In the middle of last week, we played our first pre-season match under Brendan Rodgers, against NK Celje. The media enjoyed it, as we were two nil down and came back to get a draw. We weren’t bad, and the manager showed good skills by re-working the team for the second half, in which we played far better and got a draw due to goals from Ciftci and Rogic.
This should have been a tougher match, against better opposition. Sturm Graz are not a typical pre-season friendly team. They’re a tough, experienced side. The fact we played so well against them suggests that we’re improving fast under Brendan.
The Austrians are no mugs; this was a pre-season match designed to test our whole squad us as much as possible, and it did that.
The team we lined up with can best be described as “experimental”.
We put out our second string, in effect, with Logon Baily’s inclusion in goal and Ciftci playing up front on his own. The midfield included Scott Allan, Johansen, Liam Henderson, Ryan Christie and Nir Bitton. Yet it was the back line that really betrayed the manager’s intentions; we lined up with Saidy Janko, Izzy, McCart and O’Connell.
They all played well. We were the better team in the first half, and it was no surprise when we took the lead on 36 minutes when a Ciftci lay-off found Allen, who teased the defenders on the right hand side of the penalty area with some fancy footwork and slipped it inside to Ryan Christie who passed it into the back of the net.
Ryan looked great. Scott played extremely well; indeed he was probably the first half man of the match. But I was also impressed with O’Connell in defence and with the marauding right-wing back Janko. We all heard a lot of good things about him before his injury. Brendan likes the look of him and it’s easy to see why. He has tremendous assets, including great pace and close control. It is tempting to worry when a full-back gets forward like he does; we’ll see how well the kid can defend when the competitive games start.
The second half line-up was nearly a total change; Gordon, Ralston, Lindsay, Sviatchenko, Tierney, Ajer, Bitton, Armstrong, McGregor, Roberts, Griffiths. Only Nir actually started from the opening to the game. He came off on 60 minutes for Brown.
The second half was slower than the first. We lacked some of the intensity. Something else; not only was this the Deila formation, but the positions a lot of the players took up in it were the same baffling ones they did in the Norwegian’s team. McGregor played as a holding midfielder. Armstrong played wide left. It dawns on me that Brendan is trying to decode this, to try and figure it out. It won’t take him long. McGregor played reasonably well, and Armstrong looked good as he did in the first game (where he came on and set up both goals), but these guys are not playing at their peak because neither belongs in the slot he’s being asked to play. What frustrates most seeing this system is being reminded that we just don’t have the players to pull it off. It necessitates pulling too many out of their natural positions.
Brendan will figure it out. The line-up and the tactics might have been familiar but there seemed to be much greater freedom of movement from the players. The two player I just spoke about noticeably switched positions several times for starters. Armstrong cut inside a lot, having shots at goal. These guys don’t seem to be constrained by the system.
So who impressed in the second 45?
Mostly Kristoffer Ajer, who many assumed had been signed for the midfield. He stood out at the centre of defence. He is a big lad, and he has good feet. He’s also cool under pressure as a couple of second half moments of genuine quality showed. There are positive signs here, for sure. I like the way he fitted in well along Sviatchenko, who wore the captain’s armband.
I also liked the look of Ralston, who played right back, and Jamie Lindsay who played in the middle of the park. These kids were two of the huge success stories from the Academy last year; they can be, this season, what Tierney (who was impressive, as usual) was to the season past. In addition, Roberts produced a couple of his usual tricks and flicks.
The media, as I said, were perfectly happy to report that Brendan’s team didn’t win the first game. Today we were better in the first half than in the second – in the previous match it was the other way around – but nobody let us down in this one. This was a decent result and a decent performance against a side who are no mugs.
Tougher tests will come, but this was a very fine warm up. The manager is learning things about this team every day. Today he had a proper look at the Deila system and the way the players played in it. He must know this isn’t viable in the long-term, not unless there are additions to this squad who can play in the system better. He’s trying to work things out, trying to figure out the Ronny approach, before he can properly assess the players he’s got.
That’s all to the good. We’re shaping up well.