Brendan Rodgers exemplary in his stewardship of Celtic
Coaching courses could focus on his output in December 2016 alone if they wished to present a module on best practice in the modern game.
The Scottish champions faced nine games in 29 days during the last month of the year, culminating in Saturday’s Old Firm victory at Ibrox which concluded with their status as the country’s dominant force as strong as ever.
In guiding Celtic to eight Premiership victories and a creditable draw at Manchester City over the duration of that demanding schedule, Rodgers’ management of his squad was shrewd and relentlessly effective. Regardless of the obvious advantages he enjoys in terms of resources over all of his peers in the top flight of Scottish football, making the best possible use of them still requires the kind of nous and awareness which persuaded Celtic to invest so heavily in recruiting the former Liverpool boss last summer.
From their first game of December, when they found a way to counter an impressive Motherwell display at Fir Park to claim a 4-3 win, Celtic under Rodgers have been unflinching in their resilience. He rotated areas of his squad in a manner which, while sometimes reducing the overall quality of performance levels, seldom made their unbeaten domestic record this season appear likely to come to an end.
The deployment of top scorer Moussa Dembele was a case in point. The young Frenchman had to settle for being a substitute in four of those nine games but his selection ahead of Leigh Griffiths at Ibrox on Saturday was never really in doubt.
He responded with his fifth goal in the three Old Firm games this season, his powerful left foot finish in the 34th minute cancelling out the ageless Kenny Miller’s 12th minute opener for a Rangers side who discovered that even one of their most impressive displays of the campaign was not enough to deny Rodgers’ men.
In a hugely absorbing contest, littered with incident and some outstanding individual skills from players on both sides despite the difficult weather conditions, Celtic fully merited the victory provided for them by Scott Sinclair’s 70th minute winner.
In players such as Sinclair and Dembele, they possess a quality of individual which emphasises the daunting size of the gap Rangers still have to bridge if they are to pose a serious threat to their traditional rivals’ status as the pre-eminent force in Scottish football.
Rodgers, pictured right, has also re-energised players whose careers at Celtic had appeared to be flat-lining before his arrival. None more so than Stuart Armstrong who was again outstanding on Saturday in the heat of a torrid midfield battle and whose current form surely makes him a shoo-in for Gordon Strachan’s next Scotland squad.
After Saturday’s victory, Rodgers revealed he had thanked his players just before kick-off for their contribution to the Celtic cause this season. Armstrong believes the debt of gratitude should go the other way.
“A lot of players in the dressing room have a lot to thank the manager for,” said the former Dundee United man. “We have to thank him for the way we have developed under him and I can speak from personal experience for the way my Celtic career is going now. He revived it no end and gave me something to work for and let me play in my favourite position.
“He has done that with a number of other players and we look like a completely different team to what we did last year. Full credit goes to him for that. I have nothing but praise for him. We always know he has a plan to change a game if it’s not going the way we want, he’s always got a plan B.
“He is always thinking how we can improve and we very much believe in him and he very much believes in us. It’s a very good team and Saturday was a very important game for us in a very busy December. It was vital we keep on pushing right to the very end and it was a very good win.”
Rangers can take some encouragement from their most competitive display yet against Rodgers’ Celtic, but the harsh reality for Mark Warburton is that his squad generally remains inferior, man for man, to the club’s city rivals.
Winger Barrie McKay is one of those for whom a case to the contrary could be made, however, and his excellent display on Saturday even earned him a post-match hug and warm words from Rodgers as the disconsolate Rangers players left the field.
“He came over to me and told me I’d played really well,” revealed McKay. “He said I was tremendous and told me to keep my head up. It was nice of him, because he didn’t need to do that.
“It took a lot for him to do that, especially after the high celebrations his team were doing. He stepped away from that to speak to me.
“I’ve had opposition managers do that to me before, but never after an Old Firm game, to be fair.
“I feel I can get better and I need to keep working hard, I’ve only just turned 22. I’ve still got a long way to go in the game and there’s a lot of boys here who will help me.”