Brendan Rodgers and the art of improvement
It was barely two years ago but so much has been crammed into the intervening period (two domestic trebles, two qualifications for the group phase of the Champions League and one undefeated domestic campaign) that Brendan Rodgers’ first match as Celtic manager already seems to belong to a sepia-tinted age.
Ten of the players who took part in that debut – a shocking 1-0 defeat by Lincoln Red Imps in Gibraltar which prompted the tabloid heading Imps 1 Wimps 0 – are still at Parkhead and seven of them were in Armenia this week as Celtic began their Champions League qualifying marathon with a convincing 3-0 victory over Alashkert.
Supporters are prone to criticise individuals by claiming they’re not fit to wear the jersey. According to Rodgers, if players aren’t fit then they won’t have that opportunity.
The squad he inherited from Ronny Deila has seen a sea change in attitude and aptitude that has made them almost unrecognisable.
Rodgers sets the bar high for his players and he agreed that the performance in Yerevan this week was night and day compared to that inauspicious introduction in 2016.
“And so it should be when you’re working over a bit of time with players, developing and improving,” he said. “We create an environment and a culture which is about improvement so you’d be disappointed if you went into that game and it wasn’t better than what it was then.
“Considering it was a week earlier than [our first game] last year, the physicality of the team is what’s important at this time.
“Back then it wasn’t really that. Then you add to that the football idea so I think, all in all, there has been improvement but there is still more work to do.”
Midfielder Lewis Morgan, pictured, newly arrived from St Mirren, mentioned on Thursday how impressed he had been by the physical condition of his new team-mates when they reported back for pre-season training last month but Rodgers would not tolerate any individual who turned up out of shape.
“It wasn’t at the beginning,” he grinned. “Where the culture is now, our worst player this season in terms of the tests and measures we do was our best when I came in.
“But that doesn’t happen overnight; you have to create it and cultivate it. I always say if you create an environment then 95 per cent of players will improve. Five per cent won’t but you don’t want them anyway.
“So that is key – old school was you came back to get fit. The message we say to these guys is you’ve got to come back fit and then we’ll add to that.
“There’s no hiding place. You’ll see it on the pitch at the end. They come in and do a battery of tests and measures with the medical team and sports science team.
“We analyse every part of their performance from taking their drinks and compliance with medical work and everything else. We’re asking the players to be the best they can be every day, not just when they want to and that’s looked at on a daily basis.”
It was suggested that, while assessments on the ability of certain players could be compared to VAR, the bleep tests and body-fat percentages were more like goal-line technology in that one involves opinion while the other is strictly factual.
“It gives you a good measure of where you’re at,” said Rodgers. “Sometimes the bleep test can be more mental than physical but it gives you a good gauge.
“They are professional players, who have to go away and relax. You can enjoy yourself but, again, the beauty here for Lewis and guys who are new to it is to see that straight away you’re judged to a higher standard at the biggest clubs and you have to feel that on the very first day you walk in.
“If you feel that and embrace it then you will improve. The players also know now that is they come in and they are two and a half kilos over what their best weight is then won’t train with the squad. It’s very simple; they can train but it won’t be with the first team.
“So that means they’ve got to keep an eye on how they come back and we now have players coming back who have lost kilos and are in really good condition.
“Football is science and art. For me, it’s an art but what you can’t deny is the science of the game is absolutely vital as is the fusion between both, especially when you play a technical game. If you play a high-level technical game and you’re not fit then the first thing that goes is your technique. In order to play with intensity and aggression you need to be super-fit.”