So that’s yer transfer window shut.
Celtic have signed 6 players this summer: Craig Gordon, Jo Inge Berget, Aleskander Tonev, Jason Denayer, Mubarak Wakaso and Stephan Scepovic . John Guidetti was meant to sign, but apparently the loan deal wasn’t processed on time (at the time of writing the outcome of this is still unknown). The last-minute arrival of Scepovic, and attempt at Guidetti, could be read as a sign that the board realised fans were on the brink of storming the executive boxes and turning the Celtic Way into a scene from 18th Century Paris.
The signing of a striker is of course welcome and will placate some angry fans, but it’s frustrating too. Both Scepovic and Guidetti were rumoured to be joining before the Maribor game (though it was commonly accepted that it would be one or the other) and I, like many, assumed that Celtic were waiting until their Champions League fate was known before spending any money. This seemed miserly, counter-productive even, but there would have been logic to it. The fact that we’ve signed Scepovic now, after having been knocked out by Maribor and forfeiting upwards of £15million, doesn’t make a great deal of sense. If we were always going to spend the money anyway, why didn’t we do it a month ago? We were utterly devoid of attacking threat against Maribor last week; had Guidetti and/or Scepovic been on board then, they could’ve paid for themselves many times over with a crucial goal. That may sound fanciful, but Maribor are a poor side and we had clear-cut chances in both legs; one quality attacker may well have made the difference.
The obvious counter-argument to this would be that the players themselves weren’t sure about moving to Celtic until the last day; Scepovic was reported to have chosen Getafe until that deal was cancelled at the last minute. But all this tells us is that our offers weren’t lucrative enough to make their minds up earlier in the window when it mattered. If we failed to sign a new striker in time for the Champion’s League play-off because we were haggling over a couple of grand per week (forgive the crass discussion of this large sum of money as if it’s a pittance, but it is on planet football) we’re fucking idiots.
I suppose that’s me joining the chorus of voices accusing the board of ‘penny-pinching’ but I actually think they’ve gotten a lot right in terms of the way the on-field aspect of the club has been run in the last few years (their attitude towards the Green Brigade, rejection of the living wage proposal and the presence of Ian Bankier notwithstanding). We’ve done well to find young players with undiscovered potential; we’ve also done well in developing them and selling them on. The final part of that process isn’t popular with fans, but it’s how clubs in Celtic’s position must conduct their business. It’s worth mentioning that none of the money has been siphoned-off anywhere; Celtic doesn’t pay its shareholders a dividend, the club is not run for profit. When people are puzzled as to where the transfer fees and Champion’s League money goes, they should look around the stadium at the ever increasing number of empty seats despite season-ticket prices remaining largely unchanged for years.
There are however problems that could be fixed within our current financial limitations. First off, the wage-cap needs to go. In Lawwell’s recent damage-limitation interview with Celtic TV he argued that signing players on high wages might cause others to ask for a pay-rise. Maybe that’s true, but it’s not like we currently pay all our players the same amount. Brown probably earns twice as much as Stokes, and I’m sure Callum McGregor isn’t on the same money as Lustig. If they’re not kicking down Deila’s door to demand parity, why would that necessarily happen as soon as somebody comes in earning £30k-per-week? Other clubs manage to have a broad range of salaries for their players while maintaining harmonious working relationships among the squad, we could do the same. It’s not just that I think it’s attempting to solve a problem that needn’t exist anyway; I think it’s actually costing the club money.
The Forbes list of the world’s 100 best-paid athletes features 15 footballers, all of whom are attackers with the exceptions of Yaya Toure and Steven Gerrard. None of the footballers on the list play in defence. We might not be competing for players at that end of the market, but the point is that defenders in general earn less than forwards, at any level of the game. It follows that a uniform wage cap across any team is bound to disproportionately affect the quality of attackers they can attract. In other words, you’ll find plenty of good centre-backs for £15k-per-week, but you’ll struggle to find a decent striker. This is obvious when you look at the Celtic team; we’ve got two quality right-backs, at least one quality centre-back in Van Dijk (I personally rate Ambrose too but accept that many don’t) and a left-back who’s been good over the piece, even if his form seems to have dipped of late. Compare this to our strikers; until today we’ve not had a single decent centre-forward (we can’t judge the new guy(s) yet obviously), despite having bought in Pukki, Balde and Griffiths in the past year, all for substantial transfer fees.
If we’d spent the combined fees for and wages of Pukki, Balde and Griffiths on one striker who actually was good enough, our team’s attacking threat would likely be transformed. There’s always the risk that you sign an expensive player who then gets injured, or turns out to be a dud anyway, but look at the alternative; we’ve got a whole raft of strikers who might as well not be at the club- Pukki and Balde and Fridjonsson have gone out on loan but rest assured that we’re still paying the bulk of their wages- and we’ve had to sign another on deadline day. Since we sold Hooper we’ve signed five strikers. We’ve spent more on fees than we received for him, and their combined wage will be far in excess of what it would have taken to keep him at Celtic. Just using these most recent examples it’s clear that the policy of bulk-buying cheap forwards doesn’t work. A smaller number of more expensive strikers has got to be the new approach. We should stick with the policy of identifying young players and selling them on for a profit, but it’s time Celtic realised that the wage-cap is preventing us from signing strikers of requisite standard. We’re spending plenty of money on them; I’m not arguing for a greater over all spend, but it’s time to reduce the quantity and increase the quality, we’ve got the balance wrong at the moment.
The club appear to have learned a different lesson from the failures of Pukki, Balde and Griffiths, however. It appears that our faith in our ability to identify talent has taken a knock, so we’ve become non-committal and are opting for loan signings instead of permanent deals. Into this category go Denayer, Berget, Tonev and Wakaso. Signing players on loan with an option to buy has its benefits, but I’m less keen on loan deals without this proviso. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, as a club that develops players and sells them on, loans only allow us to do the first part, not the second. If Denayer is in our starting 11, that means a player we own isn’t, which has the effect of reducing that player’s value. Secondly, the biggest games of the season are Champions League qualifiers, and we already know that Denayer won’t be around to help us with those next summer. Deila said he hopes for a more settled squad for next summer’s qualification campaign, but if Denayer and Van Dijk (who will almost certainly leave this coming season) are his centre-back pairing, he could be facing the prospect of upheaval in defence once more. The Champions League qualifiers must always be in the minds of those in charge of recruitment at the club, even when they’re almost a year away. Loan signings do nothing to help us in this regard.
Those for whom we have an option to buy may still be here, but there’s a something slightly worrying about the fact that we’ve decided to sign three players who we’re not quite sure about all in the same window. If you do it once- as we did with Fraser Forster- it suggests that you’ve found the player you want, and you’ve managed to wrangle an option to buy out of his parent club. Doing it three times, though, suggests that you’re specifically looking for this type of deal. Is Celtic’s priority getting players for free, or getting specific players who’ll improve the team? I’d like to think it’s the latter, but I doubt it. Berget already looks like a player who’s been signed because he’s cheap rather than because he’s good, but perhaps I’m judging him too early.
It’s not been the transfer window we hoped for. The thrashing by Legia and inept performance against Maribor were an indictment of our ponderous approach to recruiting the players we need. Many fans feel let down by the board, but refusing to attend matches or put money into the club will solve nothing. Scepovic is here now, Guidetti may or may not follow. It’s too late to salvage our Champion’s League ambitions, but it’s not too late to have a successful season. We have a Europa League group that we should be aiming to top, and we have a new manager who needs the support of the fans, even if he’s not had enough support from upstairs.