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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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…
@tic_tac_tic remember you're blog a while ago about Lennon's team needing a No:10! Now we have a forward line full of them.
— david allan (@david_allan67) December 23, 2015
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!
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.