Striking the right note

A recurring theme on this blog is that signing strikers is a perilous endeavour, impossible even, for various reasons. Whether it’s simply supply and demand (strikers of course being the most in-demand position), the logistical closeness to the billions of England, that £6m these days can’t get you a John Hartson, or that club-by-club, scouting networks have improved exponentially across Europe in recent years…

There’s also the fallacy that it’s a first-come first-served market. No, players and agents are much savvier (read: greedier) than that. Acting quickly has its advantages, but nothing would stop, say, Aron Johannsen moving to an elite level once discovered.

While Celtic have made fantastic business in other areas of the pitch (Virgil Van Dijk, Victor Wanyama, etc) forwards are a whole different kettle of fish, with the sorry record including Marc-Antoine Fortune, Mo Bangura, Amido Balde, Daryl Murphy… enough said.

Celtic have attempted various ploys to get the right man. The signings tend to fall into familiar categories:

  • “Try-before-you-buy” – Georgios Samaras, Pavel Brozek, John Guidetti, Miku
  • “Costly established” – Fortune, Gary Hooper, Teemu Pukki, Stefan Scepovic
  • “Cheap gambles” – Hólmbert Friðjónsson, Tony Watt, Lassad Nouioui, Balde

Alas, even the costly established players (barring Hooper) tended to have mild scoring records. The other exceptions are Anthony Stokes and Leigh Griffiths. This makes for a conspicuous pattern – that strikers who scored before Celtic, tended to continue scoring at Celtic. This could also be applied to the likes of Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Scott McDonald.

Finding the goalscorers (at whatever level) is one thing. Being able to attract them is another – as found in the previous piece on strikers, China has emerged as a richer and aggressive rival to teams in non-elite countries.

The class of 2015/16

As usual, the stipulations are the same – players under 25, with the best scoring record based in less-favourable (but not completely obscure) competitions. So the likes of Scandinavia, the lower tiers of England, Spain, Germany, and the main leagues of most smaller European countries, the USA and Australia.

And remember – if you don’t like baseless (pointless) transfer discussion, then put down the newspaper and close your web browser as these things are not for you.

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Standouts

Of course it’s impossible to determine whether any of these players are within Celtic’s budget. We can take an educated guess on many (for example, Jason Cummings) while one or two may plainly be off-limits. Having scored regularly in the top tier of France and being a big strong forward, Sebastian Heller already appears set for a bigger club (Ajax have been suggested).

Jamie MacLaren and Cyle Larin have fabulous scoring records in increasingly competitive leagues, both barely 22, and may be at the right price-point.

The demand at this level of player is apparent, with, for example Lukas Spalvis and Simeone Ganz (son of Maurizio Ganz) already being snapped up.

In terms of alternatives in style to Griffiths, Leon De Kogel and Rangelo Janga – both 6′ 4″  and scoring well in a league perhaps on a par with the Scottish Premier league – would  be interesting prospects.

Conclusion

There are young goalscorers at a decent enough level out there. Whether in practice they are within budget, good enough, or indeed on Celtic’s radar is another matter.

The suggestion of Danny Graham (in rumour columns) seems uninspiring, given most poor-goalscorers tend to perpetuate that form in Scotland. And those forwards who score less by design – the Fortune style “bring others into the game” – don’t tend to last long at Celtic.

Regardless, the priority for new manager Brendan Rodgers is dependable competition for Griffiths, and it’s unclear if Anthony Stokes is considered in this brackets. Jack Aitchison famously broke records on his debut last week, but at 16 is unlikely to be in first team plans.

Brendan Rodgers: Hold your head up high

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David Moyes was favourite, and some bookies stopped taking bets on Roy Keane, but replacing the disappointing Ronny Deila is Brendan Rodgers. An extraordinary signing, not just from a financial point of view. Rodgers is the “outstanding candidate” for his football credentials.

His coaching history goes from Spain to Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, and as manager is most famous for putting together hugely entertaining Swansea and Liverpool teams based on possession.

I will leave the biographies and profiles to the likes of this (utterly excellent) 8by8mag piece. But tactically, what can we expect at Celtic?

4-3-3 – hold your head up high

4-2-3-1 has recently been in vogue throughout Europe, but Rodgers preference is 4-3-3 (or perhaps more accurately 4-1-2-3), putting an emphasis on the ‘1’ sitting. As explained in a revealing interview with the Liverpool ‘Redmen’ TV channel:

[..the holding 1] dictates rythm and tempo. The 2 need to have the capacity to control – but also run. And get forward and get back in. So if they don’t have that, it’s very difficult to function.

The [1] controller dictates, dominates, and commands the game from behind, and these two can join in. But as the team moves up the pitch these two need to move with it. But I also say don’t run forward if you can’t run back.”

Nir Biton immediately springs to mind for this role, despite a relatively poor season. He’s not a box-to-box scrapper, and clearly enjoys sitting deep and controlling the game. Rodgers previous long-term go-to was Joe Allan  (also utilised at Swansea) and also Leon Britton. These 2 are hardly comparable in style however, to Biton. Both barely scrape 5’6″ and are quick, technical and agile.

Joe Allan HAS to play there because he knows how I work. He’s even better further forward, he can give an extra 50%(!)

This is an interesting quote because it shows how important the sitting player is – even with Allan better in a higher position, clearly getting the right holding player is essential.

The 2

Rodgers' midfield 3

Rodgers’ midfield 1-2

Referring to the other 2 midfielders: “they need to play in that corridor to have the capacity to get back in again. If they can’t do that it becomes difficult .This is the situation where you’d then maybe switch to a [4-2-3-1]. If you play in a [4-2-3-1] the 2 play more side to side, controlling from behind, then this guy [the #10] is more the one joining in [the attack].

The side-to-side comment is interesting because we saw it so much under Deila’s 4-2-3-1. Players like Stefan Johansen and Callum McGregor, so effective higher up the park suffered as water-carriers, playing sideways possession passes. Biton too suffered here.

Who at Celtic would suit playing in a 2 of the 4-1-2-3? It might give Johansen and McGregor better opportunity to get forward – both attacking players with the engine capacity to get back in line. Stuart Armstrong would definitely benefit, while Ryan Christie and Scott Allan, with their creative technique, might have a claim. Along with Brown suffering, this doesn’t bode well for Tom Rogic, arguably too languid to act in a box-to-box midfield.

