I tend to stay away from social media and its knee-jerk reactions after games like yesterday, but from the brief bits that I have seen online the opinions as to why yesterday’s performance occurred seemed to vary from the players being tired due to Brendan not making best use of their full squad and the team being disjointed because Brendan has over-rotated the squad this season. Like all things in life there will not be one simple, straightforward solution and possibly both those have some merit. However from my own position tiredness is almost certainly a factor at play this season and specifically in yesterday’s performance.
When I got back into the car after the game, I caught the end of a discussion on Radio Scotland between Michael Stewart and Packie Bonner that had me shouting at the radio over the debate on whether the Celtic players could or should be tired. There is nothing more important to me about punditry than value being added to my knowledge and Bonner’s certainly not doing that. He was doing something which really frustrates, he used the phrase, “In my day.” The fact that his day was the ’80’s and that modern football, in terms of its athleticism, is so different from the ’80’s to almost be a different game, was the first point that frustrated. He also ignored the basic element of context to whether players have played too much football and might be tired.
In his day teams may well have played a lot of games (and we’ll get onto that later), however, it was all relative. When Aston Villa won the top flight in England using only 14 players through the whole season, it would have been a similar number of players used by Ipswich, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, and the other top teams of the day. Therefore although players were tired, so were all there opponents. There was not large squads of exceptionally high quality players as we see in top-flight teams these days where squad rotation keeps players fresh. And there was also not the volume of games.
In comparison to the rest of Scottish football, Celtic players have played considerably more games than everybody else. For Celtic alone, the players have played approximately 11 more games in the season to date than the teams they are playing against. As Barcabhoy pointed out just a few weeks ago, Celtic players are averaging approximately one game every 4.65 days, whereas Rangers, Hearts, Aberdeen etc are roughly one game every seven days. When you also factor in that of all of our first team squad is playing international football at some level at every international break the amount of additional football (and travelling time) of our players across the whole squad is greater than any other team in Scottish football. Our players are playing more games and at a higher level.
We then get onto Packie’s “In my day” comment, so I did a brief check on the 1988-89 season. By the end of December, Bonner & colleagues had played 13 fewer games than the current team. Also, the average modern player covers approximately 30% more ground per game than in the 1980’s (12 – 15 kilometres a game compared with 8-10 kilometres a game). Also, in the 1980’s players run for 25% of that distance, compared to nearly 50% today. So not only did the Celtic players play considerably more games to this point than in Packie’s day, but physically it’s not the same sport as 30 plus years ago with the amount of running and ground covered by modern day players far in excess of their counter parts 30+ years ago . Factoring in that additional ground covered, the additional sprinting, and the additional international fixtures, the Celtic first team squad players of this season have played approximately 18 more game time periods than Bonner & colleagues did in the same period. That’s just under four games a month more. That’s an incredible amount of additional demand on the body. Moreover, the bulk of those additional games are Champions League football and international football which we can all agree, whatever the standard of Scottish football, is at a higher level than the domestic games that Bonner and his colleagues were playing at the time. This is not to decry the efforts of the ’80 Celtic team because, as I say above, everything is relative. It is principally to say that a comparison of today with them in terms of physical output is not appropriate, but if you are to make one, the demands of today are considerably higher, physically, than the demands of the 1980’s and before.
All of the above sets that the context to apply when considering whether the Celtic players may have been tired yesterday, but it doesn’t cover off the additional impact that all of those extra fixtures in a short period of time make. Whereas teams like Hearts can spend the whole week tactically analysing how Celtic will perform and setting up their players to compete against us because they have a seven day break in preparation for us we, as mentioned above, have half that time. When you factor in days off that the players must have, there is virtually no time since the start of the season until today for the Celtic coaches to imbue any great tactical changes onto the squad or do any specific one to one coaching with players. Players will have a game, have a day off, have a general training session, and then be prepping for the next day’s game. It’s not conducive to squad development.
There are lots of reasons for our lacklustre performance yesterday. Slack passes, poor decision making all come down to tiredness. Our performances this season in Europe have shown players lacking technical ability, and there’s a good argument to be made that Brendan has not been making best use of some of the squad players such as Kouassi, Ntcham and others, although injuries to the likes of Patrick Roberts, our centre defenders, our strikers, and Rogic have not made such rotation easy. We are going into the January break, which will allow the squad to have some down time and the coaching staff to have some prep time with the players at the end of that period. We also have our January window where Brendan yesterday made the very interesting comment that it may well be a revolving door. Certainly from the outside looking in, it appeared as though Moussa Dembele thought he was playing in his farewell testimonial against Rangers as he left the park, and the stories about Simunivic being more motivated to leave than stay just won’t go away. With the Virgil van Dijk money and the possible sale of the likes of Dembele, Armstrong, Simunivic, Sviatchenko, Liam Henderson, etc, we could have quite an amount of money to spend this window. If we were to sell all of those players, I doubt we would have the motivation or the ability to spend it all but it will be interesting to see the Celtic team and the Celtic squad that finishes on the last game of the season (hopefully sealing a back to back treble) than the one that played yesterday against Rangers.