The Culling Fields: Where Are The Changes Needed To Get Us To The Next Level?

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Brendan Rodgers; Miracle Worker?

The run seems like it lasted forever, doesn’t it? 69 domestic games without defeat since Brendan took over. That’s four trophies. It’s more than a full calendar year. The totality of the transformation has been stark, and quite incredible. But I would draw the line at miracle worker. He has elevated a few players beyond their limitations … but those limitations exist. The question he and we have to ask ourselves is whether some are too great.

Has this team improved since last year? Yes, in some ways they have. The result in Rosenborg was marvellous. The Astana game at Celtic Park was as convincing a European display as we could have hoped for. In Anderlecht we were clinical and disciplined.

But the team has lacked last season’s intensity. Only a handful of players look as if they’ve become better over the full course of Brendan’s time. One of them, incredibly, is James Forrest who I thought was finished before the manager arrived. He has been a plus point in what’s been a somewhat flat first half of the campaign.

Questions over certain others have been delayed as long as the unbeaten run was going on.

That’s perfectly normal, and perfectly valid. Because those players all deserve the utmost credit for having kept that run going so long. But that conversation was only postponed. There’s always been a feeling it would need to be had, sooner or later.

I was pretty content to leave it until the season had finished, but the Anderlecht result almost got me busy.

Today was simply too bad to put it off.

A defeat against Zenit in February would probably have been what sparked it, if the team had gone unbeaten up until then. A heavy defeat today has made it inevitable, even necessary. These guys have assumed their place in history, but that’s only good as far as it goes. History is yesterday’s news. As a club we have to look forward.

Brendan is not a miracle worker. With all the skill in the world he, himself, cannot make individual players into much better footballers than they are. He has found more to them than some of them probably thought they had, but the suspicion is growing that there’s not that much more left to find. It’s time to start thinking about moving people on.

One of my flaws in being able to honestly analyse our squad is that I’ve got a thing about our home grown players. Part of it is hard-headed and pragmatic; UEFA regulations still require you to have four of them in your squad, as well as eight national players overall.

That’s why I find it more difficult to envision getting rid of someone like McGregor than I would about jettisoning a player like Bitton. Part of it is sentimentality; everyone loves to see a kid from the youth ranks break through and cement a place in the squad. I can, therefore, make allowances for him that I wouldn’t make for others and that extends to Ralston, Forrest, Miller and others. There is potential in all of them, and as we need to keep a core of them here for European registration purposes, and as all are capable of doing the job in the SPL, I can’t see a convincing argument for getting rid of a single one of them, even if some are mere squad players.

Sentimentality does not bind me to other parts of the team.

Pragmatism comes to the fore and we need to do an honest-to-God analysis of certain other players and their contribution.

Let’s start with Jonny Hayes. His signing was inexplicable.

No-one who saw him at Aberdeen or Inverness believed we were watching a “next level player.” When you consider how few games he’s begun, even as Sinclair has stagnated, his signing makes even less sense. The manager would rather pick someone badly off form than play him … and that tells you everything. First chance we get, I’d have him shipped out the door. Give him back to Aberdeen, on loan, and bring home Ryan Christie. That would strengthen, not weaken, our first team squad.

I cannot see a single convincing argument for keeping him around Celtic Park.

I wonder if Sinclair is a European calibre player. Where is the performance that proves it? Where is the dazzling display against a top club which elevates him above others in our team? As a squad player he is much better than a lot of our other options … but that says more about them than it does about him. Is he “next level”?

He can be. I won’t write him off yet. But we need to see it or the question will surely be asked in earnest. He has been an exceptional signing. As far as value for money goes there have been few better. He has terrorised SPL teams, and even this season when he’s not on form he is our current top goal scorer. That tells you plenty.

Who amongst our midfield is “next level”?

Not Armstrong. I have been waiting to see something better from him for an age. In Europe he has been woefully short of the level required. I suspect Rogic is a far better bet, and hope to see him against Zenit, but he has to do it more consistently, and over 90 minutes before we can be sure.

I don’t think our squad would be significantly weaker if we sold Stuart Armstrong. I once had sky-high hopes for that guy. They are not going to be realised. You can see it already. The question as to who our SPL goal-scoring midfielder would be if he went has already been answered by Callum McGregor and by Olivier Ntcham.

