Getting the best out of the players at your disposal is the bottom line of any manager. At Celtic right now we have three players that we are not getting the best of, all from Dundee United. Gary Mackay-Steven has been written off as meek among the Celtic support, Stuart Armstrong does do it but just not consistently and I've yet to meet a Celtic fan who wouldn't let Nadir Ciftci go yesterday.
I think there are mitigating circumstances with all three and will try to explain them now.
It was the start of season 2013/14 that all three played together for the first time. Ciftci had been brought into replace Johnny Russell, on the recommendation of Pierre Van Hooijdonk, after the latter had signed for Derby County. This would also coincide with Ryan Gauld's rise to prominence. Mackay-Steven was in a bad place at this time. He saw Russell leave and the speculation that was already surrounding Armstrong and Gauld and he thought he had missed his chance of a move given his age. A sit down in Jackie McNamara's office would see a frank exchange of views with Jackie telling GMS that he could mark him out a game just now and he hadn't played professionally for years. The reason for this was his lack of movement. Jackie told GMS had to constantly take up new positions on the field otherwise a full back would not be worried about him. He also told him of his plans for the team now that Ciftci had arrived.
Jackie wanted a system that would see his front four players flourish. He had been tweaking things in the six months he had been at Tannadice and with Gauld showing he was ready, Jackie now was as well.
The start of the season would see crowds rise at Tannadice and football played that had the Dundee Utd fans drooling. (Check here for an average match report from that time)
Mackay-Steven, Ciftci and Armstrong were at the centre of all it.
From the start of the season through to Christmas Dundee Utd would win 11 games and score four or more goals in seven of those games. They were also a last minute Charlie Mulgrew header away from beating us at Celtic Park in this time.
They were flying.
The beauty of their formation was its simplicity. In effect they played a 4-2-4 with the ball and a 4-5-1 without the ball. The key aspect of this was no one in the front four had a set position. McNamara wanted GMS to float around up front, because he knew Armstrong was intelligent enough to automatically tuck in behind him when necessary or run off him when needed.
Armstrong would also drift left and come in on his right foot to great effect. He would often catch full backs out as they never had a clue when he would shift out left.
Ciftci was the maverick. He had carte blanche to go wherever he wanted, the protection of a back six afford him that luxury. He was not a target man or there to hold the ball up, he was there to ensure Dundee Utd scored more goals than the opposition.
And it worked.
Now all three are at Celtic, what they are asked to do is a total 180. Armstrong and Mackay-Steven are asked to stick rigidly to Ronny Deila's system in order to give width to a three. Whereas Ciftci is asked to stay up top, hold the ball and be a target.
This is why the only thing we have got from all three is the occasional Armstrong cut in and shot/goal from the left hand side, on his right foot.
So we now face a choice, do we free them up or free them away?