With Brendan Rodgers widely being hailed as Scottish football’s most ambitious managerial appointment since Martin O’Neill, pre-season has given us an opportunity to see how his plans are coming together ahead of their Champions League 2nd round qualifier against Lincoln Red Imps.
In terms of personnel, Rodgers quickly set about trimming the bloated squad, with 4 forwards departing – Anthony Stokes, Stefan Scepovic, Colin Kazim-Richards and Carlton Cole. Moussa Dembele replaces them, while Kristoffer Ajer and (effectively) Ryan Christie and Liam Henderson are the other additions.
There’s no doubt that Rodgers has money available, but for the moment it is largely the same set of players that Ronny Deila underwhelmed with.
NK Celje and Sturm Graz were more or less fitness exercises, with 22 Celts featuring per match, using generic 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 systems to wet the whistle.
It wasn’t until Ljubljana and Saturday’s match in Maribor that a clearer tactical picture developed.
The tictactic insight into potential systems identified Rodgers’ first choice as a 4-1-2-3, with, what he calls a “controlling” emphasis on the holding midfielder, or regista. Indeed, for the latter two friendlies, this has been the primary system on show.
With Jozo Simunovic injured, Efe Ambrose is expected to start on Tuesday at the back; although it should also be noted that Kristopher Ajer has reasonably impressed there with fans eager to see what he’s capable of. Having featured as a central midfielder and even striker for his former club, it’s interesting to see him used as a ball-playing defender.
Rodgers seems keen on using both Scott Brown and Stefan Johansen deployed of Biton, and as previously stated in this blog, this probably sits uneasy in the manager’s thoughts. The two are similar midfield scrappers, but the midfield really needs a bit of guile in the final third – evidenced with the lack of created chances vs Maribor, who sat back with eleven behind the ball. Underdogs the Red Imps, and your typical SPFL sides will likely function in a similarly reactive manner. Getting the right attacking balance between the three centre-midfielders, therefore is paramount.
It’s interesting that Calum McGregor was introduced after just 20 minutes vs Maribor. It was a drab game, with far too many sideways passing to penetrate the opposition deep block. Serial transfer rumour subject Johansen went off early injured, perhaps, and McGregor provided a more forward thrust. Interestingly, for the last 30 minutes vs Maribor, Stuart Armstrong played here, another with more vertical intent than Brown or Johansen and a more central position that many fans are keen to see Armstrong feature in.
Shifting a 40-goal striker
But Dembele’s arrival – seen as a real coup in the face of strong English Premiership interest – is the biggest conundrum for a manager who prefers using a sole central striker. Leigh Griffiths took almost single-handed goalscoring responsibility last season in that central position, but in pre-season has found himself wide right to accommodate the newcomer.
This does of course make sense, considering Griffiths doesn’t really have the ideal attributes to play the lone role – despite the obvious scoring record. Most managers insist on using a proper “target” man, and we can look at a former Celtic manager for a case in point. Gordon Strachan has controversially and stubbornly refused to use goal-getter Jordan Rhodes as a lone striker, citing his lack of attributes for the position. Right or wrong (and many commentators are absolutely adamant that it’s wrong) it’s a common theme throughout football management – smaller guys aren’t cut out for the position.
The move to the right may prove to be a masterstroke. Against Ljubljana, Griffiths cut in, on to his favoured left-foot to score both goals. Elsewhere in football the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi prove that you don’t need to play central to score, so it will be a real test for both Rodgers and Griffiths to see if something that wasn’t necessarily broke, can be fixed.
Then there is a knock-on conundrum – what to do with Patrick Roberts and Tom Rogic. Both were respective breaths of fresh air last season, with a creativity and attacking vigour hitherto lacking under Deila.
Rogic seems at home only behind a striker in a 4-2-3-1 – and while Rodgers has used this formation in pre-season, he hasn’t to the same extent as the featured 4-1-2-3. One should also add that it’s an incredibly in-demand position, with the likes of Scott Allan (who has really impressed in close-season), Kris Commons and Ryan Christie amongst others, vying for the spot.
Griffiths’ move to the right also muscles in on Roberts’ territory. He didn’t play a second anywhere else during these friendlies, so presumably at this stage it’s a straight choice between Leigh and Patrick.
Many won’t mind, perhaps not being fully convinced with a player Celtic have taken on to develop for a richer team. But his performances and trickery in the second half of last season were beyond reproach. Could Rodgers try and squeeze him (or Griffiths) in elsewhere?
With Roberts and Griffiths currently untested on the left, there appears to be a number of players competing to start there on Tuesday. Stuart Armstrong has reently been first-choice, mainly for his engine, though Christie seems to have the edge going by the friendlies where he pressed aggressively, got into scoring positions and created too. Fringers Henderson and Forrest also featured in the last few weeks, while Gary Mackay-Steven and Kris Commons will seek to make a claim, making it another hugely in-demand position without a clear first choice.
Rodgers won’t take the Imps lightly, given recent and historic managerial debuts in Europe. This coincides with his arguably more conservative 4-1-2-3 formation suited for an away tie and featuring a holding midfielder protecting the defence and two battlers wresting for control.
Anything other than this or the 4-2-3-1 would be a surprise – albeit the latter being more attacking, and affording the likes of Rogic to do damage.
The major personnel questions revolve around whether a more creative player can feature instead of Brown/Johansen, and who to start on the left-side.