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Ten In A Row is in jeopardy - must Celtic switch manager to save it?



The last time Celtic lost three consecutive home matches, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, Kylie Minogue was at number one with 'Tears On My Pillow' (no, I've never heard of it either) and Rangers were on their way to Two In A Row.

Admittedly in the subsequent thirty years there won't have been many times when Celtic played back-to-back-to-back games at Celtic Park against teams of the quality of Rangers, Milan and, um, Sparta Prague, but still.

How has it come to this?

Yes, Rangers have improved. We're yet to find out whether yet another post-New Year slump will derail their title push, but it would obviously be foolish for Celtic fans to pin their hopes on that. Steven Gerrard's side are playing with confidence and no little skill. It's worth remembering at this point that, for all the spending down Govan way, Rangers' budget is still way behind Celtic's. For them to be so superior at this point is quite startling...and the way they are going about it is also exposing Celtic's problems for all to see.

The bottom line is that Rangers have a plan, and Gerrard's squad has been built with it in mind. In contrast, if Celtic's grand strategy for 2020-21 was all about the switch to three-at-the-back, it made no sense to this blogger. Playing three central defenders in the Premiership against teams who sit back and soaked up pressure just unnecessarily robs the team of an attacking or creative player...even more so given Lennon's insistence on deploying Scott Brown at the base of midfield as well.  In Mohamed Elyounoussi, James Forrest and Mikey Johnston they have three wide players who don't obviously fit into that system, though the injuries to the latter two have made this less of an issue than it might have been. Ditto the more natural number tens like Ryan Christie and Tom Rogic.

The Shane Duffy factor has been thoroughly dissected elsewhere, but the bottom line is that this is not a player that fits what Celtic need in central defence - either in a back three or a back four - in the slightest. Duffy is not a bad player, but his weaknesses are woefully exposed and his qualities are rarely on show in this situation. It is a failure of recruitment. 

And it isn't the first one. Celtic have signed three left-backs in fifteen months. Greg Taylor and Boli Bolingoli cost £3million each and whilst Kieran Tierney's shoes were always going to be impossible to fill the bottom line is neither player can hold a torch to Rangers' Borna Barisic. Nor were they especially well suited to playing as a wing-back; ironically, as soon as Lennon signed a player tailor-made for the left wing-back role - Diego Laxalt - he reverted back to a back four which currently makes Laxalt look very uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, the list of players currently out on loan and with no future at the club includes Bolingoli, Vakoun Issouf Bayo, Jack Hendry and Maryan Shved. It's not clear who is leading transfer policy at Celtic, but it does seem that folk are not all on the same page.

As for the coach himself, it is increasingly tempting to wonder whether Lennon's first spell at Celtic Park was really all that. After all, his three league titles came when the closest opposition were a Rangers side on the brink of liquidation, Motherwell and Motherwell respectively; to be frank Celtic would have won those leagues with you, or me, or even Ronny Deila in charge. In continental competition, take away Tony Watt's goal against Barcelona - bear in mind that Celtic, with 11% possession, rather rode their luck that day - and results were not impressive; they finished rock bottom of their Champions League group in 2013-14 after nearly losing in the qualifiers to Shakhtar Karagandy, while they missed out on both the Champions League and Europa League groups in 2010-11 and only got into the Europa League groups the following year after Sion were disqualified.

His return in early 2019 as a stopgap made a fair bit of sense given Brendan Rodgers' sudden departure, but in truth the team's form for the rest of that season was hardly all that and they huffed and puffed their way past a pretty putrid Hearts side in the Scottish Cup Final. It was not a performance that justified offering Lennon the job permanently after the match, but it was the romantic option and perhaps the easy one too. It was probably cheaper also in terms of wages, but it could be argued that the European qualifying failures of this season and last have made appointing him very expensive indeed for the club.

The fact is that since Rodgers left Celtic have largely coasted, as if they feel they are untouchable. In fact, 'stagnated' may be a more appropriate term. On the pitch, there is very little sign of tactical imagination. The formation may have changed recently but in the final third the strategy seems the same; to rely for moments of individual brilliance to unlock defences. It's worth noting that both they and Rangers have endured their star player and talismanic striker suffering a collapse in form this season. Rangers have barely missed a beat despite Alfredo Morelos' struggles; Celtic simply do not look the same without a potent Odsonne Edouard.

Edouard isn't the only one out of sorts. After the Sparta game, Lennon didn't hold back. He accused the players of being 'lazy' of 'lack of application', 'lack of hunger' and suggested they weren't working hard enough in training and that there was a need for a 'culture change'. The obvious elephant in the room there is the question of who is responsible for working them in training. After all there is precious little evidence during matches that they have worked on anything particularly intricate tactically. Heck, back in August Kieran Devlin at The Athletic reported that a number of players employed their own fitness coaches because they were unsatisfied at what the club was offering.

There's still time to turn this around - two-thirds of the season in fact. And the Celtic squad has more than enough quality to do so. But it is fair to say we have reached the point where you'd be surprised if Neil Lennon was still in charge by the end of the season. And it's also fair to note that if you're going to change manager, an international break - like the one coming up next week - would seem like the least painful time to do it. Do they take the plunge and sack a manager for the first time since Tony Mowbray? The fate of their Ten In A Row dream may well depend on what decision they make.

Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

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