THE ‘Ronny Roar’ may have been conspicuous by its absence of late but it is the lack of any ‘Celtic grrrr’ Craig Gordon maintains must be factored in to the meek failures of Ronny Deila’s side in Europe.
Heaven knows, myriad deficiencies in the Norwegian’s set-up have been exposed by a five-game winless run in Europe. These proved manifest in the inability to negotiate the Champions League qualifiers and then avoid finishing bottom in their Europa League Group A – this fate confirmed by Thursday’s home loss to Ajax.
Yet, until now, a soft centre beyond the one at the heart of Deila’s defence hasn’t been cited as sinking Celtic in cross-border competition. An immersion so complete they are now ten games without a victory in the Europa League and, as a result of this week’s reverse to their Dutch opponents, have failed to claim a home win in a European group for the first time in their history. Deila, meanwhile, with five on-field defeats, has now lost more European home games than any previous Celtic manager.
However, in club keeper Gordon venturing that Celtic are not game savvy enough, he is just adding one more thing to a ‘must do better’ list running the length of Canada’s coastline.
There are any number of euphemisms deployed in football for teams who don’t bare their teeth and put the boot in. They are said not to play on the edge enough; not to be sufficiently streetwise or sufficiently cynical. One former Celtic manager, when stating privately why Tommy Burns’ aesthetically pleasing side could not overhaul Rangers, lamented that the ‘bam’ factor was missing. Except, instead of ‘bam’, he deployed a four-letter word that begins with ‘c’.
On his arrival at Celtic in 2000, Martin O’Neill redressed that with a bam overload by recruiting such as Neil Lennon, Chris Sutton, Alan Thompson and John Hartson. Aside from players with their considerable talents, Deila’s squad is devoid of personnel with their strength and power... and willingness to use these as blunt weapons.
Perhaps that is what was in the mind of the 32-year-old keeper when asked if Celtic required to be more defensively pragmatic on the back of shipping in 15 goals across their past seven European outings. Certainly Gordon’s response wasn’t as expected.
“There are ways to stop teams playing but we are an attack-minded side,” he said. “Overall, although it was an open game, the balance wasn’t too bad. We didn’t give away that many chances. It’s about being clever at the right times, about having more experience and making fouls when we are caught a bit short.
“We are probably a little bit too nice. We let the opposition play and there probably isn’t enough aggression. We didn’t give away a lot of fouls to break the play up. I think we need a bit more cynicism but there isn’t a lot of experience in the team and hopefully we can add that to our game.”
One man who doesn’t need to do that is rapscallion captain Scott Brown, missing in the 2-1 defeat by Ajax with a knee injury that will keep him out for three months. In his place such as Callum McGregor, Stuart Armstrong and Thomas Rogic were hardly snapping into tackles. In terms of the home-grown, outside of Brown and meaty-challenge-loving teenage full-back Kieran Tierney, Celtic appear to have a raft of pass-and-go footballers.
Most successful sides, though, have the ability to go to war on a number of fronts. Possibly Stefan Johansen and Nir Bitton – both suspended the other evening – have a bit of bite, but Brown stands alone in the molar-gnashing. “That is a miss but we need everybody to take up the slack from what he gives us,” said Gordon.
The former Hearts goalie – who played with smartly cynical types such as Steven Pressley and Paul Hartley at Tynecastle – doesn’t blame Deila for cultivating a chorus of choir boys at Celtic Park. In his playing career, the Norwegian was regarded as a robust, no-nonsense centre-back.
“I think he [the manager] is well aware of that side of the game,” said Gordon. “We don’t really have too many players who have that in their game really within the squad. So it is asking players to do things that are maybe not their natural game, but at the same time they have to learn to do those kind of things as well.”
The charge levelled at Deila is that he has not learned any lessons as Celtic have continued to concede cringeworthy goals. Yet, with the back four of Mikael Lustig, Dedryck Boyata, Jozo Simunovic and Tierney offering a general solidity on Thursday beyond any recent Europa League misadventures, Gordon offered a plea in mitigation for a man whose only previous frontline coaching post was six years with Stromgodset.
“We changed against Ajax because it was more of a 4-3-3 than the usual 4-2-3-1,” the Scot said. “At half-time we altered things slightly in our set-up to get two players sitting when we were defending but to leave only one sitting when we were going forward to try and influence the game. We kept high lines, our shape was better and we won most of the first balls up.
“Defensively, I didn’t think we were too bad. The two goals were bad ones but defensively, although they had the ball at times and had it around the box they didn’t trouble me too much.
“We have not had a great campaign, though. We have been close but not close enough. It is disappointing but certainly we are a good team and we have to grind out the results better. The manager has been fantastic with me. I have absolutely no complaints about him whatsoever. He is a good manager. He is also a young manager and, hopefully we bear that in mind that he has come here and taken a massive step up. Overall I think he’s done pretty well so far.”
Most would believe Gordon was being too nice with such an assessment.