A second place finish for Celtic in Neil Lennon’s first season in charge ends with the manager secure in his position but plenty of work to do over the summer for next season’s title challenge.
<a rel=“attachment wp-att-2184” href="http://www.thefreekick.com/blog/?attachment_id=2184]Second place is usually deemed unacceptable in Glasgow football and recent Celtic managers Gordon Strachan and Tony Mowbray may look enviously at the support Neil Lennon has enjoyed despite the runners-up position. Martin O'Neill is the last manager who could rely on almost universal backing without delivering a league title, but he had begun with back-to-back championships. Lennon clearly benefits from an affinity with the fans, a respect that has extended from his playing days, but he has earned most credit from his time in charge since taking over from Mowbray. He was broadly considered an unspectacular appointment but a positive style of football and some inspired signings have elevated the Lurgan man to a manager revered by Celtic supporters.
Celtic finished the season with 92 points, a total that has been bettered by Rangers only three times in the 13 seasons since the SPL was formed in 1998. It’s a fact that will be of little comfort to Celtic, given one of those occurrences was this season, but in a world where instant gratification is often demanded, it’s worth noting the marked improvement in Celtic’s performances this season. Gordon Strachan, despite being much-maligned as Celtic boss is generally regarded to have been a success at Celtic Park but he never once matched the points total Lennon has accumulated this season, despite three league titles. This is not to overstate the achievement in coming second, merely to suggest that despite emotions that suggest otherwise, there is a difference between mounting a serious challenge and coming second by a distance.
Without league titles none of this will mean anything to Neil Lennon or the club’s supporters but it is unfair to evaluate his performance without taking stock of where the club are coming from. Just as Gordon Strachan inherited a mess when he took over from O’Neill, Lennon was left with the shell of a squad after Mowbray and his scattergun transfer policy were relieved of their duties. Celtic began the domestic season with a 1-0 victory away at Inverness. The team that day (in a brand new 4-2-3-1 World Cup 2010 formation) was: Zaluska- Cha, Loovens, Hooiveld, Mulgrew- Brown, Ledley- Maloney, Fortuné, McCourt- Samaras. Despite winning all domestic games up until the first derby against Rangers in October it was evident from early on that last year’s squad required an overhaul and this year’s version would require time to settle. The positive start glossed over much of the work that needed to be done and arguably the period before Christmas, when Celtic drew three home games in a row, illustrated the gap between a settled Rangers team and a work-in-progress Celtic side.
And yet in spite of the excuses the SPL was far from out of Celtic’s reach. At various stages of 2011 Rangers were the team struggling for points and hoping for mistakes from their cross-city rivals. Celtic obliged at two games in particular - away at Inverness and at Motherwell when poor defensive resulted in defeats. While there was a costly penalty miss at Ibrox, and that run of poor results in Kayal’s absence pre-Christmas, the telling difference between the two teams was probably that old frustrating cliché about winning when not playing well.
<a rel=“attachment wp-att-2185” href="http://www.thefreekick.com/blog/?attachment_id=2185] It was interesting to hear Neil Lennon praise his team’s consistency before the final match against Motherwell because that was a hallmark of the improvement post-Mowbray. The difficulty was that they were miserable in three games in particular (Inverness, Motherwell and Hearts away) and were comprehensively beaten each time. That’s not a huge number of sub-par performances to endure over a 38 game season but the failure to even pick up a point in any of those fixtures was vital. Defensive uncertainty was at the root of those three defeats and the team came apart at the seams under pressure. It’s not an unusual reaction for a newly assembled side to crumble when first tested, but it’s important to break that trend early. To address another stock footballing phrase, it’s not so much about a winning habit as winning in adversity. It’s easy to clock up successive victories when playing well, taking points from other games is equally important.
Some of the criticism of Lennon’s management so far is that he has failed in the big games he has taken charge of. It’s probably an unfair criticism, given his record in matches against Rangers and it really does boil down to a couple of individual losses. The Inverness game is cited as an example of a crucial game lost but in reality it was no important than any of a dozen others played over the last couple of months. The result lends it a greater significance in recounting where it went wrong for Celtic but it wasn’t an epic tactical battle with Terry Butcher, nor a hostile high-pressure atmosphere that caught Celtic out. They were simply shambolic that evening and deserved nothing.
The performances against Utrecht and Braga in European competition were disappointing but again they came very early on in Lennon’s reign. The narrow victories over SPL opposition in the late summer and autumn illustrated the superior resources and personnel of Celtic over opponents, but once the playing field was level the lack of cohesion in the new team was soon exposed.
Lennon can’t be judged on the early exit from Europe last season but he may consider its importance in the next campaign. The modern trend in the EPL seems to be that European football can be a distraction from the efforts of qualifying for European football and it’s an attitude that has crept into the Scottish media, if not the teams themselves. Yet the more this season progressed the more Rangers looked like a settled outfit, used to grinding out results at home and across Europe and capable of adapting their style (if not their personnel) accordingly. Celtic lacked the same experience, certainly in terms of playing together, and found it more difficult to settle defensively when under the kosh or to control the pace of games that were slipping away from them. One period in November illustrated these problems better than any other - a 9-0 trouncing of Aberdeen was followed up with a two goal defeat at Hearts and four more points dropped by the end of the month. European football should be seen as a chance to improve the team, not a hindrance to their domestic hopes.
Looking forward to the summer and it’s clear that although there was a serious overhaul last summer, significant replenishment of the squad is required again this year. A goalkeeper, another centre back, and a striker will be top of the shopping list but much depends on the identity of those who leave. The transfer market has been kind to Lennon thus far: Izaguirre, Kayal, Commons,Hooper and Ledley being the obvious stand-outs. The vastly improved contributions of Wilson and Brown and the presence of reliable alternatives in a few key positions ensures that Lennon can identify the specific roles in the team that require addressing. The integration of new signings should therefore be less painful than last summer.
Reviewing Celtic’s 2010/11 season today, tomorrow or in years to come is not going to change any overall conclusions. There is no escaping the fact that the league could have been won, probably should have been won, and was ultimately gifted to Rangers. A Scottish Cup victory would be welcome but will hardly persuade anyone that this was a positive outcome. The perspective of future years may just tell us however that this was the year the groundwork was laid for a better team to win trophies. As Lennon himself said, “This is not the end, just the beginning.”
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