Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Celtic in need of continuity more than signings

I normally try to avoid using clichés. Football writing in particular can be dull and predictable enough without them. However, during the past fortnight I have been constantly reminded of just how long two weeks can be in football.

In that time I’ve seen Celtic play four times, taking 10 points in the process. Not a bad return from such a hectic period - especially when you consider that that three of those points were golden ones won at Ibrox.

Yet, it all started so differently. Two weeks ago tonight I braved the cold to see the hoops first Christmas offering against Kilmarnock. I wasn’t the only one to suffer the -10°C temperatures but the crowd was sparse, understandable following two consecutive home draws and the game being re-scheduled for only four days before Christmas. However, those that did go I found tetchy and quick to get on the backs of both the players and manager.

With the benefit of hindsight, following Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Rangers, it seems preposterous but many were even calling for Lennon’s head. Emotional and frustrated cries they undoubtedly were but they were also a further example of the quick-fix culture that has seeped back into the Celtic following over the past two seasons.

Indeed even on that freezing Tuesday night Celtic were excellent for the first 20 minutes. Yet, when the early goal didn’t arrive and the shining light of that opening burst – Gary Hooper – went off injured, the overall performance level dipped dramatically.

The problem the hosts faced that night, especially once Kilmarnock took the lead in the second-half, and for 90 plus minutes at home to St. Johnstone five days later was two-fold.

On the one hand the SPL leaders lacked a creative spark. It is in this area that Shaun Maloney’s absence has been felt. I have never been Maloney’s biggest fan but this season, his finishing apart, he has been exceptional, providing key pieces of ingenuity in games against Hearts, Motherwell, Kilmarnock and Hamilton. It is no coincidence that in the two home games where he has been forced off early due to injury (the 3-1 defeat to Rangers and 2-2 draw with Inverness Caley Thistle), the result has not been positive.

Another example of Maloney’s fine form this season was the opening 45 minutes of the home game against Dundee Utd. A point often missed in a game that ultimately got away from Celtic in the second-half, finishing 1-1, is how well the home side played in the first 45 minutes. Almost all the good things that Celtic did in that first period came from the combination play between Maloney and Emilio Izaguirre down the left-side.

Coming back to the lack of creativity against Kilmarnock and St. Johnstone, the problem was that Celtic’s two most creative players on those occasions – Ki-Sung-Yeung and Paddy McCourt – were both playing too deep.

Ki’s positioning is a persistent bugbear of mine. For those who have seen him play higher up the pitch on international duty and on occasions at Celtic Park it is obvious he has the ability to break teams down. However, by constantly demanding the ball from his centre-backs it means the Korean’s exceptional passing ability is often wasted as it is all in front of teams defending very deep.

As for McCourt, in those two games he was deployed on the left-side but often came deep to demand the ball from Izaguirre rather than using the left-back’s runs to create space for himself. McCourt will score more goals than Maloney, spectacular ones at that, but at times, despite possessing a good passing ability and vision, he looks to take players on when a quick pass would be more effective.

Yet, the Derry Pele is such an enigma that by using the exact same move that I had criticised him for trying consistently against St. Johnstone, he scored against Motherwell three days later.

The other recurring problem of those recent shaky performances at Celtic Park has been the finishing. Once Hooper was injured against Kilmarnock it was difficult to see who would grab the vital goals. Those vital goals came from unlikely sources to rescue a point against Killie and three against St. Johnstone. Some would argue the goals on Sunday came from an even more unlikely source.

The issue of whether Samaras’ two-goal salvo on Sunday is deserving of a new contract is premature. I would want to see more than 90 minutes of redemption, as good as they were, before dishing out new deals. However, the issue of Samaras’ future does lead me, albeit belatedly, to my main point – the need for continuity in this Celtic team.

If you discount Rogne’s 20 minute cameo last March, only Samaras and Mark Wilson of Celtic’s starting eleven on Sunday had started at Ibrox for Celtic before. I was reminded of the upheaval in personal that has swung through the revolving doors at Parkhead over the past twelve months over Christmas when I found a Christmas card from last year. The message inside wished me ‘a Merry Christmas from everyone at Celtic Park’, of the 20 names listed only four remained.

The fact of the matter is that Rangers have won the past two championships, and performed admirably in Europe this season, not because they are particularly good – we saw how bad they were on Sunday – but because they have been forced by financial pressures to have a continuity of selection that breeds consistent performances.

Fortunately for Celtic they don’t have those financial pressures but that doesn’t mean they should splurge this January like they did last.

Hopefully Sunday’s rousing performance will mean there will be no panic buying. If anything Sunday’s win showcased how good a squad Celtic currently have. Without top-scorer Hooper, arguably man-of-the-season so far, Ki, and captain (although I doubt this was much of a hindrance) Scott Brown, plus Maloney, Kapo, Murphy and Cha, they won comfortably.

As for Lennon, the whole rational of appointing a rookie manager is to allow him time to build a team and a footballing philosophy. For all that I disagree with some of his decisions, in particular the continued absence of Stokes and Juarez for personal differences rather than football reasons, the biggest problem for this Celtic side so far this season, and last, has been a mental fragility.

Truth be told I can’t think of a better man to solve that issue. Sunday was a massive step forward for this side but please, no matter how the league pans out in the coming months, give them time.

As many Celtic fans will have read on the bottom of their empty pint glasses on Sunday night – good things come to those who wait.

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