Finally, though Rodgers has his preferred system, unlike Deila he is far from inflexible. Liverpool had mixed success with a 3-4-3, while at both Liverpool and Swansea, 4-2-3-1 was not out of the question.

Possession

The emphasis in using a sitting midfielder (or two if required) is clearly designed to keep the ball. “I like to control games. I like to be responsible for our own destiny. If you are better than your opponent with the ball you have a 79 per cent chance of winning the game. For me it is quite logical. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are, if you don’t have the ball you can’t score.”

Rodgers extends the possession game as far back as choosing a goalkeeper, as noted by Michael Cox of zonal markingzm rodgers gk

 

 

 

Rodgers also added: “When we have the football everybody’s a player. The difference with us is that when we have the ball we play with 11 men, other teams play with 10 and a goalkeeper.

One thing to say about Craig Gordon is that he’s hardly known for his ability with the ball at his feet. An outstanding goalkeeper otherwise, and much-maligned last season, it would be a surprise if Rodgers dipped into the high-demand low-supply market of top class ball-playing goalkeepers. Is a loan for Valdes (who spent a season as second choice at Standard Liege) out of the question?

Case for the defence

The other benefit of a deep-lying midfielder is taking the strain of play-making off of Celtic’s beleaguered defence. Virgil Van Dijk was a master at it, but too often last season Dedryk Boyata was the man starting off moves and was deeply uncomfortable doing so.

Neil Lennon was particularly keen to use ball-playing centre-backs. Aside from Van Dijk, Charlie Mulgrew had a hugely successful season at centre-back, while Efe Ambrose was also employed for this role, and to be fair wasn’t bad at it (the defending on the other hand…)

But Rodgers has never focused too much in this area. The centre-backs don’t need to be particularly exceptional on the ball, as evidenced by the signing of Dejan Lovren – now deemed to be a poor signing – and the continued use of limited defenders Martin Sktrel and Kolo Toure.

Good news therefore for Boyata, Jozo Šimunović and to a lesser extent Erik Sviatchenko, who is excellent with the ball. Mulgrew would arguably make up 4th choice centre-back, but Celtic will surely have an eye on adding another.

Transfer activity

Liverpool’s infamous transfer “committee” garnered blame for Rodgers’ Anfield demise, consisting of him, Ian Ayre, Chief Executive; Dave Fallows, Head of Recruitment; Barry Hunter, Chief Scout and Michael Edwards, Director of Technical Performance. Between them spending £290m~ on a mixed bag.

There were similar rumours at Celtic – that Deila was not responsible (varying from zero responsibility to signing-off, depending on what you read). In reality, most, if not all big clubs have committees of some form. Barcelona for example have Ariedo Braida, Josep Maria Bartomeu, Carles Rexach and manager Luis Enrique.

In practice this is utilising – to coin another term from Why England Lose, by Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski – the wisdom of the crowd. Drawing from a wider depth of knowledge, contacts and experience. Whether Rodgers will be comfortable working with the likes of Peter Lawwell and John Park, or whether he negotiated complete autonomy, is another question.

Going back to Lawwell’s moneyball, Rodgers has spoken on the subject regarding Liverpool – i.e. the burning question of signing ready-made players or buying cheap, developing and selling high:

The club needs to look at it and decide whether they want a business model or a winning model. A winning model would mean trying to get the best possible players that you can, at whatever age they are, it doesn’t matter. 

“Other clubs will be in the market to just buy the top talents, irrespective of what age they are, in order to look to win. I think the best clubs must get the balance between both [models].”

Conclusion

Potential 4-1-2-3 with current players

Potential 4-1-2-3 with current players

A possession based 4-1-2-3 but flexible to change. A dynamic front-3 with no particular preference for inverted wingers or a big striker. A huge reliance on the right sitting midfielder. Attacking wing-backs. Centre-backs whose priority is to defend as opposed to build.

Outgoing, Celtic have a swathe of players to move on, though Rodgers will surely give every player a chance to impress. Anthony Stokes, is a case-in-point. Frozen out by Deila, but stunning in the Scottish Cup final cutting in from the left-hand side.

In terms of transfers in, there can be improvements made everywhere. An attacking right-back and left-winger is a must. Elsewhere Rodgers will be carefully considering who fits the philosophy or not – a truly momentous summer to look forward to.

Deila, David and Directors

Ronny Deila

The great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann once compared football management to being a lion-tamer: as soon as you show fear you are lost. It’s difficult not to recall Kris Commons’ unedifying rant in Molde, or Leigh Griffiths at Hampden just past. The cracks in Ronny Deila’s leadership were showing elsewhere too, with Scott Brown’s very public drunk and disorderly episode, and the protracted disagreement with Anthony Stokes.

The dressing room has been lost for months, and Deila struggled to keep favour with fans and the media alike. In these situations it’s still results that matter, yet the defeat to Rangers was the last of many big-game collapses. Despite certain in-game positives, the European record has been atrocious. A tactical inflexibility, lack of motivation and lack of defensive organisation has proven fatal.

Re-iterating an assessment of Moyes from the last blog post:

Gallingly, any composed, technical stuff on the ball has been undone by mental naivety and individual errors. It has been countless, stretching back to Legia. Red-cards, penalties and sucker-punches. A couple, throughout the many stick to mind in particular – the failure to see out a 3-1 scoreline to Malmo at home (casual late defending), the ludicrous defending of set-pieces (Malmo away and the closely followed game in Amsterdam). Efe Ambrose and Dedryck Boyata’s hospital passes, or Craig Gordon’s inexplicable, uncharacteristic (career-wise) suicide rushes (Inter, Fenerbahce).

Deila has never been able to extract more than the sum of the parts of his squad. There has been no unifying attacking performances or gritty escapes.

David Moyes

David Moyes is the bookies favourite to succeed Deila – a former Celt, Glaswegian, with plenty of experience at the highest level of management. So far, so good. But scratching the surface, he may not be the best fit.

