You never learn anything in pre-season; that’s a familiar mantra which we’ve all heard many times. The thing is, it’s true. Nothing you didn’t know anyway, and that’s why the news that we need a keeper and being able to say that Kyogo is the most complete player at our club in a long time are hardly earth-shattering discoveries.
Celtic fans knew these things, just as we know that our defence won’t look like that come the start of the campaign, just as we know that we have options all over the pitch and especially front to middle. We are awesome at times going forward, and certain players, like Abada, look as if they are going to be absolutely critical.
Yet this is an evolving situation, and that was the most obvious thing we watched. When a back four comprised of those players looks pretty confident and much better organised than they had any right to be, we know we’re watching a different team. When the emphasis on the ball moving forward remains paramount, but players are taking that second longer to hold onto it and wait for the right pass then it’s clear that things have changed.
This team looks as if it will be more disciplined and tactical; good news. It also looks as if it will take its time building attacking moves. That might be good or it might slightly blunt the attack, but I think it’ll be the former rather than the latter because there was also a lot more fluid movement with players swapping positions, and some even breaking the tactical shape when there were better opportunities to be exploited doing it.
You can see the manager thinking about new approaches; playing Iwata, a defensive midfielder, at right back might have seemed like folly when we did it last week. Now it is starting to look like a possible way to more involve him in the team, because he looks comfortable there and well in control. Seeing Hatate drop back on occasion to let McGregor get forward feels like a new evolution based on Rodgers understanding of Callum as an attacking weapon.
I thought we saw some really interesting stuff today, stuff that suggests that the boss does not view this as a rigid tactical team but one that is more flexible.
You can see him playing around with different formations, different instructions, you can see that he is thinking about how this side, which is already very formidable, can be taken to that fabled next level. Three at the back. Two upfront. A midfield three with an anchor. A midfield three with a playmaking freewheeler in front of them … and of course the formation Ronny introduced to Celtic and which Rodgers and Ange polished to a high shine and devastating effect, the 4-2-3-1 in its many variations, including those which more resemble the 4-3-3.
Teams which are prepared for one version of Celtic – and the Ibrox one most of all – are potentially in for the shock of their lives.
Imagine setting up to combat Maeda wide left only for him to switch, ten minutes into the half, with Abada and pop up on the right; two different sorts of players, now giving their full-backs something new to think about and stretching the defence in a completely unexpected way. Imagine trying to get tight on McGregor, and block off the flow of the ball only to find we no longer play everything through him and besides, he’s further up the pitch? Imagine thinking you’ll face a single striker, and plan to cut off the service from out wide only to discover that today Celtic is ditching the wingers, going with the second forward and playing it all down the middle?
You never learn anything in pre-season, and perhaps that is the real point of what we saw today. Had we been watching an Ange team and its like for like swaps, and no variation in the play – as good as the play was, as sensational as it was to watch – we actually wouldn’t have. But that today was different. What we’re really seeing is the birth of a Celtic team which will be endlessly unpredictable, that you can’t learn anything from watching, even once the season starts, a team which shifts its shape according to the needs of the game.
And having watched that steadily become clear in the last three matches leaves me very excited for what is to come next. I cannot wait for this campaign to get underway.