Ange Postecoglou has transformed Celtic on & off the park. He’s provided a team who play relentlessly aggressive attacking football & united a fan base that was in despair following a shambolic season last year, and he deserves enormous credit for what he has achieved in less than twelve months.
What Shape Were Celtic in Before Postecoglou Arrived?
In season 20/21, Celtic were going for an historic tenth successive title under club legend Neil Lennon. The season could not have been more disastrous on and off the field as the club lurched from one bad result to another and one PR disaster to another during a turbulent twelve months.
Celtic finished 25 points behind Rangers who went a season unbeaten under Steven Gerrard. They scored 14 less goals than Rangers and conceded 2.5x the number of goals that the Ibrox club did. The league campaign was as grim as it could possibly be.
The domestic cup campaigns were equally as grim as Celtic were knocked out of the League Cup at home by Premiership strugglers Ross County and eliminated from the Scottish Cup from Rangers at Ibrox in a 2-0 defeat following the departure of Neil Lennon in late February 2021.
The club also finished bottom of a Europa League group that contained Milan, Lille and Sparta Prague with only one win from six.
Fans were locked out of Celtic Park as were fans of all clubs in Scotland which added to the fury of the lack of acceptable performances on the field.
The hierarchy of the club also came under fierce criticism for a lack of communication with fans, taking the club to Dubai at a time of heightened Covid restrictions in Scotland and for dithering for over a permanent replacement for Neil Lennon. A process that took over 100 days from the Irishman’s departure.
Ange officially took charge of Celtic on the 10th of June – following a compensation agreement being reached with his parent club Yokohama Marinos – and was unveiled at a press conference with new Celtic chief-executive Dominic McKay on the 25th of June.
Elements of the Scottish media scoffed at the appointment of a manager with no top level European football and a background in Australian and Japanese football.
The challenge ahead for him at that stage was vast.
How Has He Turned Celtic Around?
Ange won the J-League in 2019 with Yokohama Marinos and stated that he would not be afraid to recruitment from Japan if he felt there was a player that he deemed a good fit for Celtic.
He brought in Kyogo Furhashi who scored a hat-trick on his league debut against Dundee to cement his place as a fans favourite. He further cemented that in the first national cup final of the season which will be covered later in this article.
The success of Kyogo was followed up with a trio of January signings from Japan with Daizen Maeda from Yokohama F. Marinos, Yosuke Ideguchi from Gamba Osaka and Reo Hatate from Kawasaki Frontale all arriving at the club.
He also added young players with potential in Liel Abada, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Jota, and Matt O’Riley as well as signing experienced players in Josip Juranovic, Carl Starfelt, Joe Hart and James McCarthy.
All in all, most of those players have performed at a high level for the club and their manager so far this season with no player standing out as being a real disappointment at this stage of the season.
Under Neil Lennon, it was very difficult to pinpoint a standard style of play. He tended to switch between a 3-5-2 system and a 4-3-3/4-5-1 system. He changed this a lot during the unsuccessful 20/21 campaign and it was difficult to predict how Celtic would set up from week to week at times under Lennon.
Ange on the other hand has set out his stall as a coach for years. He plays an ultra attacking 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 system with high levels of pressing intensity expected from all players within the starting eleven regardless of position.
His wide forwards within the system favour direct attacks with which they are given the freedom to dribble through and rotate between the lines as interchanging forwards.
A key component of both systems are his full backs who he asks to underlap and become an additional player in the inside channel in order to provide an additional option for the wide players.
Speed is also a crucial factor for him as he expects his forwards to play really aggressively and his centre backs to be capable of playing a high line.
This style of football has been nicknamed ‘Angeball’ and has went down very well with fans at Celtic Park who have not often been short for goals or key opportunities being created by their side.
Delivering a Trophy at the Earliest Opportunity
The league cup is the first domestic trophy on offer in Scottish football with entitlement tournament concluding before Christmas.
Given the scale of the rebuilt that Ange Postecoglou had at his door on day one in Glasgow, Celtic were not favourites to win the trophy.