Widely considered out of his depth at Man Utd, aside from a disappointing stint at Real Sociedad, Moyes created a legacy at Everton. There he experienced the lows of a relegation battle, and the highs of cracking the “big four” of the Premier League. His one foray in the Champions League was a dubiously referee’d defeat to Villareal in qualifying.

Moyes is known for being pragmatic – favouring 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 depending on how you look at it – which funnily enough is the same shape as Deila. One of the few times he deviated, his Manchester Utd team were eviscerated by their City rivals.

There are a number of players at Celtic who in theory fit in rather well. Leighton Baines flourished under Moyes who loves to use attacking full-backs, with Kieran Tierney an obvious parallel. Moyes likes midfielders who can sit and spray sideways passes and dictate play – think Nir Biton or even Scott Brown. Stefan Johansen has been used by Deila as an equivalent to Marouane Fellaini at Everton – a de facto second striker.

Moyes was criticised at Utd somewhat for focusing too much on crossing as opposed to deck football – which may ask questions of how he might use Leigh Griffiths, not known for his aerial ability. And finally Moyes has been known for energetic pressing – something Ewan Murray believes antagonised Deila’s players.

Moyes may improve Celtic’s lackadaisical defensive organisation and concentration in Europe, Deila’s biggest failure of all. But Celtic fans can be quite contradictory – a dependable defence is important but inventive attacking football is non-negotiable. The hugely successful Gordon Strachan struggled with the paradox from start to finish. Moyes wasn’t able to find the balance at Utd, whether he can do so in Scotland is another question.

Peter Lawwell

There’s a ceaseless idea within some sections of supporters that Peter Lawwell is not only overpaid, but selfishly interfering with footballing matters. There is little evidence to support this, with Deila himself coming out to say there wasn’t a transfer he didn’t ratify.

To start with the good – Lawwell takes Celtic to the highest board tables. He’s an ECA Executive Board member along with the likes of Bayern’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Barcelona’s Josip Bartomeu, and on the SFA board. It is a fair question to ask – how exactly do Celtic benefit? It’s a tricky question, and the answer is ultimately intangible. But it stands to reason that it’d be preferable to be mixing with the 14 biggest clubs in the world, than not. This is exactly what Celtic pay the additional wages for. Meeker Chief Executives simply don’t have the contacts or acumen to make these connections.

This blog has spoken in-depth about Lawwell’s so-called Moneyball (here and revisited here) and is of the opinion that his transfer strategy on the whole has been an inarguable success. Fans consider down-sizing to be optional, and it outrageous that Celtic have landed up with the likes of Nadir Ciftci, Derk Boerrigter and Stefan Scepovic, to name but a few.

But elsewhere Celtic have had inarguable transfer success – with the likes of Fraser Forster, Virgil Van Dijk and Victor Wanyama moving on for 8 figure sums.

Strikers remain the problem, and can be evidenced across Europe in terms of costs. Av average young striker like Conor Wickham can transfer for £9m. Or someone who might traditionally have been a Celtic target like Ross McCormack or Jordan Rhodes attract similar prices.

The Elite European clubs continue to hoover up the most talented forwards, with the likes of Chelsea having a staggering 28 players out on loan.

In short, Lawwell’s interfering in football matters is a fallacy. Not only based on the success of previous player development, but by the fact he has helped supply a squad that undoubtedly should be dominating the SPL, or beating Malmo to reach the Champions League group stages.

The bad

Lawwell is not perfect – as mentioned before, it’s not clear to stakeholders exactly what his exorbitant salary is bringing. Worst of all at a time that the Celtic board, to their shame, cannot offer the living wage to all employees, and at a time of much financial insecurity for the wider public.

There are other matters central to Celtic supporters that Lawwell has appeared weak or conflicted. Fans are unrepentant that the Rangers entity should be held accountable for past misdemeanors. The Chief Executive should be the leader of a companies culture, and while there are obvious marketing reasons that Lawwell is conflicted with Rangers, he should answer to the wants of the club and supporters as opposed to money. How Ian Bankier and Lord Livingstone remain on the board is a mystery.

A special mention to Resolution 12 which again, is a shirked matter.

Being unable to source an alternative striker to (the utterly excellent) Leigh Griffiths is one thing, but Lawwell’s biggest fault has been his patience in Deila. The Norwegian has long lost his players and fans, and has stumbled at every major hurdle. He could’ve been dismissed at any time since the summer.

Deila has always been seen as the cheap option, further adding to the penny-pinching bonus-grabbing reputation that Lawwell has attracted. It was likely more an extension of the moneyball idea – which clearly works for players. Find an up-and-coming talent and profit from his rising stock.

The gamble on Deila backfired and should’ve been abandoned earlier. But the idea is an attractive one, with some fans still hopeful that an underrated, exciting, attacking manager is out there.

 

Ronny Deila – gonna have to be a different man

An online petition setup to oust Ronny Deila, has irked those at Celtic and tickled the Scottish media. While 142 signatures is the tiniest fraction of fans, the furore around its existence is symptomatic of a growing wider opinion.

Deila is unique among Celtic managers in that a key performance indicator has been removed – performance against (what in recent decades was found to be) a Rangers that duped and cheated on an institutional scale. Rangers Mark II, Sevco, or whatever they are referred to continue to be lauded in the press and Deila put down, but interestingly their record in respective leagues this season are near identical – wins, goals, conceded, etc.

While this is just a lesson in the power of image (and the MSM), there are genuine criticisms of Deila’s Celtic, which lurches towards a domestic treble.

Europe

Without the aforementioned competition of old, the true yard-stick of current Celtic is performance in Europe. In short, it is everything – financially, in terms of attracting players and in terms of capturing the imagination of fans. Here, it has not been good enough.

Nothing can be more informative than the plain old results:

Europe record

The record is all the more dreadful if you take away the early qualifying rounds. In the Europa group-stages in 2 attempts / 12 matches, Celtic have managed a single clean-sheet. No wins in 10 group stage attempts. 21 conceded in 12 group matches. Finally, of course, in each of the 2 “do-or-die” qualifiers (against Maribor and Malmo respectively) Celtic crumbled.

