Neil Lennon – Motivational Strengths, Man-Management and a November reckoning

When Celtic appointed Neil Lennon on a permanent basis following the winning of the Treble Treble against Hearts at Hampden we knew what we were getting. He was the right choice to give the club the stability it needed, one who knew the constraints and subsequent frustrations of dealing with the Celtic board, was a manager who had got to know the players and gained their trust when many felt betrayed and uncertain when he stepped into the breach following Brendan Rogers untimely exit, Lennon’s appointment ensured there was little chance of a gamble at management level as we headed for Nine and the ultimate goal of Ten-in-a-Row.

On the other hand Celtic was not employing a Premier league mentality, any great level of modern-day tactical analysis, moving between systems, or hair trigger in-game management. That said we also weren’t inviting in a new manager from outside our environment with unrealistic expectations in the transfer market or a man who would walk out the door with an offer to quadruple heir salary from a big league and we weren’t appointing a top man heading to Celtic Park with the intention realigning his reputation haven fallen off the Premier league merry-go-round and looking for an opportunity to re-join the ride further down the line.

Celtic offered Lennon the job and he took gratefully and with both hands, well perhaps one held onto his towel. Lennon did so despite having little to no say of those employed around him. Lennon’s own supporting staff weren’t required. It was a ‘take in our terms or not at all’ message and he did just that.

Brendan Rodgers left with a lot of staff, coaches and analysts and more, he had to be stopped from sticking the tea lady into the back of a cab although he did take a Celtic blogger.  Rodgers did that as he knew the upheaval of starting from scratch at Leicester City and that he may not be afforded time to bed in. Rodgers got a head start on that with his mid-season flit and having people he already knew he could rely on him around him – he was willing to rip the guts out of Celtic’s backroom staff to suit his own ends.

Celtic did a little of the same. In that amongst the upheaval they attempted to keep a level of consistency where they could. They tried to keep Rodgers modernising ideas around by way of John Kennedy and the initial appointment of Lennon was a man who would see the ship through some stormy waters, without having to spend any time acclimatising himself to his new vessel. Lennon is renowned for getting in players heads, motivating them and seeking out every advantage he can. That’s Lennon’s strengths and we’re now starting to see signs of that fraying at the edges.

Since coming to Celtic Lennon has now won 41 from 51 matches at a domestic level, he’s drawn six and lost four. On bare stats alone that’s as good a Celtic manager as you could hope for. That level of consistency is exactly what we’d be looking for if Lennon decided to leave today.

Yet amongst all of that Lennon is beginning to have gaps appear on his CV. Three of those four domestic defeats have come against theRangers. Worryingly, the last two of those have come at home and more concerning is bar a 2-0 win at Ibrox Celtic have been found wanting in far too many of those games and not just tactically, the players also seem to lack motivation.

In European football at this time last season Celtic were defeating Lazio home and away as they qualified from a Europa league group as winners and with two games to spare. Not bad at all. Since then however we’ve experienced the home collapse against Copenhagen almost mirroring the Champions league exit to Cluj, also at home, and this season Ferencvaros left Celtic Park en route to the Champions’ League group stages, an exit that occurred a round earlier this year than the previous two attempts we’ve had at qualifying.

Lennon’s record until this season had been perfectly acceptable even impressive in places, but now when it comes to navigating the big games it appears, we are coming up short more often than we’ve been successful- that’s a huge concern.

Saturday’s performance of course means a light is being shone now but while many are looking to formations and tactics, the question that is worrying most this season is whether the motivational powers are fading, whether Neil Lennon’s ability to inspire the players, to make up for the lack of that tactical acumen we were more than aware of is the real issue here.

Celtic have played varying formations this season. In half the games we’ve played a formation based on a back 4 and in the other half formations around 3 central defenders with wing backs. Despite the alterations we’ve only seen moments of improvement before returning to the mundane. The issue now is that Celtic have been lucky to deal see off the domestic opponents, we’ve also looked uninspiring against low level European sides and now the grand plan also appears to have hit the rocks.

As Neil Lennon moved to a 3-5-2 formation he adapted slightly from last year. It looked to me that this was all about one fixture. It was about finding a way to stifle theRangers midfield where Lennon clearly believed Gerrard and his men had got the upper hand. If we could win that battle, I believe Lennon felt the superiority of our players and his own ability to get in the minds of the players would tell and ultimately wrestle back the psychological advantage. Lennon believed his advantage over theRangers coaching team was that his man management would give him the edge if we could negate their tactical advantage, I think he was onto something there, when you saw the collapse of theRangers last season that made sense.

