For the first time in his tenure as Celtic manager, serious questions are being asked about Brendan Rodgers’ ability to get the best out his players.
Amid grumbles from Rodgers about the lack of financial backing, he has been given in the transfer window, there was an exit from the Champions League following a league defeat to Hearts, while defender Dedryck Boyata agitated for a move by seemingly going on strike.
But to give perspective on the current situation, let’s get something out of the way first. Rodgers’ place in Celtic’s history is assured.
In 2016, he arrived following a dismal season under Ronny Deila, which had included defeats home and away to Molde in the Europa League and a Scottish Cup semifinal loss on penalties to second-tier Rangers.
Long-serving skipper Scott Brown looked to be coming to the end of the road in central midfield at the age of 30, while talented attacking players like James Forrest, Tom Rogic and Stuart Armstrong were not making the necessary impact.
Instead of brandishing the broom, Rodgers worked with the players he had and, along with the important additions of striker Moussa Dembele and winger Scott Sinclair, Celtic romped to an unbeaten domestic treble.
Brown was born-again and had an outstanding season, while Rogic scored some of the most important goals, including the winner in the treble-clinching Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen. Armstrong and Forrest were also much improved as memories of the 2015-16 season faded.
Just as importantly, Celtic had seen off the ‘challenge’ of Rangers with ease. Following liquidation, the Ibrox club had reformed and re-entered Scottish football in the fourth tier in 2012 and, in their new guise, finally reached the Premiership in 2016.
There was a lot of media-generated hype about Rangers being serious contenders but Rodgers men swatted them aside 5-1 twice, as they cantered to the title, a whopping 30 points ahead of second-placed Aberdeen.
They also qualified for the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in three years, where they could only manage three points in a tough group. They did, however, hold Manchester City to two draws, with Rodgers’ side’s pressing key to knocking City out of their stride at Celtic Park after they had started the Premier League season with 10 straight wins.
It seemed the stage was set for another fine season with Rodgers at the helm, his stock higher than any Celtic manager since Martin O’Neill.
Celtic again qualified for the Champions League but defensive naivety saw them take two batterings from Paris St Germain and one from Bayern Munich as they ended the campaign on three points again. This time there were five defeats.
League form also suffered a downturn as opponents sat deep and frustrated. Dembele and fellow striker Leigh Griffiths were often injured, while on-loan Manchester City winger Patrick Roberts suffered a similar fate. Stars of the previous season like Sinclair and Armstrong were not hitting the same levels and there was lack of consistency in defence.
2017-18 saw Celtic draw seven home league games, four of which were 0-0 draws. This team were far from the dominant force of the previous year and only crushing victories over Rangers in the Scottish Cup (4-0) and league (5-0) kept the fans relatively happy as they anticipated the arrival of reinforcements in the summer.
Celtic finished the season with 24 points fewer than in 2016-17, a significant drop-off in performance and motivation for a team that were always going to win the title. A first ever second successive treble was more than a consolation but the poorer displays from many players were a concern.
But the 2018 Champions League qualifiers began with Celtic weakened by the departures of Armstrong and Roberts and without having added any new faces. Defenders Mikael Lustig and Boyata were still recovering from exertions at the World Cup.
With Dembele once again injured, it was left to Odsonne Édouard – signed on a permanent deal after a season on loan – to help Celtic reach the third qualifying round with an inspired display in the 3-1 home victory over Rosenborg. Despite coming away with a 0-0 draw in the second leg, a limp display again demonstrated that Rodgers tactical and motivational skills had to be questioned.
Next up, AEK Athens came to Celtic Park and after Callum McGregor’s opener had been cancelled out by the obligatory soft goal, the Greeks saw out the final half-hour with 10 men. Celtic never looked like overcoming the odds in Greece and, once again, weak defending was their downfall as AEK took a 2-0 lead. Sinclair struck late to give the Bhoys a chance but it was too late.
Boyata was on the sidelines, having allegedly refused to play.
Rodgers has gone public over his frustration to strengthen the squad over the summer and Celtic Park is not a happy place. Rodgers had also unwisely selected an under-strength side at the weekend as they fell 1-0 at Hearts on the second day of the league season.
Some fans refuse to entertain criticism of Rodgers and blame the board. Others see faults on both sides but most want Rodgers to stay at the club. Whatever way you look at it, an extended honeymoon period is certainly over for Rodgers.
Objectives are clear
Regardless of who comes and goes in the next couple of weeks, the aims for the rest of the season are clear. At the minimum, he must win Celtic’s eighth Scottish Premiership in a row, while progressing from the group stage of the Europa League.
He must also ensure that performances improve, with many fans disillusioned by the insipid displays that saw Celtic draw league 10 games in 2017-18.
Anything less and it becomes clear that Rodgers is taking Celtic backwards. There remains the possibility that Northern Irishman will decide to move on, citing the lack of backing from the board.
That is how things ended for Neil Lennon in 2014 as cost cutting meant that he was unlikely to replicate the success he had in defeating Barcelona and reaching the last 16 of the Champions League in 2012-13.
Hoops fans will hope that things end better at Celtic than they did for Rodgers at Liverpool. Despite taking the Anfield club as close as they had been to the title in 24 years, a significant decline after the departure of striker Luiz Suarez meant that Rodgers was sacked just over a year later.
The 45-year-old must now prove that the current period of turmoil on and off the park is a blip and not a cause for alarm.
The main cause for concern among the fans is Rodgers’ apparent inability to find an effective central defensive partnership.
Youngsters Kristoffer Ajer and Jack Hendry are both talented but prone to lapses in concentration, while Jozo Simunovic puts in too many rash challenges to be relied upon. German Marvin Compper was bafflingly signed in January despite a terrible injury record which has continued to this day. All the while, the more effective Erik Sviatchenko was allowed to leave the club.
Boyata’s ego has now grown so much off the back of a decent World Cup that he is holding the club to ransom but his performances for Celtic have generally been mixed. Without a decent defence, Celtic will be stuck at the same level or go backwards. Rodgers certainly knows about going backwards and suspect defending.
Gambling on reputation
In 2013-14, Liverpool came second on 84 points, scoring 101 times, but they also conceded 50 goals – three fewer than Hull City in 16th spot. The following season, the Reds finished 6th on 62 points, scoring just 52 goals and conceding 48 – three fewer than relegated Hull City.
While the more competitive nature of the English Premier League makes a comparison difficult, Rodgers clearly has previous for a dramatic improvement in performance followed by a dramatic decline. It was just May 2017 when Rogic’s last-gasp winner against Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup final prompted wild celebrations and a feeling of unbridled optimism.
Celtic have failed to build on that position of strength and despite sound financial health, those governing the club are reluctant to gamble.
Rodgers knows that by staying, he is gambling on keeping his reputation. Celtic fans must hope he is up for the fight in order to ensure that the club maintains the gap between them and the rest of Scotland at the very least.
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