Celtic writers, myself included, have been guilty of acting as if Neil Lennon’s already gone.
I’d like to use this space, first of all, to apologise for that. It’s not respectful, and certainly not befitting of a man who has given everything to Celtic Football Club.
Ultimately, though, results and performances don’t lie, and it’s only natural that the supporters and press are on Lenny’s back. The expectations at Celtic are gigantic, and that’s because the resources and history of the club should allow any manager or head coach at Parkhead to succeed without a great deal of hassle.
Lennon has already been successful at Celtic Park. He could fight the odds and do it again. Here’s how:
Pick a formation that works and stick to it
Celtic’s disjointed efforts this season can be attributed to a number of factors, including player turnover and the incredible build up of fixtures that Lenny and the Bhoys have faced due to the global pandemic.
Celtic’s experimentation with 3-5-2 after the trip to Dubai at the turn of the year continued into this season, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why it hasn’t worked in this campaign so far. The unsettled front line, hampered by injuries and COVID-19, has meant that no real partnership between two strikers has come to any longer term fruition yet.
In defence, Duffy has been a disappointment, and once again, injuries have taken their toll on the likes of Ajer, Jullien and Elhamed already this campaign.
Lenny’s reluctance to start Elhamed as a right-sided centre back in recent games has baffled many, including myself. As a player with plenty of experience in both positions for club and country, it makes sense that he would slot in there to cover Frimpong, who seems to be one of the first names on the teamsheet.
Ajer peformed well on the left side of 3-man defence but lapses of concentration from his colleagues and their inability to simply hold a line and keep their shape have been endlessly frustrating.
A back three of Jullien, Ajer and Elhamed is tantalising, and there’s enough defensive talent there to allow Laxalt and Frimpong to maraud forward, as is their wont.
Get the best out of Scott Brown, and fast
Scott Brown seems to have been written off more times than I could count, but he always seems to answer the questions posed of him. This season, he looks a little off the pace.
He doesn’t seem to have the same confidence as last season, and has struggled with the flux of tactical changes. In any set-up, you’d expect him to sit in front of the defence and move the ball forward when we’re in possession, and pressure off the ball when we aren’t.
His clumsy mistake at Easter Road could well be tiredness – Broony has put in an incredible shift at Celtic, particularly over the last few years.
Introducing Soro and Turnbull for starts in the coming weeks would placate some of the support, who would rather the captain missed the odd game if it prolonged his time at Celtic Park.
Lennon should look to use Brown more sparingly if he’s to get the best out of him. Doubting our captain in the past has been a mistake and there are still plenty of good performances left in the tank.
Make a statement between the sticks
The treatment of Vasilis Barkas since he joined Celtic has been curious at best and damning of our recruitment methods at worst. Losing his place in the team after only a handful of matches, Barkas looks to me as if he’s part of a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war that isn’t of his own making.
Simply put, I believe if Lenny really wanted to sign Barkas in the first place, he’d argue his case and keep him in the side as the number 1 choice.
What’s left now is a confusing situation; Scott Bain is likeable but has been at fault for a number of careless goals already since featuring in our starting XI. Barkas, for my money (or more pertinently, for Celtic’s money), still has all the attributes to be a consistent keeper for Celtic, so the situation that’s developed has been a strange one.
Build this Celtic side around Ryan Christie
It’s been easy to get swept up in Christie Fever following the former Inverness man’s heroics for Scotland, but over the last couple of seasons, Ryan Christie has been a key man for Celtic, and Lenny would do well to build around him, rather than play him out of position.
We’ve talked already about Christie’s positional woes in the current Celtic team, but he’s a prolific provider of both goals and assists for Neil Lennon. Still only 25, he has the potential to be a complete midfielder in the mould of Stuart Armstrong or Paul Lambert, but for now he plays best as a Number 10.
Linking particularly well with Edouard, a best XI for Lenny features Christie playing in the hole and causing headaches for opposition defences. Play him there.
The board needs to back him, and not just in the transfer market
There’s a key difference between the Neil Lennon who managed us in his first spell and the Neil Lennon who took over from Brendan Rodgers, and it’s in his body language.
In his first spell, Lennon kicked every ball along with the team, shouting and simply vibrating from the touchline. He was an active participant, far from the kind of coach who sits in the stand with a Data Analyst – there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach by the way, it was just never Lennon’s style.
Of course, for all his bombast, he was accused of doing himself no favours, making himself a target of sectarian abuse and acting irresponsibly. That’s all nonsense of course, and the Scottish media’s continued narrative of Lennon “bringing it on himself” was and continues to be utterly shameful.
You’re talking here about a man who was threatened by Northern Irish paramilitaries simply for representing his country. A man who, because of his religion and association with Celtic Football Club, was assaulted both in and outside of football grounds, taunted with horrifying graffiti and perhaps most hauntingly of all, sent a bomb in the post.
No other football manager has dealt with the avalanche of abuse that Neil Lennon has battled, by virtue of the religion he was born into and practices, and his happening to be a football player, then subsequently a manager.
His experiences would mellow anyone.
But there’s a creeping sense that Lennon just isn’t enjoying this any more. He’s cut a sullen figure while coaching Celtic this season, even when we’ve played well. If our former midfielder is to stay in his job, serious talks need to be had about what would make him happy in his job, and what he can do for his players and staff.
Lennon has spoken bravely about mental illness in the past, and that should be remembered and heralded. With workplaces employing strategies to promote good mental health, football should be no different, and if he’s staying, he needs the infrastructure to be happy at work. That comes from the top down.
There’s no magic fix for depression. However, there certainly are measures and methods to improve a person’s working hours. In any walk of life, happy managers have happier employees, and happier employees perform better at their job.