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.