies in recent seasons, and how the way we have spent money, rather than the amount we tend to spend, appeared to be a contributing factor in our failed preparation to qualify for the Champions League in recent years.

Now, with the transfer window closed, and the benefit of being able to consider Celtic’s summer business as a whole, it is clear that the board, scouting department and management team, must be congratulated on such a successful window.

Where it had previously seemed one, or more, of our star names would need to be sold to recuperate the missing Champions League funds, Celtic not only rebuffed any interest in their key players, but went on to further strengthen the side in our bid for this most important of league titles.

The only remaining criticism that could be aimed at the club regarding transfers would be concerning the timing of the deals. Ideally, in future campaigns we will go into the Champions League qualifiers with new additions already settled into the squad, but considering the bizarre circumstances of this year, as well as the high calibre of player Celtic have brought in, it would be extremely harsh to hold that against the club this summer.

The transfer window closing also brings with it another major positive for the playing squad: stability.

The form of some of our usual top-performers has been cause for concern in recent weeks, none more so than the talismanic Odsonne Edouard, and though it would be pure speculation to discuss his personal wishes over the summer, the constant links away must have an impact on a player’s focus and as a result, performance. It would be the same for anyone, in any industry, trying to work to the best of their abilities in their job amongst a constant, public commentary that they may be moved on and sent to work for a new company in a different country.

The personal circumstances of footballers is often dismissed or overlooked, but as with any human-being, lingering uncertainty is likely to have a negative effect on performance. Neil Lennon’s side should now, hopefully, be provided some respite from such speculation.

Edouard has by no means been alone in his lack of from. It would be hard to argue the case for many in the squad having started the season particularly well. But, though the performances, both individually and collectively, have yet to click into gear, the consistency in grinding out results when not at our best has been remarkable.

Sunday’s victory over St. Johnstone perhaps epitomised our domestic form to date. For the vast majority of the game Celtic, again, looked lacking in ideas for how to break down an organised defensive line. Our passing was slow and horizontal, and we severely missed a creative spark, or any indication that a moment of individual brilliance would rescue the points from the game.

But it did. Or, more accurately, a moment of combined brilliance. Kristoffer Ajer, who found himself on the right wing, produced some exceptional footwork to create a yard of space before playing in the overlapping Hatem Elhamed, whose perfectly placed cross was met by a fantastic, powerful header into the bottom corner from the returning Leigh Griffiths, securing what had felt like an unlikely victory.

If the match itself epitomised Celtic’s recent form, then Patryk Klimala’s stoppage time second embodied everything we’ve heard about his attitude and work ethic. Having been scythed down just outside the penalty box, Klimala miraculously bounced straight up, composed himself and rifled the ball into the top corner to leave the result in no doubt.

What had felt like the potential to be a disastrous day had quickly become one of ecstasy. From one extreme to the other, as, if early indications are anything to go by, is going to be the nature of this pressurised season.

Neil Lennon himself has come under intense scrutiny during the early stage of this campaign – some justified, some unwarranted, and others (personal insults) completely unacceptable – however it cannot be ignored just how faultlessly (resultswise) Lennon has manoeuvred the last block of games since the previous international break, with 7 wins out of 7 in all competitions.

What Lennon and his side need now is to find their rhythm again, something that, once more, stability should further enhance.

Returning to the St. Johnstone game and pre-match you’d have been hard-pushed to find a supporter who wasn’t happy with the starting lineup. With so many subplots already forming this season amongst the fans – which formation suits us best? Should Brown be starting every game? Who plays on the wings in a 3-5-2? Who starts upfront with Ajeti injured and Edouard seemingly below par? – it has become easy to think there may be a simple solution or quick fix to our lack of fluidity and attacking intensity so far this season.

The fact those who started again failed to impress, and it wasn’t until the introduction of Brown, Griffiths, Klimala, Christie and Rogic that Celtic began to attack with greater impetus, leaves further uncertainty regarding the current strongest starting XI. Though not necessarily for negative reasons alone.

With the transfer window now shut and our squad firmly in place until at least January, the uncertainty over some of these questions should soon be answered, or, perhaps more accurately, be looked at in a different, less conclusive way.

Currently, 3-5-2 is Neil Lennon’s favoured formation, however with Elyounoussi and Forrest (injury aside) available on the wings the opportunity to revert back to 4-3-3/4-3-2-1 is readily available. At the age of 35 perhaps there will be a considerable amount of games this season where Scott Brown is rested and able to galvanise the team coming off the bench as he did on Sunday, particularly at home against lower table sides, however, as the leader of the squad, it is clear the additional elements he brings to the team alongside his playing ability are irreplaceable, and as such he will likely, and probably justifiably, start the majority of our matches as the season progresses. Frimpong and Laxalt look like securing the positions of wingback whilst Forrest remains injured, and Ajeti and Edouard will surely be Celtic’s first choice centre forward pairing, however with Klimala and Griffiths on the bench, and a tweak to the system always a possibility, if further injuries, or lack of form, occur there are numerous alternatives available – particularly considering the increased number of substitutions allowed domestically.

Rather than providing definitive answers, the St. Johnstone performance, alongside the majority of others this season, and the business conducted by Celtic in the transfer window has opened up an array of opportunities to Neil Lennon. It is hard to remember a time when the Celtic squad was made up of such a vast number of first-team ready players vying for a starting spot. Whilst we all probably hope a settled starting XI is found soon for our toughest challenges ahead, the number of quality options available to Lennon must be celebrated.

Celtic’s upcoming run of fixtures is as tough and condensed as they come, so even though we may see a more consistent lineup in the coming weeks, the squad depth is likely to prove invaluable.

As a usual critic/cynic, the board deserve enormous credit for the additions this summer, as well as retaining all of our star players. The options they have provided Neil Lennon are unrivalled throughout the league.

With speculation put to bed, and stability key, Lennon now has the platform to turn routinely satisfying results into consistently dynamic performances. Just as he did at the turn of the calendar year.

