The other reaction, however, is perhaps not so welcome. Now that everyone can see what’s going on, have replays from multiple angles, and plenty of places to discuss what they’ve seen other than the pub, we’re running into another phrase. “Opinions are like mothers – everyone has one.” Well, that’s the family friendly version of that phrase anyway. The referees have certainly been crying foul, if you’ll pardon the pun, due to the drastic increase in coverage.
Before I go any further, yes I realise the irony of using the internet to discuss how everyone and their cousin can now voice an opinion – doubly so if you happen to have shared a message board with me in the past and know how often I have spent on them. So with that obvious hypocrisy now duly noted, let me continue with my point.
One of the many questions I’ve seen asked in recent weeks and months on Twitter and on message boards has been “does Mowbray know what he’s doing?” Sometimes it’s related to getting the squad he inherited to play together, sometimes it’s shopping in the transfer market, but possibly most frequently it’s the tactics and substitutions he makes.
Take Saturday’s game at Pittodrie for instance. The questions I’ve seen asked include “how come as a defender himself Mowbray can’t get his team to defend properly” and “why did he take off Keane and bring on Samaras?” People appear to be using the fact that because they don’t understand Mowbray’s decisions, those decisions must therefore be completely wrong and this is proof that Mowbray is not the right man for the job.
That final substitution – Keane off and Samaras on – seems to be the one that was picked up on most by the Celtic support in the hours and days that have followed the game. Celtic were 4-2 up at the time, and with 15 minutes to go were looking to close the game out and seal the three points. The fact they failed to do this is somehow linked to that substitution. There appear to be varying reasons for this substitution being wrong in the eyes of the Celtic support. Most of the focus though is on the fact that we swapped like-for-like positionally, and dropped in quality. Mowbray’s own defence of this substitution in the post-match interviews was to point out that Samaras offered more height defensively than Keane. Consensus from our management expert fans appear to suggest we should have put someone more defensive on.
I can see merits in both sides if I’m honest. Samaras did spend more time in Celtic’s penalty area than the Aberdeen one in those final 15 minutes. He is taller than Keane. But then if we were going to sit on the result, was swapping striker for striker really the best option? Then I checked what else we had on the bench. With “Dave” and Rasmussen already having come on for Fortune and N’Guemo at 2-2, we were left with Zaluska, Naylor, Wilson, Zhi or Samaras to choose from. You can forget the goalkeeper, and Samaras is the option Mowbray went for, so that leaves Naylor, Wilson or Zhi for our fan management to pick from. Two full backs, neither of which are exactly fan favourites currently, and Zheng Zhi. My guess is the fans would have plumped for Zhi. Would he really have made the difference required? A decent performance at Ibrox aside, I’m yet to be convinced he’s got what it takes to be a Celtic player. Most other SPL games have completely passed him by, and he wouldn’t be my choice for digging in to ensure we got the three points on Saturday. I’m not sure Mowbray had a better option on the bench than Samaras.
But that’s not the point. Whether I agree or disagree, I still understand where Mowbray was coming from at the time. He had a plan, it didn’t work. Again, if I’m honest, shipping four goals to Aberdeen had a lot more to do with the three second-choice defenders out of four, and the so-called experienced fourth defender making a crucial error in choice and conceding the penalty that dragged Aberdeen back from the brink. In fact I believe Eddie made that very point in the latest Celtic Underground podcast (something you really should listen to if you don’t already by the way)
Lets pick on another decision from the recent Kilmarnock game. Two substitutions gone, Celtic are 1-0 down and looking to make a third and final change that will get them back into the game. Mowbray decides to take Lee Naylor off and put Scott Brown on in his place. The Celtic fan management experts make out this decision is one of the worst as Brown actually plays left back. Most of the debate here revolves around why Rasmussen was left to sit on the bench.
I’ll admit, to this day I don’t know why Brown played left back that night. I don’t have all the answers and that’s why I’m a fan with a computer and not a football manager. That’s not to say I don’t know why Mowbray made that particular change. The statistics for that night show that Celtic had just two shots on target and four shots off target. When do you last remember Celtic having no more than six shots at goal over 90 minutes? There are some games recently where Celtic have had six shot in as many minutes!
Looking at the bench from that night, we see Zaluska, Caddis, Thompson, Brown, Zhi, Rasmussen and Samaras. Caddis and Thompson were already on the park at this point, and you can again forget Zaluska as the goalkeeper. Most people would pick Rasmussen ahead of Samaras, but the problem according to the stats isn’t with the strikers – it’s getting them the ball to shoot with. It’s behind the strikers that needs fixed. So that just leaves Zhi or Brown. I know which one of those two I’d want to dig us out of a hole, and it’s the same one Mowbray turned to. If only he’d actually pushed up the park… but is that the manager or and individual assuming what his role was? Scott Brown has been called many things in his career already, I’m not sure “intelligent” has been high on that list.
