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Dublin: 11°C Saturday 24 October 2020
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Opinion: Ronny Deila can build on a promising debut season at Celtic

The SPL returns this weekend with Celtic taking on Ross County at Celtic Park.

Manager Ronny Deila celebrates winning the SPL at Celtic Park last season.
Manager Ronny Deila celebrates winning the SPL at Celtic Park last season.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

ONE OF THE most surprising appointments of the summer came at Celtic Park last summer when little-known Norwegian Ronny Deila was appointed as the club’s new manager on a 12-month rolling contract.

Celtic had identified Roy Keane as their man to replace Neil Lennon but the former United and Celtic midfielder decided to stay on in his role as Republic of Ireland assistant manager. They then turned to Deila, a relatively unknown who had guided Stromsgodset to their first Norwegian title in 43 years. His attacking philosophy led to comparisons being made to Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp.

New man

But a shaky start to life in Glasgow led to questions being asked over Deila’s ability. The club found itself in uncharted territory in October, lying sixth in the table after dropping ten points in their opening 8 games. Deila attempted to impose his pressing style on the team but fans began to fear that the players were unable to adapt to his method and tactics.

They need not have worried. After their 1-0 loss to Hamilton on October 5th, Celtic only suffered two further defeats in the league. They even put together two runs of eight consecutive SPL victories.

It took time for the side to become accustomed to Deila’s style but it helped that he predominantly stuck with the same core group of players, the same XI for most games, throughout the season. Celtic became a team that pressed the opposition, always looking to make that decisive pass and an entertaining side to watch. In 13 league games, Celtic scored three goals or more.

Source: PA Wire/PA Images

But while their league record was impressive, their defensive frailties were exposed in Europe. They were outclassed over two legs by Legia Warsaw, conceding four goals in the first leg, but were awarded the tie when Warsaw fielded an ineligible player. Celtic failed to capitalize on this stroke of good fortune and were eliminated in the very next round by Maribor. There was further disappointment in the Europa League. After making it into the knockout stages, Inter Milan scored three away goals at Celtic Park in the first leg and essentially put the tie to bed.

These failings were put down to a lack of defensive focus. Delia is the kind of manager that sets up his sides to win 5-4 rather than 1-0. He encourages his full-backs to push upfield and join the attack.  This led to plenty of goals, with Van Dijk scoring four, Denayer five and Mathews and Izaguirre one apiece but it did leave them exposed at the back at times.

Deila did seem to remedy the situation somewhat as the season progressed and Celtic only conceded 17 goals in total in the league, eight fewer than the previous campaign under Neil Lennon. But the test will be this season in Europe, will Deila be able to find the right balance between attack and defense?

What can Celtic fans expect from this season? 

This season has the potential to be one of the most exciting in recent memory, for several reasons. After an encouraging campaign last year, Aberdeen have bolstered their squad with the signing of Danny Ward, Kenny Mclean and Andrew Driver. Hearts are back in the mix after winning immediate promotion back to the top division. They won promotion in impressive fashion last season, winning 29 of their 36 games, scoring 96 goals and conceding just 26 goals. And finally, for the first time in a long time, Celtic have managed to hold on to their best players.

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There will be an expectation that Aberdeen, Hearts and even Dundee United can challenge Celtic. I’d highly doubt it. The Celtic players have now had a full season and pre-season under Deila and know what he requires from them. So unlike last season, I’d expect Celtic to hit the ground running for this campaign.

As I’ve said earlier, it’s also important that they were able to hang on to their most important players. They’ve been clever in the transfer market, conducting their business early and efficiently. Jason Denayer and Adam Matthews both left the club but they found like-for-like replacements in Dedryck Boyata and Saidy Janko. Not only have they held on to Johansen, Mackay-Steven, Armstrong and, for the moment, Virgil Van Dijk but they’ve also added Nadir Ciftci. Ciftci can, as long he stays out of trouble, add another exciting element to an already potent attack force.

Even Celtic’s most ardent critics would have to admit that they were playing very good football at the back end of last season and that side has not gotten any weaker, in my opinion. The challenge for Celtic and Deila now is to keep progressing. The manager and the players have been saying the right things, talking up their target of winning the domestic treble. That’s all well and good but let’s be honest, nobody expects Celtic to have much trouble retaining the league. What the club and fans will be looking for his improvement in Europe and that will be the measuring stick for Deila’s Celtic. They’ve started off well with a 6-1 aggregate win over Stjarnan in the second qualifying round but tougher tests lay ahead.

All things considered, the risk has payed off and last season was a promising debut for the Norwegian. Celtic fans can be forgiven for having high hopes heading into the season ahead.

It kicks off this Saturday morning at Celtic Park, with Ross County the visitors. The game is at 12.45, live on Sky Sports 1. 

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About the author:

Donal Lucey

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