Job done and proving our worth from Pot One

Celtic’s 1-0 victory over FK Sarajevo, alongside surprise defeats for FC Basel, FC Copenhagen, Sporting CP and VfL Wolfsburg in their Play-Off ties, ensured not only qualification to the Europa League group stage for a third consecutive year, but also a significant leap in the coefficient rankings, placing Celtic into Pot One for today’s draw – avoiding the likes of Arsenal, Bayer Leverkusen, Benfica, Napoli, Roma and Tottenham.

Whilst that, last night, felt like a double celebration – qualifying for European competition as well as escaping the tournament’s top ranked sides – UEFA’s draw this lunchtime had other things on its mind, with Sparta Prague, AC Milan and Lille completing Group H.

The threat of Milan is obvious, and though their decline throughout the last decade has been well documented, their incredible resurgence in form post-lockdown saw them pick up more points than any other Serie A side during that period. It’s hard to imagine we could have asked for a sterner test from a Pot 3 side, with Milan being mentioned as one of the early favourites for the competition outright.

On to Pot 4 and, in Lille, Celtic have drawn another of the highest ranked sides possible from their pool. Lille finished the 19/20 season just a point behind last year’s Europa League rival, Rennes, in Ligue 1, and though they have lost some key players this summer, they have spent big money in replacing them – Jonathan David costing a reported €30m. Again, this is pretty much as tough as it gets regarding a lower ranked side.

Perhaps the expected underdog of the group, Sparta Prague, may not enjoy the same reputation of their competitors, however, to follow the trend of this year’s draw, they, of course, also had one of the highest coefficient rankings from their grouping of Pot 2.

Whatever annoyances may have been caused by the Champions League qualification exit to Ferencvaros, a lack of competition or glamour in this season’s European ties cannot now be one of them.

The reality of the Champions League in recent years is that it represents a playground for the increasingly super-rich that, though we can still hope, and often – draw-dependent – expect, to qualify for, is growing ever further away from being a competition we can excel in once into the group stages.

In Group H of the Europa League, Celtic are posed with not only a real challenge to qualify for the next round, but also an exciting array of fixtures to test ourselves in and prove our quality.

After last night’s victory over Sarajevo, Neil Lennon commented on the hangover and frustration following the Ferencvaros tie, the response from the players, and significantly, how qualification for the Europa League now “opens up the season”, giving Celtic a lot to look forward.

Lennon also discussed his confidence at keeping hold of his key assets before the transfer window closes on Monday night, and though Group H may prove far more challenging than many of us had initially hoped for, if a desire to face top-class opposition had been the cause of the murmurings of unrest amongst some of the players, the prospect of facing Sparta Prague, Lille, and European giants, AC Milan, should instill a level of excitement throughout the squad.

On a purely results basis, Celtic’s reaction to our Champions League exit has been exceptional, on a performance basis though, it has often seemed ponderous from a fan’s perspective. Now, with the group stage drawn and the transfer window near closing, Neil Lennon and his players know exactly what challenges lie ahead, and when. They can now plan and prepare without any unexpected surprises – we hope. Though significantly challenging, the draw today should energize the entire club.

The news that Celtic had sneaked in with the top seeds may have initially given a false hope of an easier draw than in the previous two seasons, but, whilst that didn’t prove to be the case, the allure of the ties ahead could potentially reignite and reinvigorate our season.

Last night and in recent weeks, Neil Lennon has got the job done, now Celtic have the platform to push on and prove their value from Pot One.

Returning forwards return the feelgood

The return to fitness and increasing match sharpness of Odsonne Edouard and Albian Ajeti, alongside Shane Duffy’s introduction to Scottish football, allowed Neil Lennon to today return to the much craved 3-5-2 formation which proved so successful for Celtic following last season’s winter break.

On performance alone Celtic were perhaps a little fortunate to go into half time two goals ahead, with Ross County creating a number of chances of their own and the often end-to-end pattern of the game providing a fairly open, even affair.

Whilst County couldn’t take advantage of their opportunities, Celtic’s quality in attack had, however, granted a comfortable cushion coming out for the second half, with Edouard and Ajeti grabbing a goal apiece during the opening period.

From there on, Lennon’s side grew in confidence and finished the match in ruthless fashion.

Debutant Duffy powered in the third from Callum McGregor’s corner, knocking bodies aside, his own teammates included, to ensure he would be first to the ball. A sight which will have delighted the entire Celtic support as much as the man from Derry himself.

Kristoffer Ajer then tapped in a fourth following Olivier Ntcham’s burst into the box and perfectly placed pass along the six yard line, before Patryk Klimala rounded off proceedings, finishing Moi Elyounoussi’s tidy slipped through ball to make it five.

To say today’s performance was a perfect display would probably be a little misleading. At times – frequently in the first half – there were shaky moments. Particularly in defence.

Today did, however, allow Neil Lennon and his side an opportunity to refamiliarise themselves with the 3-5-2 formation, and in particular, provided Duffy, Ajer and Christopher Jullien a chance to begin to develop as new defensive trio.

The uncertainty in the defensive third which was evident during the early stages of the game was unsurprising given the lack of time the players have had to train together since Duffy’s arrival, and they will undoubtedly build upon today once chemistry begins to form – as they did the longer the game went on.

When opportunities were presented to County though, Vasilis Barkas made a number of fine reaction saves to keep his clean sheet intact, as well as dealing impressively with a tricky backpass in improvised fashion, having slipped as the ball approached and the County striker closed him down.

Barkas has come under some scrutiny during the early stages of his Celtic career, having done little of note besides picking the ball out of the net so far – though through very little fault of his own – so although granting the opposition goalscoring opportunities might not exactly be celebrated, it was good to see the new goalkeeper finally get a chance to display some of his qualities.

A 5-0 victory away from home will always be a great result for any side, and with options available in attack and defence, this Celtic side looks like it is now beginning to take shape.