The difference between Armstrong and those Celtic home-grown players is that nobody is going to offer several millions for them … the squad would cope with the loss of Callum McGregor, but he is a functional part of our team and you could only see selling him for a reasonable fee. Armstrong could command such a fee … and when you weigh the likely offer up with his chances of becoming a top class player it becomes a no brainer.

Nir Bitton is a continental footballer.

That means different things to different people. He is slower on the ball than others in the midfield; I’d love to see him play alongside Brown and Ntcham for a couple of games, if only to see how that worked. He takes that extra second to find a pass that good players use to great effect. I saw what Brendan was trying to do when he played him at the back; Barcelona and other top clubs have experimented with the central midfielder in central defence … and it could work for us. It could have worked for us today.

But as a long term prospect, can he do a job?

The first thing to recognise is that Brendan’s midfield shape doesn’t suit him. But that midfield shape has been woefully exposed at the European level. For everyone who criticises our defence, I think our midfield setup escapes scrutiny. My real problem with Bitton – and this is why the questions exist at all – is that he’s been at Celtic Park for a few years now and there’s not a single Celtic fan I know who can tell me the type of midfielder he actually is.

He has played as a ball winner. As a defensive anchor. As a playmaker. He even spent time out wide. He isn’t an attacking midfielder, as evidenced by his low return of goals, but nor is he a hard tackler in the manner of Scott Brown. He isn’t a box to box player either. So what purpose does he serve in our team? I’ve always thought it’s the middle option … he is a playmaker, he is a football managers dream when he has time on the ball to look up and spot a pass.

But even I can’t be sure. Because he’s played that role so seldom, and never in the one part of the pitch – behind a scrappy, ball winning central midfielder or in the middle of two of them – where he can sit and wait for the ball and then start moves with a simple pass. If Brendan was willing to play a type of football where Bitton could shine then I’d say “hell yes, keep him”. Otherwise we ought to let him go, and use the money on someone who suits the team better.

People forget that for a manager a squad is a toolbox. Certain jobs require certain types of players. You build a system around the footballers, you don’t put round pegs in square holes. If a guy’s natural game doesn’t lend itself to the particular plan you want the team to follow, you’re better off with someone who does because otherwise it’s a waste of a squad number. I see signs of Brendan’s long term vision in playing Bitton at the back … he knows what qualities he has as a footballer, and that they are wasted trying to adapt him to a McGregor type role or the Scott Brown one … but it takes time to adapt a midfielder player to the kind of position Brendan’s been trying to get him to fit. He’s not a square peg, but he doesn’t slot neatly into the hole either.

I’d keep him for one more campaign. If Brendan gets the right type of players in other positions, you might well see Bitton’s best games in a Celtic shirt.

Scott Brown is a player who has served Celtic with distinction and class, but his time is almost up. We need to be looking beyond him and that job should be starting already. Only one player in the current squad naturally fits his role and it’s Kouassi Eboue. Time will tell if he’s of the required standard, time and games. He needs them. We need to know. Otherwise we should be scouting far and wide for a long-term replacement.

And yes, that includes finding out what John McGinn at Hibs has. Next level? He still has a way to go to find this level, but the raw materials are good and there’s something there. He needs a bigger stage on which to perform and then time will tell.

But we could do a lot worse than to find someone experienced to come in on for year or two, even whilst Brown is still here. On days like today we could use more dig. Playing too many attacking midfielders is also a suicidal idea in Europe. Another ball winner there might protect the defence better and we’d have a chance of avoiding those PSG type hidings.

Olivier Ntcham fills me with hope. There is no doubt in my mind that he has the makings of a top class football player. He needs better footballers around him, but he has the skill-set to go far, fast. He is young. He is still learning. He is raw. But he looks to me like someone who’ll grow at a rapid rate once he settles in. He would be a first pick for me, every week at the moment. Ignore the naysayers in the press who gave him a hard time for a few weeks earlier in the season; if we listened to those eejits we’d have signed John Spencer instead of Lubo.

The midfield has good raw material to work with. I think we need one more player out wide, to give us better options there – Patrick Roberts on a long term deal would do nicely, by the way; I genuinely do believe he has “next level” potential – but if we sold Armstrong and/or Bitton and bought one more quality player, preferably a ball winner, we’d be in good shape.

