Celtic’s Left Back Dilemma Shows Where The Transfer Strategy Is Most Faulty.

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Looking at Celtic’s squad at the moment – and I appreciate that we have hours of this window still to go – there is a feeling that we’re going to miss out on more than one area where we badly need reinforcements. I said if we got the midfielder and the striker I’d be fairly satisfied; the midfielder looks like it’s done, the striker might not happen.

But almost everyone else in Celtic cyberspace has mentioned two positions above all; the left back and the goalkeeper.

I think most folks are pretty well pleased with the way Alastair Johnston plays, so we’ve got no pressing need there although if he gets injured few fans want to be relying on Tony Ralston, but nobody is panicking as long as AJ is fit.

At left back, Greg Taylor is just off the best season of his career. I was on the Spiers podcast this morning talking about the game on Sunday, and used, as I have here, my custom computer analogy.

Ange constructed his team very specifically. Every player performed a specific function, and those functions no longer apply. This team is not doing what it was built to do, and so obviously there are going to be players who simply no longer fit.

Taylor performed well because Ange custom made him for a specific job.

Now that job is no longer part of the tactical plan, Taylor’s weaknesses – which Ange’s system was able to make less relevant and obvious – are all coming back to the fore.

I feel pretty sorry for Taylor in that respect. He’s a decent footballer and an outstanding pro. But as I said yesterday in the piece about our youth players, professional sport – and football in particular – is a harsh, unforgiving meritocracy.

It is not enough to praise him for what he did last season, or to have a certain amount of sympathy for his plight; we cannot hang onto someone just because he’s a decent kid. Eventually the good of the unit comes first.

The thing is, I would take Taylor in the team all day, every day, next to his understudy and even writing that word is part of the problem, because Bernabei cost us twice what Taylor did without any of the positives. Off the field, he lacks discipline.

On the field he lacks … everything from what I can see. He’s James Tavernier for the left side of the pitch. Except without the goals.

I saw nothing that indicated that he was suited to Ange’s style. I see no sign that he is in any way suited to Rodgers’ team. It makes me wonder why we signed him at all, and that brings us back to the transfer policy and this debate over whose needs it actually serves.

Let’s be honest, Bernabei did not fit the Ange team, and the manager never looked convinced that he would. Whilst I am sure he told the board we needed a left-back and asked for the options, this is what they presented him with.

But I cannot believe that he knew any more about the player than we did.

He certainly didn’t watch him.

Who amongst our scouting team did?

I would be amazed if anyone from Celtic had actually gone to Argentina and seen Bernabei in the flesh, and especially more than once. So, did we trust the verdicts of other people … or was this an analytics led decision?

I know a lot of the decisions that our club makes in the transfer market are … and it can work, and it has worked, and very well … but there are things which aren’t in the numbers.

There are stylistic differences between playing in South America and Europe, and that’s part of it of course, but it’s more than that. I mentioned Tavernier for a reason; for all the headlines he gets, for all the goals he scores and assists he provides, he is an awful defensive player and when that’s your main job on the pitch you need to be a lot better at it than he is.

Likewise, a Celtic left back’s primary function is to defend and because there are different sets of numbers I have a theory that perhaps our analysis is weighted towards the wrong set of them.

Whenever I read that a player is “an attacking full-back” I wonder if he can actually do the basic stuff. That Bernabei can also play left wing made me instantly suspicious that we’d signed him based on the wrong set of numbers, or rather in an analysis weighted more heavily towards his attacking capabilities than his defensive ones.

Like I said, there is a good reason to bring Tavernier, and even Barisic, into this debate; neither of those guys can defend worth a damn. Why, then, has Ibrox not shipped them out ages ago?

It’s because they both get up the pitch and set up goals. During their game on Wednesday night one commentator praised the start Barisic has made to the season because he has four assists; that’s not the criteria I’d be judging him on.

I know that our club has a “style” and that nearly every manager in our living memory has wanted to use our full-backs as attacking weapons, but I wonder if our analysis – and not just ours – is slanted more towards that than on more obvious defensive metrics. You look at the types of full-backs we’ve signed in recent years and I think that question bears answering.

I wouldn’t have Barisic or Tavernier near this Celtic team.

But in point of fact, we’re just as guilty of this as they are because when we talk about Taylor having a tremendous season in the last campaign, we’re not simply talking about his defending but his utility as an attacker as well.