There will hopefully be at least one more addition, at left-(wing)back, and any first team departures will also need to be replaced, but, after a disappointing, stuttering start to the season, the return of the forwards, and return of the formation, has brought back a feelgood factor today and should provide Neil Lennon and his side a platform to build upon.

At their best, Lennon’s Celtic were relentless in the early part of this calendar year, hopefully today was the start of a return to the same vein.

Perfect response before period to reflect

Neil Lennon selected the same consecutive starting XI today as Celtic defeated Motherwell 3-0. A brave decision in the face of heavy criticism of Wednesday night’s team selection, or a purposeful statement from the manager, and a challenge to his players to prove their worth and commitment to the club?

Whatever the reasoning behind the decision, Lennon must be congratulated for achieving what was required following the European disappointment, especially considering his proactivity in making in-game tactical alterations which made a significant impact on the pattern of today’s match.

Performance-wise there wasn’t much between Wednesday night’s display and the first half of today’s game, but, similarly to last year’s turgid, and borderline toxic, League Cup fixture against Dunfermline (which followed the Champions League qualifier defeat to Cluj), what was essential was a positive result in ensuring that negativity doesn’t fester. The fact that the side showed marked signs of improvement and purpose as today’s game grew was an added bonus which should provide a further confidence boost.

Following that extra-time victory last summer, Celtic were able to push forward and put the disappointing European performance behind them. The upcoming international break now gives everybody involved with Celtic an opportunity to do likewise, providing the time and space to rest, review and then prepare again before the league and Europa League qualifiers resume shortly.

The criticism of the club has been rife in the past few days following the Ferencvaros fallout – with most of it fair and warranted. However, one issue that at times seems to have crept into the conversation – not least in the polarised environment of social media – appears to be a blurred line between what can be considered rational tactical managerial criticism, and excessive personal insults aimed towards Neil Lennon. With the latter unquestionably unacceptable.

When justifiable critical comments are made though, these should also not be misconstrued as an indictment of Lennon’s character, nor a desire to see him fail. It’s hard to imagine there’s a single Celtic supporter alive who wants to see that happen.

It doesn’t really need to be said that Neil Lennon is amongst the most iconic figures in Celtic Football Club’s illustrious history. He has been a hero, an idol, and a leader of the club throughout the majority of the past two decades, and whilst those are not solely the reasons he shouldn’t have to face personal abuse – of course nobody should, regardless of their stature – they also do not, or at least should not, exempt him from reasonable on-field criticism regarding current, and particularly reoccurring, perceived footballing errors of judgement.

Widely being regarded as one of the greatest, or at least most innovative, managers of the modern era does not absolve Pep Guardiola of his own very vocal critics, particularly, too, when surprising tactical decisions on the European stage are concerned. That doesn’t diminish his spectacular accomplishments as a manager, and occasional question marks over Neil Lennon’s tactical decisions should not be considered an attempt to do likewise regarding his achievements throughout his association with Celtic.

With the extra challenges that everyone has had to face this year likely to have had an impact on the severity with which we react to disappointments, the current break in club football now provides an opportunity for the support to move past and not dwell on the discussion of the Champions League failure, to focus instead on the remaining goals ahead for the season, particularly considering the extraordinary extra pressures placed upon those in charge to deliver the title this year.

If there truly are any disruptive influences within the camp, and if player sales are definitively required following our early Champions League exit, then let’s hope they are both minimal and conducted quickly, so that Neil Lennon can have as much time as possible to get his squad in shape for this most important of seasons and before the next round of European qualifiers begin.

The management team and players should now be granted this break to themselves consider and address what went wrong and why, away from a backdrop of negativity.

Everybody, including critics themselves, want the entire club – board, manager and players alike – to succeed and silence doubters in the same way they proved to last season.

The fairytale of our ex-captain going on to bookend the greatest domestic achievement in Scottish football history as manager is not overlooked, and though the increased anxiety of this season will undoubtedly invite regular reactionary comment, these next few days at least offer the perfect time for the board, manager, players and supporters to collectively reflect, refresh and regroup.

Here we go…

Abject planning reopens old wounds

The fallout from Wednesday night has been even more, or at least more publicly, volatile than expected, originating with fingers of blame being shoved in the direction of (nameless) want-a-way players’ faces during the manager’s post-match press conference, and showing no signs of slowing down as the defeat continues to be dissected and lambasted by supporters and media alike.

Tactically, the errors were glaring, and the sense of deja vu they aroused has left a sickening feeling in the stomach that is likely to linger long after the anger begins to wane – if, indeed, it ever does.

Neil Lennon and his staff have to shoulder the responsibility of our earliest exit from Champions League qualification since 2005. There can be no denying that.

Regardless of any disruption that may have been caused if certain players have in fact dropped their focus in recent weeks, team selection, tactical shape, opposition analysis, substitutions, attacking and defensive cohesion all fall under the management team’s authority, alongside, of course, said team morale and concentration, where the apparent problems lie.

On Wednesday night, the management failed on all of the above accounts.

Whilst the vast and severe criticisms that have confronted Lennon following Celtic’s latest botched attempt to navigate past an inferior squad are entirely justified, and shouldn’t require a a Jonny Hayes-esque caveat declaring personal affection towards the man if not his current performance, given the expansive and emphatic nature of them it feels unnecessary to further add to the pile on. Lennon will of course be sorely hurting too, and besides, there is little more to say that hasn’t already been said across a variety of outlets.

Of deeper, though entirely related, concern is the underlying strategy and direction of the club.

After Brendan Rodgers’ desertion the attention of large sections of the Celtic support turned to the implementation of a more thorough behind-the-scenes footballing structure that would enable the development of a stable, long-term blueprint and vision to take the club forward. Ensuring that never again would we fall foul to such an unexpected, disruptive departure.

