Celtic correspondent at The Athletic, Kieran Devlin discusses what Ligue 1 side Rennes should expect up against the Scottish champions in this evening’s Europa League opener.
Best place to start is Odsonne Édouard – a name we know in France, although certainly didn’t hit the heights here that he has in Scotland – is he the biggest threat to Rennes tonight?
Yes definitely. There are voices amongst Celtic supporters that they feel that he could have a higher ceiling than Moussa Dembélé. My impression of him is that he might not be as good a finisher but he is a better all-round player with his movement, game intelligence is phenomenal. His finishing is very good as well but I feel that he has really kicked on in the last 6 months or so with his hold-up and link-up play as well. The recent U21s spell where he scored four in two games underlined how much he has improved in the last 12 months. I think the trajectory has been quite drastic and it is quite exciting to watch. I can’t imagine that we are going to hold on to him for more than another 12 months. If we still have him next year I don’t know how I will celebrate, probably buy a bottle of the finest French wine!
What does a Neil Lennon philosophy look like for our readers who are less aware?
It was quite hard until very recently for him to try and come in with a coherent system and formation. We didn’t get our transfer business done early, which really hampered our attempts to achieve Champions’ League qualification. During which time he played our best central midfielder as our left-back against Cluj, which resulted in us being knocked out. But since then, there has started to be a much more settled back five and it has become quite pragmatic and flexible. Before the first Rangers game, the Old Firm, it was very much about a front six overloading teams. Essentially a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 and the front six would overload teams with very quick counters, long vertical passes to get to Edouard, James Forrest and Mo Elyounoussi and relying on their individual contributions.
It was not like under Brendan Rodgers where the team became reliant on a system, with patient passing, established patterns and rhythms to the tempo. It is now very much if you have space from 20 yards to shoot, then shoot. If you can take on the full-back, then do it. I guess against Rangers that changed to be a bit more practically, still pressing very high without the ball, but when they got the ball across the halfway line, everyone dropped. So it was still quite intensive, but there was much more shape and precision to it. People were very concerned because we would beat St Johnstone 7-0 and then face a side like Cluj and then just fall apart when a side was semi-competent and organised. I think that Rangers game is a template for how we will play against Rennes and Lazio as well. Just in terms of against a decent side we will try and use our best attributes, with players like Édouard, but we will also show more tact when needed and not be too idealistic with our style.
Where do you feel that Celtic can be hurt?
I think as settled as that back five is, I think they are still in the process of learning, because only one of the five was at the club last season, which was Chris Ayre. I think they are good players individually but they are still learning how to grow together. If we are playing a high-line, Christopher Jullien can be caught out at times, as phenomenal as he was during the Rangers match. His 18-yard box defending is phenomenal, but when he is asked to play a bit more, he can be shown up. Where we are especially weak at the moment is that we struggle with the high press.
So like Scott Brown, as much as I love him and he has been a fantastic servant for so many years, his passing and pace is just gone. He can’t pass through a high press, if he is targeted, then Rennes will have a field day. Celtic fans have been clamouring for Olivier Ntcham, another one of our French young guns, to start ahead of him, because he is far more technical on the ball in terms of playing through a high press. I understand Rennes can be more conservative, but if they have one of their forwards marking Scott Brown, they should do well.
Interesting stuff for sure – go on Kieran, give us a little score prediction?
Ok I am going to be optimistic for Celtic’s chances and say one-each.