Celtic faced Hearts in round two, Raith Rovers, in the quarter final, holders St Johnstone in the semi final and Hibernian at Hampden in the final.
The final itself will be remembered for the brilliance of Kyogo who was the star of the show in Celtic’s 2-1 win at Hampden.
Hibs went ahead in the final just after half time thanks to Captain Paul Hanlon. Celtic responded directly from kick-off, with Kyogo deftly finishing from a through ball from captain Callum McGregor.
The Japanese forward then collected his second of the match in the 72nd in the Hibs goal.
The final and the performance of Furahashi showcased the progression of Celtic under Postecoglou with the first trophy of the Scottish season being delivered six months from his appointment in June.
It was the perfect early Christmas present for Celtic fans and was delivered six days before the big day.
Faith in Youth
Current Celtic captain Callum McGregor is a product of the clubs youth academy. Anthony Ralston, James Forrest and Stephen Welsh add another trio of first team players who are academy graduates.
Ange Postecoglou has continued to prioritise Celtic’s best young talent despite having to rebuild the club and recruit a number of senior players for key first team positions that were left bare following the departure of key players such as Kris Ajer and Odsonne Eduoard in the summer transfer window.
Four academy graduates have made their debut for Ange Postecoglou’s first team this campaign: Joey Dawson, Dane Murray, Owen Moffat and Ben Doak.
Remarkably, Doak became Celtic’s second youngest ever player at just sixteen years of age and made his Glasgow Derby debut at the same age. Proof that if you are deemed good enough by Ange then age is only a number.
The disappointment for Ange and Celtic is that Doak now seems destined for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the coming months just as he seemed ready to step up to the first team at Celtic.
Connecting with Supporters
As stated in the opening paragraphs of this piece, Celtic fans were filled with frustration and anger towards the hierarchy of the club and disillusioned with the direction that the club appeared to be heading in.
However, Ange made a conscious effort to communicate to fans directly and the club have given fan media platforms to speak to the manager.
This had to be commended because it has allowed the manager to communicate directly with Celtic fans directly and answer the questions that are at the forefront of the minds of the fan base.
He has also conducted himself assertively when speaking to traditional media outlets who have asked him repeatedly about his standing in football and emphasised the fact that he has not coached at the top level in European football.
The Australian laughed off claims that the league title race was over in October following two draws in quick succession at home to Livingston and Dundee United.
He represented himself and the club with dignity. That is the minimum expectation for any manager. Fans want a club and a leader that they can be proud of.
Ange has regularly spoken of his pride of being at a club with the standing that Celtic has and that players and coaches are privileged to ‘pass through’ clubs like Celtic.
He is also very open about his football ideology and his beliefs. An emotive interview with Mark Benstead of Sky Sports in which he discussed what it was like growing up in Australia as an immigrant further endeared himself to the Celtic fan base.
Furthermore, he rarely shows any signs of getting carried away in victory or defeat and has given Celtic fans their hope and pride back in such a short space of time.
The Challenges Ahead for Celtic and Ange Postecoglou
As I write this article on the cusp of the March international break, Celtic are three points clear at the top of the SPFL Premiership.
League titles are not typically decided in March. There are seven matches remaining including another two Glasgow derbies coming in the league before May and a Scottish Cup semi-final also against bitter rivals Rangers on the horizon to add even more pressure to an already critical stage of the season.
Other than the League Cup, nothing else is won yet. The title and the Scottish Cup may seem like they are in touching distance but they have to be earned at a time when the pressure and media spotlight will intensify with each passing day.
The League Cup may be a source of pride and proof of progression under the Australian but he knows more than anyone that there is a long way to go in 2021/2022.
If things go as hoped then he could have a domestic treble to his name come May but, if things falter, then the League Cup may look rather lonely in the trophy cabinet at Celtic Park.
Crucially, the momentum appears to be with him and Celtic. For now, anyway. We all know how quickly things can change in football, even more so in Scottish football.
For how long can that momentum burn in Celtic’s favour? Only the footballing Gods have the answer to that question.
By: Callum McFadden / @Callum7McFadden
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Steve Welsh – PA Images