Celtic’s reappointment of Brendan Rodgers was finally confirmed this week, after Ange Postecoglou’s departure from the club sparked a sudden period of speculation which was swiftly ended by the Irishman’s emergence as the club’s favoured candidate.
Rodgers becomes just the third man to have been appointed to the position twice, joining Billy McNeill and Neil Lennon in having done so.
The 50-year-old’s first spell – lasting from the beginning of the 2016-17 season to the middle of 2018-19 – cemented him as one of the most influential managers in Celtic’s history.
During that time he masterminded a squad which had looked unremarkable under Ronny Deila’s transformation into one which waltzed to an invincible treble in a historic first season, going on to smash the national record for the longest ever domestic unbeaten run.
Brendan’s imperious side reached unprecedented levels of dominance, sealing back-to-back trebles in the following campaign before his shock move to Leicester City on the way to a third put an abrupt, and unexpectedly sour, end to it all.
To many Celtic fans, it was an inexcusable decision – one which significantly changed his reputation with the Hoops faithful, despite his record of seven trophies from seven in Scotland.
The Football Merry-Go-Round
The four years since the divorce have seen highs and lows for both Rodgers and for Celtic.
Rodgers’ first few years at the King Power Stadium saw the Foxes re-emerge as disrupters of the Premier League’s establishment, as consecutive fifth-placed finishes preceded a momentous FA Cup triumph in 2021, a first in the club’s history.
Things took a turn for the worse soon after though, and before he knew it, Brendan was sacked by the club during a dismal 2022-23 campaign which would ultimately result in a catastrophic relegation for the East Midlands club.
Neil Lennon was the man trusted by the Parkhead board to resume Celtic’s treble-treble push in Rodgers’ absence, succeeding in doing so before surprisingly earning a permanent contract in 2019.
An incredible fourth successive treble that season indicated that Rodgers’ departure had left the Hoops unaffected, but a disastrous 2020-21 left Celtic trophyless and in search of a new manager.
The Era Of Ange
Step up, Ange Postecoglou.
Arriving as a complete unknown, the Australian’s task was to oversee a drastic rebuild on and off the pitch. The two years that followed saw Celtic back at the summit of Scottish football at the first time of asking, following their 2022 double up with yet another treble this year.
All with a squad consisting of dozens of new recruits playing a truly exceptional brand of relentless, entertaining and successful football.
Ange leaves Celtic in similarly sudden fashion to Rodgers, but in a position of undoubted strength with a full summer ahead and Champions League group stage football beckoning.
Optimising The Squad?
If mainstream media reports are to be believed, Rodgers’ discussions with Celtic’s hierarchy were less than straightforward.
The former Liverpool boss’ ambitions are well known to Dermot Desmond and Peter Lawwell with underwhelming transfer activity a big factor in his 2019 departure.
He evidently now feels that his ambitions are finally matched by the Celtic Park board however – so what is he likely to do similarly and differently to his predecessor as he looks to take this exciting squad to the next level?
Postecoglou’s highly intense approach to matches as well as training has required that he build a fairly deep squad, but this is something that could very well change with the arrival of Rodgers.
Vocal in his preference for a smaller, tighter group of players, the returning Celtic boss spent a lot of his first spell in charge looking to closely monitor the numbers in his team, with several players regularly deployed across various positions.
“Some managers will say that they want a player for every position, they want 22 players plus their three goalkeepers. For me, I prefer to have a smaller squad, to keep a tight squad,” Rodgers said at his Celtic unveiling in 2016.
“It helps to give the young players an opportunity, we’ll look at that within the team and management staff – but as a squad, I prefer to work with a tight group.”
In terms of what this could mean for the squad he is inheriting, it will be no surprise that departures are an immediate objective, with the likes of Ismaila Soro, Liam Scales and Albian Ajeti still on Celtic’s books this summer.
However, with the club’s recent switch to a more ‘aggressive’ approach in the transfer market, the model’s suitability with Rodgers remains to be seen – as the Irishman could be reluctant to let players leave on the regular with less backup players in the squad ready to step forward.
Back In The Old Routine?
A factor which will also impact Brendan’s approach to squad-building will of course be his tactical differences to Postecoglou.
Few managers display the unwavering commitment to one style and system that Ange did while at Celtic, and while his and Rodgers’ identities show clear similarities, no two coaches are the same.
