How Likely Is It That Neil Lennon Can Turn Celtic’s Season Around?

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Nothing we heard today at Neil Lennon’s press conference offered us the slightest bit of re-assurance that anyone at Celtic Park knows how we’re going to get out of this mess we’re in. All involved offered us the same empty phrases they’ve been serving us for weeks now; platitudes and assurances that everyone was working together.

All the crap you usually get from those in the bunker.

How much of it can we believe?

Well, we know the board won’t keep him in his job one second longer than they think they can get away with without affecting them. We know the players have done all this “pledge of allegiance” stuff before now, and are still turning in dire displays.

We know the manager has used this “we’re all pulling in the same direction” argument several times already in the past ten weeks and that what we’ve seen is a deterioration in form instead.

It doesn’t suggest that we’re looking at a positive outcome.

The manager says he doesn’t believe we’re that far away. Two mauling’s from Prague and a shocking cup exit tell a different story and paint a different picture. This team is light years from where it ought to be, with the talent he has at his disposal. He thinks we played well at the weekend, in said cup defeat.

He must have been watching a different game.

He said it will only take “the flick of a switch” to get the team back on form. My question is, if it was that easy what has he been doing for the last three months? Is the impression growing on you yet that this guy doesn’t even know what the real issues are here?

He’s talked about changes to the personnel. It’s too late in the day for that, by a long way, and it feels like groundwork being laid for excuses if tomorrow night is one of those matches where the highlights come with a “contains graphic content” warning.

I’ll be honest; I fear the worst. The very, very worst. The kind of performance and result that leaves scars. The sort that makes you wish, momentarily, that your dad had taken you to the pictures instead of inflicting football on you all those many years ago.

One of the great propaganda tricks is repetition. Says something enough times and eventually some people start to believe it, no matter how ridiculous, no matter how unsupported by the evidence or even by logic it might be.

The manager keeps on telling us that he can still turn this around. He has convinced the board, or so it seems anyway. So let’s do this; let’s ask the question. Is he right?

There two principle arguments in his favour; the first is that he has had some results in his time which should indicate that he’s not as a bad a manager as some say; Barcelona in his first term, Lazio home and away in this one. These are, by no means, mug teams.

But for every one of them you can find two examples of dire performances against sides we shouldn’t be losing to in a hundred years.

The embarrassments of Copenhagen, Ferencvaros and the twin Prague scandals are of far more recent vintage. We struggled in our two Europa League qualifiers; the only bright spot was taking a 2-0 lead against Lille, and we blew that.

All the evidence – the evidence of results – points to a rapid, and steep decline.

The second argument in the manager’s favour is that he has turned things around before, and in fact he’s done so twice, in his first tenure at the club and then again in his second. Forget even that we’ve got to take into account how the same manager has arrived at a crisis point three separate times with the same club in two spells of just over five years, there are circumstances which have to be considered on both those occasions which do not apply here.

First, we clawed back an almighty gap to top the league by New Year in 2011-12, but what a lot of people don’t remember is that after drawing 3-3 at Rugby Park we won 2-1 against Aberdeen at home but then drew at home against Hibs; Lennon should have found himself under even more pressure after that result than he did that day at Kilmarnock.

Still after that the team went on an astonishing of 17 wins in a row.

Should Lennon be feted for that “turnaround?” The same year, we lost in the League Cup Final to Kilmarnock and the Scottish Cup semi-final to Hearts. The euphoria of winning the league and seeing Rangers vanish down the plughole covered a multitude of sins.

In the following campaign – the Barcelona season where you might be mistaken for thinking we were absolutely brilliant – we lost seven league games and drew seven out of 38 without a team called Rangers in the league. We lost the League Cup semi-final to St Mirren.

The following league season we lost just once … but drew six. Morton knocked us out of the League Cup and Aberdeen beat us in the Scottish Cup.

We finished rock bottom of our Champions League group with a mere three points. Just getting there had proved a chore; we were very fortunate in the qualifier against Elfsborg and damned lucky to get past Shakhtar Karagandy.

That campaign was awful in too many ways to count; I was glad to see Lennon go at the end of it. His win ratio, until this season, was outstanding … but there was a lot of dross served up along the way and you never did rule out shocking results in games we should have been comfortable in, such as those ridiculous cup defeats.

