'Celtic's room for improvement under Neil Lennon spells trouble for rest'

Scott Brown celebrates with the Scottish Cup
Scott Brown captained Celtic to a third successive domestic treble last season

If you were to rank Celtic's eight Premiership titles in order of quality, where would last season's victory fit in? In points terms, it was only their fifth highest total of the leagues they have won on their imperious run. In terms of goals scored, it ranks seventh.

The answer to the question? If you asked it outside Parkhead on Saturday as the season begins anew, you're likely to hear a variety of comments tied together in a similar theme. "Where does it rank? Who gives a stuff! All that matters is nine and 10".

There is a relevance to this, though. Celtic won the league by a comfortable margin of nine points despite not being at their best for large parts of the competition. Part of the reason was because the league was stronger than at any point since 2011-12. Another part was off- and on-field turbulence at Celtic. They packed an awful lot of hassle into one season.

A lousy summer transfer window that created internal stress between Brendan Rodgers and his board. A wounding exit from the Champions League courtesy of AEK Athens. Some grief surrounding Dedryck Boyata and where he saw his future. Even more grief surrounding Moussa Dembele and his eagerness to leave.

Injuries to Kieran Tierney, who only played in 55% of Celtic's league games; to Tom Rogic, who who also played in only 55%; and to Ryan Christie, who played in 61%. Also, there was the challenging situation surrounding Leigh Griffiths' battle with his mental health. Griffiths played in just 11 Premiership matches and contributed just two goals when normally he'd expected to produce a multiple of that.

The howitzer was, of course, Rodgers' speedy getaway to Leicester. The Great Brendini - now you see him, now you don't. Neil Lennon stepped in and steadied a ship that could have lurched had he not been available to take the wheel so quickly. Celtic were mostly unconvincing on the run-in, but they got the job done.

They lost five league games for the first time since 2012-13. Rangers beat them in the league for the first time in seven years. Livingston took points off them (twice) for the first in 17 years. Celtic people might be entitled to greet talk of a title race this season with a dose of scepticism. Their point might go something like, "All that bad stuff happened and still we won the league with weeks to spare..."

'Celtic will score more goals this season'

The argument here is that there is room for improvement at Celtic and that room for improvement spells trouble for Rangers and the rest, even if they themselves have improved.

For sure, Celtic have certain issues to contend with. Is Tierney staying or going? And is Boli Bolingoli up to being his replacement at left-back if he does leave? Is Hatem Abed Elhamed good enough to carry on Mikael Lustig's mantle at right-back? Will Christopher Julien justify his £7m tag? Was Griffiths' brilliant free-kick against Nomme Kalju the start of a new chapter in his career or just a fleeting rage against the dying of the light?

Those questions will be answered soon enough. Lennon is likely to want a solution elsewhere as well. Celtic averaged 91 league goals across the seven campaigns to 2018-19. Last season they got 77. For all sorts of different reasons, many of their dependable goalscorers saw their numbers slide.

Lennon's style of football demands more urgency, a higher tempo and a quick delivery of the ball into danger areas. True, when he took over as caretaker towards the end of last season his team didn't score often - 13 in 11 league games. Mitigating circumstances, perhaps. It wasn't his team, he had little time to work with them, he couldn't change much in the weeks he had.

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Thompson & Stewart's Scottish Premiership predictions

When you look at the big picture - his three title-winning seasons plus the 11 matches he oversaw from last season - things look a lot different. Lennon has been Celtic manager for 125 league games from 2011-12 with an average of 2.3 goals per game. Rodgers, with his infinitely greater reputation for playing dynamic and attractive football, had an average of 2.4 goals per league game. Virtually no difference.

Celtic will score more than 77 goals this season. If Griffiths plays more, he scores more. The same could be applied to Rogic, if he stays and regains his fitness and his edge. Callum McGregor, for all his excellence, only got three league goals last season. That's half his total from the previous two seasons. Scott Sinclair got nine having got 10 the season before and 21 the season before that. Odsonne Edouard got 15. A player of his talent should be getting 20-plus.

Lennon seems willing to give young players more of a shot than Rodgers gave them. Mikey Johnston is the best case in point. The winger started seven league games last season and scored four times. That's a weapon that Lennon has at his disposal if the regulars don't deliver.

Christie is perhaps the most interesting customer, though. He scored nine league goals last season and you have to think that it would have been more had he not suffered a few setbacks along the way. Christie is in terrific form now. He reminds you of what Stuart Armstrong was in Rodgers' first season. Confident, athletic and influential. Scott Brown and McGregor; James Forrest, Christie and Johnston; Edouard or Griffiths or both. That takes some stopping.

What we know about Celtic - and what we don't know about the pretenders to the title - is how they react under the pressure of big domestic games. They keep winning them. Pretty or ugly, they keep winning.

Lennon's job is to turn eight titles into nine. He's got the artillery. They might not have fired full-blast last time, but they didn't need to. Only the bravest of the brave would risk their money by betting against him.

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