CELTIC’S trip to the Highlands this afternoon prompts a question that strikes to the heart of why Ronny Deila is haemorrhaging credibility, writes Andrew Smith. It is this: where would the Scottish champions be if John Hughes, and not the Norwegian, had been in charge of his former club for the past 18 months?
All available evidence points to the fact that, had Hughes been in Glasgow and not helming Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Celtic would be no worse off. An exponent of the expansive style favoured at Parkhead, with under one-twentieth of a playing budget, last season Hughes deservedly claimed manager of the year for a third-place Premiership finish and a Scottish Cup success that followed a thwarting of Deila’s team in the semi-final.
That trophy is the second most important it is possible for a Celtic manager to claim. With the league a gimme, top of his list must be making a decent fist of European competition. On that front, Celtic have proved entirely hamfisted and Hughes’ good friend and former team-mate John Collins, now Deila’s No 2, can’t hide from the fact that results keep or kill you.
“We are bitterly disappointed with the results, that’s for sure,” said Collins. “We can’t butter it up; it’s been a disappointing European campaign.”
There has been no outcome on the continent in two seasons that Deila can draw on to offer a straw to clutch for those who really want to make a case for an affable, principled individual.
Celtic have no challenge for the title, so he must be gauged in Europe. However, how are these parameters set? It seems that a rather arbitrary two seasons has now been decided upon. Yet, in his first two seasons, Deila has won European qualifiers on the pitch and made it out of a Europa League group. Neil Lennon did neither in the same time span. Ah, but it is said, Lennon’s fine Europa League campaign that followed them replacing a cheating Sion showed signs of progress wholly absent in Deila’s second campaign. Wait a minute, though, aren’t results supposed to be the be-all-and-end-all?
Collins makes a stouter defence of Celtic in the here and now than any backline he has helped Deila choose for continental competition. On the subject of systems, he also defends the selection of young Scottish players and the thin margins that Deila’s team have been on the wrong side of.
“What do you call pragmatism? Have we been playing top European teams? If we set up 4-5-1 against Malmo, Fenerbahce, Ajax, Molde would guys and fans be happy if we sat in? We believed after watching, analysing and assessing our opponents that we could go and play them at football, toe to toe, and beat them.
“We have to have better reactions, get tighter, more compact, instant reactions. That’s something we are working on. That’s when you lose goals. When you win the ball you have to go forward and try and score a goal. The man in possession has got to have players moving in front of him to create a forward pass and get a cross in the box or a shot. When you lose the ball you have got to have instant reactions to get back.
“The positive here’s been exceptional football played during those games. Exciting football in periods, goals scored, chances created. None of the games has our goalkeepers had ten saves and been peppered or pinned in 15-30 minutes. Hasn’t happened. That’s my opinion having studied the games and seen every figure: crosses, shots, passes.
“This campaign has fallen the other way. We have missed chances. In Malmo we had a goal disallowed before half-time, a perfect goal. We could have gone in 1-1. Nobody talks about it. It’s fine lines. Never went for us. These things make a difference. It’s little tweaks like sprinting back in ten yards. It’s not a case of the system, it’s the mistakes within it. The slow reactions. Three goals from setpieces against Malmo is not the system.”
It is laudable that Collins – who says there is no other way but to develop academy players, which matters to him – and Deila will stand by their beliefs. Ultimately, though, it feels like they are falling by them.
“Ultimately, others will decide our fate. The board of directors and the fans. They always have their opinions and of course I am going to say that we will get better. What makes me think that? The games we have played this season. The football we have produced and the chances we have created has been very good.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t taken a lot of the chances and we know we need to stop conceding goals. That’s the target and we will work on the training pitch relentlessly, back four, back eight, shuttling back, being tight and compact. Problems don’t solve themselves. Hard work and repetition does it.
“But ultimately you can only do so much on the training pitch. You need the test. How do we prepare for Europe? We make sure we are on it when we lose the ball in every league match. It doesn’t matter if we are 3-0 up. When we lose the ball we have to react and get tight, as if we were playing against a Champions League team. That’s the habit we have to get into, no matter who we are playing.”
For Deila’s Celtic, full-blooded at home, anaemic in Europe, it seems to matter all too much who they are playing.