How Ange Postecoglou restored Celtic’s dominance and became the envy of the Premier League
There is set to be a coronation at Celtic this weekend but when the celebrations die down, the message from Ange Postecoglou will remain the same. Amid a party of green and white, Postecoglou would be forgiven for taking a sweeping look at what he has built in the two years since he arrived at Celtic Park unheralded, second-choice and without a previous position in European football. The doubters have long since been silenced by the ties that have been forged between fans and manager, and a team constructed in Postecoglou’s image that is blazing a trail towards one of the most successful seasons in the club’s history.
But then, with a sharp, gruff bark, Celtic will snap into action in the manner the Australian demands, powered on by the gems he has helped unearth. Celtic play with ferocity, fuelled by the defiance of a manager who has taken an unwanted hand and produced a team that not only sweeps aside all before it domestically, but excites and enthrals while doing so. Postecoglou lives by the ethos that football should be that way, and a philosophy that a club should give back to its people. In Glasgow, Celtic fans love him for it - it helps, too, that a second consecutive league title has been sealed and a domestic treble is likely to follow.
Such success for Celtic is nothing new given their dominance over the past decade, but this side stands for something more. One may argue that Celtic’s 11th title in 12 seasons is a reflection of woeful lack of competitiveness of the Scottish top-flight, but that has been the case for some time and the records Postecoglou’s side could break this season are a reflection of their excellence. Celtic could finish the season with their highest-ever points tally, and with the most goals ever scored by the club in a league campaign. You have to go back to 1916 to find the last time they scored so freely.
Under Postecoglou, Celtic are a vision of breathless, attacking football. The defence of their Premiership title was sealed with four games to spare but it has felt like a one-horse race since they thrashed Rangers 4-0 in September. While Rangers have regressed, sacking Giovanni van Bronckhorst midway through the season, now unconvincing under Michael Beale, Celtic’s improvement has been relentless. It’s what Postecoglou promised as he stood on the pitch at Celtic Park after lifting his first Premiership title last May, and his team have delivered.
“We never stop”, is the ethos that rings around Celtic these days, set by Postecoglou when he walked through the door in the summer of 2021. The club needed energy and drive but the situation Postecoglou inherited was unenviable. That may sound ridiculous, given Celtic had won an unprecedented quadruple treble of domestic honours before enduring a trophyless season the year before Postecoglou arrived. It spelled the end for Neil Lennon midway through the campaign, before the club’s protracted pursuit of Eddie Howe led down a blind alley.
Celtic looked leaderless and desperate. After Howe turned Celtic down, whoever took the job was suddenly faced with the sizable task of rebuilding the squad in one summer. Odsonne Edouard, Kristoffer Ajer and Ryan Christie were sold to the wealth of the Premier League, Olivier Ntcham to the Championship, while captain Scott Brown ended his 14-year stay at the club and joined Aberdeen. Amid the uncertainty and Rangers’ first league title since 2011 - which stopped Celtic’s attempts to win a historic 10 in a row - the feeling on both halves of Glasgow was there had been a distinct power shift.
When Postecoglou was unveiled there were stern warnings of the difficulties of the job he had walked into, as well as scepticism over whether he was ready for such a position. Postecoglou had the experience and his managerial CV featured league titles with the Brisbane Roar and the Yokohama Marinos in Japan, as well as leading Australia to the Asia Cup, but to some it was not the ‘right’ experience given the part of the world those honours were won. There was ridicule when it emerged that Celtic had to apply to Uefa for a special exemption as Postecoglou did not hold the required European coaching licence.
But those who rushed to dismiss Postecoglou’s track record once he arrived in Scotland had failed to do their research. Postecoglou did not just win leagues but the football they played had a transformational impact on them, particularly in Australia and then later Japan. Still, and just like Arsene Wenger when he arrived in the Premier League from Japanese side Nagoya Grampus, Postecoglou’s past was received with prejudice that bordered on British and European arrogance. Yet throughout this career, the football his teams played had left their mark, and he was about to do the same in the Scottish Premiership.
Those early days at Celtic’s Lennoxtown training base set the tone. As Postecoglou gathered his players and began to instil the fundamentals of his approach, there was one phrase that rang repeatedly until it was drilled into the psyche of the side: “We never stop”. Postecoglou wanted Celtic to be unrelenting, with constant movement and rotation. The full-backs would tuck inside and the central midfielders would push out wide, while a narrow but fluid front three buzzed around and interchanged positions. Postecoglou is intense, direct - and he wanted Celtic to be the same with and without the ball.
