Why Celtic's St Mirren nightmare doesn't require a big Ange Postecoglou rethink
Many factors were at play in Celtic’s defeat in Paisley on Sunday, which saw the end of a 38-match unbeaten run lasting one day short of an entire year.
Ange Postecoglou chose to heavily rotate his side, with six changes made to the team who drew 1-1 against Shakhtar Donetsk in Warsaw in the Champions League – Josip Juranovic was rested from the squad altogether. St Mirren’s second goal was also contentiously awarded despite a push on Stephen Welsh in the build-up.
With both first-choice centre-halves injured, Welsh was used alongside Moritz Jenz at centre half for the second time from the start, with the combination first playing as a pair in a game that seems to have inspired the ill-fated rotation, last month’s Premier Sports Cup win over Ross County in Dingwall.
Only Greg Taylor, Joe Hart and Kyogo missed that cup tie but started in Paisley, as the advanced midfield pair of Aaron Mooy and David Turnbull that strolled the game in the highlands toiled to break down St Mirren’s disciplined block.
With plenty of the first team involved with their international teams over the break, it’s easy to see why the manager was tempted into making so many changes, particularly having seen a slightly weaker variant of the team from the St Mirren game excel in Dingwall.
However, Postecoglou himself admitted post-match that his changes could have been ill-advised, as Celtic struggled to create any meaningful chances, with a particularly static midfield a particular culprit on a day where nobody in the away line-up played well.
The manager has previously stated explicitly the need for a deeper squad to allow for greater rotation this season, as Celtic’s threadbare squad miraculously kept touch with Rangers through an injury-laden December, before taking charge of the title race in the new year.
He has a particular mind to pay regarding Callum McGregor’s minutes, as the captain has regularly mixed with some of the most-used players in world football in recent seasons. Oliver Abildgaard is the obvious replacement in this case, but his lack of match fitness clearly played into Postecoglou’s thinking, with Reo Hatate and Matt O’Riley rested instead of McGregor.
Although he was unable to affect the eventual result, Hatate’s halftime introduction brought an increase in Celtic’s tempo, and his importance to the side is now plain for all to see, and rationing his game time is another quandary for the manager, after the midfielder visibly tired physically towards the end of last season.
This isn’t to say that there’s no place for Mooy and Turnbull. Like most-if-not-all of Celtic’s squad outwith the starting eleven, they have very specific and useful strengths for certain situations, but it seems unlikely that they’ll be used as a pair again in a hurry, particularly away from home.
Ultimately, the result in Paisley was a disappointing one, but not a ruinous one, and not one emblematic of any worrying trends with Postecoglou’s Celtic. Whilst the manager will now have a more rigorous assessment of some of his players and how they can be used, it rightly won’t deter him from rotating in the coming weeks, as Celtic face a gruelling schedule in the lead-up to the World Cup.