“The new players need time to bed in.” “The team is finally clicking.” “They’re playing as if they just met this morning!”
These are all phrases that soccer fans will be well aware of, as they’re the sort of cliches that one hears in commentary all the time. When it comes to the game on the field, however, how important are they?
A team with sufficient talent should, generally speaking, overcome a well-organised one with lesser individuals regardless. For Celtic, one of Scotland’s two footballing powerhouses, this is perhaps more true than elsewhere.
A huge talent disparity is built into the league in Scotland. Celtic and their main rivals and competitors, Rangers, pay more in wages than the rest of the league combined, so in every game that isn’t against each other, they start with a serious talent advantage.
This debate has been particularly stark in the last decade or so at Celtic, because of the succession of managers and how they have coped with this advantage.
Ronny Deila, now of New York City FC, struggled to win the Scottish Premiership despite a historically large talent advantage due to the absence of Rangers, only for Brendan Rodgers, with much the same core players, to go through a season unbeaten.
When Rodgers spectacularly walked out on the club, Neil Lennon came in, and brought with him a style that seemed hell-bent on putting individuals above the collective. When he flamed out last season, he was replaced by Ange Postecoglou, whose philosophy is about as collectively-oriented as it gets.
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Lennon’s philosophy was to get the ball to his talented forwards and hope that they would produce moments of brilliance that would win games, though to call it a philosophy might drastically overstate the level of coherent thought that went into it.
Postecoglou tries to implement a structure of passing and pressing that maximizes the team, very much a system-first approach that could not be starker in difference to the Lennon appraoch.
Those inclined towards analytics in football like to characterize this as ‘variance’, the ability to minimize hiccups and maximize strengths.
In short, if you rely on better players to be better, you open yourself up to them having an off day, thus expanding the potential options for a result both positively and negatively: you can also, as Neil Lennon did, have great days where you beat better opponents who are will to engage in a shootout with you.
Celtic supporters—and for the purposes of clarity, that includes me—routinely fall into one of two categories.
In the Glasgow parlance, they tend to be either ‘blood and snotters’ types, who think winning comes from getting the ball forwards and getting stuck in, or ‘speccy wee guys with laptops’, obsessed with arcana like xG, packing and passing lanes.
A successful team needs both a bit of dig and a lot of thought, but there might be a biggest aspect at play: cohesion. Cohesion, the mythical ‘click’, is something that affects all organizations, not just sports teams, and could be seen as central to the current situation at Celtic.
Ben Darwin, a former Australian rugby union international and founder of Gain Line Analytics, measures cohesion for a living. He consults for sports teams and busineses to help them be more cohesive, and his firm applies that knowledge to sports in Australia and beyond.
Ange Postecoglou is no stranger to this kind of thinking: it pervades both rugby league and Australian rules football, the major football codes in Australia, and he will doubtless have come across it during his periods in charge of Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory.
“When Ange has done well with clubs, he tended to be more of an empire builder,” said Darwin. “You look at the success that he had with Brisbane and in particular with Melbourne Victory, they were at the time the highest cohesion teams in Australia. That was a league that doesn’t have a lot of it.”
Cohesion is always relative in this sense: leagues like the A League, or in Celtic’s case, the Scottish Premiership, are generally bad at cohesion, because they see constant player churn and instability.
Australian rules football might be the antithesis of this, a competition where all the best talent in the sport is in one place and teams may only turn over 10% of their playing group year on year. Celtic, for comparison, started their last game with only 3 players from the 11 who were in the first team as recently as May.
In football terms, says Darwin, the Bundesliga is the most cohesive league: they have entrenched youth systems (with reserve teams in the same league structure as the first team), a player recruitment model that outlasts managerial changes and level of continuity of purpose that comes from integrating supporters, sponsors and the club hierarchy into the same business model.
Clubs like RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen are good examples of this, outperforming their budgets on the European level through advantages gained in cohesion.
If you have a competition that is really in chaos, and you build a club reasonably well, you’ll dominate. That’s what Ange was able to do with Brisbane: he was able to dominate with the Roar by putting a team together in a reasonable fashion and then being able to execute on good game plans.
The relative lack of cohesion in Scottish football could be perfect for Ange Postecoglou and Celtic to exploit, if, according to Darwin, he is given backing to implement his ideas.
“What I have noticed generally is that it takes some time for the teams he has to adjust, because he has his way that he wants to coach, his way that he wants teams to function and they take time to adjust to that,” he said. “The key is if the management and ownership have patience to let him achieve that.”
“Looking at his Scottish experience: is he going to have enough time to do what he wants to do to get the team into the shape that he wants? If he does have those things, I think he’ll have enormous levels of success. It’s just about how patient the club is. Patience that part of the world is not very big.”
The troubles at Celtic are far deeper than Ange: the club lost badly last season and saw its CEO of 20 years retire. His replacement, former Scottish Rugby Union CEO Dominic McKay, hired Postecoglou but himself left just months after taking over.
Fans are generally behind Ange and what he is doing, but the club beyond that is rudderless: in recent games, Postecoglou has been unable to make attacking substitutions because he had no senior first team strikers to pick from.
For Darwin, the board themselves are the starting point when Gain Line Analytics go into any company. In a sporting context, that means establishing what the corporate leadership actually want from their team and when they want to achieve it.
“There’s two things you need,” he says. “You need are a hiring process that is informed by what they actually want to do: do they want to win this year or next year? When we sit down with boards, we often ask them ‘why are you on this board?’”
“Are you on the board so you can tell your friends that you’re on the board? Would you be prepared for this club to go backward for two years and for you to be a pariah, in order for it to be successful after you leave? That stuff is really important and will manifest what the outcomes are for the organization over the long term.”
“You need to have a singularity of vision. If the answer is to buy, then think of Manchester City: at least with them, you know what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to buy a title and reverse engineer cohesion.”
“It’s when you have multiple agendas within governance that the real problems start. The club will look like that on the field. The recent games where Celtic didn’t have a striker on the bench are an exact manifestation of the governance scenario that has taken place. It’s a shitshow, therefore what Ange’s living with is a shitshow.”
“Generally, as a manager, it’s very hard to overcome that. At some point, he either has to have strength of character to suffer through this and then hope that governance will sort itself out, or whatever happens above happens and eventually they’ll have to find someone else and it keeps going.”
“If they sacked Ange, it wouldn’t solve the problem.”