Yet staggeringly, almost inconceivably, there have been times that Celtic have looked as comfortable as ever in Europe. In contrast to the more pragmatic styles of Gordon Strachan and later Neil Lennon sides, possession was kept relatively well and there were never really any backs-to-the-wall, 90 minutes of desperate defending, panicked clearances type performances.

Gallingly, any composed, technical stuff on the ball has been undone by mental naivety and individual errors. It has been countless, stretching back to Legia. Red-cards, penalties and sucker-punches. A couple, throughout the many stick to mind in particular – the failure to see out a 3-1 scoreline to Malmo at home (casual late defending), the ludicrous defending of set-pieces (Malmo away and the closely followed game in Amsterdam). Efe Ambrose and Dedryck Boyata’s hospital passes, or Craig Gordon’s inexplicable, uncharacteristic (career-wise) suicide rushes (Inter, Fenerbahce).

Collectively individual

The argument stands that Deila cannot be held responsible for individual error. How can he stop an infamous Ambrose lapse? How can he be blamed for a Gordon howler?

But there are two responses: such calamity is happening with such regularity that somebody has to be accountable, and what is being done to mitigate these occurrences?

The ardent, unyielding belief in an attacking 4-2-3-1 continues to baffle. In their darkest times, O’Neill, Strachan and Lennon adjusted. O’Neill abandoned abandoned his famously successful 3-5-2, Strachan used Caldwell as a holding enforcer in midfield, and Lennon went through all manner of systems to find a cohesive defensive shape.

You can recall Strachan, struggling with defensive errors committed to sorting the problems out. “We were poor at set-pieces and we needed to deal with that. They scored from a throw-in, a free-kick and a corner,” He vowed “Rest assured I know the problems and I will sort them out – don’t worry about that” The team proceeded to shut-out AC Milan in the following match and progress from the group stages the following season.

A similar stubbornness cost Tony Mowbray and John Barnes their jobs – zealously dedicated to their expansive 4-2-2-2 systems – both infamous for poor defensive records.

There is no shame in shutting out games – as those watching 1st vs 2nd in the English Premiership will testify. Arsene Wenger took off perhaps the best number 10 in world football at the moment for a left-back, to hold on against Manchester City and claim a vital 3 points.

Off the moneyboil

Deficiencies in Europe over the past few seasons have financially been mitigated by selling key assets. Ki Sung-Yeung, Fraser Forster, Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and latterly Virgil Van Dijk have hauled in astronomical numbers. Testament to the “buy-cheap, sell-high” maxim that Lennon so effectively managed.

The rule, however, is that a team must take in a replacement before selling. In the past, this has worked reasonably well, scouring the globe for bargains (especially in midfield) with Ki > Wanyama > Biton. Gordon lined up to replace Forster, Griffiths for Hooper etc. But there is a continuous pattern of dwindling scope and ambition – and not in the expenses sense.

signings1

The signings above are under Lennon’s watch. Highlighted are those signed “locally” (i.e. from UK). Players were unearthed from Australia to the Middle-East, and lower tiers of the likes of France, Spain and Belgium.

signings2

Compared to Deila’s signings, one has to wonder if the scouting department has been mothballed? Especially when considered, that the 4 “foreigners” arguably were found as an aside. For example, Wakaso and Scepovic may have been hangovers from the Miku/Nouioui “Spanish striker” assignment. Bailly plays for the same youth national team as Boyata (and Denayer) while Celtic went up against Simunovic in Deila’s time as manager.

The evidence goes against the likes of Peter Houston, who was quoted as scouting 14 countries in 8 months for Deila. Or David Moss, who revealed that Celtic have “6 full-time scouts including the Head of Scouting and myself based in Scotland and 9 part-time scouts strategically based in the UK and Europe.”

10 x 10…

David brings up an excellent point about the differences in Lennon and Deila’s approach for finding the elusive, game-changing number 10. Deila has reluctantly turned to Kris Commons, but has been stock-piling on alternative options. Vying with Commons for the shirt: Stuart Armstrong, Scott Allan, Tom Rogic, Ryan Christie, Stefan Johansen (and to a lesser extent) Anthony Stokes, James Forrest, Gary Mackay-Steven and Calum McGregor.

Where Strachan and Lennon looked for a very specific horse, for a very specific course, Deila has been more accommodating. Many still argue that Armstrong is played out of position on the left, Allan definitely is. Rogic finds himself at times deeper in midfield, while Johansen drops in and out of form.

Traditionally, attacking mavericks in this position are indulged – or the team built around. But none of the above have staked a convincing enough claim. The second central midfield spot alongside Biton remains understaffed, bringing a real imbalance to the team.

Ironically, Celtic – like anyone – will always be in the market for the next Lubo, so the burgeoning list of tens might be expanded by next season yet!

Finally..

Considering domestic form and despite the bitter tabloids, a treble is still on the cards for a side that – at least from the disappointment of Europe – can only improve. The league is a minimum requirement, and the cups a welcome, if, non-essential aside. The big question is whether Deila can improve defensively in Europe. Peter Lawwell – who remains a divisive figure – appears convinced.

The worry is that nothing changes – no additional defensive coaching staff to organise things properly, no tweaks to the team, or worse – Nir Biton is sold without replacement. And ominously there’s been no suggestion that anything will change. European failure next season is inconceivable – it will be terminal for Deila’s run as manager, and most important of all surely terminal for Lawwell’s extraordinary autocratic era.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ronny’s Celtic lose with a whimper

Kris Commons’ reaction to being withdrawn with Celtic trailing 3-1 embodied the crisis facing Ronny Deila. The outburst, caught in full view of BT cameras summed up what every Celtic fan was feeling at the time. Why take off the only goal threat? The goalscorer?

Deila responded after the game that he wanted two strikers – not the greatest excuse given Commons can play wide, but he was probably seen to be closer to an empty tank of gas than Stefan Johansen, who moved out right.

The blustery, futile row overshadows the increasingly obvious wider problem – that this Celtic team is poor. There are a couple of good individuals playing below themselves, and plenty average players that need a good manager to extract the required quality for the European stage.

Deila’s system is on the cusp of being a success – evidenced by promising performances against the likes of Malmo, Ajax, Fenerbache and earlier in the year Internazionale. These teasing performances were inevitably punctuated with catastrophic, fatal defending.

