Brendan Rodgers’ in Europe: Naive, stubborn or both?
Celtic are hanging onto the Europa League by a thread, after a 2-0 first leg defeat to Valencia last week, and travel to the Mestalla on Thursday needing a miracle. As Kieran Webster writes, Brendan Rodgers’ tactics represent a huge part of the European problem.
You would be a fool to question Brendan Rodgers’ domestic form. 103 wins in 126 is a record only beat by Neil Lennon, Martin O’Neil and Jock Stein. His possession focused style of football has worked a charm in Scotland and teams often struggle to set up a defensive style to combat it. Teams like Hibs and Rangers have often pressed and often failed. Teams like St Johnstone looks to sit back and frustrate but also often fail. Celtic are just too good domestically.
Rodgers’ European record, however, shows a huge contrast. So far, he’s achieved 15 wins from 41 games including qualifiers. In the Champions league, he has only managed 1 win in the group stages and has overseen his team been thrashed twice by PSG and torn apart at the Nou Camp. His big European result came when he drew 3-3 with Manchester City.
It comes nowhere near the performances Neil Lennon’s oversaw against Barcelona and Spartak Moscow in 2012, Gordon Strachan’s win over Manchester United or O’Neil’s 2003 UEFA Cup final team who knocked out Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers. So where is Rodgers going wrong?
It’s hard to tell if the former Liverpool manager genuinely believes that Celtic are capable of passing good European teams off the park, or if he is too stubborn to change the system. He keeps the team’s 4-3-3 shape and insists the team plays out from the back.
The idea of this style is good, it’s arguably how football should be played. However, Celtic don’t have the quality to make it work. Against Valencia, players such as Brown and Izaguirre looked uncomfortable on the ball. Simunovic and Boyata struggled to feed any of the midfielders or strikers and simply passed the ball between themselves.
Valencia were clever. They sat back in a rigid 4-4-2 formation and were clearly well drilled. They were happy to let Celtic pass the ball in front of them, waiting for mistakes, which were inevitably made.
After the game, Rodgers claimed, like after many other European defeats, that Celtic will learn. He said this in his first season after losing 2-0 at home to Borussia Monchengladbach. Similarly, they like Valencia stuck to a rigid 4-4-2 system that Celtic couldn’t break down. The two games panned out basically in the same way. Monchengladbach sat back, waited for errors and picked Celtic off.
In three seasons of European football, Rodgers clearly hasn’t learnt anything. Valencia and Gladbach are arguably a similar quality of opposition, both played with similar tactics and formation, and both came to Celtic Park a won 2-0.
In both games, Rodgers refused to change the system or the tactics. Against Valencia the game was crying for Celtic play more risky passes and be more direct, they passed the ball around the back four for 90 minutes, not even managing a shot on target in the 2nd half. In games against the best teams Europe has to offer, such as PSG, it would make sense to adapt your own game, sit back, try to stop the threats and look to counter attack.
Instead Rodgers insisted team attack and press PSG, almost making the games against them end to end at times, resulting in being beat 5-0 at home and 7-1 away. Like a basketball match with only one side scoring.
After these defeats, Rodgers speaks as if the players are to blame and he often sounds frustrated. He never really takes responsibility from these games and he fails to realise that the players he has can’t play or compete at a high level in Europe with the players he has.
His team selections raise questions too. Against Valencia, he started Burke, a natural winger with little European experience, up front and kept Eduard, a £9million signing with good European experience, on the bench. When he came on, he looked lively, taking players on and being positive. He should have started.
Brown somehow managed to stay on the pitch for the whole game despite giving the ball away countless times. Hayes, who’s been playing well at left back should’ve started ahead Izaguirre. Christie, a decent goal threat, was hooked for no good reason, and McGregor should’ve played deeper in midfield, a position he thrives in. It’s hard to pick up a big result when all of these small decisions build up into a bigger problem.
Ronny Deila was often criticised for his European failures and was one of the reasons he lost his job. With European results still getting away from Rodgers, and a massive dip in domestic form this season and recruitment in general being poor, it may only be a matter of time before serious questions are asked about his leadership.