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.