Though additions were, belatedly, made to the football operations department last summer, with Neil Lennon currently facing the music alone, it should not be forgotten that those above him have overseen drastic changes in terms of style and direction with each managerial appointment throughout the majority of the last two decades.

There has been no indication of succession planning.

To be clear, this is not an attempt to divert attention for Wednesday night’s failure away from the manager and towards the boardroom. As previously stated, that lies solely in the dugout.

However, understanding how we’ve found ourselves in a position where we can continually sweep aside all before us domestically, and even exceed expectations on the European stage once in the safety net of a group stage proper, yet collapse so spectacularly throughout the past three Champions League qualification processes, as well as against Zenit St Petersburg, Valencia and Copenhagen in the Europa League knockout round of 32, requires a deeper look into structural issues at the club.

Focusing specifically on our recent era of unrivalled domestic dominance, a quick review of Celtic’s permanent player recruitment over the past four years epitomises one of the most fundamental flaws that seems to significantly hinder our progression; a scattergun approach to planning.

£0 – 3.5m Over £3.5m
16-17 Cristian Gamboa, Kristoffer Ajer, Kolo Toure, Moussa Dembele, Dorus de Vries, Eboue Kouassi Scott Sinclair
17-18 Jonny Hayes, Kundai Benyu, Jack Hendry, Marvin Compper, Lewis Morgan Olivier Ntcham
18-19 Emilio Izaguirre, Scott Bain, Youssouf Mulumbu, Vakoun Bayo, Maryan Shved, Manny Perez, Andrew Gutman, Odsonne Edouard
19-20 Boli Bolingoli, Hatem Abd Elhamed, Jeremy Frimpong, Luca Connell, Lee O’Connor, Jonathan Afolabi, Greg Taylor, Patryk Klimala, Ismaila Soro Christopher Jullien
20-21 David Turnbull Albian Ajeti, Vasilis Barkas
Total (approx. from Transfermarkt) £28m £34m

What is immediately noticeable from the table above is that we haven’t been shy in spending money in recent years, particularly on numerous lower-fee signings. Accusations of penny-pinching are therefore misplaced, however the issues again lie in the approach of these acquisitions.

Considering Celtic’s purchases between 2016-2020 (it would be unfair to judge any of this summer’s three signings at such an early stage) there have been 27 players brought in for between £0 – 3.5m, of which only three can stake a strong claim to have had a clearly successful impact at the club – Kristoffer Ajer (although not without his critics), Moussa Dembele and Jeremy Frimpong.

Some of the players listed in the column above were signed for a nominal fee with the clear intention of going into the development squad as a considered low-risk gamble on potential – Ajer and Frimpong could both arguably fall into that category themselves, whilst Dembele’s move saw Celtic take advantage of the cross border compensation loophole to secure him at a minimal price.

If we were to therefore discount these young, inexpensive (£500k or less) signings (Ajer, Benyu, Dembele, Morgan, Perez, Gutman, Frimpong, Connell, O’Connor, Afolabi) from the list as significantly low-risk, with the potential for high reward, we are left with 17 players signed between 2016-2020, none of whom have, so far, been able to cement themselves as a key feature in the Celtic side.

In total the expenditure for those 17 players combines to circa £23m. That may not seem a significant amount over a four year period, but when you consider that 11 of these players are no longer at the club (either departing permanently or on a loan deal) it paints a clear, wasteful picture regarding our lax attitude in the transfer market.

Over the same time period, Sinclair, Ntcham, Edouard and Jullien were purchased for approximately £24m, and though all bar Edouard have had their detractors, it is hard to argue against the markedly greater influence they’ve had on the team than those in the left hand column above.

The purpose of highlighting this distinction is not to assert that every signing between £500k-3.5m is money misspent whereas coughing up a larger transfer fee guarantees quality. Every signing in football comes with a risk, and the likes of Elhamed, Klimala and Soro have either shown some promise when fit, or simply not been provided with the opportunity to showcase their talents (though that is often a reflection of a lack thereof), while a handful of others have performed admirable roles as squad players when required.

Instead, the most alarming feature of our recruitment strategy over recent seasons again appears to be in its lack of direction; a worrying trend running throughout the club.

As previously discussed the profile of our signings so far this summer have though given cause for optimism of an improved approach. However, putting the Ferencvaros performance itself to one side for a moment (as the current squad should have undeniably had enough to progress in the tie), the fact that we again entered into the qualifying rounds of the Champions League with only one new player signed early enough to be ready to feature from the start further demonstrates the need to remain cautious in this regard.

The fallout from Wednesday night’s defeat, alongside the manager’s comments, have kicked the rumour mill into overdrive about who will now depart, and, with the financial windfall that Champions League football brings with it gone for another year, it seems indisputible that at least one high profile player will be sold.

A well functioning process, primed with continual succession planning measures, would be prepared to deal with any upcoming departures without cause for severe alarm. We can only hope that, against the previous circumstantial evidence, the club are being proactive in this regard.

The defeat to Ferencvaros is going to hurt for a while, but, looking past the tactical ineptitude displayed on Wednesday night, it is increasingly difficult to identify the club’s long-term goal beyond the current season.

Abject planning has brought us to the same scenario in each of the last three summers and for these reopened wounds to heal an enduring, smarter off-field strategy needs to quickly present itself, otherwise what has long been considered the Holy Grail for Celtic Football Club risks diverting our attention away from a possible longer-term decline.

Reruns, responsibility and repercussions

On nights like last night, “Celtic stunned in Champions League qualifier” is often a favourite headline – or something similarly sensationalised.

The reality of Celtic’s latest Champions League exit though was no great surprise for those who’ve witnessed it time and again in recent years. Sure, the decisive goal came from a counter attack late on in the game (if you can label a hoofed clearance bouncing it’s way through our defence a “counter attack”, that is), and if it fits into the required dramatics of clickbaiting you could easily create a narrative surrounding a devastating sucker punch leaving Celtic shocked.

But you would be wrong.

