Rome wasn't built in a day
Watching Celtic lose 4-3 to Real Betis in the Benito Villamarín Stadium, Seville on Thursday reminded me that much as the club has made progress this season there is a way to go before the team is where the fans or indeed Ange Postecoglou want it to be. That fragility in the back line remains an Achilles’ heel and prompted my brother to say that Celtic today reminds him of the Celtic of the Tommy Burns era. Burns’ Celtic side, as you no doubt remember, was capable of some blistering attacking football but when faced with higher quality and more street wise opposition, was often undone in crunch matches. Tommy would play the game in the best traditions of Celtic and signed some outstanding attacking talent but defence never seemed to be a priority area for him and in the end it cost him his job.
Postecoglou’s Celtic have excited the fans with some fine attacking play and even in tough away matches like those at Betis, Rangers and AZ Alkmaar the team fashioned chances and matched or bettered the opposition in ball possession and attempts on goal. However, it is telling that those teams all did their homework and hurt Celtic by exposing their continuing defensive frailties. Real Betis had far too much space in wide areas and their creative players fashioned chance after chance. AZ Alkmaar targeted our full backs with long balls over the top and gave Celtic’s defence a torrid time. Rangers, in a tight encounter, took their chance from a corner kick when the Celtic defence lost 6 feet 2 Felip Helander in the box. Celtic lost each of the above matches.
Postecoglou is a clever man and a good coach and he’ll see the issues with the defensive side of Celtic’s game. By committing his side to a high pressing, attacking style of play he will entertain and win most of the matches he plays in Scotland. The best teams in Europe adopt this approach but they are able to quickly fold back into a solid defensive block when possession is lost. Too often Celtic have been caught out by counter attacks after losing the ball. A good example came against Betis when the Hoops were pressing with 6 or 7 players in attacking positions. Tom Rogic ran into traffic in the D and lost the ball. Within 5 seconds Betis had raced up the field and created a good chance.
Of course, Celtic won’t face teams as capable as Betis every week but when facing Celtic on their home turf, teams are more willing to attack and as we discovered at Tynecastle, Midtjlland and Ibrox, they will force errors from Celtic’s defence. The Hoops only away win in a competitive match so far this season came in the Champions League qualifier against Jablonec. They dominated possession (66%) and yet allowed very moderate opposition to have 15 attempts on goal. Celtic’s own match report on their website stated…
‘Two up with just 16 minutes on the clock, Celtic went in search of a third but left themselves exposed at the back. The home side took full advantage and caught the Hoops’ backline out with a long high ball over the top which Pilar coolly converted.’
Celtic’s commitment to attacking play is laudable but it has to be accompanied by a more street wise and adaptable approach to defending. As the team gels, those costly personal errors will hopefully lessen and the side will defend more as a unit. When the game lengthened in the second half against Betis and space was more available, it was noticeable how much space there was in front of the Celtic back four. It takes a very high level of fitness to attack with the vigour Celtic do and then transition into defence when possession is lost.
Some have criticised Ange Postecoglou’s lack of a ‘plan B’ when facing higher class opposition. He would doubtless say in his laid-back Australian way that, ‘Plan B is to do Plan A better.’ We all recall Brendan Rodgers holding similar beliefs and sticking to his attacking principles when playing away at PSG and Barcelona. Celtic lost 7-1 and 7-0 in those games and many fans suggested that you can’t go toe to toe with the best in the world and expect to win. A more pragmatic approach is required. Ange’s attacking principles mean that he won’t alter course; he wants Celtic to be a team which is relentless in its hounding of opponents, committed to attacking football and playing a high paced modern game. He needs time to achieve that and there is a residue of good will among the supporters who can see progress.
Celtic will soon face away trips to Aberdeen and Hibs and those sides will provide a test for the Hoops. It is imperative that Celtic defend as a unit, transition into attack with the pace and movement we have seen so far this season and cut out those basic errors which will have cost us dearly this season. If the team stays in contention in the SPFL as we enter the new year, we will face the second half of the season with a side more used to playing together and more adept at the defensive side of the game.
I’m excited by the start Postecoglou has made at Celtic and the improvements we have seen in the few months he has been here. He deserves time, patience and two or three transfer windows to transform Celtic into the side we all want them to be. Rome wasn’t built in day and good football teams are nurtured and built over several seasons and not a few months. Give Ange the tools he needs and I remain convinced he’ll do the job well.