In assessing his first 10 games in charge of Scottish Premiership giants Celtic, it's important to keep one thing in mind: Ange Postecoglou is not a fan of his performance being judged in a relativist context.
The 56-year-old, who has won trophies at every club he has led in both Australia and Japan, won't entertain attempts to underplay his achievements with snide qualifiers that he's doing well "for an Australian coach" or for someone "in his first major job in Europe." The former Socceroos boss is a man who wants his accomplishments, vision and application to be judged based not on preconceived notions or reputations but without caveats.
If his teams -- be it South Melbourne in the National Soccer League, Brisbane Roar in the A-League, Yokohama F. Marinos in the J League, or Celtic in Scotland -- are playing well, then they're playing well. No need to qualify it in a backhanded manner.
"I'm not sure what you mean by 'jump,' but I'm assuming you're saying I worked at a lower level or some lesser level," he said when asked about his credentials at his introductory news conference at Celtic. "I guess that's a matter of opinion. I've coached at a World Cup, I've coached against some of the best teams in the world, so that's not how I look at it."
For those in Australia following his progress, this confidence and clarity of purpose, as well as the results that tend to follow, serve as a beacon; correcting the naysayers who declare their homeland to be footballing backwater devoid of inspiration or ideas. This veneration does, of course, carry with it a danger of celebrating Postecoglou's accomplishments simply because he is Australian -- something he would equally loathe -- but, fortunately for his followers both Caledonian and Antipodean, that isn't a problem right now. Because, quite simply, after 10 competitive fixtures at Parkhead, the "Angeball" era, after some shaky early signs, has gotten off to a strong start.
Though Thursday's meeting with AZ Alkmaar resulted in a 2-1 loss, Kyogo Furuhashi's early goal and some white-knuckle defending proved enough for the Scottish giants to advance into the group stages of the UEFA Europa League on aggregate. On the domestic front, since going down 2-1 to Hearts on the opening day of the Scottish Premiership, the Hoops have scored 25 goals and conceded six against across all competitions, advanced in the League Cup, and sit just a point of first place on the league.
Supporters, initially sceptical of Postcolgou's pedigree and mistrustful of anyone put forward by their board after the failures of last season and collapse of negotiations with Eddie Howe, are increasingly being won over by their side's commitment to attacking football and ruthless pressing. There is still an acknowledged need for further strengthening of the side, but hope is beginning to spring anew on the green side of Glasgow.
"It has obviously settled down very, very quickly in terms of the manager getting his ideas across to the players and the players actually carrying it out," new captain Callum McGregor recently told Sky Sports. "It has probably been sped up in that sense but there was always belief certainly within the dressing room and within the building that we could things going pretty quickly. Given the nature of football, you have to produce results and performances quickly -- so we knew that pressure was on."
However, with all due respect to the teams they have faced both at home and abroad so far, the most important fixture of Postecoglou's time at the helm now looms: Celtic heading to Ibrox on Sunday to take on bitter crosstown rivals Rangers. The Old Firm is, without hyperbole, one of the biggest rivalries in all of football; a fixture that can serve to make or break the careers of those involved and set the mood for an entire fan base. It is a contest with origins and motivations beyond simply winning or losing a football match -- possessing a history reflective of religious, political, nationalistic and social divides that have permeated Glasgow throughout the rivalry's 133-year history.
It is getting on for four decades since a team other than Celtic or Rangers won the Scottish league -- Sir Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen doing so back in 1985 - and the contests effectively serve as deciders for the Scottish championship. Such was the case last season, when Neil Lennon's Celtic took just a single point from their four league games against Steve Gerrard's Rangers -- who also beat them 2-0 in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup -- and watched on as their rivals broke their nine-year stranglehold on the Scottish crown.
Though a boost came with the news that Croatia international Josip Juranovic will likely be available for the first time since arriving from Legia Warsaw, history will nonetheless be working against Postecoglou: Tommy Burns is the last Celtic boss to win his first Ibrox derby, all the way back in 1994. Adding to the sense of occasion, Sunday's contest will be the first to feature a full stadium since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A loss on Sunday certainly wouldn't be a fatal blow to Postecolgou's tenure, as the foundations he's putting in place in Glasgow already winning him plaudits. It would, however, take some of the gloss off what has been a strong start for him and add pressure for future Old Firm games.
Postecoglou's first 10 games at Celtic
After a 1-0 friendly defeat by Championship side Preston North End, Postecoglou marked his first competitive game with a frustrating home draw against Danish club Midtjylland -- a contest in which Celtic were the better team, but were undone by individual errors. Hope, however, was there: Kieran Devlin writing in The Athletic that "if Celtic are capable of this football despite being stripped to their bare bones, what might a Postecoglou side with an instinctive understanding of its ideas and with quality in each position look like?"
2. FC Midtjylland 2-1 Celtic (UEFA Champions League qualifier, July 28)
After another friendly defeat -- a 6-2 loss to Premier League side West Ham United -- Celtic's Champions League campaign came to a premature end when they lost 2-1 to Midtjylland at the MCH Arena, going out 3-1 on aggregate. McGregor opened the scoring for the Bhoys, but Socceroos player Awer Mabil equalised for the Danish side in the 61st minute before Raphael Onyedika won the game in the 94th. Postecoglou told the BBC after the game: "We just got tired in the end. They scored and got through it. I thought my players gave their maximum. It's the beginning of what we're trying to embark on. We controlled the game until they scored."
