EVEN a player as experienced and widely respected as Craig Gordon can find himself being judged against very different standards upon joining Celtic.
His level of performance with Hearts, Sunderland and Scotland had already earned him recognition as one of this country’s finest ever goalkeepers before he put two years of injury enforced inactivity behind him to sign for the Scottish champions last summer.
Gordon has emphatically revived his career, proving himself a more than able replacement for Fraser Forster since the English keeper’s £10 million move to Southampton. The 32-year-old’s form has been impeccable and he is currently on a run of seven consecutive clean sheets in all competitions for a Celtic side now firmly in pursuit of a domestic treble.
“I’ve no idea what my best run of shut-outs is,” he admitted yesterday. “Three or four probably? I don’t think it could be any more than that.”
His guess was a good one. A trawl through the stats confirms Gordon’s previous high water mark was the four in a row he managed for Hearts during their turbo-charged start to the 2005-06 season under George Burley. At Celtic, such numbers are of the workaday variety and Gordon still has some way to go to emulate Forster’s record-breaking run of 13 successive league clean sheets set last season.
As he looks to extend his personal tally to eight in a row tonight when Celtic face Partick Thistle at Firhill on Premiership business, Gordon is quick to share the credit for the team’s recently acquired miserliness. In many games, he has had little to do as he enjoys playing behind a central defensive pairing of Virgil van Dijk and Jason Denayer which he rates as highly as any he has known. “We’ve been playing well, controlling games and not giving up too many chances,” said Gordon. “We are starting to get things together now and the manager is a lot happier with the way we are playing.
“The ideas he’s been trying to get across are starting to come together and look good. I’m quite happy that we’ve managed to start playing in this manner which allows me not to be involved as much. I prefer that – it’s absolutely fine by me.
“We have always been working on the back line in training. The manager works on it every single week. We do our shape work, waves of attack and the defensive side of it. It is something we’ve been continuously working on.
“Things have been starting to sink in, there is an understanding now of exactly how we are going about it. We have also been defending right from the very front, putting teams under pressure to try and get the ball back. So that helps the guys at the back as well. It’s a coming together of all those things which has managed to make us look more in control of games now. The two central defenders I’m playing behind at the moment are right up there with any I’ve played alongside in my career. They are both fantastic footballers. Virgil, especially, has got everything. Since the start of the season, I’ve noticed he has become a lot more vocal as well. His communication is much better and he is starting to lead that back line as well. That’s one of the reasons we are starting to keep clean sheets.
“Jason is still only 19, and it is incredible for someone of that age to come in and play the way he is playing. He is also very comfortable on the ball. It doesn’t matter which one of them I roll or pass the ball out to, they can go and make a good forward pass to start our attacks.
“The style that we play, we are looking to build from the back and the patterns of play that the manager is looking for is for the centre-backs and full-backs to get on the ball and start our attacks from deeper. There are not many centre-backs better on the ball than those two to play the style the manager is looking for.”
Gordon believes Celtic’s improved all-round solidity also augurs well for their prospects in the last 32 of the Europa League as next Thursday’s first leg of the tie against Inter Milan in Glasgow looms ever larger.
“I think we are better equipped for that kind of challenge now than we were earlier in the season,” he added. “It’s small things that have been tweaked, especially in the midfield, to allow that to happen.
“Nir Bitton has come in over the last month or so and done very well in that area. He’s a big lad and can handle himself in there, alongside Scott Brown. They are two dominant players in that area and can both pass the ball as well, they’re very composed and you can give Nir the ball and he circulates it very well.
“We’ve got a good mix in there that allows us to go and attack. We’ve set a few kind of rules between the backline and the midfield. When certain players go forward from the back, we know who from the midfield has to come in and cover.
“We’ve done quite well in rectifying that situation and hopefully that’ll stand us in good stead between now and the end of the season. The system will be tested by Inter. Who knows, the manager might change the formation for that. He’ll be thinking between now and then, which players and which formation he wants to go about trying to do that. We have changed the system at times, we’ve played 4-4-2, 4-3-3 as well. We could switch, but over the last wee while we’ve favoured the 4-2-3-1 and it’s worked very well for us both defensively and at the other end of the pitch. We’ll wait and see. It’s a different game against Inter and it’ll require a different mentality than a normal Premiership game.”