Celtic, Schuster and Chelsea’s legacy

On these shores, footballing success is often viewed as being synonymous with ‘bravery.’ The secret to success is often presented as being little more than determination, hard work and ‘wanting it more’ than the opposition. Thundering into last-ditch challenges, withstanding heavy pressure and a prosaic preference for the primitive are widely held as symptomatic of sporting excellence, with such suffering and stubborn endurance seen as proud emblems of sporting gallantry. In such context, Celtic’s recent display in Barcelona can be viewed as a flagship performance of bravery; a show of valour and iron-will cruelly denied its rightful reward by Jordi Alba’s dramatic late-strike. Predictably, their efforts against the world’s finest side attracted rich praise, with reports stressing a narrative of heartbreak and callous fate. For former Germany playmaker Bernd Schuster however, such epithets were wildly misplaced.

‘I’m fed up of seeing these sort of matches,’ spat Schuster, ‘there should not be teams like Celtic in the Champions’ League.’ Of course, those without an allegiance to the Glasgow club or the stereotyped British ideal are unlikely to be too enamoured by a team ‘defending with 10 men and almost snatching a point’ but to question their participation at this level clearly invites claims of arrogance and elitism. Whilst neither trait is necessarily as deplorable within the game as outside its peculiar parameters, Schuster’s comments fail to recognise that having won their domestic league and successfully navigated the preliminary rounds, Celtic’s presence is unquestionably deserved. Of course, the aristocrats of Europe’s stronger leagues possess better players, play better football and consequently are involved in better matches but that should not discount the involvement of teams from less prestigious environs.

Still, despite Schuster’s criticisms seeming somewhat graceless, the opposite extreme as evidenced in the British press’ appraisal is equally misplaced. Bravery is intrinsically predicated upon the premise that should the act of proposed courage fail, the perpetrator would be left open to charges of stupidity and crass foolishness. When facing Barcelona, bravery would therefore be defined in opting for an open, attacking game where the risk of humiliation at the hands of their wonderful forwards is off-set by the belief of exposing their makeshift defence. This, largely is what Rayo Vallecano did last Saturday and although the Catalans struggled to attain their usual fluency, their opponents would ultimately succumb to a 0-5 home defeat. In opting to engage with Barcelona, Rayo’s manager Paco Jemez (who insisted he would be ‘too ashamed’ to adopt Celtic’s approach), although aware of the adverse implications displayed far greater ‘bravery’ than Lennon. This is not a criticism of Lennon; what he did was pragmatic, measured, reasonable and not perhaps predictable given the huge disparity in quality between the teams  and the precedent set by Mambo favourite Martin O’Neill, whose Celtic side’s approach against the same adversaries in 2004 was denounced as ‘anti-football’ by his opposite number, Frank Rijkaard.

Where Schuster presents a more agreeable argument is in his contention that had Celtic held on for a point purely by ‘defending with 10 men’ such an outcome would be ‘not fair.’ Now, in implementing a strategy designed to stifle and aided, as such re-active paradigms always must be, by good fortune, had Celtic held on to steal an improbable draw, Lennon and his players should have been applauded. This however, does not mean that such a result would have been in any way just or warranted. The last-minute nature of Celtic’s defeat inevitably leads to the conclusion that they were in some way unlucky; that having battled so vigilantly for so long they deserved to get something out of the game. Defending deep, attacking only through occasional set-pieces and fortuitously scoring via an own-goal from one such set-piece deserves nothing other than defeat. Whatever the inequities, financial, sporting or otherwise, such a philosophy should never be greeted by glory but as Schuster identities, the success of Chelsea last season has offered a template for others to ‘repeat the system’ when facing sides of vastly superior ability.

Indeed, whilst almost an inevitability from clubs of Celtic’s stature when facing the continent’s heavyweights, for a club of Chelsea’s resources to grind so joylessly to the continent’s foremost crown last season was far less noble and the fear must be that such cowardice legitimises craven negativity amongst others. Whilst many may delight that recognition of such shortcomings have precipitated a welcome and radical reappraisal from the London club, there remains the potential for adverse consequences. Despite the craft and class of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar, deficiencies elsewhere have provided an unstable foundation for such flair and Chelsea have this season been comprehensively outplayed by Porto, Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk. The troubling paradox is that even in abandoning their tactical straitjacket, Chelsea continue to extol its legacy as they continue to demonstrate that, at the highest level, it is far easier to destroy than to create.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. NJH
    Oct 29, 2012 @ 17:36:10

    Do you not remember Wimbledon at their best (worst)? No intention of playing football, just hoof the ball to Fash and Cork. A midfield based on three enforcers plus one half decent playmaker. Bigger, stronger, harder than the oppposition. Intimidate the opposition, the officials, the opposition management team. It wasn’t football but it brought them success because the opposition management and coaching teams had no answer to it. The concept of making them work to get possession of the ball was a complete anathma, you had to match brute force and ignorance with brute force and ignorance. Ahhhhhh, brute force and ignorance; the on-going mantra for all Brits involved in football. Don’t develop skill or technique, develop stamina and strength and speed. I get the distinct impression that if Messi had caught the wrong flight out of Argentina and landed in England he would have been burnt out and finished by now. That is if he wasn’t rejected immediately for not being big enough.
    We’ll never win another World Cup or European Championship. All those foreigners cheat. They hold on to the ball far too much and won’t let England footballers just charge through and score. England couldn’t win a World Cup if we were given a two goal start for every match.