Recent Europa record

Recent Europa record

Lowlights include Jo Inge Berget’s late killer-goal, thanks to a meekly conceded free-kick, flimsily defended. Emilio Izaguirre’s damning red-card that everybody saw coming, conceding initiative to Ajax. THAT weak header back from Efe Ambrose to gift Fernandao, and Craig Gordon’s bizarre performance against Inter in Glasgow.

It emphasises the slim margins at this level. Celtic, under Deila at times have played an impressively concerted game of keep-ball, the opposite of the route-one stuff that drove fans crazy under Martin O’Neill, Gordon Strachan, Tony Mowbray, and at times Neil Lennon. Molde demonstrated how effective the less fashionable defensive style can be.

The aforementioned managers went through spells where clean-sheets were impossible, particularly in Europe. Down-sizing in response to money seeping out of Scotland and towards the elite, has had a slow and irresistible effect, and it has shown in the standard of player arriving at Celtic.

Strachan and Lennon mitigated by changing system. Strachan was less adventurous, switching to 4-1-4-1 and deploying Gary Caldwell in midfield. Lennon went through all manner of systems to arrive at a deep-set 4-4-2 which famously sucker-punched Barcelona this time 3 years ago, not unlike Molde tonight.

Deila has been unable to move away from the closely related 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 which has been deployed since day one. Unlike his predecessors, he has been unable to source the same quality of player, or unable to shape the team to protect defenders no better than Stephen McManus.

Celtic fans have been patient with Deila’s ardent philosophy in the face of continuing set-backs in Europe. There may not be the high-energy, high-pressing “heavy metal” football, that was promised, but there is a free-flowing attacking style in there. The reward is tantalisingly close – were it not for individual blunders and a couple of bad decisions, the picture would be very different. Indeed, with an (unlikely) win over Molde and Ajax and favourable results elsewhere, there’s still a fighting chance of qualification.

However, with the same mistakes being made by the same individuals, patience is at the ultimate nadir. Commons’ cathartic outburst represents the frustration of fans, who need change with or without Deila.

 

Looking for Goldilocks – 2014/15 and 2015/16

Given the failing of the original, for the sake of tradition here’s another bunch of goalscorers (this time covering the world instead of Europe).

Same rules – 24 or under (except one exception who snuck in), under £5m or so, and of course with a good enough goals-per-game to make the arbitrary list.

The first lot (with white background) covers the 2014-15 season, those in grey near the bottom represent a handful from 2015/16.

goldilocks 4

Searching for strikers – revisited

You may remember reading on this blog: looking for goldilocks, concerning Celtic’s travails in finding a striker. This is especially pertinent now the summer 2015 transfer window has closed, leaving Celtic with an underwhelming choice of 3 strikers – Leigh Griffiths, Nadir Ciftci and Anthony Stokes.

The post surmised that Celtic operate in a market we can call a goldilocks zone – “the right quality, the right price, with the right reputation from the right league”. In other words, they need to have a promising goal-scoring record at a decent level, without having attracted the interest of some ~100 clubs in the same market (often with better buying power).

Glancing at the mainstream European market, a couple of other things stick out – Man Utd paying £38m for a striker with 10 goals in 40 or so games, demonstrates how tough the competition is. Similarly Burnley signing Andre Gray for a whopping £9m, a player who managed 18 goals in 47 at Championship level, again underlines how high demand is even for decent strikers.

Latterly Celtic have struggled – Gary Hooper aside, having had to gamble on rejects from England (Stokes, Griffiths), or loans and short-term deals from further afield (Brozek, Miku, Lassad, etc). Each had played at higher levels than the SPFL, but flopped at Celtic.

The conclusion of the goldilocks piece was a rather speculative list of suggestions – players based in Europe, under the age of 24 and valued (according to transfermarkt.de) less than €5m. Almost 2 years on, it is interesting to see how these players have fared.

goldilocks 2

Blue highlight = loan spell

First off, the ten players at the bottom of the original list have been cut. They’ve universally failed to make an impact or improve on their (at the time) good goalscoring record. 3 of those – Romario Kortzorg, Magnus Eriksson and Riku Riski, were valued at around €1m, which hints at the gamble involved in backing any of these players.

Next, we can eliminate some at the opposite end of the scale – Alan Carvalho of RB Salzburg moved to China for an astonishing €10m. Michy Batshayi rather expectedly ended up also out of Celtic’s price range, and highly rated Aaron Johannsen got a big move to the Bundesliga.

Arranging the list by goals scored in 2014-15 (i.e. those who maintained a good scoring record for the best part of 2 seasons), we can see how China have come from nowhere to assume a position of rivalry for basement bargain shoppers.

goldilocks 3

 

It’s not just China muscling in – the powerhouses of Central Europe have ended up cleaning up. And even then anything outside of the top 6 prospects have gone on to poor goalscoring seasons.

In short the original list has ended up being a bit of a disaster – short of pinching in ahead of Marseille, Werder Bremen or (the inexplicable) Guangzhou, with hindsight only two appear worthwhile – Kjartansson and Hamdallah, who admittedly play in what is normally considered backwater territory.

Conclusion

Of course this tongue-in-cheek analysis has inherent flaws – this left out players in lower divisions, players over 24, and forwards who perhaps bring more to the game than score. It is at least a casual demonstration that even in picking 20 or so players in the “goldilocks” zone (bearing in mind Celtic would be gambling on just one or two) there are no sure fire things in football.

The economical argument of not spending enough will not go away – but could Celtic really have pipped Bremen to Johannsson, or say, Bournemouth for Callum Wilson? Some work under the false assumption that buying players is a kind of first-come first-served setup. There will be exceptions, but in reality players and agents have a very clear forward plan, geared towards La Liga, the English Premiership or the Bundesliga as possible. By the time Celtic are interested in a player deemed Champions League worthy, then the player and agent can rest assured a team from one of those 3 leagues (and more) will be on the phone soon enough.

This is the unfathomable truth – that in these days of internet and ubiquitous stats and communication, these gems aren’t hidden to be found and tied down to a 3-year deal in Scotland. They are loud, stubborn (see Scepovic) and they want England, money, and fast.

