With a treble potentially in the pipeline, Celtic’s recent stumbles may not matter in the grand scheme of things, but they do suggest that the squad depth fans have revelled in this season is an illusion.
One win in five in the league. Nine goals conceded in 270 minutes of football. Injuries to key men. A first team lacking motivation and a second string lacking quality. A goalkeeper – in fact, more than one goalkeeper – we may no longer be able to rely on. A defence that makes Todd Cantwell and Curtis Main look like Baggio and Batistuta in their prime. This, fellow Tims, is the winter of our discontent.
Except it’s not, obviously. (I mean, it’s summer, for a start.)
The complaints voiced by some Celtic fans during the micro malaise since the league title was won at the start of the month would be considered first world problems to an almost laughable degree at 95% of other football clubs. Not that you need any reminder, but Celtic have just won their 11th league title in the last 12 seasons and their second league-and-cup double in a year, and all things being well at Hampden early next month, a quite astonishing fifth treble in seven seasons is within reach.
We have one of the best managers in our history and a squad full of likeable, uber-talented young men who have kept going and going for nearly every minute of nearly every match through two long, hard campaigns stuffed with 50-60 fixtures and trips to everywhere from Alloa to the Arctic Circle. Frankly, they could lose again on trophy day this Saturday and still no-one would be entitled to complain, especially if Callum McGregor does indeed get his mitts on the Scottish Cup at some point on the evening of June 3rd.
And yet, after watching this team be so robotically consistent for the last 21 months, there is something so alien and unfamiliar about watching them turn in several shoddy performances in a short space of time that it’s only human for the smallest of warning lights to begin flashing on your internal dashboard. Look a little closer, and the words glinting there in red are ‘squad depth’.
Whether it’s a Tupperware dish full of leftovers up the back of the fridge, which you’re sure will do for a quick snack, or an old jumper up the back of the cupboard, which you’re confident still fits you, we’ve all experienced that quiet little crestfallen moment when you realise something you’ve been assuming will be perfectly adequate actually turns out to need binning. Ange Postecoglou experienced it a couple of weeks back at Ibrox; and not with his iconic black pullover, but with the long-term residents of Celtic’s bench. Last season’s squad was so puddle-deep there were times when people cracked wise about Hoopy and Gerry McCulloch being on the bench and you weren’t 100% sure they were joking. This season, though, Ange’s apparent success in sanding off the squad’s rough edges last summer led to ‘bench admiring’ becoming a weekly pastime for Celtic fans, and one of the most fulfilling parts of the build-up to each match.
Gone were the likes of James McCarthy, Albian Ajeti, Osaze Urgohide, and that sense of ‘the ick’ they brought with them, and in their place were full South Korean internationals, £4 million Argentineans, J.League Players of the Year and others – like Tony Ralston, David Turnbull and Liel Abada – who were good enough to be regulars last season but appeared to have been left behind in the manager’s relentless drive to be better. In much the same way that retired old Italian men like to stand around with their hands behind their backs and look at building sites, we enjoyed simply gazing at the bench and telling ourselves that everyone on it would be an automatic starter for every other team in the league.
It was a nice theory, but for the most part the manager’s disinterest in rotation and the superhuman fitness of most of his first-choice picks meant it remained just that: a theory. There were eye-catching cameos off the bench and the odd start for two or three of them at a time, but that sixth and final derby of the season at Ibrox was the first time a large tranche of this supposedly elite corps of bench-warmers – Ralston, Abada, Yuki Kobayashi, Alexandro Bernabei and Oh Hyeon-Gyu – were trusted to start together in a big game. Well, sort of a big game. Your interpretation of how much that derby actually mattered determined whether you lost your shit about the 3-0 defeat that followed or just shrugged it off.
