At long last, the Scottish Premier League is rising through the ranks and blooding in some more than capable players to conquer not only the Scottish League, but some of the world’s best leagues. Going into the September international break, just three points separated Rangers and Celtic, and with Steven Gerrard’s men looking much stronger these days, Celtic fans may not enjoy the same romp their team is so accustomed to.
However, most of Glasgow is under no illusions; Celtic are still massively favoured to win yet another title, and in doing so, they would go one step closer to overtaking Rangers in the all-time title stakes. On this occasion, however, the club would be given greater credit where due for its recruitment strategy, rather than merely compared to the other SPL clubs that cannot dream of ever catching the Bhoys.
No Tears Over Tierney
Naturally, Kieran Tierney‘s high-profile move to Arsenal was the talk of the city, and that left a wide, gaping hole a for a new star to fill. Players like Tierney defy the popular (if idiotic) notion that Scottish football is in any way dead, and he – along with Premier League stars Andrew Robertson and Ryan Fraser – prove that Scottish talent is very relevant at the top of club football.
These days, a left-back is useless unless he is able to maraud with great purpose and intensity, without disrupting the defensive shape of the team. A high work rate, and an ability to get back in the event of a changeover from a failed cross is now the lifeblood of anyone in Tierney’s mould, and if that player can also be started as a designated midfield winger, that sends his transfer value even higher.
Tierney is such a player, and this made him irreplaceable in the eyes of many Celtic fans but Boli Bolingoli is his designated replacement, and the Belgian has been backed by Lennon to make a real impact. While there will undoubtedly be plenty of erratic moments from a defender in transition, Bolingoli has already passed two distinctive tests with flying colours.
Coming after a routine 7-0 thrashing of St Johnstone, the first was a test of character, with Bolingoli seeing his new side go 1-0 down at Motherwell in the first SPL away match of 2019/20. Though the Bhoys were level inside three minutes of that setback, the remainder of the first half could have gone either way before the post-interval deluge, which saw Celtic run out 5-2 winners.
That Celtic enjoyed such a fine margin of victory was down to the defence’s quick recovery, and Bolingoli’s, which gave the attacking half of Celtic’s setup much more license to experiment and utilise its clear superiority.
The second real acid test was, of course, Bolignoli’s very early introduction to an Old Firm derby – at Ibrox. Those who bet on Scottish football know that the proximity of Rangers and Celtic in outright markets make Old Firm games more than just ‘one match’, and the Belgian’s position saw him directly face-to-face with Scott Arfield and James Tavernier.
Both men were high on confidence after scoring in Rangers’ 2-0 victory at the previous Old Firm derby in May. Though an aged figure, a man like Jermain Defoe is also difficult for any SPL rookie to stop, but the Celtic defence held firm, and Bolingoli enjoyed a strong afternoon, with Celtic reversing May’s scoreline to open up a potentially-vital gap over Rangers.
Christopher Julien – Worthy of the Bhoys?
At £7m, Christopher Julien is a man that shoulders even more pressure than Bolingoli, and as a centre-back of that value, there is absolutely no hiding place. As a French youth international, he has looked up to the likes of Marcel Desailly and Laurent Blanc his whole life, and at 6’5, he can play with the same amounts of muscle, ingenuity and aerial dominance as those legendary countrymen.
Like Desailly and Blanc, he is also a World Cup winner. Admittedly, it was only the inaugural FIFA U-20 World Cup, but the taste for winning silverware is one never lost once experienced, and even though Julien’s greatest moments ahead may not come while wearing Celtic hoops.
Any objections to Lennon’s decision to spend £7m on Julien were based on the fact that Julien had practically zero experience of top-flight football until the start of 2016/17, at the relatively advanced age of 23. It was Toulouse that gave him his big break, and Julien would eventually go on to make 99 appearances for Les Violets.
His impact was instantaneous, with 2016/17 seeing the Toulouse backline concede just 41 times in 38 league matches. That figure was bettered only by the eventual top three, and it was merely a lack of goalscoring prowess that prevented Toulouse from finishing any higher than 13th. The 2017/18 campaign represented a downturn for Toulouse as a whole, but their defence compared favourably to others in the relegation dogfight.
Thanks in part to some gutsy performances in defence, Toulouse finished four points clear of automatic relegation, and prevailed in the subsequent promotion/relegation playoff. Toulouse were in less peril by the end of 2018/19, but by then Julien’s consistency was catching the eye of several other clubs in addition to Celtic.
Still just 26 years old, Julien is unique in that he has already experienced a relegation battle and a triumphant run to a trophy. It is that ability to negotiate the good times and the bad, and the strong psyche that creates, which will ease his settlement into the Bhoys XI from here. Overall, Julien’s signature is a great coup for Neil Lennon.
Is Lennon’s Recruitment Worthy of Club’s Vision?
Club legend or not, Neil Lennon was always going to find it tough after Brendan Rodgers’ successful stint at Parkhead. Right from the outset, Lennon has championed a more ‘hands-on’ approach to management, with a desire to focus more on getting the most out of his strike force rather than using particularly verbose tactical plans to break the opposition down.
This way of thinking certainly paid dividends during his first tenure at Parkhead, which began in 2010, at a time when Rangers were beginning to re-establish their former monopoly over the top flight – and the city of Glasgow.
From here, it is hard to figure out just how he can improve the squad much more, even if only to make them something better than Champions League groups stage also-rans. Ultimately, Lennon’s options are limited, and there is nothing he can do to make the SPL a more attractive prospect to a player (ideally) between 23 and 27 years old from one of Europe’s more-celebrated leagues.
Until Celtic actually defy the Champions League’s seeding system and qualify for the knockout phase, the sight of players like Virgil Van Dijk and Kieran Tierney in green and white will be but a memory. Even if the odd gem is unearthed, any recruiting done by Celtic will likely do nothing but secure a profit in a few years’ time.
While a sad way to end reflections, it goes without saying that Lennon’s recruitment has been spot-on this year when it comes to man-management.
Indeed, in retaining the likes of Olivier Ntcham, James Forrest, Ryan Christie and the club’s top league scorer of 2018/19 Odsonne Édouard, Lennon has done much more than merely delve into the transfer market; he has probably given Celtic more hope than ever of regaining their presence in Europe.