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Has Brendan Rodgers developed third season syndrome at Celtic?

Saturday 29th September 2018

Celtic dropped to sixth place in the Scottish Premiership after losing for the second time this season at Rugby Park on Sunday afternoon. Brendan Rodgers' side went in front when Leigh Griffiths pounced on a defensive mishap in Kilmarnock's box, but Chris Burke's equaliser and a last-gasp winner from Stuart Findlay gifted Steve Clarke's men all three points.    

That result heaps the pressure on Rodgers and Celtic alike. The defending champions have suffered their worst start to a campaign for 20 years.  

The first two seasons of Rodgers' tenure couldn't have gone any better. In his first, he won a treble, during which the Bhoys remained unbeaten domestically. In his second, although he tasted defeat for the first time to Scottish opposition, the Irishman's team became the first to win back-to-back trebles in Scotland.   

Many pundits predicted a similar return this campaign. Things aren't looking quite so rosy in Parkhead, though. The Hoops not only trail table-toppers Hearts by six points, but they were also eliminated from the Champions League before the lucrative group stages.

While it's still early days, with only six league matches played, there's little doubt regarding ongoing issues at Celtic Park. Rodgers voiced concern during the summer about the board's lack of transfer activity. In the end, a late flurry brought in Emilio Izaguirre and Youssouf Mulumbu on frees, as well as Daniel Arzani and Filip Benkovic on loan. However, losing Moussa Dembele to Olympique Lyon, with just hours until the window closed, left a seriously bad taste.   

Any meltdowns were delayed as the Bhoys bounced back to defeat Rangers two days after letting Dembele go. Since the international break, though, they have picked up only one point from two league encounters. By Celtic's standards, that almost constitutes a crisis.     

Much of the blame for Celtic's Champions League demise was placed on the defence, with Dedryck Boyata receiving the bulk due to declaring himself unfit for the tie against AEK Athens. The Belgian international's head appears to have been turned while on World Cup duty. He believed a move away would offer a wage increase. Rodgers played hardball. The central defender remained in Glasgow, although he is likely to leave for nothing next summer. There's little doubt the Hoops' backline struggled against the Greek champions; however, the real problem lies further forward.

In Rodgers' debut season, Celtic scored 106 league goals. Last campaign, that number decreased to 73, their worst tally since 2006/07. A drop of 33 is almost a goal per game. In six matches this term, the Bhoys have only managed to find the net six times. In all competitions, they've notched 25 goals in 16 games, albeit some of those contests were against very weak opposition early on in European competition. It's clear, then, their attack has diminished. What's going wrong?       

Pinpointing Dembele's departure is easy, but, in truth, Griffiths and Odsonne Edouard are both excellent strikers at this level. Neither has been missing chance after chance every week. The issue is getting the ball to them.    

Celtic no longer have creativity or goals coming from the midfield. In 2016/17, they had Patrick Roberts, Scott Sinclair and Stuart Armstrong all on top form. Those three accounted for 45 goals and 29 assists. Last season, with each playing significantly fewer minutes due to injuries, they recorded a combined 12 goals and 19 assists.   

Since then, Roberts and Armstrong have both moved on. Sinclair, meanwhile, has been in horrific form this campaign.   

Sinclair is struggling for inspiration
Sinclair is struggling for inspiration

Rodgers is undoubtedly unhappy about Celtic's transfer dealings, despite saying the opposite as the last window closed. He was fed up with all the speculation and wanted to get back to coaching. 

A month later, Rodgers would do well to heed his own advice. The Bhoys are a shadow of their former selves. The only man who can raise them is the one leading the dugout. His squad remains far superior to next best domestic rival. It's now on him to prove it.     

Celtic have become extremely predictable in recent times. While Rodgers' mandate has always been about retaining possession, his team's taken it to the extreme. Nobody wants to make a killer pass, instead opting to move the ball sideways until a teammate crosses for the lone frontman, who is often surrounded by the huge heading machines making up the bulk of centre-backs in Scotland.     

With Roberts and an in-form Sinclair, Rodgers had players who would take opponents on. In Armstrong, he possessed a midfielder willing to make forward runs into the box. Now, though, the tactic is Kieran Tierney, to Olivier Ntcham, to Scott Brown, to James Forrest, to the opposition's big centre-half. And then repeat.    

Rodgers experienced third-season problems at Liverpool. After coming close to winning the Premier League during his second campaign, the Reds' tempo dropped and they began playing the same slow, turgid way as Celtic are now. The 45-year-old never corrected it at Anfield. Some Hoops fans are worried history is repeating. However, most are fully aware that should he leave, it's unlikely anyone better will replace him.     

Even after a poor start, it would take a brave person to bet against the Bhoys lifting an eighth consecutive league title come May. As the old saying goes, 'form is temporary, class is permanent'. 

There's little doubt Celtic remain the class of Scottish football. Once Rodgers finds the antidote to the current problems, they will fight back with a vengeance in an attempt to maintain their manager's record of having won every domestic competition participated in.

Celtic FC News
Gerry Johnston

I am a 33-year-old sports writer from Ireland who enjoys watching European football. My main focus is La Liga, but I do keep a close eye on all of the major leagues throughout the world.

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