During the transfer window Celtic were linked with many strikers, far too numerous to mention without boring us both, however there were three main targets we know Celtic made contact with. Albian Ajeti always appeared first choice and following Neil Lennon’s direct intervention we managed to get a deal done that looked to be floundering.
The others were Steven Fletcher, a player Lennon again was keen on to replace the physical presence in the striking department vacated by the unable to impress Vakoun Bayo, the other was Ivan Toney, the Peterborough transfer target, who after Barry Fry and Darragh MacAnthony, Director of football and Chairman respectively had conducted their desperate sales pitch in the media to try and play Celtic off with Brentford, eventually moved to West London when Celtic’s interest waned.
Steven Fletcher’s demands for a two-year contract at the age of 33 saw him head south to Stoke City with Celtic only willing to offer the player – probably correctly – a 1-year deal, but it’s the Toney deal that’s been catching they eye of late.
Ivan Toney scored twice for the third consecutive game as Brentford secured a hard-won victory over Sheffield Wednesday last night. It’s now seven goals in the last four appearances for Brentford’s replacement for Ollie Watkins who headed to Aston Villa for £33million this summer.
The reason Toney has been catching the eye however isn’t so much the form and goalscoring return – impressive as it is – it’s the fact the striker signed for Brentford having barely kicked a ball in months. Now, Brentford spend a fortune on their recruitment and analytics teams. Algorithms rule on their training ground. Every decision is based on crunching the numbers. Performance in training and games is monitored to the nth degree.
As such it would have been a surprise to see Toney go straight into the Brentford team having played so little football. It would have been even more of a surprise when you saw him play at first. Rusty doesn’t do it justice. Toney was so far off the pace he looked every inch the League 1 player he was prior to signing. That wasn’t down to ability, as Toney is now evidencing with not only his goal return but his all-round play for The Bees, it was down to a lack of football and match sharpness. It took time for that to come. That it did was down to the fact Brentford persevered with the player and let the training, allied to a run of games, get their new boy up to speed and now he’s delivering.
Brentford’s hands were tied somewhat. The Watkins deal was concluded late in the transfer window and another of their famed BMW front three from the promotion push the season before Said Benrahma was being kept in cold storage, as his eventual move went to the last minute of the last day of the transfer window. The player wasn’t risked, due either to his financial value to Brentford by way of the transfer deal or possibly because the player, who’s head had been turned, wanted Premiership football. He eventually ended up at Crystal Palace on a deal that will eventually earn Brentford £20million plus.
As such Toney, out of form, sluggish and looking a little lost in the tactical expectations of Brentford soldiered on. In a sink or swim environment he got fit, learned his role and swam. All the while playing twice a week, temporary form and fitness immaterial to a Brentford coaching system normally beholden to both.
Meanwhile Celtic, desperate to play a new formation and bed it in, one that needs two good strikers to allow it to flourish, flounders. No shots on target on Saturday was evidence of that. The difference with Celtic is two of the players needed to get the system up and running have been in and out the team. Neil Lennon and Celtic constantly advise us of a lack of fitness for both Leigh Griffiths and the man Toney was beaten to the punch – and the Celtic jersey he coveted – by Albian Ajeti.
Ajeti is returning from a Hamstring injury sustained scoring or celebrating a goal against Hibs, while Griffiths is the biggest conundrum in all of this. He’s been fit enough of late to come off the bench, yet his long-term absence up to now has been due to returning back to training unfit- on the 8th of July.
Celtic’s own number crunchers have clearly decided that standards aren’t being met, yet both players got to a level of fitness that has allowed them stop-start game time, enough to suggest a level of fitness has been achieved. Griffiths was fit enough and in contention again back on 27 July and Ajeti was banging in goals in bit part appearances from August. We’re now nearly in November.
There is of course, as we’re always told, a difference between being fit and match sharp. If that has led to the hesitancy in playing both these players it’s a bit of a head scratcher. How do you get from fit enough for some minutes on the park to full on match sharpness? I guess we’re back to Toney and Brentford on that one, you play them through it when needs must. Yes, you risk a muscle strain or worse, but is it any different from the kit gloves approach that sees Ajeti pick up a hamstring strain under the current approach and Griffiths still unable to be trusted bar ten- and twenty-minute cameos.
Sports science plays a big part in football but you can’t let the tail wag the dog, not when Celtic are having to play False Number 9’s while exiting the Champions League or play Derby games at home and can’t muster a shot on target, as proven goalscoring assets watch from a cosy padded jacket on the bench.
If Brentford can take a needs must approach, despite being engrained in the analytical side of the game, and persist with a player they signed until he plays himself into fitness and form, I’m sure Celtic and Neil Lennon can do the same.
If we intend to play with two strikers, let’s do that. Being between two stools unable to commit entirely to the system is costing Celtic. It’s a gamble of course but so was playing these players in fits and starts. If Griffiths and Ajeti are fit enough for the bench get them out on the grass. This hesitant approach isn’t working.
Celtic’s advantage this season over all our rivals is the availability of genuine firepower. It’s time to follow Brentford’s lead and realise sometimes pragmatism and perseverance will reach a swifter conclusion than the over analysis of training ground performance and bleep tests. Ivan Toney’s current form is testament to that.
*article posted on the go today so lacks the usual design and layout standard at The Celtic Star, apologies for that folks.