Most discussions about squad improvement in January will invariably be centred around the need for Celtic to sign players, those shiny new tools guaranteed to make the machine work better…
Often overlooked is what can be done with the parts already available. Here’s the three internal team changes I’d like to see Brendan Rodgers make for Celtic’s return after the winter break.
1. Make Scott Bain the Number 1
Ever since he made benching Craig Gordon for Dorus de Vries one of his first major decisions as Celtic manager, Brendan Rodgers’ relationship with the man who has now started 131 of his 158 games in charge has seemed non-committal at best.
Perhaps he’s been doing the same commitment arithmetic as a lot of other Celtic fans: the occasional brilliant save bringing an euphoric high and doing just enough to keep the relationship ticking over as Brendan yet again persuade himself not to ditch his familiar goalkeeper for someone unknown.
The main issue is Gordon’s feet and what he does with them. It’s not only that his technique and passing ability seem lacking at time, what must frustrate Rodgers even more is Gordon’s decision-making and his tendency to occasionally go long and aimless when under even the slightest of pressure.
For Brendan Rodgers, Craig Gordon might be someone quite comfortable and occasionally very nice, but ultimately he’s never going to be able to fulfil all his needs.
To finally get over him completely, Rodgers might just need a rebound.
I hold these truths to be self-evident:
Craig Gordon can make saves that are beyond Scott Bain.
Overall, Scott Bain do not have the quality to become a long-term first choice goalkeeper for Celtic.
Scott Bain should be Celtic’s number 1 for the rest of the season.
Bain’s ability, mobility and confidence with his feet might well be the only real advantage he has over Gordon, but to me the difference between the two are not huge when it comes to both shot stopping or cross handling. Bain has got a recent successful league cup campaign behind him and have looked fairly comfortable whenever called upon for Celtic.
He’s good enough overall to be trusted for the rest of the season and so much better with his feet to allow Brendan Rodgers a proper look at what he’s actually missing through sticking with nice guy Craig.
Letting Bain have a proper run in team should help illustrate how much Celtic could gain as a team by having a goalkeeper with good distribution and whether it’s worth missing out on those occasional great saves. Let Brendan see if the grass *is* greener.
2. Make Kristoffer Ajer the first choice centre-back.
Celtic’s centre-back drama from those first fews chaotic weeks of the season has settled into something resembling normality. While the Glasgow derby was not a great day for either Dedryck Boyata or Filip Benkovic, they’ve instilled at least a sense of order over the last couple of months. Per today, they’re probably Celtic’s best centre-half pairing.
That partnership should stop. It seems very unlikely that Dedryck Boyata will be a Celtic player beyond this season. About as unlikely as Filip Benkovic, who already has the quality to succeed in the English Premier League. Jozo Simunovic is in his fourth season at Celtic Park and have yet to convince, well, anyone. Most Celtic fans are completely convinced about Jack Hendry, but not in the way he’d like.
Kristoffer Ajer should come out of the winter-break as Celtic’s first choice centre-back as he’s currently the club’s only real long-term centre-back prospect. He could also become ridiculously good.
It’s been a stop-start season for the Norwegian with two injury absences, several substitute appearances and playing out of position at right-back.
Still only 20, he has the potential to be everything Celtic need in a centre-back: his physique and strength makes him able to handle the traditional aspects of the role (at 91%, he’s won the highest percentage of defensive air duels in the league this season) and with his ability to carry the ball and picking passes up into the forward line he’s got the ‘modern’ offensive qualities required of a more ball-playing centre-back.
He’s also shown that given the right role, he has the personality to become a leadership figure even at such a young age. While still having plenty to learn and by no means the finished article, Ajer is alongside Kieran Tierney and Odsonne Edourad one of Celtic’s most valuable asset. It’s entirely understandable that Kristoffer Ajer haven’t been Celtic’s first-choice centre back for large parts of this season. After the break, he surely must be.
3. Don’t move Callum McGregor from his best position
The question of when and if to start easing Scott Brown out of the Celtic starting line-up would always end up becoming one of the defining decisions for a Celtic manager.
Injury plagued and definitely not playing at his best during Ronny Deila’s last season, Brendan Rodgers found a way to rejuvenate Brown’s Celtic career, making him a key part of his invincible triple winning team. Brown was integral in the double treble team as well, but the story this season has been very different.
A tricky start to the season for the whole team was followed by Brown’s first substantial injury under Rodgers’ reign. After returning, Brown has seemed well off the pace, willing but not quite able. 34 this summer, it seems time has finally caught up with a player worthy of legend status at the club.
With his captain out injured, Rodgers was handed a ready-made solution to The Brown Condundrum: Callum McGregor seemed perfectly at ease in the deep lying midfield role straight away. His mobility, physical and mental quickness, and especially his passing ability, a much more natural fit to Rodger’s playing style than Brown’s more combative skills.
McGregor’s versatility and intelligence have seen him deployed in a range of different positions both under Deila and Rodgers, doing well – sometimes great – in all, but with a sense that he had still not found the perfect role to suit his skills. Until now.
With McGregor as the number 6, Celtic have someone who is more comfortable on the ball under pressure and with a wider range of passing and mobility from deep, but also a player whose experience in more attacking positions and his varied skill-set mean he can move seamlessly with the team up the field, contributing a lot more offensively and in the opposition’s half than Brown is now capable of.
With some evident holes in Celtic’s squad, McGregor is still occasionally a victim of his own versatility – most recently being played at left-back in the Glasgow derby. That should now stop. The deep-lying role in midfield is far too essential to Celtic’s success for the best option not to be deployed there, no matter the needs elsewhere.