Celtic’s Tokyo Drift

Ange Postecoglou did not have much time. The Australian coach was not Celtic’s first choice as manager: The Glasgow club had, instead, spent weeks last summer trying to persuade the Englishman Eddie Howe to take the post. By the time Postecoglou was hired in June 2021 — and served out his mandatory quarantine upon arrival in Scotland — he had little more than a month before his first competitive game.

Time was not the only thing he was lacking. The situation at Celtic Park, as the 57-year-old Postecoglou would later admit, was faintly “chaotic.” Celtic’s team, recently beaten to the Scottish title by Rangers for the first time in a decade, was in dire need of an overhaul, a squad so lacking in both quality and quantity that Postecoglou was reduced to drafting in youth players to pad out his early training sessions.

There was also nobody to tell him when reinforcements might be coming. Celtic had appointed a new chief executive only a couple of months earlier, but it was still searching for someone to serve as technical director. Postecoglou, who had never worked in Europe before, was on his own.

His response to that challenge did more than simply restore Celtic to the pinnacle of Scottish soccer, wrenching the title back from the other side of Glasgow at the first opportunity and immediately transforming Postecoglou — whose arrival had been greeted with a skepticism that bordered on suspicion — into a wildly popular figure.

It also did more than merely return the team, for the first time since the fall of 2017, to the group stages of the Champions League. The club begins its campaign on Tuesday evening by welcoming Real Madrid, the reigning European champion, to the place its fans call Paradise.

Instead, Postecoglou’s approach laid down what amounts to a blueprint, showing how Celtic can ensure it does not have to endure such a prolonged absence from the continent’s elite again. And it might help the dozens of clubs caught in the same quandary — the brightest lights in the lesser leagues, the big fish in the small ponds — thrive in European soccer’s hopelessly skewed financial ecosystem.

Celtic Manager Ange Postecoglou. He has turned his knowledge of Asian players into an advantage in Scotland. Credit…Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Postecoglou, as he sought to revive Celtic, identified two key “points of difference.” The first was his style of play, a percussive, expansive approach best encapsulated by the slogan that became something of a mantra for the club last season: “We never stop.” It is easy, Postecoglou said this month, for a manager to claim they intend to play attacking soccer. He prides himself on delivering it.

The second point, though, was arguably more immediately significant. One brief sojourn in Greece apart, Postecoglou had spent his entire career in Australia and Asia; Celtic hired him on the back of three successful years at Yokohama F. Marinos, Manchester City’s cousin club in Japan. There, Postecoglou thought, was an edge. “I could tap into some transfer markets that were a little bit unknown,” he said.

Celtic already had a longstanding connection with Japan — the playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura spent four years at the club in the first decade of the century. But, in the absence of a settled structure at the club, Postecoglou leaned in to it, making Kyogo Furuhashi, a bright, prolific forward who had risen to prominence with Vissel Kobe, the first high-profile signing of his reign.

Postecoglou was aware he was taking a risk. There was, as he said, plenty of doubt as to whether Furuhashi would be able to shine in Scotland.: Few fans would have known that, in the words of a scout at another Scottish club, the “standard of the J League is higher than the standard in Scotland.” Even fewer would have had a chance to see Furuhashi play.

“Maybe if I hadn’t managed on that side of the world, I might have had the same skepticism,” Postecoglou said. The lack of time, though, meant he did not have much choice. He gave Furuhashi his debut before he had even trained with his new teammates. “He’d only had lunch with them once,” Postecoglou said.

The risk, though, paid off so well — Furuhashi would end his first season in Scotland with 12 goals in 20 league games — that by December, Postecoglou was happy to go back. This time, he returned with three players: Reo Hatate, Yosuke Ideguchi and Daizen Maeda, a former charge from his time at Yokohama. All but Ideguchi are likely to start against Real Madrid on Tuesday.

Postecoglou has been keen to stress that, though all four players are Japanese, they should not be grouped together. “They are different people; they are different players,” he said earlier this year. “They are all totally different. They all have different personalities. They have had different careers so far, and they offer something different to the club.”

They are all, though, proof that Postecoglou was correct to identify his knowledge of the Japanese market as a potential advantage.

Furuhashi has six goals in six games for Celtic this season. Credit…Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Though there are sufficient Japanese players in Europe — primarily clustered in Germany, Belgium and Portugal — that earlier this year Hajime Moriyasu, the national team coach, could name an entire squad without a single J League player, few European teams employ permanent scouts in Japan.

Indeed, until relatively recently, even those who sent representatives to scour the J League for players found it was not particularly easy. This was not just because of the cost and distance of travel, but because all of the league’s games tended to kick off at the same time, meaning a week’s trip might yield the chance to take in only one or two matches.

Likewise, few European agencies have a footprint in Japan, disconnecting the country from the networks that can play a vital role in player recruitment. Those difficulties disincentivized European teams from looking too closely at the Japanese market. Celtic engaged only because of Postecoglou’s firsthand knowledge: “I’ve got that added advantage of knowing the market,” he said. “When I took over I was definitely going to use that expertise.”

In doing so, he has helped to make Celtic a paradigm. Thanks to Postecoglou’s connections, Celtic has been able to retool its squad for a fraction of the cost it would have taken to acquire equivalent players from Europe, enabling the club to overcome at least a little of the financial disadvantage it experiences simply by virtue of calling a relatively small country — and by extension television market — home.

It is an approach the club has started to build on. It has appointed Mark Lawwell, another alumnus of Yokohama — and the City Football Group network that runs the club — to oversee its recruitment division. Even before his official appointment, Postecoglou was bringing in players not just from England’s lower leagues, the traditional hunting ground for Scottish clubs, but from Russia and Argentina, Poland and Israel.

The approach also makes the Celtic Postecoglou has built an example other clubs in its station — the champions cut adrift by the gathering of power and wealth by Europe’s major leagues — can follow. Those teams do not always have the time, or resources, that the continent’s true giants can match. By using a little knowledge, though, by finding something where scarcely anybody else has looked, they can level the playing field, just a little.

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