Another stiff European test awaits Celtic this week and it’s arguably the hardest they’ve faced in recent years. Paris Saint-Germain host Brendan Rodgers’ side on Wednesday night having only improved since the two sides last met, when the French stuck five past the Hoops without reply at Celtic Park.
PSG are still unbeaten in all competitions this season and since the match in Glasgow have scored an eye-watering 36 goals in 11 matches, the kind of attacking form that must be making Celtic fans sweat. On their own patch, Unai Emery’s side will be out for blood and the Hoops might not be able to do anything about it.
For supporters it could be another grim week of reflection on how they can improve to possibly compete in these group stage matches against the big hitters on the continent. In truth, no amount of tinkering will close the massive gap completely, but it wasn’t so long ago that Neil Lennon managed to guide them to the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, overcoming the likes of Barcelona on their way.
At the heart of that progression into the knockout stages of the competition was a player they have yet to truly replace in the starting eleven; Victor Wanyama. The Kenyan midfielder left the following summer and in the four years since Celtic have been unable to find a player with the same physical presence and defensive attributes in the middle of the park that are required to get results at the elite level. While attracting players of Wanyama’s quality is difficult, they at least need to find a player that fits the profile. Until they do, the misery could continue.
In that 2012/13 European season, Wanyama was a defensive powerhouse for Celtic in the heart of the Hoops midfield, providing a contribution that is far beyond what is currently on offer in the Hoops.
Stats from WhoScored show that in comparison to this term, he outpaced all of Celtic’s current midfield regulars in almost every defensive metric in the group stages of the Champions League, an all-rounder who had the kind of presence that Brendan Rodgers would surely love to have available today. Whether it’s his per game average of five tackles, one block or four defensive clearances, he’s ahead of averages from the likes of Stuart Armstrong, Scott Brown and Olivier Ntcham.
In defence of the current midfielders, Celtic’s game is much less focused on defending doggedly and spoiling the game in midfield areas now than it was then, but that’s not an argument against introducing that kind of defensive presence again. It’s something that Celtic simply need to address if they’re to provide grown up displays at the elite level.
It’s not about changing their attacking, possession-based philosophy, but simply ensuring they have a player in that area that is going to provide the kind of committed defensive performance they need. Perhaps Scott Brown aside, that’s significantly lacking and it has cost them dearly in the years since.
The Hoops conceded eight goals in the 2012/13 group stage, a not insignificant number, but a massive positive compared to the seasons since in which they’ve not had that strong defensive midfield presence, in the wake of Wanyama’s departure. In 2013/14 they conceded 14, at a lower level in the Europa League groups in 2014/15 and 2015/16 they conceded 11 and 12 and last season they let in a massive 16. So far this term they’ve already conceded 10 and still have two matches to play.
It’s true that Celtic could do with significant improvement in defensive line with errors at the back littering their European campaign for years now, but that lack of protection from midfield is definitely a factor and something that needs to be looked at in upcoming transfer windows.
Rodgers made the shrewd acquisition of Olivier Ntcham in the summer, but so far he’s definitely not been the answer in that regard with the Celtic boss reverting to the energetic presences of Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor in recent weeks. Eboue Kouassi looks a real prospect and in time could prove to be the midfield enforcer the Hoops are looking for, but isn’t exactly progressing at a rapid rate.
The hope will be that they can get a lot closer to Paris Saint-Germain this week, but if that doesn’t happen and they’re again licking their wounds, perhaps thoughts will turn to fielding a more pragmatic midfield and putting the search out for a replacement for Wanyama that is arguably four years too late.