3. Hearts 2-1 Celtic (Scottish Premiership, July 31)
Postecoglou's inauspicious start stretched to three straight competitive games without a win as his side lost 2-1 to newly promoted Hearts at Tynecastle in their opening game of the 2021-22 Scottish Premiership. Gary Mackay-Steven opened the scoring for the hosts in the eighth minute before Anthony Ralston tied things up for Celtic in the 54th. But Celtic were punished late, for the second straight game, when John Souttar -- brother of Socceroos defender Harry -- popping up in the 89th minute to head home a winner for the Jambos. Postecoglou reflected: "It's a set piece where we should be organised. We kind of knew that was going to be a major threat from them and we dealt with it fairly well the whole night but we will analyse that last one."
4. FK Jablonec 2-4 Celtic (UEFA Europa League qualifier, Aug. 5)
At last, a win! After defeat at the hands of Midtjylland sent them into the qualifying rounds of the Europa League, Postecoglou's Bhoys rode goals from Liel Adaba, Furuhashi, James Forrest and Ryan Christie to a big away win in the Czech Republic. Former England No. 1 Joe Hart made his first start for the side in goal after signing from Tottenham Hotspur.
5. Celtic 6-0 Dundee (Scottish Premiership, Aug. 8)
🇦🇺👊🏻 @Tom_Rogic got in on the fun with a crisp finish as @CelticFC produced a huge attacking flex, destroying @DundeeFC 6-0! Check out all the goals, including 3 from Kyogo 'Furu-hattrick' here 👉 https://t.co/EyJUCpEzl3 #CELDUN pic.twitter.com/ybEYIpUiLm— beIN SPORTS (@beINSPORTS_AUS) August 8, 2021
Propelled by a hat trick from Furuhashi -- who has emerged as a revelation since Postecoglou signed him from former J1 League rivals Vissel Kobe -- Dundee took on the role of sacrificial lambs as Postecoglou's side romped to their first win of the 2021-22 domestic campaign. Socceroos midfielder Tom Rogic, making his first start of the season, was also on the scoresheet. Postecoglou said of Furuhashi's form: "It's not a surprise to me. I knew what I was getting bringing him over. He got the goals and could've had a couple more, but his work rate off the ball was sensational. That kind of work rate and work ethic inspires his teammates and gains the trust of the players around him. There's definitely more to come from him. He's literally had three or four training sessions with us."
6. Celtic 3-0 FK Jablonec (UEFA Europa League qualifier, Aug. 12)
No slip-ups for Celtic in their return leg of their fixture against Jablonec, comfortably moving into the play-off round of Europa League qualification with a 3-0 win on the night and 7-2 win on aggregate over their Czech rivals; David Turnbull supplying a brace and Forrest adding one of his own. The coach told BBC Scotland: "I'm not getting too carried away about our progress. Wins and good performances builds belief, but we're not the finished article yet."
7. Celtic 3-2 Hearts (Scottish League Cup, Aug. 15)
Another win for the Bhoys, this time gaining a measure of revenge from the opening day of the Premiership season by downing the future side of Olyroos midfielder Cameron Devlin to earn a meeting with Scottish Championship side Raith Rovers in the quarterfinals. Rogic provided a 63rd minute assist to Furuhashi for what would ultimately serve as the winner.
8. Celtic 2-0 AZ Alkmaar (UEFA Europa League qualifier, Aug. Aug. 18)
The wins continued to pile up for Postecoglou and his side, downing Dutch team AZ 2-0 at Celtic Park in the opening leg of their playoff to put one foot in the group stage of a European competition. The Rogic-and-Furuhashi combination again paid dividends for the Bhoys, with the Australia international assisting the Japanese one for the game's first goal in the 11th minute.
9. Celtic FC 6-0 St Mirren (Scottish Premiership, Aug. 21)
For their second straight league game, Celtic treated their home fans to a six pack. They demolished 10-man St Mirren to lead 4-0 at the break before adding two more -- including a Rogic-assisted Turnbull strike in the 84th minute -- to move within a point of Socceroos winger Martin Boyle's top-of-the-table Hibernian. The makings of 'Angeball,' it appeared, were beginning to take shape, with The Glasgow Times' David Irvine declaring that Celtic "look a completely different side even from their first outing in the Scottish Premiership in the narrow 2-1 loss to Hearts" and defender Stephen Walsh saying: "It's probably just getting used to the way we were playing. It was very new. We've brought in new players as well who have now adapted to the system."
10. AZ Alkmaar 2-1 Celtic (UEFA Europa League qualifier, Aug. 26)
Celtic looked set to cruise into the group stage of the Europa League when Furuhashi netted in just the third minute of play to make it 1-0 on the night and 3-0 on aggregate. But inexplicable errors from Hart and Carl Starfelt -- two signings brought in, in part, because of their experience -- led to the Dutch side dragging it back to 3-2 on aggregate. Postecoglou's side were forced into a desperate rearguard action to ensure their progression and send Alkmaar into to the group stage of the Europa Conference League -- Hart going some way to redeeming himself with a series of important series of saves.
"The most pleasing aspect of it was the boys stuck together, we got through it and we showed another string to our bow," McGregor said after the game. "We can play good football, but we can also mix it and look after each other on the pitch as well."
However, complicating matters for Postecolgou, Furuhashi and Greg Taylor both picked up knocks in the contest that forced their substitutions later on, casting a shadow over their availability for the Old Firm game.
"Kyogo got a bit of a knock," Postecoglou said after the game. "We put in a big shift, so it's going to be about recovery now over the next 24-48 hours."