Who else badly wants this season to be over?
The fear, and it’s there with every game now, is that you do not know which version of this team will turn up. Will it be the hungry, driven, tough tackling, fighting version which wants to win every ball in every game or will it be the one who played tonight? Weak, lacking invention, too easily beaten? There’s just no way to be sure which it will be.
Are we a better team than last season? Tonight there’s a case to argue against it. For every game like last week where we excelled and you can see signs of progress there’s one like tonight, where if anything we seem to have gone backwards.
Here’s the truth; overall we’re a stronger side … but too many lessons haven’t been learned. That’s basically it. We’re over-reliant on one style of play which increasingly does not work, we are over-reliant on too many players who consistently let us down at this level and we are persevering with trying to make other players fit into a system for which they are not suited.
How many times does Brendan Rodgers have to watch Mikael Lustig give the ball away before he realises a “build from the back” system is the last he should be playing if that guy is in the team? De Vries had a nightmare tonight; another manager would prioritise signing a goalkeeper – and one who will oust both De Vries and Gordon – for the summer.
Let’s talk about Lustig for a moment.
Lustig is past his best. An excellent servant to Celtic, he is simply not the kind of player we require going forward. There’s no sentimentality in football, and a top manager should have none. Treat people with compassion and respect, but when it’s time to move them on do it and that time is now. In the meantime, you have to play to the strengths of what you’ve got and the “slow build-up” has been sussed by managers at home and abroad.
You need better players than ours to play that game. I admire Brendan for trying to develop players skills rather than reaching for the cheque book, but you can only take some footballers so far and beyond that you are wasting your time.
A manager faced with that dilemma has two choices; sign better players or redesign the system around those who you have at the club.
Lustig is a glaring case in point; the system we are trying to play is lethal to a guy without the right skill-set. Consider his position; he’s an attacking full back. That means his passes are invariably into the middle. Misplace one and a good team – even a competent team – will be right on top of the ball, and it’s happened this season time and time and time again. Our playing style means that when a mistake like that is made we’re caught with half the team in the wrong end of the pitch and then it becomes a desperate scramble to get them back.
And we will lose as many of those races as we win.
His positional sense is dreadful as well. Look at the third goal. He is all at sea. He cannot be in the team when we next take on a decent European side. We will continue to lose goals down his side of the pitch because he is easily beaten for pace and by quick-thinking forwards. He is an accident not waiting to happen but which happens over and over again.
Here’s what really haunts me about tonight; the Ivanovic goal is a good one and one that I won’t apportion blame for. He is quality and he showed it in that bulleting header. Some things you can do nothing about. Give them that goal.
With that goal on the boards, would Celtic have gone through had we followed it up with a perfect defensive display?
The answer is no, because the real trouble – and the most glaring problem – is that all throughout the European campaign thus far, save for in the qualifiers, our forward going players have looked well short of the quality required at this level and the one man up front depends on a forward who is dynamic and hungry and forever moving and on players supporting him … and for months it has been a self-evident fact that we don’t have that.
And when you are playing one up front against a packed defence, without that quality of movement, the last tactic you should be playing is slow, build up football.
How many times are we going to watch slow possession football run into brick walls this season before we play a more direct game?
That system has its place … last week it was utilised superbly.
But … teams can figure it too easily without the right players to make it work for you.
And the trouble is, once teams suss it games descend into frustration where both teams are simply relying on the other making a mistake.
What worries me is that on three occasions this season – in domestic football, not in Europe – that has led to us losing matches, and against Hearts the defeat was on a level far worse than what we watched tonight. Far worse … and what did we learn from that?
The slow build up depends, again, on exceptional footballers to successfully pull off. When you have players like ours it makes your team predictable. Press any team trying to play a slow build-up game and that team will make mistakes. Add fatigue, the effects of a long season and the very genuine doubts that some of our players must have and you will get the sort of errors which cost teams points and trophies and qualifications.
One man up against a packed defence is ludicrous.
I understand Brendan having to keep it tight, and he made the changes at the right time – the killer moment comes when we concede the third goal even as we’re trying to bring on Sinclair to chase the away goal that, then, would have put us through; that’s bad luck – but I wonder if playing the same team in both games was the right idea. Had we chased the opener … aah the game looks easy from our side of the telly.
The over-riding emotion here isn’t anger at opportunities missed or things that should have been done which weren’t – I know exactly why we didn’t spend “big money” in this window on the off-chance we got through one European tie – it’s frustration that even without changing the personnel there are changes to the system which might have paid off.
This is not about mentality, as Sutton went to great pains to suggest; he should know.
His own Celtic team, a far stronger and more experienced one than this, was almost universally woeful away from home in Europe, and if not for Seville we might have looked at that entire team as a series of horror shows, one after the other.
“Belief” doesn’t win games. It’s not what separates Stirling Albion from Celtic.
Belief in the way he means is the belief that the guys around you are top class players who can perform at the highest level and like it or not that’s not us.
Games are won on the pitch, others will say and I agree; but battles are won on the battlefield as well but the greatest military general of them all said they’re also won in the preparations and the tactics and decisions made before they are ever fought … and he’s the guy whose work is studied in every military college in the world.
If better players win games, why then do certain clubs splash out on top managers? Surely, if it’s that easy, the clubs that could spend the most money and sign the best players would win each and every game and each and every competition they take part in?
When people talk about Brendan Rodgers being a target for Spurs and Chelsea and Liverpool again should they dispense with the services of their bosses this year … I think we should all calm down and take a deep breath, because right now he is not performing to that standard. Neither is the much vaunted Dembele, or Scott Sinclair … and Mikael Lustig? That’s a guy living off a reputation and nothing more.
Football is “what have you done for me lately?”
And this team, and this manager, they just aren’t learning. They just aren’t adapting. And we’re getting found out at home and abroad … and if things are going to get better that’s where the improvement has to start.
With some changes to how we approach games.
Sun Tzu said “Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in the attack.”
Had we got even one half of the equation correct tonight we’d have gone through. Instead we were cautious and predictable and were haunted by errors which would have been punished by even the lowliest team. And we will fare no better in the SPL games to come than we did tonight unless we learn, learn, learn and learn fast.
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