Celtic have been excellent in recent weeks as they have reached previous high standards. Joel Sked looks at the reasons behind the upturn.
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Receiving a pass into feet, Olivier Ntcham spun away from St Johnstone’s Liam Craig, while holding off the attentions of Blair Alston, before ushering the ball into the path of Callum McGregor who arrowed a shot narrowly past the post.
The move arrived moments before the interval at McDiarmid Park with the score goalless between the two sides in the Betfred Cup quarter-final. Until that point the encounter had been largely one-paced, similar to many of Celtic’s performances at the start of the campaign. The way the move transpired, the quickness in play, the increased tempo, players breaking the lines, it was the Celtic vintage of the last two seasons under Brendan Rodgers.
The second half saw Celtic dominate but a glut of missed chances from Leigh Griffiths made the evening more difficult than it should have been, until the Scotland striker finally broke the deadlock late on. A few days later Brendan Rodgers’ defeated Aberdeen in a close fought encounter.
Since then Celtic have cleaned house domestically: 6-0, 4-2, 3-0, 5-0, 5-0. What has prompted the resurgence?
No Scott Brown?
It seems wrong to suggest that Scott Brown’s absence has had a positive effect on Celtic’s form. Yet, it can’t be a coincidence that of the last five domestic fixtures, where 23 goals have been scored to two conceded, the club captain has only featured for 21 minutes.
For the past two seasons he has been the team’s fulcrum, in and out of possession. However, his average of 75 passes per 90 has dropped this season to 61. It suggests that the team are both looking to play through different avenues and adapting as Brown’s influence on the balls seems on the wane. But what has been most advantageous is Brown dropping out the team altogether.
Writing Brown off is a foolish step. What can’t be questioned is Brown influence in setting standards within the team, his mentality and attitude. And he will no doubt still have a key role going forward - just not as important as before.
McGregor to the fore
Partly that is down to the continued improvement of Callum McGregor. His career progression at Celtic is intriguing. There has been a productive loan spell at Notts County, doubts about his ability as ‘Celtic quality’, a bit-part role, an important squad player but there is no doubt that he is a certified key first-team player now.
For a while now it seemed that it was only a matter of time before he was handed a starring role in the Celtic midfield, with added responsibility.
This season has seen him fill in a variety of positions but tellingly he’s started all but two games. In Brown’s absence he has been asked to play in a deep midfield position with increased demand following the injury to Olivier Ntcham. And he has thrived.
The 25-year-old is one of, if not the most intelligent footballers in the Celtic team, and perhaps the whole Ladbrokes Premiership. Few players are adept at playing with their back to goal as him. Played deeper he has the game in front of him. He has an excellent range of passing; better and more positive than Brown’s. He knows how to set the tempo of Celtic’s play, slowing down then quickening the pace at which they attack.
The third goal in the 5-0 win over Dundee is case in point; receiving the ball to feet he quickly spun and opened his body to lift a pass into the path of Kieran Tierney. In the recent 5-0 victory against Hearts the Gorgie side sat off him and it was essentially death by a thousand cuts as McGregor continued to probe.
Benkovic the boss
Centre-back. Need. Transfer window. Those were the key words and phrases which shaped the Parkhead side’s summer. In addition, due to suspensions and injuries, Rodgers had to rely on Jack Hendry more than he would have wanted. There were errors and his presence brought a nervousness to the team and crowd.
Filip Benkovic joined on deadline day from Leicester City on a loan deal having arrived at the Foxes earlier in the window, and Celtic are unbeaten in the seven games in which he has played, conceding just two goals. In that short sample size it is clear this is a player who oozes class.
Played largely on the left hand side of a back four, the Croatian is comfortable with the ball on either foot, assured and composed.
Defensively Benkovic is perfect for Celtic and Rodgers. He is aggressive and proactive in trying to win the ball when played into a striker, happy to confront forwards and prevent them from turning. By doing so means that when the ball is won the team can counter-attack.
He he as built a fine and fearful partnership with Boyata.
Odsonne Edouard, like Rangers’ Alfredo Morelos, has had his doubters, albeit the Celtic frontman hasn’t had it quite so extreme. Frankly, it is nonsensical. Both are young and very talented.
In the case of the Frenchman, he has been asked to reach new levels of consistency following the sale of Moussa Dembele and the absence of Leigh Griffiths. When Celtic fell to defeat in Salzburg, the 20-year-old showcased the two different sides of his game. There was the strength, power and quality in front of goal to put his side ahead, but then he frustrated with his inability to hold the ball and take the team up the pitch.
Since then he has been superb. Six goals and three assists have arrived during the club’s recent upturn in domestic form. He has been the perfect focal point for Celtic and the club’s incisive supporting players.
Edouard has produced moments of magic in front of goal, but also proved himself capable of getting in those poaching positions, scoring those scruffy efforts. In addition, his quality in dropping slightly deeper to collect the ball and play one-twos which kill opponents has been clear to see.
Even though his preference is moving left, he has developed a relationship with James Forrest.
Credit too has to go to Brendan Rodgers. The Celtic boss has been under the most pressure during his tenure. He has been told how to do his job and ‘fix’ the team by all and sundry, such is the volume of former Celtic players in punditry or trying to get make themselves relevant.
Because the style he had implemented hit a dip didn’t mean that it required complete change. Patience, which is often in short supply, and refinement can be just as, or even more, effective.
The Northern Irishman has stuck to his playing principles and he has been rewarded.