Celtic midfielder Callum McGregor has opened up on the pragmatic football Neil Lennon wants us to play in Europe.
So far this season, Lennon has lost just once in 11 European matches. That defeat came in a messy home clash against Cluj in Champions League qualifying. Outside of that, however, Celtic haven’t lost another. That’s despite playing in tough venues such as Cluj, Rennes, and AIK respectively.
Tougher tests are still to come, but Celtic haven’t been going gung-ho away from Parkhead. It’s led to Lenny racking up a superb five-match unbeaten run away from home in Europe. Compare it to last season, Celtic had lost two of their opening five European matches and won just one of them.
McGregor believes it’s come from Lennon introducing a more pragmatic style in continental action. Speaking in the Celtic View (Volume 55, Issue 13, Pages 12 and 13), the Hoops midfielder opened up on the differences compared to last season under Brendan Rodgers.
“You could see in the Rennes game how effective we can be on the counter-attack. We might not have much of the ball in these European games, but as long as we have a good base with that four at the back and the two just ahead, then we can allow the front boys to go and get on with it.
“That’s a big factor in why we’ve done well in Europe so far in terms of getting to this point. We probably will be slightly more pragmatic in Europe this year because that’ll get us results and get us through the group.
“This season we’ve maybe not had as much of the ball, but we’ve looked more of a threat on the counter and we’ve scored a lot more goals compared to last year. Last season teams were getting used to us playing controlled possession football where he had a lot of the ball.”
Defensive organisation comes first away from home
Too often under Rodgers, he encouraged our players to go toe-to-toe with the best in Europe. In a way we were too often trying to outplay them with a total football approach. What we got, however, was defeat after defeat.
Under Rodgers, we managed to lose to teams such as Valencia (x2), Zenit, AEK Athens, RB Leipzig, RB Salzburg (x2), PSG (x2), Anderlecht, Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayern Munich (x2), and Barcelona (x2). Every single team in there is either top class, or at the very least extremely efficient.
However, away from home, we lost to all except two of them. Those two, Anderlecht and Borussia, beat us at Parkhead. And too often this was because we were trying to play Rodgers’ style of high-tempo build-up play from the back.
It led to disaster after disaster, and we never truly seemed to get better at it. The 7-1 and 5-0 humiliations off PSG were notable calamities. 7-0 in Barcelona was also damaging for our reputation. The fact is, there was hardly a whiff of pragmatism in our displays against most of the teams listed above.
Lennon has his own way
Lennon’s come in and ripped up the manual. He wants his Celtic side to be wary of the opposition and set-up to contain away from home whilst looking for openings on the counter. There’s no delusion about stamping authority on games against better sides.
Celtic took a counter-attacking approach in Rennes and it unsettled the French side. Would we have gotten more joy playing a higher-line and trying to dominate the ball? We likely would’ve just been picked off, and that’s something Lenny doesn’t want to see happen.
If you’re going to score against this Celtic side in Europe, Lenny wants it to be a good goal. The rate at which we conceded in European football under Rodgers was unacceptable. It was made up for by domestic dominance, of course, but we didn’t bolster our European record under him.
Hopefully, Lennon’s respect for the opposition’s attacking threats can help us be more realistic in our approach this season. Already, it seems to be working nicely.