Our keyboard experts may not agree with him, but does every manager in football agree on how things should be done? Of course not, everyone has their own theory on how best to do things. Some favour 4-4-2, others 4-3-3. Some think defenders should man-mark at set pieces, others think zonal marking is the way to go. As long as Mowbray is doing things his way and they actually make sense, I’d have to say he knows exactly what he’s doing – even if it’s not working for him all the time. Of course, it’s a lot easier to claim you are right when the other guy doesn’t win as many of the Celtic support are doing now, but as I’ve said previously there are a lot of mitigating circumstances for Mowbray to deal with.
One of those was having to start with the stagnant squad that Gordon Strachan left him. Look at where we were in May. We’d lost the league to Rangers, something many of our keyboard experts had predicted was coming for some time. The football on display was some of the worst in recent times for entertainment value, and suddenly the fallback position of “yes, but it’s winning things” was gone. The reasonably strong defence that had been a bit of a hallmark of Strachan’s time at Celtic (at least domestically) was starting to leak goals – including four at Pittodrie interestingly…
When asked what the new manager, who was still unknown at the time, would have to do when he came in, most Celtic fans would have answered the same thing. Improve the product on the park. We need to be entertained or we’re not going to keep coming along at a time of economic downturn. There’s other, more pressing, things that we probably should be spending our money on. Strengthen the defence. Start scoring goals.
So does Mowbray know what he’s doing in this area of Celtic manager? Has Mowbray delivered on what we wanted? Well, the football – at times – has been better to watch. I thoroughly enjoyed the Hearts game, and some folk that I know that are hard to please when it comes to watching Celtic also enjoyed the game. Have we started scoring goals? Not as many as you suspect we probably should be scoring, but four goals at Pittodrie – compared to the two in the game last season I mentioned earlier – and four goals at Dunfermline and St Johnstone in recent weeks too would seem to indicate we have. These are games that we might have won 2-1 under Gordon Strachan, often after having been a goal down too. Has he strengthened the defence?
Of course not. No one can argue that just yet. The best you can say is he might have. Hooiveld seems to be a man the Celtic support have taken to quickly, despite his injury. Josh Thompson has possibly been our best defender in the last month or so, and he’s still young and learning. If you put him along side a decent, experience defender maybe he’ll get away with the odd mistake. Though it pains me to say it, that tactic seems to be working quite well for Danny Wilson at Rangers, though I’m not sure I’d rate him as highly as some of the media have. Thomas Rogne is another young man whom we’ve only seen briefly, but he looked at least as assured in defence against Hearts for the short time he was on the park as any other defender we’ve seen this season at Celtic. I’m not sure there are many Celtic fans left who aren’t happy to see the back of “Hoof” and “Heid” either.
There’s still work to be done, of course there is. Personally, I’m not going to criticise the Mowbray defence too much. Yes it was a shambles at Pittodrie, but other than the penalty I found it quite difficult to point at one of them and say “he was culpable for that goal”. This calendar year we’ve only seen the same back four play together two games in a row once – and even in that run Loovens went off injured in the second game. That isn’t going to change against Dundee United either with O’Dea suspended. You can’t build a defensive unit without the consistency of personnel. I still think we’re short of decent, experience personnel back there. Missing out on Ramis might turn out to be the decision that costs us the SPL title this season, but we should never be held to ransom by football agents no matter what the cost. Once you travel that path once you’ll be travelling it forever, and it only gets worse.
I also happen to think the midfield is crying out for a Stilian Petrov replacement. Yes, he left a few years ago now, but he is the last true quality box-to-box midfielder I remember Celtic having. Robson had the heart but lacked the ability, Brown appears to lack the brain, and most of the others have either been too defensive or too attack minded to do both jobs. The kind of hard working midfielder that Petrov was would do wonders for the team in all areas, and might even give the rest of the players a lift. But sadly we won’t get one of them until the summer unless someone already at the club steps up their game drastically. Maybe that’s what Mowbray is hoping for by giving Brown the captaincy.
Looking back at May and looking at what we have now, I can’t help but think we’re moving in the right direction. It is very possible we are moving too slowly to salvage the SPL this season unfortunately, but that is the nature of football in 2010 where transfers are limited to windows and every decision is analysed closer than the latest razor blades will shave you. All in glorious HD of course.
Of course it is still the game of football at the core, no matter what the year. Stranger things have happened.