There is a trade-off that comes with the non-negotiable progressive football principles of Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers.
His side have twice earned – and not eked out, crucially – qualification to the Champions League; achieved what previously seemed impossible in handsomely winning on the road in the competition and profited from going toe-to-toe with Manchester City all because of Rodgers’ laudable approach.
On the flipside, the Celtic manager’s conviction that his team must never change their approach of committing attacking players and seeking to play on the front foot, whether up against Hamilton Accies or such luminaries as Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain or Barcelona, can lead to sore, sobering slaughterings. Even if the margin wasn’t a five or seven, the 3-0 dismantling by Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena on Wednesday night was all of that.
There was much froth yesterday over the comments by former Republic of Ireland captain Kenny Cunningham on Irish channel RTE that Rodgers’ philosophy “doesn’t stand up” when his team are ranged against vastly superior players, and effectively that the Scottish champions produced “such naive play” “from a defensive point of view”.
The fact that, between his time with Liverpool and Celtic Rodgers has now won only two of 15 Champions League games is also a stat being bandied about to question his one-style-fits-all approach to facing up to the game’s elite. Teams that, it should forever be recognised, ought to be beating Celtic with plenty to spare.
Yet that was true when Neil Lennon’s Celtic side were up against Barcelona in 2012. Their famous win over the Catalan club to propel them into the last 16 was achieved by camping in and frustrating the bejesus out their illustrious opponents. Compact was the watchword, nay the first and last word, for Gordon Strachan when he guided the club to the last 16 of the Champions League in 2006 and 2007. And for the only other notable European achievement by a Scottish club in the past 10 years that was Rangers’ reaching the 2008 UEFA Cup final, Walter Smith parked more buses than London transport.
Adopting an ultra-defensive strategy on occasions when the opponents are operating in a different financial and football stratosphere is anathema to the Irishman; an offence to everything he holds true. “You are looking at the wrong man. It’s not me,” he said. “I have no compromise.
“We play and our players will get better. You could maybe play for 100 years and never bridge the gap financially, but we’re working away in a difficult market in the Champions League and trying to compete. That’s the overall objective. To be competitive at this level and that’s working collectively as we work. Of course, you may have managers who do it in a different way, but I have no compromise. It’s how I work.”
When Rodgers arrived in Glasgow 16 months ago he said the ultimate aim was to make Celtic a club regularly pitched for the Champions League last 16. The disparities between the haves of the big five leagues, and the even greater haves within those, and all the rest has forced him to reset those ambitions for now.
There is no real collateral damage to what occurred in Germany the other night since Celtic remain firmly in position to finish above an Anderlecht side they beat in Brussels last month. The Belgians, without a point, are unlikely to pick one up in their next two games, away to PSG and at home to Bayern. The same is true for Celtic, who host the Bavarians in 12 days, which suggests that simply avoiding a heavy defeat at home to an Anderlecht they beat 3-0 on their own patch should see them drop into the Europa League.
Celtic have had the misfortune to be pitched into Champions League groups with two teams from the top five leagues in Rodgers’ time. No Scottish club has ever knocked a team from those domains out of the competition, with Celtic’s three appearances in the last 16 effectively coming at the expense of Benfica.
The defensive vulnerability causing Celtic to leak goals against the elite is not merely a system issue but also one related to personnel. Injuries have rarely allowed Rodgers to play his best back four – as, notably, he was able to do when Celtic achieved their first-ever clean sheet away from home in the competition courtesy of the recent 3-0 win in Brussels. The delicate physical nature of Jozo Simunovic – whose injury loss this week forced Mikael Lustig to cover centre-back and the luckless Cristian Gamboa to deputise for the Swede at right-back – and, to a lesser extent, Dedryck Boyata has led to laments once more about Celtic’s summer transfer business. It became clear last season that Rodgers didn’t entirely trust the one-paced Erik Sviatchenko, who has also been injured of late. Yet, an experienced, robust challenger for the places that are held by Simunovic and Boyata when their bodies allow did not arrive.
“It is what it is. Since I’ve come in here, from the very first day, we’ve been struggling with the availability of central defenders,” he said. “Not just one, not just two, it’s been three and sometimes four. It’s something we’ve had to deal with and something we’ll have to look at in terms of getting that consistency.”
Rodgers can be commended for not taking the path of least resistance when it comes to forging a football identity he is hoping will mean that over time, through taking hits along the way, they can become more than patsies for the powerhouse sides. Yet, he knows himself it is not for nothing his £30,000-a-week top talents are finding themselves up against World Cup and Champions League winners earning £200,000 a week. For all that, though, he appears convinced he has a squad with the ability to perform with greater prowess in the most exacting circumstances. It is a case for Rodgers of them demonstrating the necessary fortitude.
“You just have to be realistic,” he said. “The game now is moving away beyond because of finances. We want to be competitive and to do that we have to find a way, a different way. That’s through an ideal of playing as a collective. It’s about breeding that and growing that.
“But, listen, there is no shame in coming to the Allianz and losing 3-0. We had some chances and when you look at the goals we conceded they were disappointing. I don’t feel any shame in it at all.
“Bayern Munich are a world class outfit. They are a super-power club and at times I thought we actually played and showed confidence. But it takes more time to have that total faith.
“Technically they’ve shown they’re good enough to do it. Tactically they also got in good positions. But then you have to have the nerve. You need the nerve to play.
“That’s what the top guys have and it’s what we’re trying to impose and force on to the team. We didn’t once, from being in possession in the first half, play from the goalkeeper to a centre half. Not once. Not once.”