Though, on the face of it, Celtic have thus far failed to significantly improve upon their squad from last season in the transfer window, Craig Fowler reckons they could still be better this campaign
This is an exercise in playing devil’s advocate. There are mitigating factors and it’s not as simple as demanding ‘go and sign someone really good’ of the club’s hierarchy, but as a summary it’s fair to say Celtic should be more aggressive in the current transfer market. They’ve fought hard to gain access to the £30million-plus windfall that is the Champions League group stages in each of the last two seasons but haven’t taken the necessary steps to improve their chances of repeating the feat.
Their haggling over John McGinn ultimately became a source of embarrassment for the Parkhead side, as Hibs would ultimately accept an offer for the player from Aston Villa - an offer Celtic then matched, showing they believed he was actually worth the asking price - who then managed to convince the Scottish international his future belonged south of the border.
This is not an attempt to absolve the Celtic board of blame. Rather, it is a reminder that, despite a frustrating couple of days (or few weeks), Celtic are in great shape and can improve this campaign even if they fail to move the needle in terms of procuring another mouth-watering signing or two.
The squad was weakened by the sale of Stuart Armstrong to Southampton and, unless a replacement is sought, that could sting across the course of the season. However, we should remind ourselves that, even when fit, Armstrong was not guaranteed to start for Brendan Rodgers’ side last season. The first-choice midfield, when everyone is available, is Scott Brown, Olivier Ntcham and Tom Rogic. Callum McGregor is another favourite who can take a spot in that trio, when he’s not filling in for an out-of-form Scott Sinclair on the left wing when Rodgers wants to play 4-2-3-1.
It’s been the manager’s favoured formation since he arrived at Parkhead, though he may move away from it this term. That’s because with Moussa Dembele and Odsonne Edouard in his squad, two incredible talents, it only stands to reason that he selects a system to get them both into the starting XI, hence his experimenting with a 3-5-2 system.
The two French strikers are 22 and 20, respectively. Edouard has already shown that he’s taken massive strides compared to when he was first signed from PSG last summer. Dembele, meanwhile, is a top level talent in European football if he can shake off his constant injury struggles and put together a few months of continuous football. It’s a big ask, of course, but the sport is littered with players who were injury-prone until they weren’t, especially those who found it difficult to stay fit during their younger years.
The 3-5-2 also encourages the improving attacking qualities of left-back Kieran Tierney to develop further. The 21-year-old is a tremendous talent at present, but he shouldn’t settle for all he’s got at the moment. He’s got it in his locker to be a dominating attacking force in Scottish football this term: someone capable of notching double-figures in assists and significantly adding to the seven career goals he has thus far.
In the midfield, 22-year-old Olivier Ntcham should already be worth in excess of £12million if anyone from England wishes to buy him. He can physically dominate opponents, dictate the flow of the game with his tempo, and hurt teams in the final third. It’s a lethal mix of attributes. He can go to the very top of football if he realises his true potential.
Ahead of him is Tom Rogic. Like Dembele, if the Australian can manage to avoid injuries this term then he’s got the ability to have a frighteningly good season. He’s got the skill of a No.10 with the body of a centre-back. On his day there is nobody who can stop him.
Then there’s the continuous improvement of Callum McGregor and James Forrest, while Celtic would thoroughly welcome a Scott Sinclair return to form. Nobody else in the side has the blend of speed and power that the winger has, and if anyone can get him playing back to his best it’s Rodgers.
Of course, the defence remains a problem, especially at centre-back, but there still remains a slight bit of hope that the unit could improve without another signing. Jozo Simunovic, Jack Hendry and Kristoffer Ajer are all 24 and younger. The latter already looks like one of the brightest young prospects in European football and is deservedly one of the first names down on the team sheet. Simunovic is suffering a crisis of confidence, but we know he has the ability to perform in Europe (look at last season’s run to the group stages) and could do again if he rides out this tricky patch. Hendry, meanwhile, is still trying to find his feet at the best team in the country. He’s not played a whole lot of first-team football in his career and is another with a lot of potential. Even Dedryck Boyata is a young 27 in football terms, having barely played prior to his signing three years ago. And, who knows, maybe Marvin Compper will get fit and look like a defender who played regularly in the Bundesliga not so long ago (you’re right, that one took it too far).
In short, there’s a lot of development left in this Celtic squad. The 2016/17 version of this team needn’t be the best one and Rodgers still has a job to do in terms of making sure this current group reach their absolute apex, both individually and collectively.
The 1-1 home draw with AEK Athens was as frustrating as it was alarming. Celtic are now up against it in their hope of making the group stages for the third year running. But while it would rob them of at least £20million in additional funds, spending a season in the Europa League group stages could reinvigorate the club. Instead of suffering confidence-sapping hidings by teams with dumbfounding balance sheets, they can gain some momentum against the second tier of European football and go into the knockout stages with a true belief that they can make a proper run in the competition.