Assistant boss says club’s passing-game philosophy will not be sacrificed to bolster defence against continental opposition
If there is a fine line between being principled and being stubborn when it comes to football management, John Collins is quite happy to walk that particular tightrope at Celtic.
The evidence his first 18 months in tandem with Ronny Deila at the Scottish champions may suggest a change of approach is required to arrest an often dismal run of results in Europe.
But, in a passionate defence of their shared belief in a purists’ footballing philosophy, Collins has made it plain there will be no concessions made to pragmatism as they attempt to e ngineer success on the continental stage.
The Celtic assistant manager even goes as far as to suggest it would be a betrayal of the club’s tradition if he and Deila decided to adopt more prosaic tactics.
Collins accepts that the record of 37 goals conceded in 24 European matches under Deila’s management so far must be addressed but is adamant that can be done while retaining their commitment to a passing game.
“The hardest football to coach and to produce is football that starts at the back, goes through the midfield and ends up with the strikers and creates chances,” said Collins. “That’s why the best teams in the world play that way.
“The easiest football in the world to coach is your goalkeeper rolls it to the edge of the box, everyone goes up into the opposition half and he kicks it up and they try to win the second ball, kick it in the box and hope the ball drops at your feet.
“It works for some managers, it works for some clubs, but I think Celtic Football Club has always had a tradition from its greatest team, the team that won the European Cup in 1967. To try to emulate that special team, that special manager – that’s always got to be the route this football club takes.
“We know we’ve got to get rid of that fault of conceding poor goals in Europe. But there are two ways to do it.
“You can sit back and play 4-5-1, with everybody back and not care about dominating possession, just hope you scrape a result. Some people might want that, might think that’s the way forward.
“But we don’t think that’s the way forward. We think the way forward is to try to play football, try to control the game, pass the ball through midfield and try to be creative. The risk that comes with that is you get caught and the opposition score goals against you.”
That has been all too apparent this season, with another failure to qualify for the Champions League group stage followed by a Europa League campaign which currently sees Celtic at the bottom of Group A after back-to-back defeats by Norwegian side Molde.
They have leaked 13 goals in their last six European games, but Collins insists there have been encouraging signs nonetheless, even claiming they were superior to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side despite the 3-1 and 2-1 losses suffered.
“We know we’ve had some disappointing results in Europe, but we’ve had some fantastic phases in games, most notably at home,” he said.
“Against Molde, we were the better team in the two games. We created more chances and had more possession, but they were more clinical than us. They defended, sat behind the ball, weren’t bothered about any kind of possession, even at home. We couldn’t play like that at home against Molde. The way they play, sitting back, they get away with it. But we don’t want to play like that.
“I’m not going to say I would rather lose, but it is not something that excites me, playing football without the ball.
“I wasn’t that type of player. I didn’t enjoy playing that type of football and I don’t enjoy watching that type of football.
“Some people do. Some people think it’s fun to watch. But I like seeing one-twos, overlapping full-backs, centre halves stepping forward and passing it. That’s what I like to watch.
“The ball is round, that’s the way it’s meant to go. It’s the way I was brought up, it’s the way I played and it’s the way I coach.
“Away at Ajax, too, we played very well in the 2-2 draw this season. Anyone who watched the game would have seen a team who are comfortable with the ball, a team who defended fairly well until the end of the game, when they came at us against ten men.
“Fenerbahce are a team who have spent a lot of money, brought in big players, they came to Celtic Park and we were unbelievably good at the start of the game, only to concede a couple of poor goals to draw 2-2 again.
“I don’t think there is any game where we’ve been under 25 minutes of total pressure, our goal has been peppered and our goalkeeper has been making save after save. We’ve not stolen any victories.
“So there are positives in there, if you want to look for them. We’re having a lot of possession in European football, we’re creating a lot of chances, playing the game the right way and developing players, developing a team.
“But the negative, as you will remind us every week, is we’re conceding goals. And, when you concede soft goals, it makes it hard. We know we’ve got to get better, so that’s what we’re working on every day on the training pitch.”