“Europe is always a big factor for this club,” insisted Brendan Rodgers just three days after making a seemingly unthinkable return to Celtic Park back in June.
Rodgers hoped to progress in Europe by playing his own brand of “attacking, aggressive football” that was still fresh in the minds of Celtic fans who lauded the former Liverpool boss during his double-treble era first time round.
It’s one thing to have those aspirations, another to get the best coach available to build a side with the mentality and quality required to achieve European progress, but quite another task to identify and attract the players capable of seeing it all through on the pitch.
As opening remarks go, this all sounded as though Rodgers was happy with the recruitment set-up he was walking back into, unlike during his first tenure, where he grew tired of the club (and particularly Peter Lawwell) failing to get deals over the line (remember Cristiano Piccini, John McGinn and Timothy Castagne?), then signing players the manager clearly didn’t want.
We could speculate about the signings that weren’t given that seal of approval from Rodgers during his first spell at the club, but perhaps it would be easier to just look at the buys who failed to feature all that often or, in some cases, at all. Some obvious examples of Rodgers being delivered late Christmas presents from the current Head of Recruitment’s old fella were:
- Eboue Kouassi: A £2.8m capture from Krasnodar in January 2017 who played just 967 minutes in three-and-a-half years at the club;
- Marvin Compper: Cost £1m when he was signed from RB Leipzig in January 2018. He played 83 minutes of football under Rodgers;
- Maryan Shved: Another £1.7m shelled out, this time to Karpaty Lviv in January 2019. He never kicked a ball for Rodgers’ Celtic;
- Vakoun Issouf Bayo: Brought in from those global giants of football, Dunajska Streda, in January 2019 for a sweet £2m. The Ivorian was given 60 seconds of football by Rodgers.
It was an obnoxious waste of money. Just these four examples cost a total of £7.5m, but they collectively contributed the equivalent of about 12 x 90-minute games of football. It was no wonder that this recruitment approach resulted in one extremely dissatisfied manager.
Five Champions League games later and, with Celtic sitting at the foot of Group E with a solitary point to show for their endeavours, has the club’s side of this agreement been kept?
To unpick the summer transfer window, we must first look at where Celtic were as a club at the time of Rodgers’ arrival. Having wrapped up the domestic treble on 3 June, nothing could really prepare us for the 16 days that were to follow. Ange Postecoglou walked out for Spurs just three days after the Scottish Cup final, with Celtic responding by reappointing Brendan Rodgers nearly two weeks later. The new manager had exactly one month to prepare for his first game, a friendly in Japan against Yokohama F. Marinos that had been billed as Ange’s “homecoming”.
By the time that Daizen Maeda scored a first-half hat-trick against his former club in Yokohama, Celtic’s star-man, Jota, had been sold for a fortune to Al-Ittihad. This followed the retirement of influential Australian midfielder, Aaron Mooy, and preceded the departure of defensive mainstay, Carl Starfelt, who made a farewell appearance under Brendan Rodgers before being transferred to Celta Vigo.
The first arrival under Rodgers was 20-year-old Norwegian midfielder, Odin Thiago Holm, from Vålerenga, and it was interesting to hear Rodgers’ thoughts on a player who had clearly been identified by our recruitment team prior to the new manager’s arrival. Rodgers described Holm as, “dynamic… young… hungry…” with “technical quality (and) speed,” and it was abundantly clear at that point that, even if we were to sign a player not identified by Brendan himself – such as Holm – as long as the new recruit fitted a workable model, then the man in charge would be satisfied.
The manager was left in an impossible position with all nine of the summer recruits. If he made Shved-like comments like he did in January 2019 (“We’ve got a million wingers, we don’t need another one…”) then he’d struggle to get a tune out of the new arrivals. He’d also send fans and the media into a frenzy with recruitment concerns. The gaffer was shrewd and played it safe, but many of those new players haven’t regularly featured, and that in itself is a huge indictment of the recruitment team’s efforts.
Holm was the first of nine new arrivals in the summer, costing £2.5m, and he has gone on to play 322 minutes of football during the first 21 games of the campaign. Rodgers has praised the player, both upon his arrival and since, but he is clearly in the category of addition described by Chairman Peter Lawwell when announcing record-breaking financial results in September as one who “can be developed and sold when conditions are optimal”.
The other category of player described by the Chairman was the type who is “able to make an immediate impact and deliver footballing success”. This was the standard of player required to replace the departed Mooy, Jota and Starfelt; the type of player that Rodgers has been calling “quality” at every opportunity recently. The genuine worry many supporters now have is that the calibre of player brought in to replace this trio has fallen quite a distance short of what Rodgers expected and was presumably promised.
Of the nine summer arrivals, only two have featured regularly:
- Luis Palma cost £3.5m from Greek side Aris Thessaloniki. The Honduran has appeared in 14 games, notching up 761 minutes, scoring five times and chipping in with a further five assists;
- Yang Hyun-jun arrived for £2.1m from Gangwon. The South Korean winger has made 18 appearances, totalling 809 minutes, scoring once and has been credited with one assist.
The other seven signings have contributed a combined 1,751 minutes of football – Holm (322); Tilio (1); Kwon (0); Nawrocki (247); Lagerbielke (529); Phillips (270); and Bernardo (382). That is the equivalent of under 20 x 90-minute games at a cost of £12.3m + loan fees + wages, or around £750k for every 90 minutes of football we’ve got back. Whilst the injuries to Nawrocki and Tilio have to be taken into account, it is clear that we have not recruited anywhere near well enough.
We simply can’t keep stockpiling players who don’t contribute when we already have a bloated first-team squad (now bursting at the seams at 32). Brendan Rodgers has previously spoken about working with a core group of 17 players, extending to 25 with youth prospects and ‘project’ players. He has also made it clear that he felt his squad was four quality players short in the summer. How many players of that ilk were among the nine who arrived?
It has been a few transfer windows since Celtic signed what Rodgers described as a “sensational” player, but we arguably still require four in that mould come January. The chances of us attracting the full quota in one window are slim, but the message to the board from the gaffer is crystal clear. He has thrown down the gauntlet and they must respond to prove that Europe is as big a factor to them as it is to the manager and the support.
PAUL JOHN DYKES