Idealism and realism appear to have been having a conversation in the recesses of Brendan Rodgers’ mind. And where once the Celtic manager would have no truck with adopting greater caution on the European stage, he confesses that trouncings in the Champions League have now impacted his thinking. Realism is now being given a serious hearing.
FC Salzburg in Austria on Thursday night in the Europa League is not an undertaking comparable with facing down Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain – two teams to have handed out seven-goal thrashings to Rodgers’ Scottish champions.
Yet the certainty that Marco Rose’s team will go after their visitors at the Red Bull Arena means it is unlikely the Irishman will send out his players to play their normal game. Previously he baulked at the very notion of adopting a pragmatic approach when taking on the elite. What he had to say this week about Salzburg can only but point to a change of heart.
“When we picked up the defeats, heavy defeats against top quality opposition, I can probably look at myself as well,” he said of learning from the Champions League experiences and applying them at the second-tier Europa League.
“I’m a very attack-minded coach but the last thing I ever want to do is expose my players. I always feel the confidence you can gain from looking to play your game can work to your advantage. But maybe I have to quell a little bit of that, to ensure the players aren’t exposed.
“When you look at Paris, [where Celtic lost 7-1 a year ago] we actually started the game well, but the sheer quality of the opponent gets them through you. Away at Barcelona in the first year I was here [Celtic lost 7-0], we were four down maybe going into the last ten minutes and that would have seemed like par for a game against them at that point. But we conceded late goals and it put a different slant on the game.
“But we look forward to showing the experiences we’ve gained. Ultimately it’s about trying to get out of the group. The home games are going to be very important, but away we have the opportunity to show our mentality and try to take points.”
Asked if he was worried about the possibility that any more lopsided defeats in Europe might prove “more psychologically detrimental”, especially with his team now betraying a domestic fragility for the first time, he concurred. “Yeah, I think that’s more what I’m looking at. They’ve shown spells in the games, but the sheer quality of a misplaced pass being put into a gap and it’s a goal.
“People talk about when we were away against PSG, but we were actually defending in a 5-4-1. We morphed into a 4-3-3 when we had the ball, but then we were 5-4-1, so we had a backline of five and four compact in front, but just the speed of that got through us. We end up conceding seven, so apart from just totally camping right in, there wasn’t a great deal more we could have done. Maybe we could have won a couple of duels that went against us.
“I’m conscious of what happens with the players and the impact. Not that I’ve seen a great deal of it from then, because everything I ever ask of them, they do their best. But I certainly would never want to expose them to the criticism that will come from conceding that number of goals.”