*edit. Should add a disclaimer, as reader TicV67 points out, “Caveat, some good strikers can look bad, & vice versa, at the wrong club/wrong system/wrong manager..” Which puts more onus on a scout’s qualitative analysis regarding a player’s talent. (This comes with it’s own difficulties, signing and unknown striker with a poor goalscoring record is always unpopular). The classic example is Henrik Larsson’s time with Feyenoord, scoring 12 in 43 and 8 in 41 in his respective final seasons in Holland. But with less than 10 full-time scouts and myriad of barriers mentioned in the main piece, identifying non-scoring quality strikers is nigh on impossible without intimate knowledge – an advantage Wim Jansen (and, say, Arsene Wenger) enjoyed in the 90’s but not so much in the technology age.

Ciftci, Scepovic and why Celtic should cease and desist from their never-ending search for a targetman

In a one-off special, and due to a lack of updates, Celtic fan and excellent football writer Scott Fleming (@sfcalcio) has stepped in to the breach to consider Celtic’s unremitting hunt for the next Chris Sutton.
You can debate things on forums, scroll up and down Twitter, pore over broadsheet newspaper articles and listen to phone-ins, but sometimes it takes the wee old man in the pub to really provide clarity on a particular issue.

I watched this season’s SPFL curtain raiser between Celtic and Ross County at Kelly’s Bar on the south side of Glasgow. 2-0 up and cruising, the champions broke upfield in search of a third. The ball zipped between the members of Celtic’s midfield, a unit in which almost every single individual seems to be playing superbly well right now. Green and white shirts fanned out across the Parkhead pitch in perfect synchronicity, the mouths of the flag day crowd creeping open in anticipation of another celebratory roar. But then the ball landed at the feet of striker Stefan Scepovic.

“Well, that’s that fucked,” deadpanned said wee old man, to laughter and murmurs of agreement. I can’t remember the specifics of how the move petered out, but suffice to say, the old yin wasn’t wrong.

Scepovic arrived at Celtic just under a year ago, and has spent most of that time looking like THE quintessential transfer flop. It didn’t help that he appeared to have snubbed the club in favour of a move to Getafe, only to suddenly change his mind, but before the big Serb had even     had time to pick out a peg in the Celtic Park dressing room he’d been gazumped in the hearts of the fans and the mind of manager Ronny Deila by fellow deadline day capture John Guidetti, who – with his Jack the lad persona, penchant for winding up those esteemed rivals from Govan and handy habit of, erm, actually scoring goals – proved a much easier player to love than the gawky, monosyllabic Scepovic. Even the moment that should have been his big breakthrough felt like a bit of a debacle, the £2.3m man netting his first goal for the Tic in a 2-1 Europa League win over Astra Giurgiu but missing an avalanche of other chances on the night.

By the midway stage of the campaign phoney Guidetti mania had bitten the dust (to paraphrase The Clash), but still Deila showed no inclination to pluck Scepovic from the Parkhead lost and found, instead entrusting the lone striker role in his beloved 4-2-3-1 system to Leigh Griffiths, who responded with a series of important goals and impressive performances.

Six goals in 24 appearances were the unflattering final statistics from Scepovic’s first season in Glasgow, but with a full pre-season behind him and reassuring talks held with Delia, many hoped that the former Sporting Gijon forward might finally come good this term, even with the increased competition provided by new arrival Nadir Ciftci to contend with.

I say ‘many’, what I mean is me and the handful of other oddballs like me who can be relatively unmoved by the deaths of majestic animals on nature documentaries, David Tennant’s report from an African hospital on Red Nose Day and all the other things that make normal people cry, yet find the sight of a professional footballer being a bit rubbish at his chosen profession unbearably sad. Watching Scepovic play for Celtic has at times felt like watching those videos people film of their cats doing goofy things like trying to leap through closed windows. Pitiful, yet strangely endearing.

The Ross County game was a case in point. With Griffiths going off injured early and Ciftci serving a six-game SPFL ban, Scepovic had a priceless opportunity. For 71 minutes plus stoppage time that precious lone striker position was his, with that wonderfully inspired five-man midfield to supply him with chances and 45,000 fans in attendance, brimming with new-season good cheer and ready to welcome the new Scepovic into their collective bosom. Only it wasn’t the new Scepovic, it was the same old one, with his knack for drifting through games anonymously and, when he does get involved in the play, killing hitherto promising moves stone dead.

I did start to wonder, however, as I watched him lumber around disconsolately, whether this really was a situation unique to Scepovic, and not part of a much more long-running problem at Celtic that he just so happens to be the latest victim of. Because he’s far from the only centre-forward we’ve seen looking – if you’ll pardon my French – like a bit of a spare prick at Paradise in recent years. In fact, the ‘sad striker shuffle’ has become something of a Celtic trademark. We’ve seen it modelled by Morten Rasmussen, Miku, Mo Bangura, Amido Balde and Teemu Pukki, to name but a few.

Now, the wisdom, or lack thereof, of the Celtic board’s policy when it comes to spending £1.5m or £2m on strikers from the continent has been debated at length elsewhere and is not something I intend to explore here, but it is interesting to note the physical characteristics these striking flops share. Almost all of them are 6ft or taller.

Celtic have had plenty of popular, successful targetmen on their books over the years. Even in the relatively short span of time I’ve been watching them play there’s been Chris Sutton, who managed 86 goals for the Hoops before going on to become the punditry equivalent of Vlad the Impaler, John Hartson, who bagged a whopping 101, and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink. OK, big JVoH looked like a petrified tree in the middle of the penalty box during his third and final season in the east end, but maintained a respectable strike rate in the first two and played a key role in the come-from-behind title win of 2007-08.

During the Mogga, Lenny and Ronny eras that have followed though? None. And not for the lack of trying. One of Lennon’s most frequent press conference discussion topics was his squad’s lack of a commanding centre forward, an issue he tried and failed to remedy by recruiting Miku, Lassad, Balde, Pawel Brozek and Daryl Murphy. It’s an obsession, and a fruitless quest, that Deila seems to have inherited.

