All of us want to see this club do transfer business.
But it has to be the right transfer business, which is why today’s stories about a League of Ireland defender have not thrilled me.
Those who are excusing it as a “risk free” transfer are missing the point; this is how we got here in the first place, a bunch of “risk free transfers” padding the wage bill and taking up space.
The crisis facing us is real and only a fool would attempt to deny it. But in some ways it’s less serious than people think and in other ways it’s more serious than they can possibly fathom.
Earlier today, my old man and I discussed the players who have left Celtic Park in the last 12 months, compared to the players who have come in. The list of departures is still growing. The list of incoming footballers is too, but in what direction are we heading?
Part of the problem is that a lot of people confuse strength with depth. Last season, the boast was – and I know, because I one of the people doing the boasting – that we had no fewer than four first team strikers on the books and another potential one out on loan.
Today the number on the books is three. We’ve sold one and we’ve sold the loanee. Of the three we have left, one of them has his bags packed.
One should be packing them.
The third has never reliably convinced us that he’s capable of leading the line. We’re in crisis at the top half of the pitch because we mistook strength for depth and we continue to blind ourselves because the manager “has options.”
But does the manager have good, dependable options?
And the answer to that is very obviously no, but I can already tell you that there are people inside Celtic, people with no real knowledge of football because it’s a secondary consideration for them in spite of being on our board, who think that having three “first team strikers” is good enough and that to sign any further forwards would be overkill.
This is the logic which locks us into the dire situation of having Nir Bitton playing at central defence at the weekend; he is one of the manager’s “options” for that role. It doesn’t seem to matter to our coaching staff, who should know better, that making the manager choose between a player playing out of position and a raw youth footballer isn’t giving him options as much as it’s pushing him into a corner where he has to make the best of a bad deal.
The list of players who have left in the past 12 months is, as follows;
Kristoffer Ajer, Vakoun Bayo, Marian Shved, Jack Hendry, Scott Brown, Olivier Ntcham, Patryck Klimala, Jeremie Frimpong, Hatem Elhamed, Shane Duffy, Jonjo Kenny, Diego Laxalt, Mohammed Elyounoussi, Craig Gordon, Kundai Benyu, Calvin Miller, Jonny Hayes, Eboue Kouassi, Manny Perez, Andrew Gutman, Cameron Harper and Jozo Simunovic.
That’s 22 footballers. We have, in the same period, brought in eight permanent deals but overall, this is what the incoming looks like.
Albian Ajeti, Vasilis Barkas, David Turnbull, Shane Duffy, Diego Laxalt, Jonjo Kenny, Mohammed Elyounoussi, Liam Shaw, Osaze Urhogide, Liel Abada, Carl Starfelt, Kyogo Furuhashi.
The problem with the second list is that it really is eight players once you take off the loans. The problem with the first list is twofold; how many “first team players” are on it and how many absolute punts are on it.
Our squad was so weak overall that we started the last campaign with no fewer than three loanees who had big enough reputations that they were considered first eleven starters; one of them, Shane Duffy, quickly proved to be an absolute waste of space.
We finished the campaign with three loan players in starting eleven spots; we promoted a youth to replace Duffy and brought in a single loanee to replace two players we sold.
Although we had a deep bench, how much of it was actual quality and how much was squad filler?
We started the last campaign with Abd Elhamed doubling as a centre back and a right back, so losing him cost us two positions and not just one. The right back position is especially chronic, but the central defensive problems we have are no less serious.
We had a loanee at left wing and another at left back. We’ve signed a left winger, which means we’re replaced the loanee. Who do we have as backup? Forrest played there at the weekend; did he look like even a temporary answer on that side of the pitch?
We have two left backs; Greg Taylor and Bolingoli. Are we any closer to fixing this problem? Are we any closer to a permanent solution? The longer we mess about and leave this area of the team unfixed the more problems we’re going to have in the long term.
Andrew Gutman was allowed to leave; he’s a left back. He never had a sniff of the first team squad. We preferred Taylor and Laxalt and none of them were convincing.
You see what I’m getting at here?
That list of departures is padded. There are too many players on it who’s role in the squad was minimal at best but more likely non-existent. This is why I argued a few weeks ago that the talk about how much our squad has been “weakened” was a little overblown.
