Celtic’s Start to the Season: A Diagnosis
Celtic has endured a difficult start to this season. Under new manager Ange Postecoglou, they find themselves sixth in the Scottish Premiership table after seven matches and were dumped out of the Champions League qualifiers to Midtjylland.
The team has struggled for rhythm, and is yet to discover a formula that works. This season has rightly been viewed as a transition period, with the departure of several key players and new coaching and backroom staff. However, the performances up until now have not been good enough for a club expected to be competing at the top. So what is going wrong?
To a great extent, the current problems at Celtic can be traced back to last season. Having secured nine titles in a row with the 2019–20 campaign cut short due to the pandemic, they went into the season as favourites for a tenth successive crown. Yet, they were dumped out of the Champions League to Hungarian minnows Ferencvaros and from early on they looked disjointed.
They also had COVID breaches, and this gave rival Rangers the opportunity to build a gap from the start, which they took ruthlessly. Overall, they fell behind in the title race a lot sooner than anyone would have expected. By the New Year, following defeat at Ibrox, it was all but over. Neil Lennon eventually resigned as manager, and his assistant John Kennedy was put in temporary charge. This did not lead to an improvement in results, however. In the end they finished 25 points behind Rangers, and the title was won at its earliest date for over one hundred years.
They also lost three out of four Old Firm games, and were dumped out of the Scottish League Cup to Ross County. And in Europe, having scraped Europa League qualification against Sarajevo, they finished bottom of their group, getting humbled by Sparta Prague home and away in the process.
New manager Ange Postecoglou has come into this side following an extremely disappointing season, and has also had to contend with a squad overhaul. When this happens, it inevitably means that new players can take time to get to know each other. And in the summer window, Celtic had to bring in plenty to offset all the outgoings, including Abada, Kyogo, Starfelt, Hart, McCarthy, Juranovic, Scales, Giakoumakis, Jota and Carter-Vickers. This is essentially a completely new team, as opposed to league leaders Rangers who have added but kept the same core group of players.
They also lost some key players, including long-standing captain Scott Brown after fourteen years at the club. Combined with the losses of Ajer, Ntcham, Christie and Edouard, it is easy to see why Celtic has been struggling. Edouard in particular was a talisman, leading from the front for the past two seasons. And up until now, his replacement Giakoumakis has been injured, and Albian Ajeti, who joined last year, is nowhere near his best.
You only improve if you buy better players, or adequately replace them, and Celtic has failed to do this in recent years. Looking at the “Invincibles” squad from five years ago under Brendan Rodgers, only Rogic, McGregor and Forrest are the starters left over. And, in this period, they have at times found some suitable replacements, but sometimes they were loans, meaning that these positions are not solved.
As a result, in the current squad there are too many weaknesses overall. Defensively, left back especially is still a problem having lost Kieran Tierney; Starfelt, the replacement for Ajer, has had a few issues already whilst partnering the inexperienced Stephen Welsh, and Anthony Ralston has been thrust into the limelight at right back having not played in previous seasons.
In midfield, David Turnbull looks to be a real talent, but Postecoglou has to get the right setup, with him alongside McCarthy and Rogic not working in the recent defeat to Livingston. And in attack, Kyogo hit the ground running before an injury, leaving the inconsistent Ajeti with plenty of responsibility, and Giakoumakis is also yet to be given his opportunity.
Celtic has not played in the Champions League now for four seasons, and the financial loss from that, coupled with some poor signings and the Rangers resurgence, has led to where they are now.
Some fans have written this season off already, looking at it as a transitional one and accepting that it will be difficult to gain the title back from their rivals. However, they cannot afford to be mid-table come fifteen games, and bottom of their Europa League group again. They have to at least show some progress, whether that be competing domestically or going through to the knockout stages in Europe. If not, Postecoglou will keep coming under pressure as the expectations are set high for any Celtic manager, no matter what squad they have to work with.
Overall, the poor start to this season has been down to a number of things. After the prospect of winning ten titles in a row was gone, it was likely that key players would depart and the club lost some big names, including the captain. In combination with a new manager, tactics and board, this is going to take some time to get used to. It is still early days, and some new signings are yet to play, but regardless, the performances need to be better. Postecoglou will hope that his team can get some momentum going before it is too late. They are already six points behind Rangers, and cannot afford to keep dropping points consistently, or else the title might be gone by Christmas. It already looks like it will be a tough season, but the team will have to show some progress.