Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers has won the Ladbrokes Premiership Manager of the Month award for October. Renowned for his attacking style, Craig Fowler looks at how improvement at the other end of the pitch secured Rodgers his second gong.
Yes, we all know it. Brendan Rodgers is bloody marvellous. Many expected him to improve Celtic’s fortunes when he took over in the summer, but the most impressive part of his managerial tenure at Parkhead thus far has been the ability to get the best out of what he inherited.
The same players who looked bereft of ideas and confidence under Ronny Deila have suddenly been transformed. He’s made five signings, but seeing as Dorus de Vries and Cristian Gamboa are both back-ups at this moment in time, it’s really only three signings that have improved the starting XI. Scott Sinclair came in right away and hit the ground running. Moussa Dembele took a month or two to get settled but is now on fire. While Kolo Toure provided some much needed steel to a defensive unit that saw Efe Ambrose and Dedryck Boyata feature a combined 73 times last season.
Rodgers won his Manager of the Month award due to Celtic’s 100 per cent record in domestic football, which was achievement thanks in large to a stellar defensive record. They never conceded a single goal in four league games, three of which came away from home, while also shutting out rivals Rangers in the Betfred Cup semi-final. You have to go all the way back to Souleymane Coulibaly’s ridiculous 40-yard screamer on 24 September for the last time Rodgers’ side conceded a goal in Scottish football.
It’s a marked improvement from earlier in the season. In fact, it wasn’t until the trip to Dundee on 1 October that they managed to record a clean sheet in the Ladbrokes Premiership, their seventh game of the campaign. Through the first 13 games, they managed to keep opponents out on three occasions – two of which came against the might of Alloa and Lincoln Red Imps at Celtic Park – a record which has been now been flipped on its head as they’ve conceded only three times in eight games, all of which came against Borussia Monchengladbach.
What’s particularly impressive about the run is that they’ve managed it without Toure. This leaves Rodgers with an interesting conundrum once his experienced centre-back returns to full fitness. He was the stand-out defender in the early part of the season. His efforts against Beer-Sheva away and the draw with Manchester City bordered on the heroic. It was like he’d inserted attracting magnets into both the ball and his head, such was the frequency he managed to seek out cross balls into the penalty box as Celtic hung on valiantly.
What won’t help his cause is the fact that the only game he’s played since the start of October was the defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach, where he was at fault for both goals. Though it’s not something which fans should dwell on too much. Those were his first errors in a hooped shirt and there are other explanations for Celtic’s improvements at the back.
First of which is the play of Jozo Simunovic. The centre back has come back into the team after injury and looked every bit the player fans hoped they were getting when Celtic shelled out a reported £5.5 million for his services. He’s been solid at the back, composed on the ball and looks to have quickly developed an understanding with Erik Sviatchenko. The club are now delighted an August move to Torino for the Croatian defender fell through at the 11th hour.
It’s possible the defence just needed time to settle in. Rodgers is a progressive coach and, with only so many hours in the day, perhaps it’s the attacking side of the game he focused on when he first arrived. With everything clicking further forward, he could then concentrate on tightening things up at the back.
There also the subtle changes in personnel. Craig Gordon may not become the sweeper-keeper his manager desires, but the defence look more confident with him in the side rather than De Vries, while deploying someone with energy alongside Scott Brown at the base of midfield, such as Liam Henderson, Stuart Armstrong or Darren McGregor, rather than the passive Nir Bitton, makes it harder for opponents to play their way through the middle. Then there’s the sale of Saidy Janko, who wasn’t the strongest defensively, and the unwavering absence of the aforementioned Ambrose and Boyata.
Regardless of the reason, the improvement has enabled Celtic to become as close as you can get to a complete team at the Scottish top flight level. Three league away games in succession, not to mention next Sunday’s Betfred Cup final with Aberdeen will test their resolve. But even if they do leak a few goals here and there across the rest of November, you wouldn’t bet against Rodgers retaining his award.