The plan was just about to be tested last season, as while we were in full flow and theRangers were collapsing, we may have emerged victorious in a fixture due to be played at Ibrox only two days after football halted. We may have taken a slight edge for this season over our opponent. We never found out as the pandemic ended the season early.

As such Saturday’s now infamous encounter became the game Lennon aimed for to wrestle back that edge over the Ibrox club. Would it have worked? I think it might, however a lacklustre start to the season has led to an overall drop in squad confidence, then came an international break where Covid-19 again played its part and impacted the squad.

Lennon had little choice –as he saw it- but to carry on regardless, he’d set his course and he had to see it through. The problem was there were too many losses to the team. Christopher Jullien and a clearly problematic back issue, a fracture in the case of James Forrest, then Covid struck Odsonne Edouard, Nir Bitton, Hatem Elhamed while Ryan Christie had to self-isolate. Albian Ajeti picked up a hamstring injury against Hibs and was always playing catch up and Leigh Griffiths apparently remained unfit enough to start. (His failure to report back in an acceptable physical condition after the shutdown has proved more costly as time goes on. The 3-5-2 that worked so well at the start of this year happened because Griffiths was fit and firing on all cylinders alongside Odsonne Edouard).

There are then mitigating reasons for defeat, yet there are none for the lacklustre performance of those who took the field. A motivated team may still have lost that encounter but they wouldn’t have gone out with barely a whimper. They’d have created chances and got in the opposition faces. It may not have been enough but it wouldn’t have been the insipid performance we ended up witnessing.

And that’s my concern. I think Lennon has been unlucky and in my eyes the injury list and the Covid disruptions mean he has an excuse for losing but I’m far from certain he has a reason at hand to explain the performance. That’s the big worry, the elephant in the room. Tactics aside and formation apart, that team did not nor has far too many times this season looked suitably inspired or even confident.

That is Lennon’s thing, that’s what we got when Celtic chose Neil Lennon. Though the buck ultimately stops at the manager for the tactics, it’s also fair to say much like Beale does at Ibrox there are others at Celtic employed to manage that side of the game. Indeed, it’s the reason Lennon didn’t get his own backroom staff when he joined, we knew his limitations and we believed we had that covered, what we felt certain we were getting was a man who would get that extra percentage from his players by his previously evidenced man management expertise. If that is waning, if the players aren’t responding, that to me is a far bigger concern rather than whether we play a 4-2-3-1 formation or adopt a 3-5-2 strategy. If that level of motivation is missing it doesn’t matter what shape we play, we’ll be struggling no matter what.

Celtic now go into the toughest period of our Season. We start our European campaign against AC Milan before heading to Pittodrie this Sunday for what is a now must win encounter. We then face Lille in France, before coming up against a tough as it comes November.

First up the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden, Sparta Prague in the Europa Leage at Celtic Park then three consecutive away games. Motherwell at Fir Park, bang in form Hibs at Easter Road before seeing out the month with the away trip to Prague to face Sparta once more.

In that Thursday-Sunday spell Celtic will play eight games that could define our season. In all of those games’ tactics will play a part, but not as much as managing a squad and motivating the players. Many are now calling for Neil Lennon to shape up or ship out. It’s too early for that but if we aren’t careful now until the end of November could see the domestic and European ambitions of the club unravel.

Conversely however if Lennon can get his mojo back, if he can get back to basics and do what he historically does well and motivate his squad, Celtic could come out of November looking in rude health, with a Scottish cup final banked, the guts of the European campaign navigated successfully and some of the trickiest away games Celtic will face outside Ibrox manoeuvred.

If Celtic are at a crossroads now rather than the edge of a cliff we’ll know far more clearly by the end of November. By that time, it will be apparent if Celtic are going through a blip or whether we are experiencing the start of a damaging malaise.

Niall J

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About Author

As a Bellshill Bhoy I was taken to my first Celtic game in the summer of 1987. It was Billy McNeill’s return to Celtic Park as manager and Celtic lost 5-1 to Arsenal . I thought I was a jinx, I think my Grandfather might have thought the same. It was the finest gift anyone ever gave me when he walked me through Parkhead's gates.

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