The picture says it all really, doesn’t it?
When Neil Lennon was handed the Celtic job on a permanent basis in 2019, we were all asking what the hell they were doing. I mean, he was a reasonable placeholder to see out the season after Brendan Rodgers had left them high and dry in February, and in seeing out another domestic treble, he did what he was brought in to do.
But this was a guy who’s exit from Hibs just months earlier had been…unceremonious. He’d been sacked by Bolton in 2016, leaving them in the Championship relegation zone. Neither of his former employers were convinced he was worth keeping around, just as Celtic hadn’t been when they allowed him to walk out without a fight after his first spell. So how could he be good enough to take charge of a Hoops team who had gone to a new level since he last set foot in Parkhead?
Last season, it looked as if he might have proven us all wrong. Nine-in-a-row was attained with minimal fuss after an excellent post-Christmas revival, and their European showing was positive for the most part as they beat Serie A title challengers Lazio home and away.
But now their year-long honeymoon is out of the way, we’re back at square one with the same original question: Neil Lennon? Really?
For the most part this season, Celtic haven’t been bad. They’ve been pretty functional, winning eight games out of 11 and losing just once domestically, but the problem is that just being functional is no longer enough.
It might have been once, when Mark Warburton and his magic hat were helping Rangers re-acclimatise to top flight football, but this season their Glasgow rivals aren’t messing about. Their 2.66 points per game ratio so far is high enough to have won the league in eight of Celtic’s nine successive wins.
That’s not out of the blue either. We’ve seen this coming with Rangers for a while, as they have improved year after year under Steven Gerrard. The first half of last season should have served as a warning sign to Lennon that his side had to improve this season to see them off, but it’s starting to look like a naive complacency has instead crept in.
That was evident in last weekend’s Old Firm derby, when Celtic might as well not have been there. They failed to muster a shot on target over the 90 minutes, and even Gerrard looked surprised at how easy his team had it in their 2-0 victory.
The defending champions had to respond to that defeat, but they didn’t. Instead, they went up to Aberdeen and turned in an disjointed, error-prone display, capped off by a late Lewis Ferguson equaliser that cast aspersions over whether Celtic remain a good enough team to play badly and win against the better sides in the Scottish Premiership.
Lennon’s tactics have been all over the place. Where last season there was a clear plan, looking comfortable in both a 3-5-2 and a 4-2-3-1 and flitting between them seamlessly, the lack of consistency in this season’s selections has meant that neither system works effectively. Shane Duffy looks too ponderous and shaky to play in either formation – probably a sign that he has been a poor signing so far – while Scott Brown remains too important a player to leave out (so why the bloody hell was he left out at Pittodrie???)
His excuses after the Aberdeen game were pretty laughable. Willie Collum – terrible, terrible referee that he is – took the brunt of the blame for giving two stonewall penalties against them, while this was all he offered in the way of genuine self-reflection.
“Our decision making has to be a little better and see the game out at 3-2. We had plenty of bodies to deal with it.”
– Neil Lennon
We had plenty of bodies to deal with it.
It might all come good for Celtic this season, I don’t know. They have the strongest squad in the league by a considerable distance, and once Odsonne Edouard and James Forrest are back on the pitch regularly, their muscle memory could kick in, and they may well start to click.
The warning signs have been there ever since they returned for Europa League qualifiers in September, however. Their lack of intensity, purpose, or a tactical plan to speak of indicate that their manager just isn’t at the level he needs to be for the long-haul.
The question Celtic will be asking themselves is: how late is too late to act on that?