When Scottish football pressed pause back in March, Celtic were in a good place. To be frank, they’d been in a good place for a long time; an unprecedented reign of domestic dominance had showed no signs of slowing up.
The loss of Brendan Rodgers to Leicester City in 2019 was a blow to players and fans alike. However, the reappointment of former boss Neil Lennon as head coach started as well as it could have. The Northern Irishman duly wrapped up the third consecutive treble Rodgers had left uncompleted, and just nine months ago was two games away from a fourth in a row. Now, it’s only one.
It certainly doesn’t feel like it, though. Fans and pundits alike are crying for Lennon’s head, and it’s not hard to see why. As though being eliminated from the Europa League group stages and suffering a first domestic cup defeat in four years within a matter of days hasn’t been bad enough, Celtic also find themselves eleven points behind city rivals Rangers – albeit with two games in hand.
So just what has gone wrong at Celtic? Has Lennon’s influence in the dressing room diminished? Are the players lacking confidence? Or are there deeper problems rooted in the foundations of the club?
The truth is that there’s no easy answer. It doesn’t matter if 300 or 3000 fans gather outside Celtic Park to protest against Lennon’s management; he is far from the only problem. But there’s no denying he is a contributing factor.
If truth be told, the 49-year-old has never been the most tactically astute coach. His strengths lie in other departments, with motivational skills and youth development among his key attributes. His most famous result as a manager, a 2-1 win over Barcelona during his first spell in charge of the Hoops, perhaps exemplifies this. There were no revolutionary tactics, no amazingly astute game plan. His team were motivated, worked hard and rode their luck on their way to a famous victory. Their winning goal was scored by a young player blooded into the first team under Lennon.
That’s why it’s no surprise that in a season where he has chopped and changed formations on a regular basis, his side have struggled. He has played three at the back in games against sides who only play one striker and who drop their wingers deep to defend. An extra defender in this situation is often futile and only serves to take up a spot which could otherwise be occupied by another midfielder or forward.
Lennon’s motivational power also appears to have dwindled. There have been plenty of games already this season where Celtic have needed an extra push, either to hold on to a lead (think back to the Europa League game against Lille, when they were 2-0 up) or to fight back from behind (the Old Firm loss springs to mind). That extra push never seems to have come.
Blame for this lack of motivation can’t be forced entirely upon Lennon, however. A manager is paid to motivate his players, but if they don’t buy into this inspiration then results will suffer. Celtic’s players haven’t covered themselves in glory this season.
Defensive errors have been littered throughout Celtic’s poor performances. A clumsy Julien foul led to Ross County’s opener on Sunday, and defeat at Sparta Prague was brought on by more mistakes. And that’s just the last two games. Is this down to a lack of focus?
Celtic haven’t been firing on all cylinders when it comes to their front players, either. Odsonne Edouard has looked miles off the pace for much of the season as he is continually linked with a move away. Albian Ajeti had a promising start but has failed to set the heather alight. Leigh Griffiths hasn’t been fully trusted due to a lack of fitness, and James Forrest’s injury in September brought a further setback.
It’s not clear why these players have struggled so profusely. Many of the squad were involved throughout the Rodgers era and Lennon’s record-breaking season last year. At the same time, poor recruitment has undoubtedly played a role.
Forget the overall squad. Celtic’s starting eleven on its own is certainly weaker than it has been for a number of years now. Kieran Tierney was difficult to find an adequate replacement for; Greg Taylor has been solid, and Diego Laxalt looks a positive signing. However, the left back position hasn’t been the same since Tierney switched the green of Celtic for the red of Arsenal.
Vasilios Barkas has looked average at best in goals, and Scott Bain has been similar. Shane Duffy looked to be a bargain, but he’s proven that idea wrong. David Turnbull is a golden prospect, but hasn’t been afforded an extended run in the team as pressure on Lennon has mounted. I already touched on Ajeti’s shortcomings.
So, in short, a combination of low-quality signings and a drop in player performance levels has contributed to Celtic’s poor run of form. Don’t forget that there were warning signs at Parkhead even at the start of the season, back when results were papering over the cracks. Those cracks are no longer there; holes have been eroded in the squad now.
It’s important to consider another possible reason behind Celtic’s recent demise; a lack of fans in the ground. Now, I know what you’re thinking – all teams have been missing fans. A lack of a home crowd hasn’t stopped Rangers racking up 41 points from a possible 45, for example.
That doesn’t mean some teams aren’t affected worse than others. Celtic’s fans are often cited as being among the best in Europe, after all, and it would be hard not to feel the impact of their absence. It’s no real excuse, of course, as all sides have been affected the same. It’s just a possible reason behind the players’ and manager’s loss of motivation.
It’s clear that there are problems at Celtic. That doesn’t excuse their fans for rioting over a first cup defeat in 36 games; you don’t see Hamilton fans throwing metal objects despite being rooted to the foot of the league table, after all. Celtic have a rescheduled Scottish Cup Final to look forward to, and are by no means out of the title race. Yet.
But something has to change. The club owners’ apparent unwavering faith in Lennon could mean things get worse before they get better, because at the moment there are no clear signs of a plan to turn things around. A different style of football from a different manager may well be the stroke of inspiration needed to raise the players’ games, but whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen.
Back in March, it would have been difficult to imagine Celtic in this position. Unfortunately for them, this position is now their reality and they need to find a solution fast if they want to rekindle any hope of achieving their ‘ten in a row’.