Whilst I’m sure no Celtic fan anticipated such a performance a few hours before the game, as the rumours swirled around pre-match that not only would Edouard be missing, but Christie would be replacing him in the lone striker role, that sinking feeling of dread would have already engulfed large swathes of the support.

Within seven minutes, that apprehension had been realised as each and every one of us watching through our screens registered that we’d in fact seen this movie before.

Emotions naturally run high in the immediate aftermath of defeats like these – we should know, we’re not just well-versed in them now, we’re at the pinnacle of our field – but it’s hard to argue against this year’s Champions League “campaign” constituting the worst of our recent trilogy.

From signings not being made early enough to allow them to integrate properly before our most important games of the season, to players regularly being played out of position; from poor decision making in decisive moments on the park, to the lack of it entirely coming from the dugout – these are all elements that have repeated themselves each and every year, and yet still we believe, or hope, that this time it will be different.

Of course the extraordinary external circumstances of 2020 will have made preparation for this year’s qualifiers harder than most, but what makes this particular reoccurrence so hard to fathom is in its execution as opposed to simply its result.

Last night’s defeat was not just a consequence of the aforementioned factors, in many ways the performance presented a more fundamental flaw which has repeated in every other insipid and uninspired display so far this season.

While not quite all of our early season showings have fallen into the ‘turgid’ category, each time Celtic have stepped onto the park in recent weeks two main, alarming characteristics of our game have been undeniably evident: our lack of creativity and impotence trying to find a way through a tight defensive line; and, our inability to defend against basic long balls upfield to a quick, strong target man.

It may seem reactionary following last night’s result but in this early part of the season Celtic’s attacking play has proved extremely one dimensional: dominate possession, play it wide to the fullbacks to cross, if they can’t find space recycle possession back and across the park. Repeat until opportunity to cross presents itself, if it doesn’t, shoot, mostly aimlessly, from anywhere around the box.

Whilst that no doubt reflects a naïve, oversimplified evaluation, for any upcoming opponent truly analysing our matches it wouldn’t take long to identify overwhelming and unimaginative patterns of our play.

Last night, even as we finally began to influence the game around the 40th minute mark, it was hard to ignore the overriding concern that we simply wouldn’t carve out enough clearcut goalscoring opportunities to win the game, and that even if we were to, it was unlikely we’d limit Ferencvaros to the one goal they’d already scored.

Both fears proved to come true, and although in the second half we sporadically played some of our most intricate attacking football of the season around our opponent’s box, we still lacked the imagination and influence to determine the outcome of the tie.

Ferencvaros’ winner was as predictable as it was infuriating.

Some may argue it came against the run of play, but as Sergei Rebrov’s comments implied – “Most of the time we defended, but football is about scoring goals, not about the possession of the ball.” – it had an air of inevitability surrounding it. It was their gameplan. Something we, once more, didn’t appear to have.

The fallout from this year’s exit will no doubt be harsh. Our opponents were of a significantly lower standard than even our previous two campaigns, and the financial implications of a third successive year without Champions League money will hit harder, particularly considering the economic impact the pandemic has already had on the club.

The most significant consequence of our failure to qualify is likely to be in terms of the playing squad, with the only way to recover the financial burden being to sell one, or some, of our assets.

Rather than ourselves determining who is most dispensable, the biggest problem could now be in trying to convince at least one of those star names to stay. Lennon’s post match comments indicated as much.

The sad but clear reality is that the Europa League is this Celtic squad’s level – at least in terms of actually competing if we make it to the group stages. But what makes these Champions League qualifying defeats so hard to swallow each year is not simply missing out on the main prize, but in the manner of our failure.

When we have previously suffered humiliating Champions League group stage defeats at the hands of the bankrolled superclubs we have been quick to cry foul of modern football’s financial inequality, yet here we are, once again, suffering a humiliating defeat in qualification to a side whose squad was built on a budget only a fraction of our own.

If certain players did in fact already want to leave the club, the immediate repercussions of the defeat to Ferencvaros could well be vast, and whilst you or I may be able to identify the same repeated mistakes each and every season, until these are acknowledged and responsibility is taken throughout the club (boardroom, management, and players alike) the likelihood of further reruns seems inevitable.

Cautious optimism amid calamitous week

The few readers of this blog may have noticed that the posts, as well as infrequent, tend to be predominantly critical, commenting cynically on some sort of going-on at Celtic Football Club.

For a club who’ve achieved such unrivalled success throughout the past decade, it seems a little odd to focus primarily on the negatives amidst such overwhelming positivity.

The reality though is simple. When things are going well, success is enjoyed. Like for many, that usually means a drink in hand amongst friends and family, conversations flowing into songs, moments of elation turning into memories of celebration. Fortunately, as Celtic fans, we’ve been spoiled with such occasions in recent years.

On the contrary, when things go wrong, we all also like to have a moan. And, whilst victories are cherished in company; in disaster and defeat, written word can be a cathartic means to vent frustration. Fortunately, as Celtic fans, we’ve routinely been spared such occasions in recent years (hence the irregularity of these posts).

Now, after that self-indulgent tangent (catharsis, remember), the reasons for claiming this week ‘calamitous’ need little explanation. Kilmarnock and Bolingoli, are all that needs to be said on the matter.

However, rather than the usual rant and rave after disappointment, yesterday’s singing of Albian Ajeti, and the wider indication of our transfer strategy this summer, leaves room for cautious optimism.

The drawn out process that has become synonymous with a Celtic transfer negotiation may have caused frustration in recent weeks, but Ajeti, alongside Vasilis Barkas after Fraser Forster had declined to stay, was Celtic’s number one target in his position, as reported by The Athletic. That both first-choice preferences have joined the club can only be reason to be positive.

The extensive video clips of Ajeti’s time at FC Basel look promising (don’t they always), and though I can’t claim to have any detailed knowledge about the player, one factor that shouldn’t be fixated on is his ineffectual season at West Ham United.

