Celtic's startling turnover problems revealed: 11 new starting line-ups in first 11 league games
Any schoolchild will think they know the answer to 11 times 11. In Celtic’s world, though, the rejoinder isn’t a digit, but grave concerns over the pursuit of another number: the 10-in-a-row.
Incredibly, Neil Lennon hasn’t just fielded different starting XIs in all of the club’s 11 Premiership games this season. Each and every one of those line-ups has added up to an XI that have never played together before, or since, in the top flight. Between integrating new signings, giving players minutes to build up their fitness or reintroduce them following injury lay-offs, and rejigging to compensate for the Covid-19 loss of others, Celtic seem trapped in a loop that has the feel of a perpetual pre-season. Except, of course, they are in the midst of an almighty title scrap with Rangers whose contrasting team stability has allowed them to steal a march on their continuity-denuded rivals.
Too easy to use Celtic’s ever-changing XIs as stick with which to beat Lennon
The squad turnover in the Scottish champions league starting XIs seems inconceivable. Yet less so when it is considered that Lennon has already given starts to no fewer than 22 players with the campaign not even three months old.
He hasn’t thrown players at the team as a consequence of some wilful perversion, though. In the main, it has been forced on him by circumstances entirely beyond his control. Yes, he could have opted not to introduce Premiership starter no.22, in the form of Tom Rogic, for Sunday’s trip to Aberdeen. However, the Australian’s contribution to the 3-3 draw – he provided two goal assists with deft, defence-splitting passes – made him arguably the visitors’ most effective performer in his first start in seven-and-a-half months.
It isn’t Lennon’s fault that Rogic sustained an ankle injury in pre-season that means it is only now the 27-year-old possesses the physical conditioning to challenge for starting berth.
For various reasons, this pattern is repeated throughout the squad. Essentially, the club’s transfer activity in 2020 – Vasilis Barkas, Albian Ajeti, Shane Duffy, David Turnbull and Diego Laxalt recruited during the summer, with Patryk Klimala signed only seven weeks before the Covid-19 lockdown in March – means he has half-a-dozen players that require bedded-in to the team.
Moreover, Lennon isn’t to blame for the Covid-19 positive tests that have left him without Odsonne Edouard, Nir Bitton and Hatem Abd Elhamed for a week of winless woe courtesy of the losses to Rangers and AC Milan that were compounded by the concession of a 92nd minute equaliser at Pittodrie.
Likewise, it is not the fault of the Celtic manager that he has lost James Forrest and Christopher Jullien to long-term ailments, and has required to take a softly, softly approach in building up the fitness of Ajeti and Leigh Griffiths following hamstring and ankle injuries respectively. Remarkably, the 30-year-old Scotland striker remains to be added to the shedload of players to have earned Premiership starts for the club this season. Similarly, with Mikey Johnston, back in full training having been out since January with knee and calf problems that required surgery.
The churn will keep coming
The chilling fact for Lennon is that a settled starting line-up is absolutely nowhere on the horizon. For, as well as integration, injury and illness, another element dictates selection choices: inability of players to perform to the required level. On that front, step forward a certain Shane Duffy.
The Republic of Ireland captain has started every one of the nine games that Celtic have contested since he was attracted on loan from Brighton 10 weeks ago. The admirable honesty of the 28-year-old extended to an admission ahead of the Aberdeen encounter that he hadn’t performed to the required standard against Rangers and Milan... only for him to throw in another goal-costing clanger against Derek McInnes’ men.
If Lennon had Jullien, Bitton or even Elhamed at his disposal of late, it is surely the case that he would have taken Duffy out of the firing line – for the player’s own benefit, as much as Celtic’s prospects. With Bitton and Elhamed on the way back, it would seem highly likely that the Celtic manager will again rejig a defence that in which he has had no constants, although Ajer has only failed to start one league game. Meanwhile, Lennon’s bigging up of Bain in the injury absence of the, so far, deeply unimpressive Barkas, suggests that the Scotland international will retain his place in the short-term.
Then there is the search for the right blend in midfield – never mind the right shape, 3-5-2 appearing to have given way to the more orthodox 4-2-3-1 formation again – with Scott Brown starting on the bench against Aberdeen. In the central area, only Callum McGregor has been an ever-present. The tweaking to achieve the desired blend in this department remains firmly a work in progress.
All of this before considering what Lennon will do with forward players such as Ajeti and Griffiths following an expected return for Edouard away to Lilie in the Europa League on Thursday. Especially if the club’s attacking fulcrum fails to find his groove, as was the case before he tested positive for Covid-19 three weeks ago.
Where does this all leave Celtic?
Until Lennon has a full squad from which to choose – and there are no guarantees as to when that might be – he could be denied a go-to starting XI. It casts the club’s recent forays in the market in an unfavourable light that, as it stands, the most adept line-up the Celtic manager could pick if spared any enforced absentees would be a 4-2-3-1 configured as follows – Bain: Elhamed, Jullien, Ajer, Laxalt; Brown, McGregor; Forrest, Rogic, Christie; Edouard. Alas for Lennon, even if he was of the mind to pick such a team, it might not be possible for him to field it much this side of Christmas.
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