Celtic have played total of 11 players and deployed 18 different back fours in their rearguard this season
Writing the names of his defenders on pieces of paper and then picking the slips out of a hat would have left Ronny Deila with no less cohesion across his back four this season is the impression taking root. The Celtic backline feels like a randomly generated ticket. One that won’t ever win Euro millions. Losing them, on the other hand, well…
Celtic have fielded 18 different back fours across their 25 games this season. In reality, Thursday night as good as brought combination No.19 with the hapless Tyler Blacketter replacing the injured Jozo Simunovic only minutes into what proved the latest defensive debacle of a continental contest for the club. The 2-1 loss to Molde that leaves the club on a nine-game winless run in the Europa League, and took the number of goals they have conceded in Europe to 13 in six games must, in part, be traceable to the many permutations of personnel at the back.
A total of 11 players have been deployed by Deila in his rearguard. Seven different players have featured in the marshmallow-soft centre of the club’s defence with three players appearing both in the right-back and left-back slots. All that shuffling hasn’t yield any ace combinations in the cross-border arena. The sale of Virgil van Dijk and injuries to Mikael Lustig, Saidy Janko, Charlie Mulgrew and Simunovic certainly haven’t helped Deila.
The one constant at the back for the Scottish champions in Europe has been Craig Gordon. He has failed to exhibit the command that he did in his first season, and hasn’t looked for excuses about that. The 32-year-old is no doubt though that lack of continuity has helped turn the club’s backline into a colander in continental football.
“There’s no secret to it in football [that teams need consistency of selection in defence]. Everyone talks about it for a reason. We would really like to get a settled back four. It’s just not happened for different reasons. Players in good form forcing their way in, players getting injured, there’s been a multitude of reasons why there’s been chopping and changing.
“In the game alone it changed a few times, Nir [Bitton] dropping back in there towards the end [after substitute Blackett was substituted] then getting sent off. We’ve had a load of players playing in those positions. It’s not exactly a successful and solid back four as yet.”
Celtic becoming a team that seems to find it obligatory to ship two goals a game in Europe must drive a clean-sheet obsessive of a keeper like Gordon to despair.
“We’ve scored in every game as well so we’re giving ourselves the chance to win matches by doing that,” he said. “But by conceding goals we’re giving ourselves mountains to climb. In European football that’s not an easy thing to overcome.”
The serene manner with which Celtic appear to be be gliding their way to a fifth straight title is contrasting with their clattering tumbles when stepping into the Europa League, where they have been beaten back-to-back by Molde.
It is remarkable that Celtic can, arithmetically at least, still progress beyond Group A. To do that they require to beat Ajax at home in three weeks then win at Fenerbahce in Turkey a fortnight later. Two wins from two game when, to date, Deila has delivered only two wins from his previous 12 Europa League outings. The contrast between home and abroad from Celtic points to a desperately low-grade Scottish top flight.
“I think Molde are a good team,” Gordon offered in mitigation. “I know everyone will point to how poorly we played. At the same time you have to give them credit. They are sitting top of the group with ten points, they’ve done well. They set traps for us to come forward and hit us on the break, similar to what they did across there.
“It’s one thing knowing what they’re going to do. It’s another thing trying to stop them. When we got the ball, they got back in defence so quickly and slowed it up, made us have to play slow and play around them. And try balls over the top which probably weren’t percentage balls but we had to force something. That’s exactly what they were wanting so they could counter on us. Their gameplan worked very well. We knew what they were going to do but we couldn’t stop them from doing it.”
Europe hangs over Celtic now like a permanent rain cloud. Refocusing minds on a trip to Dingwall to face Ross County this afternoon would appear like coming through a storm only to have to trudge through puddles. Yet, Gordon welcomes the trip to the Highlands as Deila looks to do a number on Jim McIntyre’s side as they did with Dundee United, Hearts and Aberdeen to give a false impression of their form going into the Molde game three days ago.
“It could be good getting away,” the Scotland international said. “ It’s a long bus journey. The squad will be together. We won’t be apart for too long, have the next couple of days together. I think sometimes that can help, being around each other, not having too many outside influences having a bearing on that. We have the chance to regroup and go again on Sunday.
“We have to try and do the same as we did for Dundee United [after the defeat away in Molde]. We will go up there to try and get three points and maintain our advantage at the top.
“We’ve worked hard to get a good advantage. Now we need to make sure we keep that going into the international break. There’s a job to be done and we have to go and try and do it.”