Players in their early twenties struggling to make an impact in a new country, is not reason to write them off. For evidence of this you only need look to two of today’s stars of the Premier League itself: Mohamed Salah and Kevin de Bruyne, who were permanently sold by Chelsea at the respective ages of 24 and 22, having been deemed not good enough, or not the right fit for the club.

Of course the level of expectation at Chelsea is significantly higher than that of West Ham and the quality of the players mentioned above cannot be compared with Celtic’s new number 10. But the notion that the examples above do support, is that sometimes a move can simply be the wrong one at the wrong time, rather than a clear reflection of a player’s ability, or lack thereof.

That West Ham were embroiled in a relegation scrap until their post-lockdown upturn in form also stands in Ajeti’s favour. Settling into life at a new club is difficult enough for most young players, doing so as an attacking threat, at a side starved of possession and scrapping for points, adds an extra layer to that challenge – Bayern Munich’s flying winger Serge Gnabry can attest to that, having been deemed not at West Bromwich Albion’s level by manager Tony Pulis, whilst on loan as a 20-year old back in 2015.

Whether Ajeti and Barkas prove successful signings will have to wait to be seen, but, with the off-field shenanigans and the turgid on-field display of the last week, the small victory of actually paying sizeable money to get our preferred targets in the door, particularly after the goalposts had been moved (as with Ajeti’s proposed loan becoming an immediate permanent deal), must be celebrated.

The proactivity in the transfer market cannot stop there, however. And we can all only hope that similar style targets have also been identified in a number of areas requiring further additions.

The circumstances of the past week have undeniably handed an early advantage and confidence boost to our rivals across the city, but with our league games temporarily on hold, rather than seeking relief through complaining about the calamity that caused it, perhaps a more optimistic approach can provide the same satisfaction. Only cautious, mind. It is still Celtic after all.

Celtic’s on the ball again

After four long months, Celtic return to action against Nice this evening, the first of three friendly matches in France.

With elements of everyday life beginning to return to some kind of normality, seeing Celtic back on the park feels like a seminal moment for all of a green and white persuasion.

That may seem a hyperbolic statement, particularly concerning a pre-season friendly, and given the circumstances which caused the curtailment of the 19/20 season. It would, of course, be wrong to trivialise the heartbreak this pandemic has caused to so many families by declaring the return of football, in itself, as a greatly important moment of 2020.

Whilst this season has the potential to be one of the most special in the club’s history, the excitement surrounding tonight’s game against Nice does not simply reflect the anticipation of the year ahead. Though the match may prove to be the first preparatory step towards the holy grail of ten, what gives the reappearance of Celtic such significance goes beyond anything that can be achieved on the park.

To many, far from a hollow marketing slogan that adorns each PR campaign, Celtic really are more than a club. They are a community.

As the virus wreaked devastation across the globe, it is perhaps the widespread lack of community, the injustice and inequality so prevalent throughout society, that has most glaringly been brought to the fore during this time. In such a period of anxiety, compounded by deeply rooted societal flaws, the vacuum left behind following the interruption of football became paradoxical. Both highlighting the insignificance of sport, and simultaneously exhibiting just how much it means to so many people.

Whether a simple form of escapism, or a symbol of cultural identity, the sense of being part of something greater than oneself creates an, at times irrationally, emotional attachment between a supporter and their club.

In this regard, the multi-faceted identity of Celtic breathes life into that famous old saying.

While it would of course be naïve to romanticise the club too much in the age of commercialisation throughout the game, to many, Celtic’s founding ethos does still ring true: its charitable origins, its representation of the Irish Catholic community in the west of Scotland, the political leanings and displays of a large percentage of its fanbase, its ‘open to all’ policy.

Familial bonds are often fused together by a shared passion for the club, conversations dominated by Celtic, weekends planned around the games, lifelong friendships formed, and lifetime savings spent, following the club.

In a society so often lacking in empathy and unity, for many, it is the sense of belonging that has been so badly craved during the shutdown of sport more than the game itself, and whilst some, or all, of the factors above may not relate to each and every supporter, they contribute and combine to embody, as Celtic’s most beloved son Tommy Burns put it, “a people and a cause.”

For some it is devotion, for others a distraction from life, but for all today marks the return of something that life just doesn’t quite feel the same without.

There can be no denying how special this season could be, and while the journey on our way to make it ten begins soon, for now, what is undoubtedly most important, is that Celtic are on the ball again.

What a difference a day makes

Yesterday – exactly 12 months on from Neil Lennon’s first game back in charge following our previous manager’s abrupt departure – with eager anticipation encompassing the Celtic support in the build up to the Europa League Last 32 2nd Leg, it felt like a good time to take a step back and reflect positively on the growth of this Celtic side throughout the past year.

In hindsight, though, it should have been obvious that when Celtic in Europe are concerned, there is never a good time for raised expectations.

After previous disastrous performances this season, there has always, though not necessarily immediately, appeared to be a reaction from the team.

The Cluj debacle was in some way rectified by such an outstanding group stage showing in the Europa League. The abysmal performance in the League Cup Final was excused because of the favourable outcome. The frequently turgid displays throughout December were, on the whole, similarly overlooked due to our consistency to grind out results. The year-ending derby defeat at home, at the time undoubtedly our biggest disappointment of the season since the Champions League collapse, posed the most serious questions regarding the decision to repeat such an uninspiring, passive gameplan almost mirroring the on-field pattern of the Cup Final.

However, following that defeat to Rangers, and our subsequent winter training camp, those issues, all too prevalent throughout December, seemed to have been addressed.

With a new formation, and the ability to comfortably transition in-game between 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1/4-3-3, Celtic looked re-focused and re-energised. The relentless run of domestic form since the turn of the year has seen us pull clear in the league, and whilst the continued tendency to relinquish control during periods of games has persistently caused alarm, the eagerness from the sidelines to modify our tactical approach and counter opponents, has suggested an increased level of awareness and proactivity.

