Celtic have gone to the Etihad Stadium and more than held their own, earning a draw which could have been a win. They’ve also swept aside Aberdeen, recognised as the second best team in the country, in the Betfred Cup final.
What has stood out for many has been the Celtic line-up in both these matches. Ten of the 11 players that started each game were at the club last season; a season which was seen as underwhelming and mediocre under Ronny Deila. It was expected that many of those players would have been seeking pastures new in the summer following the arrival of new manager Brendan Rodgers.
Yet it has been a case of evolution rather than revolution. Here are five aspects which have changed in a short space of time.
One of the sticks used to beat Deila as his time at Celtic meandered to a colourless ending was his unbending trust in the 4-2-3-1 system. Many fans were pleading with him to stick another striker into the pot and start stirring, quickly.
Rodgers came with a background of tactical flexibility. Ironically, when in charge of Swansea he was an advocate of the 4-2-3-1 system. Joe Allen and Leon Britton were used to control the midfield with the goal threat of Iceland’s Gylfi Sigurdsson ahead of them to complete the midfield triumvirate.
Rodgers displayed his flexibility and a pragmatism at Liverpool. He had to find a way of using both Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge together, then latterly find a solution for the departure of the Uruguayan. Among others he used a diamond midfield, plus different varieties of a back three.
Saying all that, his preference is 4-3-3 with a sitting midfielder giving the midfield a base with the two in front being tasked with controlling the game and working tirelessly off the ball.
Yet, from the start of the season Rodgers looked to have continued with Deila’s 4-2-3-1 which soon morphed discreetly into a lop-sided 3-4-2-1. But with injury to Kieran Tierney he’s had to adjust again and is now finally fielding his preferred 4-3-3 aided by the emergence of Stuart Armstrong and subtle improvements of Tom Rogic.
As Paul Le Guen found out in swapping Lyon for Rangers via ultra-marathons, and as Mark Warburton is finding out now, it is tricky business taking on the management position at either half of the Old Firm. Even more so if you come into the job with little or no background in Scotland.
So to label any of these managers weak would be a disservice, although that has not stopped people from doing so, this writer included.
Deila certainly falls into that category. As mentioned above he was stubborn in his use of 4-2-3-1. Seen as a young, forward-thinking manager he wasn’t overly open-minded when it came to formations, systems and making changes during games.
In his two seasons at the club it is hard to pinpoint a moment where he made a brave decision, one which did change or could help change the flow of the game. It is different under Rodgers.
In the Betfred Cup semi-final defeat of Rangers his positivity paid off. Despite Celtic’s dominance and control, Rodgers made an attacking substitute. Put many managers in his position and they would have been content to let the game ride to full-time, allowing for another option with an extra 30 minutes of football.
Rodgers chucked on Leigh Griffiths to play alongside Moussa Dembele. The duo combined for the winning goal three minutes from time.
Other instances include going toe-to-toe with Manchester City over two Champions League games and making a first-half substitute against Motherwell before switching tactics which saw Celtic come from behind twice to win with a late goal after incessant pressure.
“For players to meet the demands at this club, which is reaching the Champions League and performing in the Champions League, I am asking: do you want it or not? If players are not fit, the easiest element, and if I get sacked for that [making them fit], that is not my problem, it is the club’s problem. I know the club is with me, I know the players are with me.”
The words of Deila. ‘Reaching the Champions League’. Nope. ‘Performing in the Champions League’. Definitely not. ‘I know the players are with me’. Not at the end. Not by a long shot.
Deila made a big deal of diet and fitness on arrival having taken the reins from Neil Lennon. He put a ban fizzy drinks. Some players had an inclination for an Irn-Bru or a Coke following training. The idea was for an austere approach to diet with the implications that it would have a positive effect on the fitness of the squad.
Yet, there were few noticeable differences from Lennon’s tenure, and by the end of Deila’s time at Celtic they were plodding. Although that may have been down to mental rather than physical factors.
There is a noticeable difference under Rodgers. Celtic are playing with more zest and vigour. There is power and pace throughout the team. That has led to the team playing the most effective pressing game in the league.
Pressing has become a popular trend in recent seasons across Europe. While once it was always about possession, dominating the ball and building from the back, now pressing is omnipresent.
Systems and trends in football are cyclical with physique becoming prominent once again. Look at the Celtic team and you have the likes of Kolo Toure, Jozo Simunovic, Tom Rogic, Mikael Lustig, Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong, James Forrest and Moussa Dembele. Quick and powerful, strapping and strong or a combination of all four.
This allows Celtic to over-power, over-run and over-awe opponents. Not just in domestic action but in Europe as well, most notably in the two games against Manchester City.
There has been a shift in mindset, not only at Celtic Park, among fans, staff and players, but Scottish football as a whole. Before the arrival of Rodgers there was talk of Aberdeen and Heart of Midlothian getting close to, and even challenging, Celtic. Plus Rangers were expected to be in the mix sooner rather than later.
The talk only intensified after Rangers knocked Celtic out of the Scottish Cup last season. However, that result inadvertently altered the future of Scottish football. It showed Celtic directors that changes were required with Rangers’ presence in the top tier after four seasons away.
It was made public that Deila would soon be in the past. Rodgers was the future. The calibre and presence of the Northern Irishman instantly appealed to the squad. He won them over with his man management, and Lincoln Red Imps debacle aside it has been positive, progressive and predominant.
Under Deila there was the incident of captain Scott Brown slumped on the streets of Edinburgh drunkenly eating a take-away. It is unlikely such a situation will occur under Rodgers. There is the sense that players want to play and succeed for Celtic again. For Rodgers.
The 43-year-old has also returned the bounce to Celtic fans’ steps. Large areas of the cavernous Celtic Park sat empty under Deila. Rodgers has oversaw the rekindling of a feel-good factor among fans, as well as a fear-factor for opposition.
No more Ronny Roar
A cheap gimmick or a connection between fan and manager? Depending who you spoke to the Ronny Roar sat in either category.
In its origins it started organically at Pittodrie following a tight Celtic victory over Aberdeen which gave it a bit of credibility. But as time went on its lustre faded and cringe-factor increased. The Norwegian was on a hiding to nothing with his constant use of the ‘three-air-punch’ salute.
Rodgers has been known for gimmicks in his career. Ask Liverpool fans about the three envelopes. But even he has not looked to follow suit. Win, celebrate, salute the fans. It’s the way forward, not a stunt that became contrived and was used following mundane league wins.