An odd thing happened to the prediction that Celtic would break the GI Joe kung-fu grip Rangers have had on the Scottish Premier League trophy the past three years. Quite simply, it appears to have been rather hastily determined based on deceptive appearances alone, or perhaps a notable disappearance from Ibrox. With Ally McCoist taking charge after Walter Smith’s retirement, it was generally presumed Super Ally would not be up for managing retention of the title for a fourth consecutive season and that Neil Lennon would be able to add his first SPL title to the Scottish Cup Celtic managed last season. Some pre-season prognostications went so far as to calculate Celtic finishing ten points clear of Rangers by the end of things, as unfavorable money matters were to prevent Rangers from strengthening their squad and concerns over McCoist’s ability to successfully manage without the guidance of Smith were cited for giving Celtic the edge.
Instead, by the first week of October, it is Celtic that sits ten points behind Gers, already with a loss in the Old Firm derby, and questions being raised about whether Neil Lennon is cut out for managing Hoops.
While the merit of this view appears debatable only ten matches into the season and with Celtic having two games in hand to make up the points, it was Lennon who even brought it up himself, and this somewhat fits what we know of him in his public life in football. The Northern Irishman has seemingly always had a fight on his hands, both those he started or those that find him the unfortunate target. From hanging up his boots early for his national side due to death threats in 2002, to being assaulted on the streets of Glasgow in 2008, to being sent bullets and bombs via post along with a Hearts fan attack him on the sidelines last season, Lennon has seen his fair share of adversity off the pitch. As he has endured these slings and arrows and fought back, it looks as if his natural inclination to be combative has been carried with him into management of Celtic. Heavy criticism of SPL referees along with his fit of handbags with then assistant Gers manager McCoist last season typecast Lennon as a manager with an aggressive temperament, a combative leader who might still be too raw and not yet experienced to handle the extreme pressure involved with manning the helm at a club such as Celtic. This is a caricature of the man that is actively being discussed even now in his second year of management and in particular following Lennon’s unsuccessful maiden voyage back to Tynecastle after having been attacked by John Wilson there in May. Whether or not he was concerned about a copycat assault on his person happening is unknown, but his squad’s poor performance in that 2-0 loss suggests there might have been other things on Lennon’s mind that day. Because those three points were very winnable, as Heart of Midlothian was not sterling on the day.
And somebody got the crazy idea to tell Daniel Majstorovic to play up front as a striker near the end, right?
The image of Lennon as a fighter, though, seems also to be displayed in how he manages the game from a tactical view. From the quite excellent Michael Gunn, who analyses Celtic from a more tactical angle, it has been observed that in two of Celtic’s bigger league matches of the season–the Old Firm derby and their most recent match against Hearts which would have narrowed the points gap behind Rangers to single digits–Lennon opted for a more aggressive, attacking formation when adjustments were required. In both matches, with his squad being reduced to ten men and being behind on the scoreboard, Lennon chose to throw on as many attacking players as he could almost in a hodgepodge, severely reducing his goalkeeper’s defensive cover with three and sometimes only two defenders in the back. Rather than attempt to maintain possession to prevent further scoring by the opposition and work patiently for a chance to claw back into those matches, Lennon chose to damn the torpedoes and go full steam ahead similar to how Dutch manager Louis van Gaal conducted Bayern Munich’s 2010/11 season. In neither instance did this pay dividends for Lennon, much like it saw van Gaal dismissed from the Bavarian giants prior to season’s end.
Bayern Munich finished third last season in Bundesliga, which was just as unacceptable to their supporters as Celtic’s fans seeing them third behind Motherwell for the moment.
Lennon is still a young manager adjusting his style with Celtic as he goes, however, and there exists ample time in this season to recover from these early setbacks. While he has already learned to tone down his pugnacious demeanor when it comes to the verbal component of his job, he might also need to consider balancing his instinct for immediate tactical retaliation with a more deliberate managerial approach that finds him closing that gap on Rangers and returning the confidence pre-season pundits had in his championship credentials. He must try to remember that not everything has to be a fight, including with Celtic’s own supporters, who might wonder if Georgios Samaras still gets minutes just because Lennon wants to pick one with them.
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