There is something not quite right at Celtic Park this season.
Anyone who’s watched the way we are playing, especially at home, knows this well.
The manager has become predictable.
Our team shape has become a liability.
The players might be familiar with it, and know their roles within it, but we play each team in the top six four times; we’ve played six or more matches against some of them in the last 18 months. How many do you think it takes until manager’s figure it out?
We have played Sevco eight times in that 18-month spell. They have had three managers in that time. Warburton and Murty had two games. Caixinha had four. We have won six out of eight, all of them against the Notts Forest boss and the Portuguese. There is a reason neither man is at Ibrox right now. Murty has it figured out.
Other managers have tested us, because they’ve adapted their teams to play against a line-up and a formation they can predict well in advance. You can shuffle the personnel all you like, if your team lines up the same way week after week you’re going to get found out. It is no coincidence that the form this season is worse than last; people have talked about the number of games the players have played, but it’s not different than the last campaign.
This is the second year blues. We’re no longer fresh. We’re predictable. Persist with these tactics beyond the break and there will be no treble. Take the same approach into the third season and it is going to make the first half of this one look glorious.
One of the problems is the one man up front system. Teams can easily counter that. They pack the penalty area and you wingers need to be perfect. If you’re lacking a target man – or if he’s just disinterested – you’re not going to get a lot of joy out of it.
Scott Sinclair is on a dreadful form slump, yet he is our top scorer. More and more teams come up against us and put eleven men behind the ball, most of them packed into the penalty area. How the Hell is one man going to find space amidst all that?
Two men stretches them. Two strikers forces them to adapt. We do it so seldom. Today was crying out for it. Sevco’s defence was there for the taking; we probably created less chances again them that Hibs, Ross County, Kilmarnock and Hamilton did. The manager’s decision to take off Dembele and bring on Griffiths might have made some of the Twitterati happy because it restored their favourite son to the forward line, but it was the wrong move.
Taking off Sinclair, or one of the ineffectual duo of Armstrong or McGregor was the move. Equally, you could have sacrificed Lustig, who was having a nightmare anyway, and played Kieran in the centre of defence. The third central defender would have nullified the space we allowed Morelos to roam about in. We are lucky we didn’t pay for it.
There’s a reason managers get booed for like-for-like swaps; when the game is in full flow and you are winning comfortably they keep the momentum going but a like-for-like swap when you are in a scrap and players are toiling is a waste of a substitute. On the few occasions where it changes a game you can most often put it down to a lucky break of the ball.
There’s another reason why two up front is something we need to be thinking about; it’s about the personnel at the club. Playing one striker means leaving two others out. That is becoming a millstone for us. The press has the scent of blood on this one and they aren’t letting it go. It will continue to act as a destabilising force. If one up front was still working we could weather the storms the media is trying to throw up. When it’s not working it creates friction which the press exploits.
Play the two of them for God’s sake, Brendan.
It means dropping a midfielder and changing the shape somewhat, but I don’t think that would be a negative.
The game today reminded me of was the first cup semi at Hampden last season.
Brendan went two up front … and it paid off.
That smarts today, and not because it was against Sevco. It smarts because we’ve seen it before this season and the record is stuck on repeat. It’s dreadful watching us at home. The form is so all over the place; changes are clearly required here.
Managers hate to ditch a tried and tested system. But those who do, who can, are the ones who go on to become legends. What Brendan Rodgers has achieved so far at Celtic has been remarkable; I think he’s a top drawer coach, but they learn from their mistakes and their teams are not only an evolution but the style they play evolves with it.
We have a very good squad here. We have very good players. We have the best manager in Scotland by a country mile and one of the best in Britain. But you could have Guardiola in the dug-out and the best players in world football at his disposal; if you play the same way every week sooner or later other managers are going to figure out how to stop you.
And that’s never more true than here in Scotland where you come against the same teams with a regularity that is almost depressing.
We’re going into the New Year in good shape, overall. We’re still well ahead in the league race and I fully expect us to be an improved team when we come back from the break. But we’ve had a fright today and coming after the Hearts defeat there ought to be no excuses for anyone who’s walking about with their eyes shut.
There are issues here which need to be resolved.