Certainly Celtic have been on both sides of these dead rubber derbies before, and invariably it’s the team that actually have something to play for (even if it’s just that invisible FIFA meme trophy, or ‘bragging rights’, which thanks to Sky Sports we now know are worth more than all three trophies combined) which tends to prevail. But that didn’t stop the five fringe men taking pelters, and after the part Kobayashi played in two of the Rangers goals, Bernabei breaking Opta records for expected individual errors and Abada’s failure to put a single bead of sweat on the forehead of the guy who’s been playing second fiddle to Borna fucking Barisic all season, it was hard to argue that they didn’t deserve the stick. But were the established starters any better? When even Jota is invisible and Calmac – a man who looks like he goes home and self-flagellates every time he turns in less than a 7/10 – is costing you goals, you know it’s just not your day.
In some ways, last Saturday’s 2-2 home draw against St Mirren, when Ralston was the only one of the five to survive the cull yet an almost full-strength Celtic still managed to stink the joint out, presenting about five clear chances to Main alone and lacking any real spark going forward, bolstered the argument that a collective lack of focus is at the heart of what’s going on. But the glaring blunders made by Joe Hart, Ralston, Carl Starfelt and Tomoki Iwata – trialled at centre-back in place of countryman Kobayashi – were impossible to ignore. Then there was Wednesday at Easter Road; Ralston, Bernabei and Kobayashi not exactly doing much to redeem themselves as a 2-1 win degenerated into a 4-2 beating over the course of 11 shambolic minutes.
It would neither be fair nor wise from a business perspective to write off Kobayashi and Iwata less than six months into their Celtic careers, on the grounds of one or two dodgy performances in games that ultimately didn’t matter. But the former is already on shaky ground in the court of public opinion, and the fact the whole defence melts so quickly any time ‘The Fridge’ isn’t around to keep things cool is a concern. Is there any combination of the currently available centre-halves that will really be trusted to perform against Inverness at Hampden, when the senior figure who’s supposed to be holding it all together (Starfelt) is having a rough old time of it himself? Elsewhere in the squad, sadly, the likes of Bernabei have had enough chances for us to say they simply don’t seem to be good enough, whilst others, like Ralston and Hart, appear to be regressing at an alarming rate. Celtic’s success last season was built upon a desire to prove doubters wrong. The manager had it, and so did Ralston and Hart, but perhaps understandably there isn’t quite the same fervour from the duo to stay on top of the mountain as there was to climb it in the first place. Further forward, Abada’s development seems to have plateaued (although we have been here before with him), Sead Haksabanovic’s recent appearances have lacked the crackling electricity we’ve come to expect, James Forrest is surely done, Stephen Welsh and Ben Siegrist have fallen off the map and Scott Bain is, well, Scott Bain.
Again, it must be stressed that these are the kind of problems most clubs would kill for. But what it does mean, probably, is that another busy summer awaits us on the transfer market, at a time, two years into the Postecoglou project, when it should ideally just be a case of fine-tuning what’s there. It begs the question of whether Ange and the recruitment department really did succeed in sanding off those rough edges last summer. The Australian’s first two transfer windows were masterpieces, with at least 11 of his signings proving to be categorical, gold-plated success stories. But of the 10 senior players signed across summer 2022 and January 2023 (not including permanent deals for those that had previously been on loan), only three – Haksabanovic, Aaron Mooy and Alistair Johnston – have managed to make significant contributions so far.
The fact that the Postecoglou era is so often compared to the O’Neill and Rodgers eras tells you things are going pretty damn well so far all told. But there’s a cautionary warning somewhere in there as well. Both of those great sides eventually hit the rocks because of the club’s failure to supplement the talent that was already there, either because the money wasn’t made available or because what was spent was wasted on subpar signings, thereby piling more pressure onto the same core group of players to keep going to the well year in, year out.
For now there’s a cup final to look forward to, and hopefully a ginormous party to enjoy afterwards in the Merchant City and further afield. But after that it will be up to Ange and the club to decide what they want to do about that little red flashing light on the dashboard.
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