Celtic secured their third consecutive domestic treble on Saturday, beating Heart of Midlothian 2-1 at Hampden to lift the Scottish Cup in dramatic fashion. An 81st-minute winner from Odsonne Edouard sealed the win, which was closely followed by interim boss Neil Lennon being offered the manager’s job on a permanent basis.
It was, quite rightly, a day of celebration for the club. However, the match was a difficult one. The reigning Scottish champions were restricted to just two shots on target, both of which were the goals. Besides that, they struggled to break down their opposition.
Lennon and his team achieved everything they were expected to, but there are issues that need to be addressed over the summer. Here, we at Football Whispers analyse areas Celtic must improve on if they are to continue their domestic dominance next season.
Who gets the No.1 jersey?
Scott Bain took over the goalkeeper spot from Craig Gordon halfway through this season and, in general, played well. He showcased better quality in possession, moving the ball quicker and finding his teammates with greater consistency – his pass accuracy was 5.7 per cent higher than Gordon’s.
However, while his ability with the ball at feet may improve Celtic’s build-up and make them slightly more resistant to high pressing, he has made goalkeeping errors that simply cannot be ignored.
Bain has risen up the leagues over the last eight years, going from Alloa Athletic in what is now the Scottish League Two to Dundee, Hibernian and now Celtic in the top flight. However, his progress from squad player to key first-teamer in recent months was unexpected, and his mistakes perhaps underline why.
When appearing for Scotland in the dismal 3-0 defeat to Kazakhstan, the 27-year-old was slow to come off his line for the opposition’s second goal. A similar error came in the recent Old Firm derby, where he failed to come out and deal with a James Tavernier cross that sneaked into the far post.
And, in Celtic’s last league game of the campaign, Bain was caught in possession as Hearts pressed high and forced him into a turnover which led to an equalising goal.
The honeymoon period is over for the goalkeeper and such poor decisions – on and off the ball – won’t be accepted next term.
He is a better ball-player than Gordon, and his reflexes are also good, though the club may want to look at alternatives in the transfer window.
Who succeeds Lustig?
Mikael Lustig has been an exceptional servant at right-back for Celtic over the last seven years, but his contract is currently set to expire this summer. There is a chance that he stays, with Lennon saying: “I know what he can do. I know the personality of the man. He is very important in the dressing room. But first and foremost he is a quality player.”
However, even if the Swede does continue on at Parkhead, he will turn 33 years old next season and is not the attacking force he once was. While still a penetrative passer, he can’t cover the right flank as he did in his 20s and is increasingly being turned by quicker opponents – namely Rangers’ Ryan Kent.
Whether or not Lustig goes, a new right-back should be a priority for Celtic during the summer window. Jeremy Toljan will return to Borussia Dortmund once his loan is up while Anthony Ralston hasn’t shown he has what it takes to take a regular starting berth.
Does Brown need a new partner?
Questions have been asked of Scott Brown throughout this campaign. While he was out with injury earlier in the season, Celtic trialled Callum McGregor at the base of midfield, with Tom Rogic and Ryan Christie as Manchester City-style attacking No.8s. The trial worked well, leading some to suggest the club captain was expendable.
There are games where Brown perhaps is no longer necessary. He doesn’t move or pass as well as McGregor, and he also isn’t as comfortable receiving the ball as his younger teammate. But there is still a need for his dogged closing down, intercepting and fouling.
In order to field a team featuring an extremely attacking front five, Celtic often need someone in the middle who allows everyone else to get forward. This player requires positional discipline and a willingness to do the dirty work. And, in specific games such as Rangers away, they may need two of these types of player.
Brown could be one of them, but given his interceptions and recoveries are down on last season, he clearly needs a reliable alternate or partner. Nir Bitton’s injury record in recent years means he’s not a viable option, so Lennon might want to consider signing another defensive midfielder this summer.
Solving the possession problem
Besides strengthening the team in problem positions in the transfer market, Lennon has work to do on the training ground to get Celtic firing on all cylinders once again.
While results in his second spell have been good, the team’s possession game hasn’t been quite as effective as it was under Brendan Rodgers.
Were it not for two mistakes by Hearts defenders, Celtic may not have even had a shot on target in last Saturday’s cup final. In reality, they were stultified for the most part by a zonal defence that prioritised blocking off the centre and forcing Kristoffer Ajer and Jozo Simunovic to pass wide to their full-backs.
Scottish Premiership teams are finally waking up to the idea that defending zonally is the best way to compete with the champions. As if to underline this, Aberdeen, who man-mark rigidly all over the pitch, drew one and lost five of their six contests with the Hoops this term.
In order to beat savvier defensive opposition, Lennon needs to work on a more cohesive possession game.
If the lines cannot be broken, there needs to be a workable Plan B – that is, not hopeful crosses in from wide – that allows Celtic to continue to attack even when forced wide.