  2. Igor Belanov
    Oct 29, 2012 @ 19:15:40

    Schuster is a bit unfair, ignoring as he does the vast differences in money and playing staff between clubs such as Barcelona and Celtic. It is definitely one of the major problems of high-level football that such disparities exist even within the same division (Premier League, Liga, etc.) and same tournament (Champions League Group Stage). Nevertheless, I think NJH’s argument is way over the top. Spain in the European Championships and World Cup also played a very dull and attritional form of football, they just did it by keeping possession rather than sitting deep. In their quarter-final against France Spain won 2-0 despite having only one effort on goal, the second goal being an injury-time penalty! In some ways this style of play was due to a fear of failure- given the players at their disposal Spain could have played a much more exciting game, such as that played by Athletic Bilbao in last years Europa League. The influence of money and flag-waving do have a detrimental effect.
    In the case of English teams, some technical improvement and less praise for ‘getting stuck in’ would help, but sometimes England’s problems have been due to playing a style of football that doesn’t suit them. Against Germany in 2010 and Italy in 2012 England played an excruciatingly slow game that looked awful and gave a psychological advantage to their opponents. Sometimes a higher tempo and long-ball football can work and be entertaining to watch- it depends on the players available and the quality of crosses, balls forward, wing play etc.


  3. NJH
    Oct 29, 2012 @ 21:15:29

    Good argument, Igor. I am guilty of a little bit(!) of hyperbole. I believe that a lot is less due to money and playing staff but with the underlying ethos and coaching. Your argument about England playing excrutiatingly slowly is a case in point. The EPL is characterised by fast and frantic; why chose the ultimate international tournaments to fundamentally change the way to play? Slow (and controlled) is not what England or English teams are good at. At international level surely it should be a tweaking of strengths rather than a wholesale change of approach; again symptomatic of poor coaching and a basic lack of understanding. Being a gunners fan of long standing I feel that I do have a real appreciation of the beauty and efficiency of a long ball game (that’s route one to the uninitiated) but surely there is a place for plan a, plan b and perhaps even a plan c when a and b have failed.
    Back to the article and Schuster’s comments. I believe that he is fundamentally wrong. Celtic qualified and set out their store. It may not be to everyone’s liking but that is the point. They were not there to be canon fodder for Barcelona, they were there to win the game for themselves. They do that by whatever means it takes (legally, of course) and it is up to Barcelona to show that they are the best team in the world and beat them no matter what they do.
    I would rather watch Barcelona doing what they do but it is not the job of Celtic or Chelsea to roll over. It is their job to make it as difficult as possible and they absolutely should be there.


  4. Igor Belanov
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 15:17:42

    I think that’s fair as well. Almost all of the really ‘great’ footballing sides can change their style of play in difficult circumstances, and during a match are able to suddenly change the pace of the game to gain an advantage over their opponents. As you say, having a range of plans is important. In connection with this, I think you could argue that, despite their range of talent, Barcelona can be a bit one-dimensional, or perhaps I should argue, dependent on Messi. If Messi has an off-day or is well-marked, as in the semi against Chelsea last year, they don’t seem to have other options for breaking a team down. Where I would criticise Chelsea as opposed to Celtic is that Chelsea are a club of vast wealth with a strong squad. The reception to their victory last season treated them as underdogs in a way that was sickening.


  5. representingthemambo
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 17:30:02

    Hi both,
    In fairness to Wimbledon (never thought i’d say that), I wouldn’t say they were a ‘defensive’ side, certainly not in the way Chelsea and Celtic have been in Europe. They were, of course, fucking horrible, had no wish to actually ‘play’ football and almost a caricature of all that was/is wrong with the British game – Stoke are the obvious contemporary comparison. It still astounds me how widely praised/defended Stoke’s approach is in the British press and hearing Pulis complain about diving as ‘cheating’ whilst his team habitiually go out to brutalise opponents is the most sickening hypocisy. This is a big problem for British football.
    Spain may have employed a fairly attritional style in winning the World Cup but personally, I thought it was far from dull. I’ve written about it here if anyone’s interested: https://representingthemambo.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/the-mambos-euro-2012-awards-and-why-spain-are-anything-but-boring/
    I’d also argue that Spain/Barcelona’s lack of a ‘plan B’ is merely a symptom of their acute faith in a philosophy that has rewarded them so richly of late. As noted, England have no such thing and it’s true that the underlying values of the national game (no matter how uncouth or perceptively effective at the highest level they may be) have been negated in their recent (awful) tournament displays.
    Totally agree with the treatment of Chelsea as ‘underdogs.’ Given their grotesque wealth, that is not a label they can wear, unlike Celtic whose domestic league and comparitive lack of revenue pretty much guarantees the sort of approach we saw last week but yes, Schuster is wrong to condemn them as out of place. They qualified; they deserve to be there.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments.



  6. NJH
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 18:28:54

    You are more than welcome. I should love to follow up (as Igor has done) on the article on Conrad and Keynes. Unfortunately more than a little out of my depth on that one!
    Keep it all coming – I thoroughly enjoy this blog.


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