Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic are the first side in Scottish football history to win a double treble, but, in truth, few eyebrows have been raised by the accomplishment. After their unbeaten domestic campaign in 2016/17, they were expected to dominate once again, especially when Rangers combusted through a combination of bad management and poor transfer dealings.
The general reaction to Celtic’s second straight treble, outside of the club and its supporters, was: ‘meh’. Mainly, this is because of the club’s financial superiority over their competitors. However, Rodgers deserves more recognition for the work he has done with players that were already at Celtic prior to his arrival in 2016.
When he took charge, Rangers were on the rise. As well as being promoted to the Scottish Premiership, they had won the Old Firm derby in the 2015/16 Scottish Cup semi-final, twice taking the lead and controlling the game before winning 5-4 on penalties. The feeling was that the rivalry was about to be reignited, with a proper two-way title race potentially in the offing.
That wasn’t the way it worked out. Celtic won the title in convincing fashion, winning 34 of their 38 league games and drawing the other four. The success was so comfortable due to Rodgers’ development of a number of individuals, starting with club captain Scott Brown.
Brown began his career as an energetic, up-and-down midfielder. However, in the last few years he has moved deeper and deeper and, under Rodgers, has been re-deployed in a new role at the heart of the team. Playing the as a deep-lying midfielder in a three, he has often been seen dropping between the centre-backs, offering security on the ball and making penetrative forward passes. At 32 years of age, his career has been extended by taking up a position where lung-bursting runs are unessential.
When he does eventually retire, Celtic have a successor as skipper already lined up. Kieran Tierney became the youngest captain in the club’s history when donning the armband at just 20 years of age for a Scottish League Cup tie against Kilmarnock last August. He handled the extra responsibility well, scoring one goal and setting up another in a 5-0 rout.
Tierney has matured from prospect to one of the finest left-backs in Britain, if not Europe, under Rodgers’ auspices. Like Brown he has been trialled in new positions – including a rather successful stint as a left-sided central defender in a back three – growing into a more versatile player in the process.
Another academy graduate to have prospered in a number of different roles within the last two seasons is Callum McGregor. The 24-year-old gained regular game time at Celtic during Ronny Deila’s managerial reign, but he has since taken his performance to another level. Rodgers has likened him to Philipp Lahm due to his flexibility and intelligence, and the player credits his boss for such rapid tactical improvement.
“Since the manager came in, he’s really taught us the game tactically, and to see different positions and what is required,” McGregor said. “The fact that he trusts me to go in and play different positions is great. That’s what you want from your manager: to show that trust in you. All I can do is keep trying to repay what he sees in me.”
McGregor’s nous for finding and exploiting space make him a pivotal figure in central attacking areas, while out wide James Forrest has gone from intermittently promising winger to consistently productive attacking force. Pre-Rodgers his best scoring tally for a single season was nine, and in 2015/16 he averaged 0.12 goals and 0.07 assists per game. Since Rodgers’ appointment, all of those numbers have shot up. He has averaged 0.23 goals and 0.26 assists over the last two seasons, while his scoring tally of 17 in 2017/18 was the highest of his career by far.
Celtic’s defence has been questioned at times during Rodgers’ two years as manager, particularly in Champions League action. This may be aided next term by the progress of centre-back Kristoffer Ajer. The Norwegian was sent out on loan to Kilmarnock in 2016/17, but he was always in his manager’s thoughts. Rodgers would text him after games with feedback on what he did well and what he needed to work on, making him feel valued and giving him hope of first team football upon his return to Glasgow.
Ajer established himself at centre-back in 2017/18, though his occasional forward forays reminded many of his past as a midfielder. His transition from starlet to star has been remarkably fast, and he praised Rodgers for a vital positional switch. “He has improved me a lot”, Ajer said. “When he came in I was a midfielder and he’s really helped me a lot to become a centre-half. He’s changed my career. Centre-back is the position I play now and will be the position I play in my career.”
Celtic may have a financial advantage over their domestic rivals, but it is increasingly apparent that they also have a managerial advantage. Rodgers’ tactical awareness, perceptive man-management and astute coaching have enabled his players to get better year-on-year. As the club sets its sights on a treble treble, his qualities are becoming increasingly apparent.
Also published on Medium.