But what is clear, what is absolutely obvious, is that Taylor is a much, much better defensive player than Bernabei is, which is why I reckon Brendan has already made his mind up as far as the Argentine is concerned. Signed for big money, he clearly did not possess one iota of what Ange expected him to, and he saw immediately that this was the case.

Rodgers has even less reason to like him; look at the two full backs we were linked with when he was here last time, both of whom ended up at Leicester; Timothy Castagne and James Justin. Both are great at getting up the pitch, but first and foremost both of them can defend. Both of them are tough tackling warriors and that’s why he wanted them at Celtic and why he went and got them when he moved there. Those guys are textbook Rodgers players.

This isn’t just limited to our full-backs.

We’ve signed strikers based on nothing more than analytics and number crunching; Patryk Klimala is a case in point. He had certain attributes and based on those he was recommended as a signing.

When he left – and we made our money back on him, which shows that the analysis itself wasn’t faulty – John Kennedy made the staggering admission that he wasn’t suited to our style of play … which made me wonder what in God’s name he was ever signed for in the first place, as that should have been obvious.

But it was only really obvious once he was signed, so whilst the analysis wasn’t dreadful what was absolutely off point was the link between that analysis and the needs of the manager and the team. Klimala was brought to this club on the recommendation of the scouting department apparently without them ever once asking the manager if he fitted the system.

Bernabei doesn’t fit the system. He appears to be a sub-par defensive player who was incapable of adjusting to either to Ange’s style or Brendan’s, and I can only assume that whatever metric we were basing his signing on either covered a multitude of sins or we were looking more at the attacking numbers than the defensive ones, as though that was an afterthought.

And maybe there’s a lesson in that.

In the window where we’ve gotten Barkas and Ajeti off the wage bill and written off multi-million-pound transfer fees for those guys it pains me to think that we might have another drag on wages stinking the place out right now … and having arrived here for a good few quid it is surely not out of order to ask who suggested him and on what basis?

If that’s a mistake (which it clearly is) we need to learn from it.

The latest podcast from Graham Spiers can be heard here. 

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  • Johnno says:

    This was an issue that was in play last season and hasn’t been addressed whatsoever during this window which I find infuriating.
    Bernie seems to have a discipline problem which in turn means he can’t be trusted, and along with not suitable for playing in a back 4 with being crap as a defender, makes you wonder why he was ever signed in the first place?
    Always felt he was possibly signed to give the option to go with a back 3, yet wasn’t in Ange’s plan’s and no sign of it been in Rodgers either to date?
    A potential huge problem with CL in mind as I would class both not good enough for ourselves at that level?
    Surly Bernie can’t be under consideration for a CL squad place?
    Which would be scandalous decision making if he were imo.
    Could we potentially be looking at a back 3 with Taylor used as a potential wing back with better potential options than Bernie still available?
    I’m struggling to see a better option available to ourselves currently, upon a position causing so many issues still?
    The keeper position is hardly much better, even moreso with bain getting promoted to the no2 position?
    With them 2 position’s still left undressed, the only question springing to mind, is just how much ambition has the club really got for this season CL in mind?
    Maybe there are some surprises still in store for ourselves yet, but leaving a position unaddressed for a trip to the shit hole is hardly a great sign imo.

  • John S says:

    Greg Taylor has shown that he is able to adapt within different systems. He’s a tryer.

  • Eldraco says:

    No, we don’t need to ” learn ” we need to sack as it’s cost us points and money and happened to often.

    We go into the CL we need FB Who defend ,who throw back everything that comes at them then gets up the park and starts the next phase.

  • jrm63 says:

    The idea that Taylor is a good footballer undone by a change in system is nonsense. He has been a weakness for a decade. I agree with you about Bernabei. His decision-making is rank though he has balance, pace and control. He needs to move forward either to wing back or outside left with his next team.
    Taylor will be a complete liability on Sunday and he will be the principal target on the ground and in the air. Its the same every week and has been for years. He is too short and far too slow. He can see a pass and he can read angles on the field of play. That is undeniable but anyone who watched Van Veen humiliate him last season knows what he is defensively. Everything for years has come down our left hand side. The much maligned Starfelt covered for him during Ange’s period because he was the quickest Celtic central defender in a decade.