The indications were that Neil Lennon had once more adapted, acknowledged past experiences, and utilised them as lessons to learn from, in his continual pursuit to progress.

It was a sign of maturity and further evolution from the manager, and his side.

What happened last night was a catastrophic reality check. Mistakes that had appeared consigned to the history books were repeated in all their infamy as the ghosts of Cluj came haunting back on the European stage once again.

The emotional nature of football encourages overreaction. And though last night’s defeat in no way diminishes the domestic achievements of the season so far, especially during the last six weeks, it does underline the glaring inadequacies still prevalent in the decision making of the management and the players. Returning pressing concerns, that we’d hoped had, predominantly, been alleviated, to the fore.

When the lineup was released last night it was received with surprise. With Simunovic, Jullien and Ajer all in the side, but only one recognised centre forward in the starting XI, it was assumed that Elyounussi would play off Edouard in the front two of a 3-5-2, the formation which had been so successful in recent weeks.

Lennon’s clarification pre-match, that the shape would in fact begin as a back four, was met widely with frustration from the support, confused at the unnecessary alteration from a winning formula. The most alarming aspect, however, was not simply the formational tweak, but the decision to play Kristoffer Ajer out of position at right-back, breaking up his season-long central defensive partnership with Jullien, engineering Jozo Simunovic into the starting XI, whilst leaving our first choice right-back, Jeremie Frimpong, on the bench, where he remained throughout the game.

During the August disaster against Cluj, tactical tinkering saw one of Celtic’s most influential players forced out of position as Callum McGregor lined up in the left-back role, with Bolingoli left to watch on from the sidelines. That this type of mistake was repeated last night, again, in such a crucial match is indefensible.

Celtic play at their best when their best players are played in their natural positions. That shouldn’t be a controversial, nor complex, point of view.

The specific detail of Copenhagen’s first goal needs no analysis. However, much like the previously maligned Efe Ambrose, Simunovic should not be castigated alone for the incident. He simply should never have been placed in that position to begin with, and certainly following his first half showing, should have, at minimum, been removed from the situation long before the calamitous error occurred.

Throughout the first half Celtic had dominated proceedings without ever truly finding our attacking rhythm. Even so, Simunovic wasn’t alone in his battle against the pace of the game. Scott Brown, who had missed the weekend’s victory over Kilmarnock, was visibly unfit, although with no suitable replacement available it was at least understandable that the captain remained on the field. Yet, that no tactical changes were made whatsoever, during the interval, to mask our striking deficiencies in the middle of the park was particularly concerning.

Again, the sense of Deja vu from Cluj – where Ryan Christie’s post-match comments had alluded to a lack of half-time tactical changes – was overwhelming.

It took a further 19 minutes after the opening goal was scored, in the 51st minute, for Lennon to make his only substitution of the game. In the meantime, and following the change, Celtic’s gameplan had resorted to punting long balls upfield to desperately isolated figures, whilst struggling to cope with the pressure of each Copenhagen counter-attack.

While the issue of ceding control has been the recurrent hinderance throughout Celtic’s entire campaign, it, combined with an incompetence to effectively manage the game, has never appeared more prevalent than last night. With Celtic gifted a penalty through a bizarre handball, we found ourselves level in the tie with just 7 minutes of normal time remaining. In such a pressurised environment, and with such little time left on the clock, it was crucial to rediscover our composure and see the game out, ensuring an extra 30-minute period to reinforce ourselves on the contest and find a winning goal.

Instead, moments after the restart, with Jullien in possession just outside his own penalty area, only Ajer could be seen in his vicinity. A dangerous pass into the middle of the park and Rogic’s weak effort to chest the ball to his captain left Celtic entirely exposed as possession was turned over. Though at this stage the formation had been switched back to a 3-5-2, mere seconds after undeservedly drawing level, the wing-backs and midfield three should have been focused and intelligent enough to drop deep.

Winning the game in a frenetic final few minutes was not required. Staying in the tie was.

Against Cluj, 3 goals in 6 chaotic minutes sent Celtic crashing out of the tournament. It took 94 seconds for Copenhagen to score their second, and decisive, goal of the night following Edouard’s equalising penalty.

Strikingly, the parallels between the two fixtures appear endless.

As discussed yesterday, the development this side has shown throughout the past year is stark. Neil Lennon’s accomplishments this season domestically, and throughout the group phase of the Europa League campaign, have been exceptional.

Every Celtic supporter wants Neil Lennon to succeed as manager of the club, but the almost identical manner of the devastating defeats in the knockout rounds of both European competitions have simply been inexcusable, and aren’t exempt from criticism.

Whilst everybody wants what’s best for the club, being a supporter does not simply equate to being a cheerleader, turning a blind eye to each recurring and avoidable mistake.

Today, the manager must shoulder responsibility for the ineptitude of last night, and ensure that, this time, these lessons are learned. Conclusively.

What a difference a year day makes.

What a difference a year makes

A year ago today, interim manager Neil Lennon took charge of his new Celtic side for the first time.

A whirlwind 24 hours earlier, the entire Celtic support had been hurled into disbelief. Recent murmurings and “in the know” hearsay had progressed overnight, from wild rumour to reality faster, even, than revere could turn into repulsion.

As news broke that the then Celtic manager had indeed sped off down the M6, just a day before our visit to Tynecastle – a stadium we had lost at on our previous two trips, conceding five and scoring none – incredulity quickly advanced to indignation.

Initially, much of the widespread anger was directed towards the boardroom. After all, it must have been their refusal to sufficiently back the manager in the January transfer window that led to his disillusionment, mustn’t it?

Once images began to circulate from the King Power Stadium, however, denial ceded to an engulfing animosity. Reality dawned, and the Celtic support’s fury fell at its rightful place.

No Celtic manager had ever voluntarily walked out on the club at such a vital stage of a season, and no true Celtic man ever would.