And it is clearly overblown.
When you lose people like Hendry, Bayo, Ntcham, Perez, Klimala and others, none of whom proved themselves capable of being in the starting eleven, it’s not as big a blow as some folk are making out. It looks significant but to be honest, you’re not losing a first team player but a “squad player” and we had what was quite obviously an over-bloated squad full of footballers who were miles from the first team standard.
Which brings me to the larger problem, and the reason this crisis is much, much bigger than it looks. I’ll start, again, with the strike force as it’s where our issues are most obvious.
The gap between your squad filler and the first team squad should be obvious. The first team squad should be comprised of players all of whom are capable of being starting eleven footballers. Simple stuff, right? But how many times, lately, or in the last few years, have looked at our bench and mourned the poverty of it?
You wonder “why are these guys in the team?”
We have lost a huge number of squad players.
That’s bad enough. Because these are your emergency backup footballers, and we’ve had enough emergencies lately to know that anything is possible.
But it’s worse because we’ve lost a large number of first team players as well … and that’s only half of the problem, because amongst them were no fewer than five members of last year’s “strongest eleven”, which is why we’re in real trouble.
The other half of the problem is how poor the starting eleven was last season … and once you accept that, you have to understand that the first team squad was also dreadfully weak and that the squad overall, although bloated, was absolutely horrible.
Which brings us to our summer signing policy and how the manager has responded to it. We’ve brought in three footballers who, unarguably, are to be considered first team players. When you consider the sheer number of first team players who have left, that doesn’t even cover the five we lost from the starting eleven.
But what I want you to think about is the other two signings and the mooted signing, today, of the League of Ireland defender Liam Scales.
If we’re going to be realistic about this, let’s be; are the two Sheffield boys and Scales “first team footballers” or squad players? Because as I said, a first team player is one who can step into the starting eleven without a noticeable dip in the quality of the side.
Our “first team squad” already includes Mikey Johnston, Ewan Henderson, young Murray and a bunch of others who, in all honesty, aren’t near what a Celtic starting eleven pick should be.
We have three goalkeepers at the moment, none of whom would be regarded as a first pick at most other clubs at what we think of as “our level.” I’ve talked about our three strikers already; that problem is glaringly obvious to all.
I thought the Sheffield boys were far more ready than they are; the manager’s own choices are what’s disuaded me of that notion.
Neither of them was on the bench at the weekend.
The manager started Murray and Welsh in Denmark rather than play Osaze Urhoghide in the team; he took a raw youth from our own reserves over the player he allegedly brought the club from England, and he didn’t even pick him in the squad on Saturday.
Ange Postecoglou does not believe either he nor Shaw is a “first team player” and bear in mind, that’s not the starting eleven but the ten or so players in the squad who should be able to walk straight into the team without us seeing a significant dip in its effectiveness.
Those who will defend this board on the basis that we have made “five signings” – and I am guilty as charged because I have defended them on that very basis – need to start looking at this in a different way, and stop giving this club the benefit of the doubt when what we’re actually seeing is an all-too familiar, and dreadful, pattern.
Honestly, I personally need to change the way I think about this stuff because I’ve been as short-sighted and over-optimistic as anyone has on this front, and I’m simply not going to do it anymore.
This requires clarity and the kind of searching examination it simply isn’t getting right now.
If we sign Scales, what role will he play?
If a guy from the League of Ireland can get into our “first team” then that should tell you about two things; the low quality of our ambition and the low quality of the tools Ange is working with.
If he can’t walk into the first team why are we bothering?
He’s a squad player.
He’s Manny Perez or Jack Hendry, a backup option, a “break glass in case of emergency” and if he signs we can add him to those we’ve already signed who can do that job … but let’s not kid ourselves on that this is a “first team signing” far less a starting eleven player, which is where we’re in greatest need.
Finally, it means that the clear-out of this summer is just a prelude to another one not too far down the line, another one where we jettison 15 players over a single window and everyone wonders why we’ve done it when, actually, there’s a much bigger question we should be asking, which is about the club’s transfer policy as a whole, and it’s this;
Why did we bother assembling such a bloated monstrosity of a squad in the first place, when it was the starting eleven and that ten to fifteen other players in their periphery that should have been the priority?