Celtic are heading into the UEFA Europa League knockout stages with a point still to prove. After a group stage campaign in the Champions League that had more low points than highlights, questions marks still surround Brendan Rodgers’ side’s ability to compete with teams on the continent, despite securing European football in the new year.
Their final group stage match against Anderlecht last week was seen as a failure in the eyes of supporters and while it ultimately meant little in the context of their group, it was a credibility blow to the idea that the Hoops are learning the lessons they need to, to progress in Europe.
It’s unfair to single out a particular player for the team’s failings at European level but it’s clear that one area of the Celtic team is weaker than the rest and that’s their defence. Unless Brendan Rodgers fixes that with reinforcements in January or just good old-fashioned coaching, then their woes will likely continue at a level higher than the Scottish Premiership.
Blaming the Celtic defence for their woes has been a cliché for years and while their actual defending of the Hoops box is well under-par, the team conceded more goals in the group stage of this year’s Champions League than any other, the issues at the heart of the defensive line go beyond traditional contributions.
The issue in the worst matches so far this season has been the team’s inability to build possession out from the back or show confidence on the ball to make that initial break into midfield where talented stars can push into the opposition’s third. That was most certainly apparent against Anderlecht last week, Celtic’s dress rehearsal for the Europa League.
Looking at Celtic’s official UEFA passing statistics for that match with a glance shows a defence able to find their teammates more often than not, the back four collectively averaged an 89% pass completion rate after all. However, looking at where those passes were distributed highlights exactly what Celtic are failing to do in matches they falter.
Nearly two thirds of Dedryck Boyata’s passes for example were between himself and Craig Gordon, Jozo Simunovic and Kieran Tierney. He only found the likes of Scott Brown a handful of times. While part of that problem is undoubtedly the Celtic midfield’s, who failed to take much responsibility at all, it demonstrates that the Hoops failed to play the way Rodgers wants them to.
Getting caught in nervous passing triangles is something that simply invites pressure onto a team that, on their night, are so capable when moving the ball around.
Underscoring this hesitant distribution were mistakes, with Boyata giving away possession cheaply a number of times, that could have easily have been punished against better opponents.
The truth is though that the Europa League is still a tantalising prospect for Celtic and their supporters. It’s a tournament of great potential and massive opportunities. The Hoops can make their mark on the competition if Rodgers manages to fix the issues over the next couple of months that have plagued their European season so far.
Whether that’s ensuring more technically proficient defenders make up the back four, changing his tactics to ensure the players are playing to their strengths or is about simply instilling more belief and confidence into his current group, the Hoops boss surely knows himself that changes must be made.
He has earned the right for patience and the breathing room to get on with the task without too many questions being asked, but it’s time to show Celtic supporters that solutions can be found.
Can the Celtic boss bring his domestic dominance into a grander arena? It’s a question we are no closer to answering after two seasons of Champions League football, but perhaps Europe’s secondary competition can provide them.