With Lennon immediately returning to take the reins until the end of the campaign, an element of familiarity ensured that the auguring air of uncertainty couldn’t fester.

What ensued in the capital the following evening was a display of raw, resolute, resilience.

As Odsonne Edouard volleyed in the 92nd minute winner, the release from the players, management and support signified the emotional impact the previous 48 hours had had. From such dramatic upheaval, potentially pushing us to the brink of turmoil, to an unwavering reminder of this side’s irrepressible desire for success.

Six wins from the remaining ten league matches, with only two by more than a single goal margin, meant the conclusion of Celtic’s 8th consecutive league title was characterised more by determination and endeavour than the sumptuous swagger of previous campaigns.

Considering the circumstances, though, and having sealed an unprecedented Treble Treble with victory in the Scottish Cup Final, the culmination of the 18/19 season was more about intense gratification than enthralling entertainment.

While Celtic had been grinding out results, at times stumbling over the finish line, the conversation amongst the fans and much of the media had turned to who would permanently replace the now Leicester boss.

With performances often lacking a clear, coherent gameplan, and Neil Lennon himself expressing his surprise at the evolution the club had made behind-the-scenes during his time away, it had been expected that the board would look in a new direction concerning the future of the club.

High-profile managers were linked, and numerous discussions (at least among supporters and fan-led media) centred around the requirement for structural improvements at the club, developing a long-standing identity to ensure that any future managerial changes could transition as seamlessly as possible.

Then, amidst the jubilation of the Cup Final celebrations – with almost every Celtic supporter having put the managerial question to the back of their minds – the news came through that Neil Lennon had been offered the job on a full-time basis.

The reaction amongst supporters was divided, as had the entire discussion been regarding the idea of Lennon staying on. At the time, I sat in the ‘disappointed’ side of the camp. I had previously written for the 90 Minute Cynic, about Celtic’s need for a clear, comprehensive review, outlining an in-depth strategy and evaluating all possibilities before considering the number one target for the job.

Whilst I summarised my reasons why I didn’t believe Lennon to be the ideal candidate, I expressed my frustration at the nuclear, polarising discussion taking place between supporters, with each counterarguing section of the fanbase seemingly vilifying the other.

The following summer months appeared to continue along this trend. Critics of Neil Lennon were castigated as not believing in a real Celtic man; supporters of his were labelled as footballing dinosaurs.

Having been ardently backed by those in the boardroom (at least in terms of support), and with a full pre-season with the players behind him, Neil Lennon’s side comfortably progressed through the first two qualifying rounds of the Champions League, scoring 13 goals in the process.

Whereas in his interim role Lennon’s demeanour had appeared withdrawn, unwilling to make drastic changes to a record-breaking side, under his new authority as permanent manager, he began to implement his own ideas onto the Celtic team. The 7-0 demolition of St. Johnstone in opening game of the season was followed up by a promising 1-1 away draw with CFR Cluj in the Champions League 3rd Qualifying Round.

The following fixture, though another emphatic victory, offered the first glimpse of Celtic’s weakness under Lennon. Whilst Celtic ran out resounding 5-2 victors at Fir Park, the pattern of the game, particularly during the first half, highlighted the new-look Celtic’s inability to exert control over proceedings in the way that had become expected under the previous manager.

If the Motherwell game had hinted at frailties in Celtic’s capability to dictate proceedings, the return leg at home to Cluj aired them in all their ignominy. Selection issues and tactical misjudgements contributed to a devastating collapse which saw Celtic crash out at the 3rd round of the Champions League qualifiers to a lower ranked side for the second year in a row.

Whilst many may not want to admit to it now, anyone inside Celtic Park a few days later as Celtic took on Dunfermline in the League Cup Second Round, will recall the exasperation already emanating from the stands. The game kicked off to an unfamiliar backdrop with the Green Brigade carrying out a silent protest throughout the match. The initial eerie atmosphere rapidly advanced into one more sinister, with the crowd becoming restless. A sense of anger and vitriol threatened to turn poisonous at any moment.

As ridiculous as it seems looking back now, at that moment in time, as is the nature of the Celtic manager’s position, it felt like Neil Lennon was just a few bad results away from losing his job.

From that moment, though, when the stakes have been highest, Neil Lennon has got (almost) every crucial decision right.

The victory at Ibrox on 1st September dismissed any notion that Lennon’s tactical knowledge and preparation was no longer up to scratch.

The Europa League group campaign, particularly back-to-back defeats of Lazio and redemption over Cluj, demonstrated Lennon’s tactical nous and flexibility on the European stage, topping a group in continental competition for the first time in our history, and doing so with a game spare.

I’m not going to attempt to rewrite history and pretend to have always been onboard with the Neil Lennon appointment, nor claim to agree with every tactical decision he makes, but what I, and every other fan who had previously held reservations, have always hoped for, was that such a genuine icon of the club would prove us all wrong.

This time last year, the entire club (supporters, players, and staff who remained) were slung into a state of shock which threatened to derail our title charge and send us spiralling into disarray.

From struggling to impersonate his predecessor as interim manager, to surpassing his achievements on the European stage with an expression of authenticity.

Though the element of control during matches is still, at times, the greatest concern of this side, under Neil Lennon’s tutelage, Celtic have progressed from a stale, stuttering team, at risk of an identity crisis, into a relentless, vibrant, goalscoring machine, led by a man who needs no pre-rehearsed soundbites to proclaim his passion for the club.

A year ago today, he led us for the first time since his return to Celtic. It was a night charged with raw emotion – apprehension, anger, and vindication.

Tonight, Neil Lennon leads us into the Europa League Last 32 Second Leg, seeking to take Celtic beyond the first knockout phase of European competition for the first time since 2004. It promises to be another night filled with emotion, but, this time, one of anticipation, expectation and belief.

This Celtic side are constantly adapting and evolving. Just like their manager.

What a difference a year makes.