Earlier on I said that we should not be trying to learn anything new from Ibrox’s European run. Favourable draws, opponents in disarray and plain old fashioned luck can propel teams to finals every bit as readily as good form and good football.
Does this mean that tactics, and setup, and personnel have nothing to do with it? Of course it doesn’t, and here’s where we get into difficult territory because – and this is going to be hard for some people to face – part of the problem is our outlook.
Over the period we’re talking about – from our Seville season to theirs – we’ve had two managers whose records in Europe were consistently excellent; Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan.
Lennon produced one memorable campaign, and Rodgers got us into the Groups twice on the bounce … but the guys who showed the consistency were those two managers.
The great strength of both of those guys was that they made us hard to beat at home. Ibrox has done much the same; their run is built on the back of home form. Of their seven wins in the tournament, six of them have come at Ibrox.
When I said in a piece during the week that we had to rebuild Fortress Parkhead that’s what I meant; our domestic form at home is exceptional.
Our European form has been patchier, but still, at Celtic Park this season we have beaten Lech, AZ, Betis and Ferencvaros. I believe we’d have beat Braga and Red Star with relative ease, and based on their performance last night I think we’d have been too much for RB Leipzig. Still, there is a major problem with our current setup.
Lennon, Deila, Rodgers and Ange play a different style of football entirely than O’Neill and Strachan did. That’s just a fact.
Both of those guys knew how to be pragmatic. Look at the guts of O’Neill’s European team; the central midfield was Lambert and Lennon, both defensive midfielders.
There was a pragmatism about O’Neill which had allowed him to win trophies at Leicester, against much bigger teams, before he came to Celtic.
Strachan had achieved modest success in England with Southampton, but could always be relied upon to give much bigger teams a very tough time.
His game, too, was built on ruthless pragmatism and although his Celtic wasn’t always easy on the eye – O’Neill’s by contrast was sensational at times – he knew how to get the job done.
Lennon was given the job the first time because he was an idealist. He wanted to “bring back the thunder.” His hiring was focussed almost entirely on improving our domestic form, and playing in a style of football that was more “the Celtic Way.”
At the same time, the club expected him to produce and “develop” players for later selling, a system which guarantees instability because the team never gets a chance to grow. That’s important, and Ibrox has been very lucky in the sense that they have attempted to replicate this and failed to do it … it has caused their debt problems but it has also given them a squad which is simply added to year on year without any major departures.
Ronny, who took over after Lennon, was brought in to change the club’s approach and focus on a European style of developing youth … we tried to use the absence of the club from Ibrox to re-tool the club but we lacked either a coherent plan for it or the guts to see it through.
Ronny was not brought in as a European style manager; neither his playing system nor what he was given to work with were ever going to get success on the continent.
Brendan was the brief flirtation with box office … but he was not ever going to be a manager whose team played football in a style suited to Europe. We knew that before he arrived at Celtic, because his Liverpool side was hopeless on the continent, and nothing he has done with Leicester has changed the perception that he does not play in a style that is suited to European football … and Rodgers steadfastly refuses to change his approach.
And we already know that Ange will not change his.
So what some of our fans are demanding today is that we try and progress in Europe under a style that might not be suited to that stage.
But you know what? Ange’s style, given time, just might work because his is by far the most exciting brand of football I’ve seen us play in my time watching the club.
But we’ll never see this team play with two holding midfielders, it just won’t happen, and the only thing really that we can hope for is that the big guy gets the attacking blend right enough and that the team organisation stays strong enough that we can get away with full-throated attacking football no matter the opposition.
The question you have to ask yourself is would you swap the attacking football under these guys for the kind of turgid stuff we sometimes saw under Strachan? Would you swap the approach of Ange for that of O’Neill, knowing that we can’t sign the quality of player he did for the kind of money that this club will realistically spend?
Because really, this is what we’re talking about.
If you think that European football requires a certain type of player, and a certain style, is this the manager who is going to sign those type of players? Was Lennon? Was Deila? Was Rodgers? I’ve been screaming that we have needed a solid ball-winning hard bastard in the middle of the field for longer than I care to remember … and we keep on signing the Johansen’s, Armstrong’s, Turnbull’s, Rogic’s, Hatate’s and O’Riley’s.
What you’re talking about, then, for this to change, is a dramatic re-alignment of our footballing outlook and the type of manager we hire and the type of player we sign. Had we appointed Eddie Howe, we might have a style more like the one we’re talking about … but would we have won the title? Would we necessarily have as good a squad?
Remember, Ibrox has dropped more points than us in the course of this campaign; the same affliction that is evident – starkly evident – in their European form is present here at home; they simply don’t win enough games. And that’s the risk when you play a system which essentially puts two or more holding players in the middle of the park.
If we set our stall out like that most weeks, would we win as many matches? Because it’s hard enough breaking down packed defences when you’re going all out with the attacking players on the pitch that we do.
Imagine if we played a more defensive system?
Ibrox’s European run has been built on home form, but it is essentially the same system that has proven ineffective in Scotland. That’s the hard fact of it, and anyone who wants us to emulate that or thinks we should be able to is missing so many pieces of the big picture.
We could be doing better in Europe, but part of the reason we’re not is that our board’s decision making is not rational or based on fundamentals.
They’ve twice hired Lennon, they hired Ronny when he was supposed to be Lennon’s assistant, they went for Rodgers because Desmond is his mate and knew he’d take the job … and Lawwell Inc. recommended Ange as a last minute option after the move for Eddie Howe fell through.
Even the move for Howe isn’t really a recognition of them thinking about this on the European level; it’s an example of Sky Sports scouting only for managers.
This board has never once since Strachan sat down and looked for a manager based on the idea that European football progress should be one of the priorities.
If they did they would have conducted a proper search for a boss rather than relying on their wee contact book, and brought in someone with a pragmatic, thoughtful, tactical approach who knew how to shut teams out and counter attack … because for a club with limited resources, it’s the best strategy for consistently beating bigger teams.
You’re talking about an entire club built around a single philosophy, and that means joined up thinking that this board is simply not capable of. It means a certain player profile, including physique and fitness and an emphasis on speed and aggression. It means a manager who knows how to meld these types of players into a single unit.
But would that have translated into Scottish football success, and more importantly, would it have been appealing to the idealistic Celtic fans?
Wanting us to be a club that punches at the right level in Europe is not as simple as throwing money at the problem or saying we have to show more ambition.
It would require a complete sea-change in thinking at our club.
It would involve long-term strategic planning, the upending of the “buy for profit” strategy, a review of the type of manager we hire and the way we approach every element of the football operation. It would involve retooling the entire club to that end.
I think Ange will surprise bigger teams next season.
I still don’t expect to get to any round which has the word “final” in it. As I’ve said in the last piece, that requires more luck than skill and I’m not going to judge the manager’s success or failure based on that.
We do have to win a knockout round after Christmas soon, because this has become the standard joke about us and there’s no excuse for our constant failures to do it … except in what I’ve said already.
The last managers with any consistency were Strachan and O’Neill, and they built their teams with that in mind.
But this club now treats European football as a nice optional extra … and although I think Ange might have found something that has a chance to work, a fully thought through strategy would have hired a manager and built a club structure around that ambition instead of leaving it to chance.
For that to change, the way they think about this inside Celtic has to change … those who’ve spent this week praising the board for their foresight in hiring the ex-CEO’s son cannot have it both ways.
I’ve long been of the view that we are run by people who lack a clue at the strategic level and that’s one of the reasons we’re here.
The Lawwell hiring is indicative of the problem.