Graham Ruthven on a Hoops improvement at home and abroad since Rodgers succeeded Ronny Deila
Three times Brendan Rodgers was asked the question and three times his answer left those at his pre-Scottish League Cup final press conference somewhat bemused.
He was asked it again following the 3-0 win over Aberdeen two days later, with the Celtic boss finally expressing his exasperation. “I don’t know why you keep asking this,” he puffed out his cheeks. Everyone else couldn’t quite grasp what he was saying.
Rodgers insisted time and time again that trophies mattered little to him. That he wouldn't define his time at Celtic, or at any other club for that matter, by how many of them he won. That he wouldn’t cherish the first ever piece of silverware he had ever won as a manager. The lump in his throat as he addressed the club’s fans gathered outside Celtic Park on Sunday evening, Scottish League Cup in hand, betrayed his assertion.
Instead, the Northern Irishman made the point that his sole purpose as Celtic manager is to improve the players he has inherited, building a team in a certain identity. He mentioned Marcelo Bielsa as a role model, citing the Argentinean cult figure as the kind of philosopher he aspires to be. By that measure Rodgers is most certainly succeeding in Glasgow.
The highest paid manager in Scottish football history, Rodgers was appointed to bring the good times back to a club that had lost its verve in recent years. It was partly motivated by the return of Rangers to the top flight and the threat they were expected to pose (although nobody at Celtic will admit that), but in the main Rodgers was hired on the basis of his own lofty reputation.
His arrival at Celtic was in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, Ronny Deila. Few had even heard of him as he pitched up two years ago. Rodgers, on the other hand, was given a 13,000-strong reception by the club’s fanbase. He has since backed up such hype. Sunday’s comprehensive Scottish League Cup final win over Aberdeen, the country’s second force at present, illustrated just how much more Rodgers is getting out of this Celtic team than Deila ever did.
Deila wasn’t a failure as such at Celtic. He still led the club to successive Scottish Premiership titles. The gap between the Hoops and the rest of the pack was perceived by many to have narrowed under the Norwegian’s charge, but Celtic still won the league over second place Aberdeen by 15 points last season. And 17 points the season before that.
There can be no denying , however, that when it came to the big occasion Deila’s Celtic often shrunk. They did it in Champions League qualification for two seasons in succession, falling to Maribor and Malmo before they could reach the group stage. They did it in the semi-finals of the Scottish League Cup, losing to Ross County, and in the final of the Scottish Cup, losing to Inverness, and in the semi-finals as well, losing to then second tier Rangers.
That fragility came to define Celtic under Deila. There were glimpses of the dynamic, attractive football he wanted to impose, but they were few and far between. In contrast, consistency has become the calling card of Rodgers’ Celtic. From 12 Scottish Premiership games this season they have dropped points just once and remain unbeaten. They already boast a 12-point lead at the top of the table. They might as well start tying the green and white ribbons on the trophy now.
It’s in the Champions League, though, where real progress under Rodgers can be measured. Celtic will bow out of Europe before Christmas, finishing bottom of their group, but against all three opposition sides - Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach - they have competed well. But such collective progress has come as a result of individual development.
Against Aberdeen Rodgers started just one of his summer signings - Moussa Dembele. The rest he inherited from Deila, only underlining further the extent to which he is getting the most from his squad. The improvement in Celtic is best embodied by James Forrest, a player who not so long ago was written off as something of a no-hoper but is now one of the most exhilarating players in the Scottish game right now.
Stuart Armstrong, Scott Brown, Erik Sviatchenko and Tom Rogic have also raised their game significantly under Rodgers. Even young Irish centre back Eoghan O’Connell has improved, impressing in the handful of games he has been asked to step up for due to injuries. Each to a man Celtic’s squad are better now, much better, than they were under Deila. All this just a few months since he took over. Maybe Rodgers should start defining himself by trophies.