  • Bigbaws says:

    I think your being harsh on Bernabei. He obviously didn’t fit Ange’s system but a lot of good full backs can’t play that inverted position. Kt at arsenal being a case in point.
    I do think Bernabei should be loaned out to a team like Hibs, to get first team football in Scotland, that way me can make a proper judgement on him. Its a young boy, played for the Argie youth teams. He must have something about him

  • SSMPM says:

    This slip began under Ange but like the hun loving press, it is continually failing to be recognised from his worshipping lovers. Easier to blame Brendan and fail to see that actually we were slipping badly and he couldn’t believe his luck when the opportunity arose with an out to Spurs.
    Under his watch last year we started to go backwards mid season. He took us to the midden and we got, partly due to amateur tactics, a good slapping from what your blog considered a weak rankers outfit full of injuries, only highlighting the failure of our back row further. Thank God the huns were pants but it only served to mask what we all see now. The case for the defence is as solid as Trumps. He re-signed Bain, babysat the unused Siegrist should’ve sealed the deal for Jenz but instead brought in what is the cheaper lightweight in Kobayashi then played his countryman, Tomoki, out of position in his place. Oh aye and wasted a few good millions on Bernabei.
    McGregor started to lose form at the similar post Xmas time and we have to be thankful for Mooy stepping up for the last few months. Should’ve shown more foresight and respect to GG too and we wouldn’t be in the mess we are up front either but that’s for another time. HH

  • William Melvin says:

    James,l can tell you 100% that you will never ever,ever be invited onto the Celtic board as the fans voice.
    Reason being, you just talk way too much sense and would totally trash their lazy backward method of operating.
    I pray for the day when our club and to the same extent our fans aren’t treated with such disdain and nonchalance by these parasites on our board.
    There is a special place in hell reserved for each and every one of them.
    If any of them had an ounce of integrity they would retire forthwith and allow modern day thinking people take their places so our great club can fulfil something close to it’s full potential.

  • Devine says:

    Bernabei has played for Argentina’s youth sides up to U23- he’s played at the very top level in the Primera Division- he is technically a very good player. His defending is not great, but I think his biggest problem is his positional sense. Would he improve with a bit more experience with another Scottish or British team? Yes, most probably. Bernabei has quick feet, has decent pace, can beat a man, has a high skillset in terms of touch, control, crossing ability etc so he can be moulded into a player if he was coached well enough. Taylor is just as poor defensively up against either strong or fast attackers. His tackling is absolutely powder puff, is too slow and can’t beat a player. Taylor is a decent backup for the SPFL, not for Europe or against the Huns. He’ll be exposed again tomorrow and if we go with him as first choice in Champions LG, his limitations will be cruelly exposed. Yeah Bernabei needs to be loaned out, preferably to another SPFL team, but Taylor is not the answer. We might get by without a striker until January but with the Asian Cup in Jan/Feb, we will need to sign one during that window. From that persepctive we should go all out for a decent and reliable LB for Europe.

  • Mark B says:

    Agree. The Bernabei singing was a joke as soon as you saw him you are thinking … WTF. Too small not a defender it was a total joke waste of money. We had a very small LB in Taylor we needed a powerful one and instead bought an even smaller one for millions from Argentina… Totally ridiculous. Who ever recommended that and approved it needs removing.

  • brian cavanagh says:

    Hi James

    it is depressing that you should still have to write this – these have consistent themes of your over the last year. And no disrespect to you but your are no Pep Guardiola-BUT you can see it week in and week out -I am just wondering what special insight that the unholy trinity of Lawell two and Desmond have that the rest of Celtic fans dont have? Their complete arrogance that they know better is classic autcocrat behaviour. Maybe their buying approach is driven by a selling approach to which the benefits to playing success is incidental and not central as it should be. The problem that every Celtic fan has a stake in the club, yet the only ones who seem to count are the shareholders. But until these glaring playing gaps are resolved dividend growth is at risk. Will they ony listen when this happens?

  • Fun time frankie says:

    To WM well said ,and I totally agree but these money grabbing tory bastards don’t give 2fcuks want the fans think of them ,cold hard cash is their god also he’ll is far to nice a place for those leeches.

  • Johnny Green says:

    Taylor has been a bad signing from day one, he has a wee bit of patter in the dressing room and was Ange’s blue eyed boy, but he is is a smout and far too wee to be a defender. He looks ridiculous when he is defending free kicks and corners against opposing players who look like giants compared to him. Bernabei similarly is a waste of space and a total waste of money, I can only hope that Scales is retained to play in that position on a regular basis.

  • John says:

    Given how he played in todays glasgow derby Id give Scales the opportunity to make the LB position hiis own…. he cant do any worse than Taylor or Bernabieu who have both shown to be falling short so far this season….. maybe last season was the pinnacle of Taylors playing career but we need a change and soon

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