By Johnny Connelly
With no Rangers in the SPL, Celtic unquestionably have an easier route to retaining the title. Despite the benefits of this, it does create another issue for Neil Lennon’s men. Keeping a whole squad of players performing at their best becomes difficult when the consequences of dropping points are exponentially less severe.
Even at this early stage in the season, (despite a few instances of complacency) Celtic’s quality has shone through, and only a great fool would bet against the SPL trophy staying at the Parkhead club’s trophy cabinet.
Given Lennon’s relative lack of experience in the dugout, many have questioned his ability to handle the problems that face a huge club like Celtic. That said, the way he’s managed to tackle this most recent issue is nothing short of remarkable.
So, the million dollar question, how do you keep players performing at their best when your biggest rival is no longer breathing down your neck? Or in a more universally comparative way, what do you do when your biggest external competitor disappears?
The answer? Simply introduce more internal competitiveness.
Lennon has illustrated this ethos beautifully raising the stakes when it comes to competition for places in his starting XI. This is how Celtic will succeed and flourish without Rangers, and it’s already bearing fruit in the form of a resurgent Gary Hooper.
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Hooper netted the opener for the Bhoys against Motherwell on Saturday, taking his tally to 8 for the season already. This time last season, even with Rangers in the league, it was December before Hooper reached this tally. I put this down to increased competition for places.
At the start of the season, Celtic’s striking options were less considerable. Hooper was the main man, usually partnered with Stokes. The only real competition was from Georgios Samaras and Tony Watt. Samaras was and is playing the best football of his career, but is more effective as a winger. Watt too looks promising, but at just 18 years of age, will be used sparingly.
Lennon must have looked through his squad list and saw few other alternatives. He chose to loan out the cumbersome Darryl Murphy, youthful James Keating, and the flop that is Mo Bangura. Had this been left the way it was, I believe Celtic would have been subjected to a lesser Gary Hooper than the one that’s tormenting defences currently.
Enter Miku and Lassad Nouioui. Two experienced strikers to give Hooper a much needed boot up the backside in training every day. Over the last few seasons, if Hooper’s form was below par, he’d still start (more often than not). This season will be different. He’s widely regarded as Celtic’s best striker, but this time around, if his form drops, he’ll find himself on the bench.
Hooper notched up 29 goals last season in 50 appearances, (58% conversion). This was his second highest ever return, just 1 goal off his career best. This season so far, his record is 8 goals from 12 games, a marked conversion improvement at 67%. On the basis of these current figures, and the fact that Hooper will soon be hitting his physical peak as he turns 25 in January, Lennon will be hoping his man will manage around 34 goals this season.
Celtic’s central midfield too has long been feeling the benefits of a healthy competition. Lennon has a plethora of options available to him in the middle of the park. Victor Wanyama, captain Scott Brown, Joe Ledley, Beram Kayal, and Filip Twardzik all fit there naturally, while the likes of Charlie Mulgrew, Kris Commons, and Paddy McCourt too can slot in if need be. This wide choice has made Celtic’s midfield the strongest area of the team, and allowed the club the luxury of being able to sell on a player like Ki for £7m, a healthy profit without weakening the team.
Lennon has quietly applied the same logic to the forward line, and arguably the back four with the addition of Efe Ambrose to the team. More or less the whole squad now knows that they are not bomb proof, and their place in the squad is not guaranteed. Possibly Fraser Forster and James Forrest are the exception to this rule currently, but given the nature of Lennon’s past dealings, it’ll only be a matter of time before they also find themselves having a sterner test in training to justify their selection.
This policy of increased competition for places has proven successful, but it a work in progress without question. This season won’t see a record points total for Celtic, and it’s unlikely to be one that’ll feature heavily when the complete history of the club comes to be written. What it will be able to boast though is that it’ll be a successful season both on and off the pitch. Financially the club is being run in a prudent manner, the fans will be entertained and see their heroes play against the finest teams in Europe, and the players, under Lennon’s shrewd setup, will be assured that only the best performances will merit their next opportunity to pull on that famous green & white jersey.
As Jock Stein once said, “Celtic jerseys are not for second best, they don’t shrink to fit inferior players”, and Neil Lennon’s competitive squad will ensure that Gary Hooper and the rest are no exception to this.