Lennon’s second comeback is less scrutinised, although it’s of more recent vintage, but a clue can perhaps be found in the form of the team in Rodgers second season and in what he gave us in the third. We had become predictable and easy to counter.

For all the euphoria about a Double Treble, we drew ten games and lost four in his second season at the club, in the league.

Teams had started to figure us out and the manager wasn’t for changing any of it.

Only in cup games – where teams couldn’t sit back and defend for 90 minutes – did we find it easier to open sides up and beat them with regularity.

Between Rodgers and Lennon – and don’t forget, Lennon stuck to the same tactics as Rodgers for way too long – we lost five that season and drew six. Eleven games out of 38 where we dropped points. Four of those games – three draws and a loss – came after Lennon took over, and the uninspiring nature of some of the wins were part of the reason our supporters reacted so badly to his being given the job on a permanent basis.

So why is this important to an understanding of Lennon’s second turnaround?

It’s simply this; our form was already pretty decent last season before we got to December. There had been modest changes and the team was playing the ball forward with more energy and verve. But there were warning signs.

The points we dropped at home to the Ibrox club were not a great shock, as Cluj had embarrassed us in the Champions League and Gerrard’s team had gave us an almighty fright in the League Cup final. Teams were starting to get in our faces, and we looked spooked.

So what exactly happened from January onwards?

Three things did; first, the Ibrox club collapsed. Completely. Which removed any pressure the manager might have felt under at that time. Our form in the league had been much better before the New Year game than many want to acknowledge for some reason, and we picked that back up. But lastly, we did something radical, which led to the improved performances and put us over the top. We made a major change to our tactics and our system.

That was something nobody was prepared for. We started putting teams away comfortably; they had no idea how to counter this New Celtic at first … and it might be worth asking if perhaps they hadn’t started to by the time an Ajer goal with nine minutes to go won us the three points at Pittodrie in February, and before Livingston took two off us at home two games later … the second to last we were to play before everything got shut down.

This season, there’s no mystery to how we play. Lennon has been well and truly sussed by nearly every manager in the league. We’ve changed the systems, to no avail.

The same systemic problems – dead balls, counter attacks where our team is all at the other end of the pitch, insane team selections, an over-reliance on Scott Brown, weaknesses down either side of the pitch depending on who the personnel are on a given day, tactical inconsistency, an inflexible team shape which strangles creativity and leaves us exposed – repeat themselves over and over again and even guys like Stuart Kettlewell rub their hands together when their sides face us.

We have to assume that Gerrard’s team will keep winning, that we’re not going to get lucky with an Ibrox collapse, because not to assume that is plain stupid.

Even assuming we can win all our games – you would not bet on that with stolen money – we have to prepare for a scenario where the destination of this title might just come down to matches against them, where Gerrard right now looks to have completely dominion over Lennon and his coaches. And he can afford to lose one of them already.

The team does not seem focussed.

The manager has insulted their professionalism and commitment to the club, and has the temerity to accuse us of undermining them.

His press statements are utterly inconsistent and sometimes frankly bonkers; if an Ibrox manager had said half of it we’d be writing about nothing else and rolling in the aisles.

He is out of tactical moves. The statement, on Thursday, after the game, that we would have to focus some on corners was ludicrous … as if it just dawned on him, the manager of Celtic, that this might be something to take seriously? If he ever focusses on the number of goals we lose from counter attacks I will honestly rejoice, unless, as I suspect, it comes on the back of a serious and damaging defeat, in which case I’ll inquire, politely, why it wasn’t fixed sooner.

The support is going to continue to pressure the club until radical steps are taken to fix this. Lennon has never been under scrutiny like it. For all their declarations of loyalty, who in this squad has proved that they will run through walls for this guy? Precious few.

The selection policy is all over the map. He says this will change for tomorrow; I’ll believe it when I see it and then I’ll be afraid that it sets up an excuse for a heavy defeat, where he can lambast the “fringe players” for “not taking their chance” and avoid any questions as to his own performance.

Which will segue nicely into the weekend and another must win game.

They are all must win games now, of course … except if you’re in the boardroom where the view seems to be we can afford a little more pain, take a little more humiliation and endure a little more suffering before the next desperate plea for togetherness.

I don’t know about you guys, but this evening, with the countdown clock still ticking, no nearer an answer to any of this, the question is; Can Lennon fix this?

Well, to say the least, I am unconvinced.

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