One of the recurring themes we come to on this site over and over when watching Celtic in Europe is how little we show our teeth up front. This was much more obvious last season, under Ange, when we were blazing our way through the SPFL teams … this season we’re not quite up to speed yet. But when we are, we’ll need to be better than last night.
We have really good footballers at the top end of the pitch. But their composure seems to go when they play on the bigger stage of Europe. It’s not just that we don’t finish the chances that we create; we don’t create enough of those chances in the first place. And I have to be honest, that concerns me more than any so-called defensive lapses do.
The thing is, there’s no clear way to fix this except just to have better players. Or to change the playing system so much that it makes us virtually unrecognisable. And if we did that, of course, we would probably need new players to do it.
European teams are better organised with far better players than the sides we play in Scotland.
A team like Feyenoord can come to Celtic Park, line up in a defensive formation like most of our opponents here at home do, and make it virtually impossible for us to break through them playing our normal style of football … and at the same time, play devastating football on the break. Our only answer to that would be to change entirely how we play.
Last night we did almost everything right. We got in their faces. We didn’t let them settle down and into their rhythm. We pushed them back when they expected to be going forward … and we tried to play our way to a result. And we did it well. But we created few chances and found it very difficult to get behind their lines.
We have to do a lot of things better, and last night there was a lot of concern over what we might do at the back. But Scales was immense and before his sending off I thought Lagerbeikle handled himself very well. Taylor put in his usual shift and Alastair Johnston was typically excellent. The midfield worked its socks off.
But the killer passes we needed from them were not there.
The final ball to cut their defences open was lacking. I would be less concerned about this if the same problem hadn’t arisen in our second season under Ange, when we played games on the front foot, at 100 miles per hour.
And the thing is, that problem didn’t afflict us the season before.
In Ange’s first campaign, we lost in the Champions League against Midtjylland, but from the moment we were in the Europa League we were scoring regularly. The problem is, we were also conceding goals regularly.
We scored seven and lost two in the games against Jablonec. We scored three and lost two against AZ. In the Groups the stats say it all. We won nine points (and didn’t qualify) scoring 13 times in six games. That’s a great ratio for European football. But we also conceded 15. Which is why we ultimately went out. No issues scoring though.
But in the Champions League Group of last season, in spite of a lot of confidence that we could outgun the Ukrainians and even the Germans we scored only four … and still conceded 15. So that didn’t work at all. What we’d been doing the previous year was no good to us when we got to the bigger stage. We were expected to get points in that group … and it was a huge let down.
And that’s what worries me at the moment; that nagging question about Champions League defences being a little too good for us. It will continue to haunt me until we prove we’ve got the beating of one of them.
We know they can hurt us going forward, that was something we were fully aware of and able to deal with … our fate will be decided on whether or not we can create, and convert, enough chances of our own.