There were some early set-backs. Postecoglou’s first competitive games were against the Danish side Midtjylland in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League. Given the importance of Champions League finances for Celtic, Postecoglou was immediately faced with a must-win tie but Celtic were beaten and consigned to the Europa League after a 2-1 defeat in Denmark. By mid-September, Celtic had already lost three times in the league - the opening day trip to Hearts, the first Old Firm of the season to champions Rangers, and then a 1-0 defeat at Livingston.
Yet they would not suffer another in the Premiership that season, finishing with a 32-game unbeaten run. Already, the early signs of Postecoglou’s free-flowing, attacking football were evident and it soon became apparent that goals would be a near-guarantee. The Celtic fans coined Postecoglou’s philosophy as ‘Angeball’ - an appreciation of the manager’s demand to play football in the right way, to excite and build a team they could enjoy as well as take pride in.
The night it all changed came in early February as Rangers arrived at Celtic Park with a two-point lead in the table. But in a crystallisation of Posecolgou’s vision, Celtic were rampant and blitzed a Rangers side who would reach the Europa League final that May, leading 3-0 by half time. Already the balance of power in Glasgow was beginning to shift again and Celtic didn’t look back. As they reclaimed the Premiership title on the penultimate weekend of the season, Postecoglou’s status among the congregation was unimpeachable.
Postecoglou is a manager who seeks total authority and his desire to take control over the playing style extended to the club’s recruitment, which was a significant responsibility given the extent of the rebuilding job. But after Celtic recouped around £40m by selling Edouard to Crystal Palace, Ajer to Brentford and Christie to Bournemouth, they overhauled their squad and made it better for less. Like with Postecoglou, Celtic found quality and value in the places where no one else was looking, and it was the Australian’s extensive experience of those markets that allowed Celtic to revolutionise their approach to transfers.
The jewel in the crown and the signing that changed everything was the Japan international Kyogo Furuhashi, who Postecoglu knew from facing the Vissel Kobe forward in the J-League. Kyogo arrived for £4.5m and hit 20 goals in his debut season, while he has reached 30 this campaign and is set to sweep the individual awards in Scotland. His instant impact paved the way for Celtic to sign the industrious and skilful Reo Hatate for £1.5m and the versatile finisher Daizen Maeda for £1.6m. The Japanese trio have transformed Celtic and Postecoglou’s ability to immediately get a tune out of his new signings has been key to their astonishing success in the market.
The list of hits are impressive and so too are the prices. The winger Jota signed for £6m from Benfica after a dazzling first season on loan. The same can be said for the defender Cameron Carter-Vickers, £6m after a loan from Tottenham, who has formed a formidable partnership with Carl Starfelt - £4m from Rubin Kazan. Matt O’Riley was plucked from MK Dons at £1.5m and looks an excellent young midfield talent. The former England and Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart, now 35, has proved a shrewd and important signing at £1m.
With the exception of the elder statesman Hart, those prices will be doubled, trebled, even quadrupled now. When right back Josko Juranovic was sold to Union Berlin for £7.5m following his performances for Croatia at the World Cup he was swiftly replaced by Alasdair Johnson at £3.5m, who himself caught the eye for Canada in Qatar. It displayed Celtic’s newfound propensity for efficiency in the transfer market, but Postecoglou has also found improvement in the players he inherited. Callum McGregor, the longest serving player in the side, has gone up another level and did not look out of place against Spain’s midfield at Hampden earlier this year.
It is no surprise that there is not a sacking that goes by in the Premier League without Postecoglou’s name being mentioned among the candidates. The Australian plays attractive football under a clear tactical system, understands the transfer market, and improves players - managerial qualities every Premier League club is desperate for. This season, Postecoglou has been linked with Brighton and Crystal Palace, but the way his stock has risen is reflected in that he has been discussed around Chelsea and Tottenham, too.
There will be vacancies in the summer and it will be a test of Celtic’s resolve and Postecoglou’s ambition to resist them. There are clear improvements for Celtic to make in the Champions League, though, and that will be where he can take them next. For now, Celtic will hope to crown their title with a victory against Rangers on Saturday, with a chance to complete the treble against Inverness in the Scottish Cup final next month. With each victory, the bond and emotional attachment between Celtic and Postecoglou grows stronger, but so too does the determination to keep moving forward.