A reputation for being meticulous precedes Brendan Rodgers. Since his arrival in Scotland as Celtic manager he has been able to delight in discovering a kindred spirit.
Not by accident have the Scottish champions gone 778 domestic minutes without conceding a goal ahead of their trip to Motherwell this afternoon. The partnership of Erik Sviatchenko and Jozo Simunovic has been the rock on which their impenetrable defence has been founded and, in the former, Rodgers has under his tutelage a man whose pursuit of self-improvement is relentless. To the extent that the Dane makes his own game packages. Both for his attitude and development, Sviatchenko elicits the word “brilliant” from Rodgers.
“He’s a boy that I’ve got huge admiration for,” says the Celtic manager. “After every game he studies his own game and cuts his own parts – edits his own individual clips – and then comes to us. We then sit and look together. That’s learning.
“He’s done that since he was in Denmark. It was part of what they did there, he’s felt the benefits of it, and he’s continued with it. Self analysis is very important. Others will do it, look at things with the coaching staff. But Erik does his own, and that’s what you want as a coach. You want players who think about the game. I’m lucky, I have a group here who are really thirsty to learn. They want to be better and there is a lot of self-improvement and reflection.
“With Erik, we sit and talk through his game – what he’s done well and what he can improve on so he can take it into the next game. So the improvement he’s making is because of him – because the environment is set up to be better.”
Sviatchenko has benefited from the fact that, whatever the extent of the knee issues that have afflicted backline compadre Simunovic, these appear to be getting better. In featuring in last Sunday’s Betfred League Cup final win only five days on from his appearance in the defeat by Barcelona, last week was the first time the 22-year-old had started two games inside a week since January. The player was nursed back to health through the early part of this season, which started for him in late September.
“Jozo is one I hadn’t seen playing [when I came here] but not many had,” Rodgers added. “But I could just tell in training – I mentioned it a few months back – that he was a player. He’s 6ft 3in, fast, composed, aggressive. He’s still young. He’ll do something rash every now and then. He looks scary and he is.
“And we’ve got a great guy in Kolo [Toure] there in behind them [Sviatchenko and Simunovic] who can shepherd them and talk to them. He uses all his experience. But those two are really strong. If they get the chance to play together consistently they give the team – along with the goalkeeper [Craig Gordon] – a great backbone.
“Slowly it’s starting to turn for Jozo. He played in the game on the Wednesday and did very well. His knee was clean afterwards so he could play in the final. We’ve got a turnaround of Saturday, Tuesday [away to Manchester City] and Friday [at Partick Thistle]. So we’ll monitor it whether he plays in the three or two of the three. But both of them have been very good.”
In only failing by a couple of minutes – courtesy of an 89th minute equaliser conceded at Inverness – to rack up 16 consecutive wins on the home front, the question now being asked is whether Celtic are too good for Scottish football. Their total dominance is considered detrimental to the image of the Scottish game and their preparedness for stepping up to European football’s highest level.
“I can only concentrate on the team and the club I was brought in to improve,” said Rodgers. “Hopefully the supporters and the staff see the standard which we are setting. My only worry is for us. I can’t worry about what the critics will say. There will always be critics. I don’t spend my time worrying about them. For us [in the coaching staff] and the players we keep driving and pushing forward. We will lose at some point. But let’s keep going and keep going, bringing our A game as often as we can.”