The presence of six-footers Scepovic and Ciftci in the squad hasn’t stopped Celtic being linked this summer with the likes of Michiel Kramer and Milan Djuric, strikers so tall you could reach down from the top row of the Jock Stein stand and slap them on the head if they fluffed a chance. Kramer, who scored 17 goals for ADO Den Haag in the Eredivisie last season, is 6ft 5, whilst Djuric, who netted only two for a woefully out-of-their-depth Cesena in Serie A, is 6ft 6.

But even if one of these targets was to agree to join Celtic and settled in better than the likes of Scepovic – two pretty big ifs – would there really be a place for him in a side as dynamic as Deila’s long term?

For some years now Celtic have been a passing side, not adverse to scoring from set-pieces and swinging the occasional cross into the box, but happier working the ball through midfield. That was the preferred style during Lennon’s tenure and there’s been even more of an emphasis placed on keeping the ball on the deck under Deila. Expecting a big lump of a centre forward to go into a streamlined young side like that and hit the ground running is like expecting a 200lb wrestler to be the star performer in a ballet troupe.

And that’s why signing Ciftci and picking him ahead of Griffiths in the Champions League qualifiers might not be as bad an idea as it seems. There are plenty of sceptics – myself included – who have doubts about Ciftci’s attitude and temperament, not to mention wider concerns about the ability of any striker bought from a fellow SPFL club to deliver at Champions League level (Tony Stokes, looking at you…), but there’s no doubting the Turk’s ability and intelligence, attributes that mark him out as a more well-rounded player than Scepovic, even though they’re exactly the same height. Yes, he’s big and strong, but with his awareness and confident use of the ball, Ciftci is arguably the closest thing to a conventional targetman that Celtic can afford to field without compromising their fluidity.

Celtic being Celtic, there are always going to be what ifs and ‘grass is greener’ scenarios, especially with no genuine competition for the SPFL title to speak of and no Old Firm derbies to distract ourselves with. And who’s to say what might happen before the transfer window closes, especially if Delia’s side secure the financial windfall that comes with negotiating the Champions League play-off round. But the myth of the tall, dark striker that’s going to sweep in and save the day has been a red herring for too long. For the sake of the manager’s sanity, the fans’ viewing pleasure and the self-esteem of poor sods like Scepovic, it’s best for the Hoops to knock their never-ending search for a targetman on the head, and move on.

Gary Mackay-Steven and James Forrest – tales from the wing

both

Celtic’s 2-1 victory over Hearts on May 15th 2010 marked not only the final match of the 2009-10 season, but also Aiden McGeady’s final match for his boyhood club. It wasn’t yet known if the precocious talent – arguably Celtic’s best youth product since Paul McStay – would be staying or going. The caretaker manager at the time, Neil Lennon, had just clocked up 8 straight SPL wins – clawing back a modicum of respect following Tony Mowbray’s damaging reign; yet his future too, was uncertain.

Amidst all the excited tabloid gossip about the summer, a significant change went under the radar – McGeady was replaced on the 92nd minute by an 18 year-old James Forrest. Another home-grown youth graduate, it wasn’t until the following season, 2010-11, that Forrest really staked a claim for being ‘the next’ McGeady.

As one exciting Scottish winger’s career was on the ascendency, another’s, meanwhile, was heading in the opposite direction. Gary Mackay-Steven made headlines when snapped up from Ross County by English giants Liverpool, and almost by association became highly rated. However, thanks to a plague of injuries, by the time James Forrest was lighting up Celtic Park, Mackay-Steven had found himself at Airdrie – a club that barely survived relegation to the Second Division the season prior.

These timings make for a convenient base for comparison, albeit Mackay-Steven, as a January signing, was only available for 50% of Airdrie’s 2010-11 matches giving Forrest a sizeable head-start.

Stat vs Stat and injuries

James Forrest

James Forrest

The first place for logical comparison is via game-time and goals, and the severity of Forrest’s injury problems become clear. Despite the half-season advantage, he’s only managed (according to wikipedia) 6 more matches. After his breakthrough 2011-12 SFWA and PFA Young Player of the Year season, where he featured in a whopping 43 matches, the exertion took its toll and the niggles began.

His ailments have baffled medical staff, having suffered acute groin, hip, thigh and calf injuries, along with a more chronic problem with his sciatic nerve. The latter is probably the last thing a pacey winger wants, and the end-result has seen a gradual decline in acceleration over the past few seasons.

Mackay-Steven

Mackay-Steven

Mackay-Steven has had a cleaner bill of health during this time, with knee-surgery in 2012 taking down the “matches played” figure in that year, but otherwise has had a fine bill of health.

His problem, therefore, had been in sustaining his level of performance for Dundee Utd. Competition on the wings or behind the striker was severe, with the likes of Johnny Russell, Stuart Armstrong, David Goodwillie and Ryan Gauld amongst others, vying for a place.

Finally, the goals scored figures are quite interesting considering – it is fair to assume – that Mackay-Steven has worked with lesser quality team-mates and more difficult teams (i.e. matches against Celtic).

Contrasting Styles

Both are burdened in height (they are both 5ft 9) with Mackay-Steven perhaps a couple of weight-divisions lower, something that influences managers (especially in Scotland) no matter what they claim. Aside from the defensive aspect, there’s the problem of dealing with Scotland’s ugliest, with both players being targeted for some pretty industrial treatment over the years, no doubt contributing to some rest days.

Despite the age, height and positional similarities, the two are at opposite ends of the “winger” style. Mackay-Steven is tricky and flamboyant, with this move at Kilmarnock being the most famous example. He beats defenders with technique and by using his intelligence to compensate for size.

Forrest on the other hand is an old-school “knock it past” winger, dependant hugely on explosive pace. Bringing us on to his recent decline. Of any player in Scotland, Forrest is the one who would suffer the most without pace. His technique and control has never been outstanding, and he doesn’t have either the brains or brawn to operate elsewhere. But – when he’s on his game, he is unplayable, and reminiscent of McGeady in the sense that any defender on earth would be ill at ease.

Both have operated just off the striker, and though seeming to suit the attributes of both, neither have appeared comfortable.

Ronny Deila

Much has been made of Ronny Deila’s new system, preferring inverted wingers who can score and create as opposed to old-fashioned by-line hitters. Then there’s the defensive aspect – the relentless pressing and physical demands that this youthful Celtic team have been asked to meet. Mackay-Steven’s enthusiasm and energy largely accounts for his seamless fit on the right wing.