The forward line … I am satisfied. Give Dembele a deal which keeps him here two more years and I think we’re alright with him and Griffiths. People at Celtic Park love Odsonne Edouard. You may well see him on a permanent deal. Failing that, one more striker is a must no matter how much the press might stir the soup and try to make trouble in the squad.

And a player on the Louis Moult level will simply not cut it at all, I’m afraid. I’d rather go with what we have than waste money on SPL standard players who’ve peaked in this league of ours. I’ll tell you one thing, Moult won’t run riot down in the Championship.

The defence is where it gets crazy; I cannot see that a single player in our backline – and I include the goalkeeper – with the obvious exception of Kieran Tierney, has what it takes to take us where we want to go. Lustig has been a massive signing for us and has done great things in a Celtic shirt, but doubts about his longevity remain, and he’s not improved.

Gamboa is a squad player who doesn’t enhance the squad. Ralston is a better long-term bet and for that reason alone he can go. I am amazed he’s not gone already. I’ve seen nothing to convince me that he’s a “next level” player; he was clearly signed as backup for Lustig and even that hasn’t come off. Let him go and find pastures new and free up a number and a wage.

What of Kristofer Ajer? A midfielder when we signed him, Brendan and Ronny both think he’s a central defender. If so, there’s really no reason why he couldn’t be playing in the first team, in the league at least, at the moment. Because he has got to be a better bet than either of the two who played today. Ajer is raw, but that’s not a negative. Because you polish a gem; you cannot polish a turd. There’s something to work with there.

Simunovic has some of the qualities of a top defender. But he is also painfully lacking in some of the more obvious requirements. He is prone to lapses, especially when put under pressure. I expected him to be more commanding in the air. He’s not. Curiously, that’s one of the areas where Boyata is a better bet, but he is danger of vanishing down the same black hole as got Efe Ambrose.

Look, Simunovic could have left Celtic two years ago and didn’t. Then we hadn’t had a chance to view him properly as a player and we were grateful for that chance. Has he done enough to convince us? His injury issues and his dislike of certain conditions is reason enough not to view him as a long term answer. But some of our worst defensive calamities of this season can be laid squarely at his door. The jury is almost in on this guy; I don’t like the way it’s progressing.

He cannot live on the memory of one glorious, awe-inspiring tackle. Right now it’s pure sentimentality that’s keeping Celtic fans from being angrier.

Dedryk Boyata has no such great moment to fall back on. And he is suffering a crisis of confidence. That is dangerous for a central defender, even more than it is for a striker. We can’t keep throwing him in whilst that’s the case. Things will not improve.

I am torn on this guy. I had written him off as a bad bet. Brendan has found more in him than I thought he had. He does some of the simple things better than anyone else in the back line. He has had a mini career renaissance in the last eight months … but he is one of those players, of who Efe Ambrose is another, who is woefully careless and switches off at least once in every match. And that can be an appalling oversight in any footballer, but in a defensive one it is the cardinal sin to end them all, because nowhere is it costlier.

The thing is, as squad players these two can get by most weeks. There will be games like today when teams which press us exploit their weaknesses to the full. They might even get by in Champions League qualifiers where teams lack the firepower to do us real damage. But against better opposition they are there for the taking and no mistake.

On top of that, I don’t know why Erik Sviatchenko has fallen so far from the manager’s plans but if these two are fancied in front of him then it’s moot anyway. He’s done for and you can expect to see him leaving in this window.

Brendan says Boyata and Simunovic are the best two central defenders of the club; we need to remember that isn’t the same as his saying they are going to do a job for him in the long term. He might seem to have a blind-spot about them … but he’s not blind.

Which leaves the goalkeeper. We have two and neither of them is “next level.” Gordon is so prone to errors, some of which are shocking beyond belief, that I would have been unsentimental in replacing him last season. It is not a matter of urgency, but he cannot be our first choice in the next full European campaign. If De Vries is not up to the task of supplanting him then we need to be ruthless and get rid of them both.

This is about what makes us better now overall. This team does not need dismantling; it does not need clearing out. But it needs rebuilding at the back, and some midfield tweaking. Some people will have to leave as part of that process, but none would be anyone we couldn’t live without. Brendan likes to have a settled squad, that’s why he’s doing it slowly.

But I believe in this guy, and so I know it will be done. It may be done with good grace, with the thanks of a grateful support and a backroom team which knows this side has made history, but they see more of it in our future and that future starts now.


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