Can Steven Gerrard break Celtic's title streak this season?
John Ferguson CC BY-SA 2.0.
With the Scottish Premiership well under way, the title race is hotting up. Who seals the silverware come the end of the season is anyone’s guess, although It is, of course, the usual binary race. Just like the US election, there are others floating around, but the ultimate winner will be one of the big two. The rest is just fluff.
Scotland’s top-flight can be a little boring at times, dominated as it is by the two same teams. But this year’s title race is somewhat more interesting. It’s even enough to take your author’s interest, a man who normally sighs at the mention of anything Old Firm related.
Celtic are pushing for their 10th title in a row, an achievement unprecedented not only in its sheer numeric value, but in its profound dullness as well. Sure, any club winning a competition so many times in a row is impressive. But when the opposition lacks even a fraction of the funds and resources you have, it’s rather a hollow feat. For five of those nine seasons, Rangers languished in the lower leagues. Even when the rivals were there to compete with them, their off-field difficulties meant they weren’t able to provide top-class opposition.
But now, Rangers are back. They’re in fine fettle under Steven Gerrard and look to have a real chance of breaking the deadlock. A Gers title win won’t just rain on Celtic’s parade. It would be the club’s first title since 2010/11 and represent the pinnacle of a meteoric rise from the gutter following their 2012 liquidation.
The fact is, Celtic are declining, despite, or possibly because of, their success. While it’s hard to see the negatives when a club winning title after title, and performing well in Europe to boot, the signs are there for those who care to look closely.
Part of the issue is sentimentality, always a potential difficulty with clubs as steeped in tradition as the Glasgow giants. Celtic have persisted with certain players, Scott Brown a prime example, for far too long. The 35-year-old club captain is often shoehorned into a poorly performing midfield over superior personnel. Some supporters may argue his influence and attitude is worth it. Results would argue it’s not.
Another key issue is poor planning. Celtic are again relying on loan players to fill key gaps in their team. Sure, temporary deals can work out sometimes. Just look at Ianis Hagi, who spent a loan spell with Rangers before signing on for good. But Celtic make loan signings a key part of their recruitment and it simply doesn't give them value for money. Bringing in Shane Duffy on loan from Brighton seems a baffling choice. Why? A club as successful as Celtic shouldn’t be loaning players in almost for the sake of it.
Might be individual exceptions who work out in the short term (Forster) but it's just such a weird/bad strategy for a team that's won 9 (!) titles in a row to end up with.
This decline in quality makes sense when you think about it. Stick a heavyweight boxer into the featherweight class and he’ll likely win all his fights. But the lack of a challenge isn’t going to help him develop. Of course, this is somewhat hyperbolic. The likes of Aberdeen and Hibernian have great teams this year. But chances of either of them mounting a serious challenge are equivalent to Vermin Supreme being elected president this November.
On the other hand, Rangers are continuing to improve. Their victory in the first Old Firm battle of the season putting them firmly in the driving seat. Not only did they take a vital 2-0 win, they also restricted their opponents in attack, preventing Celtic from making a single shot on target.
This was followed up at the weekend as Rangers took an easy win against Livingston, despite making four changes from their last match, with young fullback Calvin Bassey showing his worth replacing injured fullback Barisic.
Meanwhile, Celtic faltered to a 3-3 draw with Aberdeen, their new four-man backline struggling to hold their shape and looking vulnerable whenever Aberdeen put on a spurt of pace.
But as we reach the turn of the year, problems arise. Rangers have started well in previous seasons, only to collapse after the turn of the year. The pressures of the transfer window, a packed fixture schedule and the ravages of weather can throw spanners in the works when you least expect them. And this being 2020, anything can happen in football.
But perhaps this can be the year when things finally change. While Celtic flounder around for a style that works, alternating between a back three and back four. Rangers already have an efficient system. Their 4-2-3-1 allows their quality fullbacks to shine, while the lone forward is supported well by the wingers. They’re confident and skilful, improving every week and have quality young players raring to make their mark on the team. Across town, a hint of panic hangs in the air.
Whether Rangers can continue their good form and grab the title remains to be seen. There’s plenty of work to be done and the smallest of slips could decide who lifts the silverware come the end of the season. But don’t be surprised to see the blue side of Glasgow celebrating this May.