Barring a sudden change of his favoured system, inverted full-backs will be no more under Brendan Rodgers.
The possibility of said change – especially in an attempt to sustain the excellent performance levels of Greg Taylor – should not be ruled out, but it would require significant compromise in the Irishman’s system which typically places high priority on wide, overlapping full-backs.
For the likes of Alistair Johnston, Anthony Ralston and Alexandro Bernabei, this is unlikely to be a detrimental transition.
A criticism often levelled at Rodgers in the later stages of his first Celtic tenure was that his side were too dull in possession, too often avoiding penetrative attacks in favour of unexciting, side-to-side passing.
The stats, however, show that the Celts averaged more passes in the league under Postecoglou, with the Australian’s strictly principled approach to build-up play resulting in centre backs at times reaching over 100 passes in a single match.
The reason for Rodgers’ late-era Celtic teams giving this impression could instead be an issue of movement, rather than passing.
Under the man from Carnlough, Celtic took a more varied approach to build-up play, with ball-playing centre-backs such as Dedryck Boyata, Erik Sviatchenko and Jozo Šimunović often attempting cross-field switches of play (a comparative rarity under Ange) to kickstart attacks – subsequently limiting the scope for midfielders and forwards to familiarise themselves with intricate patterns of play more reminiscent of peak Angeball.
Our Love Was On The Wing
Another distinctive principle of Postecoglou was reflected in his wingers, purposefully chosen to vary vastly in their strengths and styles of play in an attempt to equip the team’s attack for as many situations as possible.
In Jota and Sead Hakšabanović, Ange had two ‘artists’ – inventive, technically outstanding wingers, happiest with the ball at their feet and capable of creating goals for themselves and teammates from nothing.
In the more direct, peripheral, ‘wide forward’ profiles of Liel Abada and Daizen Maeda, he gave himself something completely different.
Brendan’s preference lies somewhere in the middle.
Undoubtedly the most notorious winger of his first spell was Scott Sinclair, a player more than capable of one-on-one dribbling but who came alive in the penalty area, racking up incredible goalscoring numbers during his time playing in Scotland.
James Forrest also played the best football of his long Celtic career under the 50 year-old, at his best offering Rodgers a winger with the full package of going inside, outside, scoring, creating and even doing a job at wing-back.
The presence of overlapping fullbacks will create a different environment for Celtic’s wingers, perhaps placing more of an onus on their ability to drift inside from their extremely wide starting positions.
One suspects that this would be more suited to Jota and Sead than Daizen and Liel, but Maeda’s pace and work rate could well be utilised as a striker under Rodgers, whilst Abada’s tender age could give confidence to the new manager that development into a more complete winger is a possibility.
Postecoglou and his successor will both share a dissatisfaction with their respective performances in the Champions League while at Celtic – but whilst the former made clear his intentions to attack Europe’s elite with the same approach that dominated domestically, the more flexible Rodgers has shown a willingness to adapt, especially with his use of a back three.
Aided especially by the versatility of James Forrest and Mikael Lustig, the new Celtic manager’s use of this alternative shape produced impressive home performances against Bayern Munich and Zenit, but it would also at times go horribly wrong with seven-goal hammerings in Paris and Barcelona representing unsuccessful examples of the approach and two of the lowest points of his first spell at Celtic Park.
The effectiveness with which a squad packed with wingers could move away from the familiar 4-3-3 to a system where width is provided by wing-backs is questionable, but the presence of adaptable defensive players Alistair Johnston and Tomoki Iwata makes a defensive switch up a potentially sensible decision.
Same But Different
It would be easy to overemphasise these differences, but the reality is that stylistically, Rodgers and Postecoglou are managers with similar tactical philosophies and identities – and given the former’s familiarity with the environment in Glasgow’s east end, any potential adaptation period would be minor.
The Celtic board have replaced one winner with another, appointing a candidate with a proven record of overseeing domestic dominance at Celtic.
The extent to which Angeball is ripped apart and reshaped remains to be seen.
However, Brendan Rodgers is undoubtedly a coach smart enough to embrace the extremely effective muscle-memory his new squad has, albeit whilst implementing his own twists as he seeks to prime a squad for further silverware in Scotland, and long-awaited progression in Europe.
Listen here as the team give their initial reaction this week to Brendan Rodgers’ re-appointment.
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