It’s here that Forrest loses ground. His infamous fitness record doesn’t lend well with such a dynamic system, evidenced by his laboured performance against St Mirren at the weekend. If that electric pace doesn’t return, the future looks grim.

Hence, it appears easy to write Forrest off – just as easy to forget how devastatingly effective he was in 2011/12. Taking a leaf out of Kris Commons’ book, he was best cutting in from the right to become a goal-threat – not inverted as Deila may prefer, but serving the same purpose.

Though the similarities between the two are great, the differences are equally so. They are stylishly very different, while their rise and fall are inversely proportionate. We know what Forrest can do, it’s a question of whether he can do it again. Mackay-Steven has always flirted with greatness, and once hit rock-bottom – whether he can build on his current form and reach his undoubted potential, remains to be seen.

At their age it may be too late to replace McGeady, but it is possible to pick up where he left.

 

Celtic 3-3 Inter Milan – Faith in Deila’s system eventually rewarded

As Christian Wulff neatly observed on twitter:

cwulff

 

Celtic’s issue was casting away the shackles of self-doubt, with the opening fifteen minutes reminiscent of certain 90’s/00’s Celtic-in-Europe sides – overawed and panicky in the face of more illustrious opposition. Xherdan Shaqiri opened the scoring early thanks to the first of three main defensive catastrophes (with Craig Gordon, uncharacteristically, responsible for goals 1 and 3).

The early shock rattled Celtic, and Inter were able to pass the ball around swift and purposefully. Where was the youthful, energetic, Klopp-esque relentless closing down? Where was the patient and confident keep-ball normally initiated by the technically proficient Virgil Van Dijk and Jason Denayer?

There was no coherent shape – the back four initially garnering most of the blame – but Ronny Deila’s system doesn’t categorise the defence so divisively. His concept of “defence” is especially involving of the midfield and forwards with focus on shape, pressing and stamina, hence the immediate success of fresh signings and starters Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong.

Adam Matthews helps turn the tide

It would be wrong to say Celtic survived the early onslaught, with plenty writing off the tie as over at 2-0, and even then Inter were extremely dangerous on the break. But after 15-20 minutes, Celtic came to a sudden realisation – that rather than being overawed by Inter’s World-Cup laden midfield, they had real technical ability of their own.

Celtic 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3

Celtic 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3

Nir Biton is the new Ki Sung-Yeung – his calm and deliberate presence in midfield contrasting nicely with Scott Brown’s blood and thunder (and dare it be said – previously under-appreciated.) Sitting deeper, playing as what Roberto Mancini might call a regista, he was instrumental in taking the ball under difficulty and linking the back four in order to work Inter’s front 3.

This was the area that Celtic were able to take advantage of, with poacher Rodrigo Palacio uncomfortably stationed on the left. Mancini had used a 3-5-2 earlier this season but seems determined to keep the 4-3-3 going, perhaps at the expense of some players – namely Palacio (allowing Mauro Icardi to play central) and the immensely talented Mateo Kovacic, who doesn’t really fit in a 4-3-3 at all.

At 33, Palacio had his work cut out keeping tabs on the sprightly Adam Matthews – arguably only in the side due to Mikael Lustig’s absence. Matthews enjoyed the best game of his season and was constantly finding room down the right flank. With the inverted winger Mackay-Steven cutting inside and Brown barging around that area, Inter were exposed.

The problem was always whether Matthews could deliver the final ball, and thankfully he did after breezing past David Santon to receive Stefan Johansen’s through-ball. Matthew’s held his nerve to find Armstrong free, who scored to give Celtic a lifeline. What emphasised Matthew’s part in this goal, is that he started the move way back in his own third – in true Deila style, while under pressure making sure to play the ball out of defence rather than booting up the field.

Izaguirre wasn’t so succesful on the other side, having been accustomed to bombing up the flank at will against SPFL sides. The presence of Shaqiri kept him pegged back.

System in full swing

For spells, this was one of the most enjoyable Celtic performances in memory. It didn’t feel like Celtic were under the kosh and at the mercy of continental technical superiority. Despite the defensive blunders, Celtic were actually controlling moves. Playing out of defence – even under intense pressure – and having faith in their own technique to work the way out of trouble.

At turnovers the energy and enthusiasm was irrepressible. There was a stage where Mackay-Steven tricked his way up the park and fed on another. Rather than being satisfied and having a rest, he chased down a lost, threw himself at the ‘keeper and almost helped make a third. It was a passion and commitment that one might accuse some outgoing players of late, of having lost.

This system is an intensely demanding physical ask, and into the 2nd half while the tempo dropped, Celtic’s control didn’t. Aggrieved at squandering such a cheap goal just before half-time, the home team had the better chances, with perhaps Leigh Griffiths missing the best. The flow was best demonstrated by Mancini switching to a back 5, to protect his narrow advantage.

Could’ve and Should’ve

It took until late for substitute John Guidetti to claim the equaliser, and fully deserved for a Celtic team who will wonder what might’ve been. Were it not for the early nerves and unlucky goalkeeping, Celtic might’ve kept a clean sheet. They also created some golden chances, so could’ve, should’ve finished with more than 3.

It all hails back to the opening, disastrous, 15 minutes, where Celtic, for whatever reason just weren’t playing the Deila way. Age and experience could be a factor – the outfield players having an extraordinary average age of 21 (edit – actual av. age of outfield players is 24, apologies). Perhaps Delia himself could be singled out for blame as the question of motivation and organisation stops with him.

Instead what we were left with is a tantalising taste of what might be to come. This roadmap of gambling on young players, a young, adventurous manager orchestrating what Jurgen Klopp calls “fighting football”. With Celtic’s budget, the risk is always falling down the “opening fifteen minute” route, of unorganised naivety. Less talented, more clinical teams will take advantage. But the optimistic side is the explosive attacking and defending seen from about 20 minutes on. Though this was a shadow Inter side, there were still world-cup stars like Medel and Guarin, and two of the most highly rated young attackers in Icardi and Shaqiri. If this match has taught us anything, it’s that this young Celtic side don’t know their own strength, and in Milan anything will be possible with a bit of faith.