Celtic: Ange Postecoglou's nine-game schedule is a 'first-world problem' with youth the answer

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Celtic striker Kyogo Furuhashi sits after being injured against Real Betis
Celtic striker Kyogo Furuhashi was injured against Real Betis on Thursday

When, in the wake of Celtic's fine win over Real Betis on Thursday night, Ange Postecoglou spoke about the "ridiculous" number of games his team is having to play in December - nine - it was easy to see where he was coming from.

Outside of the UK, no other major league in Europe piles on the games over the festive period the way we do in these parts.

The big German clubs, along with Real Madrid and Barcelona, will only play five times in the same spell. The big Italian clubs will play six times. Sevilla are the outlier on the continent. They have to play seven games this month.

In this neck of the woods, though, Manchester City, Manchester Utd and Tottenham Hotspur have eight games. Celtic, Rangers, Liverpool, Chelsea, West Ham United and Leicester City all have a nine-game schedule. Not easy.

But not unusual either. Not in Scotland for sure. In four of the last five seasons of Celtic's nine-in-a-row years, they had to get through nine games in December.

Postecoglou might point out that they had the squad to cope with such a brutal run of fixtures at that time and that he's not so well-equipped at this moment.

"We don't have the depth we need right now," he said on Thursday evening. "We're probably putting players under undue stress, but that's the levels we want to be at."

At other clubs across Scotland, the world's smallest violin would have been playing for the Celtic manager. Does Postecoglou really need to put his go-to players under such stress?

Their remaining five league games of 2021 are against the teams currently lying fifth, 12th, 8th, 11th and 7th. The other is the League Cup final against Hibs, a club that are in a state of emergency right now.

On Thursday night, Postecoglou gave debuts to Osaze Urhoghide and Liam Shaw, a first game of the season to Ewan Henderson and a first game since July to Scott Bain.

Celtic had nine players who were 22 years of age or younger on the pitch at various times. It was a callow squad packed full of fringe operators and yet they managed to overcome Betis, who were weakened but still accomplished.

Celtic's Stephen Welsh, Liam Scales and Adam Montgomery celebrate against Real Betis
Liam Scales (second from right) was one of Celtic's best players in his first start for the club

Betis started with just two players from the side that beat Barcelona at Camp Nou last weekend and brought on another four from the bench. It was an impressive victory for Postecoglou's second string - and one that begs certain questions.

If they can do this against Betis, then why could they not be trusted to do the same against some of the Premiership's struggling teams in the weeks ahead? Why not play the younger ones more often? When Postecoglou questions the depth in his squad, is he overstating it a tad?

From his perspective, he has to win every game. That's in the job spec. No excuses. A Celtic manager can't expect clemency if he loses matches because he wants to blood young players.

So Postecoglou and others who have gone before him tend to go fully-loaded as often as possible. It's why Kieran Tierney played a stratospheric number of games when he was at the club. It's why Callum McGregor has been one of the most played players in all of Europe for many seasons.

In the list of most club appearances this season, David Turnbull ranks ninth on a worldwide list featuring 2000 players in hundreds of divisions in 111 countries.

Celtic's David Turnbull celebrates his goal against Real Betis
David Turnbull, who scored against Real Betis, is one of the world's most-played players

Does he need to play so much? Do others? Henderson, who scored with his first touch in his first Celtic game since January, looks a terrific prospect. He made his debut in May 2018, but has hardly been mapped at the club since then.

He's three months away from his 22nd birthday, so he can't be considered a kid anymore. He needs game-time. Many others at the club do, too. Would Celtic be so drastically weakened as to play some of the Betis crew more often against some of the Premiership's lesser sides? It might ease that burden that Postecoglou was talking about.

The Celtic manager needs quality recruitment in January to put up a fight in Europe this season, and beyond, and to strengthen their challenge for the league title. But for some of these domestic games to come, he isn't all that short on players.

He doesn't have to do a Betis and chuck them all in at once. He can drip feed. Every manager wants more options, but Postecoglou has more than most.

His, in a Scottish football context, are first-world problems. If he wants to know about the other side of life, he should walk a day in the shoes of some of the managers he's about to go up against in the next six games. All of them might be minded to bend his ear about the haves and the have-nots.

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