Sunday’s defeat at Rugby Park in the League Cup was a bitter pill to swallow. Not only did it bring an end to Brendan Rodgers’ 100% record in domestic cup competitions with Celtic, but the toothless manner of Celtic’s performance raises unwanted concerns at the start of Rodgers 2.0.
Despite the natural pre-match positivity, Sunday’s result, and to a degree the performance as well, were not entirely unexpected. Ross County caused early problems on the opening day with the concession of two cheap goals raising defensive alarm bells. While on matchday two Celtic struggled to find a consistent creative spark against Aberdeen. The game may rarely have been in doubt, but it also did not look entirely secure until Matt O’Riley’s 84th-minute goal sealed the three points.
On Sunday, Celtic were slow and laborious in possession. The midfield failed to control the game, and there was very little in the way of movement designed to pull the Kilmarnock defenders out of position to create space for runners to exploit.
It was the polar opposite of the devastating first-half performance we witnessed on our previous visit to Rugby Park where we were 4-0 up inside half-an-hour. On Sunday, almost half of Celtic’s xG came from an effort on the slide from Kyogo on the 5-minute mark. After that, we created very little and, in short, we were awful.
Where last season’s Ange Postecoglou side would have overloaded the midfield and wide areas to create two-on-one’s in advanced positions, far too often on Sunday the midfield was overrun and passive. That it was left to the centre-backs to attempt the probing forward passes tells its own story.
After two years of all-out attacking football, Sunday was a hard watch. We’ve gone from celebrating a treble success under Ange Postecoglou at the end of May to seeing it taken away from us before the end of August.
However, there are some mitigating factors along with real concerns that can explain Sunday’s performance, even though they don’t excuse it. Let’s face it, the side that started should have been good enough to win the game.
Inheriting Ange’s team
Brendan Rodgers may have inherited a treble-winning squad from Ange Postecoglou when he rejoined Celtic in June, however, since then he has seen two major players from that side leave the club unexpectedly.
The sale of Jota was one the club could not turn down and Carl Starfelt opting to leave for personal reasons was something the club could not have accounted for. Both departures will have negatively impacted Rodgers’ summer squad-building plans.
While Maik Nawrocki and Gustaf Lagerbielke have bolstered the defence, the lack of an obvious replacement for Jota – the type of player we were crying out for on Sunday – is something the club needs to address in the final days of the summer transfer window.
Adding to the challenges, the squad inherited by Brendan Rodgers is essentially an Ange squad, meticulously constructed to suit his football philosophy.
As Jon McKenzie explained on Tifo Football when discussing why Tottenham might not miss Harry Kane as much as was first thought, Ange is a “system coach who looks for very specific profiles of players”.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that the players brought to the club by Ange cannot play another system or style. That said, a clear feature of Ange’s signings and player development was that players were brought into the team with specific skill sets to perform specific roles.
Among these players, including Greg Taylor and Callum McGregor, their roles have shifted under Brendan Rodgers, leading to an ongoing struggle in adapting to these changes. Regarding Callum McGregor, it could be argued that the captain’s dip in form pre-dates Rodgers’ return and goes as far back as the 3-0 defeat at Ibrox in May. It’s a trend that needs to be reversed quickly.
Time to go Full Brendan?
However, as noted by Kevin Graham, Sunday’s defeat might provide the manager an opportunity to go full Brendan, as he works to reshape the team without the burden of matching last season’s domestic achievements.
If there was ever a moment to highlight the need for quality additions to the squad, Sunday’s match certainly drove that point home. The next week or so up to the close of the transfer window will tell a lot about the ambitions of the club and how much they are prepared to back a manager they fought hard to get.
The transition from Ange to Brendan Rodgers was always going to have a bump or two along the way. Their styles are similar enough that we should still expect a successful season but different enough that it will take time for Rodgers 2.0 to fully take flight.
I still believe that the squad at Rodgers’ disposal is good enough to win the league. A couple of quality additions in key areas would go a long way to strengthening that belief.
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