Celtic started their title defence, and quest for seven-in-a-row, with a comfortable victory over a Hearts team once again in transition. Here’s Joel Sked’s take on the opening match of the Ladbrokes Premiership season.
Celtic have themselves a Rolls Royce
Let’s get the caveats out the road first of all. It’s only one game and it was against a Hearts side which don’t seem to know what week it is, let alone the day. But Celtic appear to have bagged themselves a gem in Olivier Ntcham.
A £4.5 million purchase, it is a fee most teams can only dream of paying in Scotland, but the Frenchman already looks like he could fulfil the expectation and make Celtic a tidy profit, such was his dominance in the middle of midfield,
Last season Celtic were often set up with Scott Brown at the base of the midfield with two numbers 8s ahead of him. However, with Ntcham’s inclusion, Brendan Rodgers has flipped the midfield triangle, Callum McGregor playing ahead of Brown and Ntcham.
Ntcham came in with comparisons to Yaya Toure. But rampaging forward doesn’t appear to be his game, his is a more methodical approach, a deep-lying playmaker - Paul Scholes in his later days at Manchester United if you will. It is the type of midfielder the club required to help them make that progression in Europe.
Ntcham brings greater control to the midfield. He was zipping the ball left and right, starting again with the defenders when necessary. But when the time was right he would go longer, clipping balls into space for Griffiths or switching play to shift a deep and compact Hearts.
Everything he did was so smooth. The ball moved out and between his feet with ease. Only once did he over-hit a speculative pass. As well as his passing ability, he has the physique to mix it up, and glides around the pitch, with and without the ball with ease.
This is a player who fans, no matter which club, well except for one, will enjoy watching.
Griffiths stakes his claim
With Moussa Dembele out until September, Leigh Griffiths has the opportunity to make the number 9 position his own before the Frenchman returns. A needless suspension in the Champions League aside, he has started positively.
Coming off the bench in Trondheim on Wednesday helped swing the game in Celtic’s favour. His movement and link-up play were slick and gave Celtic a focal point. Against Hearts he did what he does best, scoring.
The Hibs fan netted goals seven and eight against Hearts (nine, if you count the free-kick which went over the line in an Edinburgh derby but wasn’t counted). He was quiet early on, with Hearts deep and dogged. But he kept zipping into the spaces either side of the centre-backs. He passed up one great opportunity before finally scoring.
His greatest asset is playing on the shoulder of the last defender, timing his run to perfection and finding sufficient space. Graeme Souness talks about “finding the dope”, the player in the opposition who isn’t concentrating, who is off their game. Rafal Grzelak was deeper than the rest of his backline, Griffiths pressed on him and ran on to a sumptuous pass from deep by Nir Bitton, netting at the second attempt.
He added a deserved second in the second half before being removed after the hour mark. He has more important outings up ahead. Fire Celtic into the Champions League and this could be his season.
Jack is not the lad
Hearts, Ian Cathro and Craig Levein have all come in for criticism in recent weeks. The club forgot to order seats for their new stand, Cathro was sacked after failing to progress from the Betfred Cup group stage and Levein has been blamed for just about everything, his critics set to blame him for poverty, global warming and Scotland’s wet summer.
However, if anything sums up the club’s recent travails is Jack Hamilton. He has gone from a promising goalkeeper to persona non grata among many Hearts fans. While he has certainly not helped himself with a number of poor performances, the club have hung him out to dry.
Last summer there seemed to be a goalkeeping tombola at Tynecastle, the club eventually settling on the inexperienced stopper as Neil Alexander left for Aberdeen. This summer, after a trying season for Hamilton, it was expected, hoped, that he would be replaced, taken out the firing line.
Yet, he still holds the number one position and he continues to make the same mistakes. Over and over again. The 23-year-old has a habit of pushing shots back into danger areas rather than pushing shots wide. A tame shot prior to the second goal was pushed straight to Scott Sinclair which led to the corner Celtic scored their second.
In the first half he wasn’t dominant in stopping Leigh Griffiths when the striker ran through and eventually opened the scoring. And there were question marks for Callum McGregor’s goal. Granted it was a ferocious shot, but it was straight at Hamilton with the ‘keeper’s hand appearing to just vanish.
The club have two big appointments to make in the coming days and weeks. A new manager and a new number one.
Nir Bitton, centre-back!
Following Celtic’s win in Norway during the week, Brendan Rodgers was curt with a journalist. The scribe queried the Celtic manager’s decision to bring on Nir Bitton at centre-back and asked if he was fine with the Israeli playing in the position against Hearts. Rodgers took exception, saying it was a silly question.
Bitton strolled his way through Celtic’s Champions League qualifying win and then did the exact same at Celtic Park on Saturday afternoon.
The 25-year-old looked likely to depart, having fallen down the pecking order at Celtic Park, while there were understandable queries as to why Kristoffer Ajer was not selected having performed solidly in the home leg against Rosenborg after a productive spell at Rugby Park in the second half of the season.
But it is the Northern Irishman who is paid the big bucks to make the big decisions and he has been proven right.
Against Hearts there was plenty of evidence as to why Bitton was picked. With Celtic dominating possession it makes sense to have a good passer of the ball in the defence. He set up Griffiths for the opening goal with a raking, pinpoint pass and in the second half he found McGregor in space just outside the Hearts box despite being surrounded by marron jerseys.
He was criticised for slowing the game in midfield but in defence he has the game in front of him and there is more leeway to put your foot on the ball in the Celtic backline, waiting before probing. Plus, he not only has the passing qualities to break the lines with his passing from deep but he also has the physical attributes which won’t see him bullied.
Hearts have bigger worries
While Hearts fans wouldn’t have liked to hear Jon Daly say the team wouldn’t be judged from games with Celtic - after all, supporters want their team to compete - there are more pressing matters than a disappointing 4-1 defeat.
The club have come in for criticism for their ‘experiment’ appointing football coach Ian Cathro. It has led many to question the football department and operation at the club, despite the success since coming out of administration, namely gaining promotion at the first time of asking, a third-place finish in the first season back in the top-flight and a complete revamp of the academy.
One poor choice has been condemned with many urging Hearts to go back to the status quo. A ‘safe-pair of hands’.
The club should been commended for their appointment of Cathro, trying something different. It shouldn’t deter the club from trying to be innovative.
It is a pity for the club that the appointment and subsequent sacking has been coupled with issues surrounding the new stand, plus a high turnover of players. Something, which when broken down, can be explained.
Fans will demand a more experienced manager with a good, albeit under performing, squad to work with. It is a reasonable expectation.
However, the club can’t be swayed by the media, by managers who have applied via the press. They need to make a calculating decision, one which is for the benefit of the club in the short, medium and long-term. If that means a left-field shout, as long as they believe in the chosen appointee, so be it.
The football operation have made two appointments, one success and one failure. A much better ratio than chairmen, chief executives and presidents around the footballing world.