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.