Celtic played 3 games in one match in beating Aberdeen 3-1 on Friday night football in the harr of Pittodrie. For the first 10 minutes, Celtic blew the Dons away to streak into a clinical 3-0 lead. The Dons responded immediately after the 3rd goal, and in the next 60 minutes attempted their version of basketballs full court press defensively allied to an attacking strategy of crosses and long balls. Once this storm abated through fatigue, the last 20 minutes, under the increasing control of Nir Bitton and the stretching pace of James Forrest, highlighted the respective squads’ strengths as Celtic saw out a psychologically important win.
Aberdeen were desperate to boost confidence and morale ahead of the Scottish Cup final, and deserve credit for the intensity and commitment of their response to what could have been a shattering opening 10 minutes. This was a fascinating match, by numbers, as we will see, but the impact on confidence ahead of the showpiece final in two weeks remains to be seen.
Celtic have not completed less passes in any domestic game this season – 249 completed passes is the lowest by 25. The 274 at Hamilton Academical in December was also on a poor pitch in difficult weather. Celtic average 558 completed passes in Scottish matches.
In January, St Johnstone forced 8 corners at Celtic Park and the 10 Aberdeen won is therefore the highest of the season in Scotland.
The 17 fouls conceded by Celtic is 2nd only to the 19 awarded to Hearts in the season’s opener.
The aforementioned Hamilton game saw Celtic win 3-0 with 42% possession – McGregor had been sent off. The 49% of possession Celtic managed here being only the 2nd time all season Celtic had not dominated the ball – Celtic average 69% possession domestically.
Celtic’s overall Possession Effectiveness Index of 57% is easily the lowest of the season – the next lowest is 61% in the Hamilton mentioned. Low passing effectiveness is the largest contributor to this – Celtic had previously never gone below 81% passing success in any Scottish match.
Despite dominating possession and territory when 3-1 down, Aberdeen struggled to create and take chances. Other than where opposition sides have managed 0 shots on target (it has happened 4 times domestically, including the last time Celtic visited Pittodrie), no side has had such a low shot accuracy as 13%. No side has come close to the 13 efforts off target from the Dons – from 9 different players. Aberdeen have real issues locating the goal against Celtic – in 5 matches they have managed 6 shots on target, scoring 2 goals. Their cumulative xG across those matches is 1.65 – Hayes screamer was a low probability strike.
Even worse for Aberdeen, they struggle to create clear chances against Celtic. They managed to create 3 chances from 12 attempts. In 5 matches versus Celtic they have created 12 chances from 51 attempts. In contrast Celtic have created 19 chances from 51 attempts. Celtic’s cumulative xG in 5 games is 8.42 but they have scored 12 goals. A lot will have to go Aberdeen’s way if this trend continues in the Cup Final.
For Celtic, Griffiths and Boyata formed a lethal partnership. Remarkably, Celtic were awarded 4 corners and from every corner, Griffiths crossed for Boyata to have a headed effort at goal, scoring once. They even combined for the Griffiths goal – Boyata rolling the ball into Griffiths feet prior to his dipping strike. Although you may think “how can that be an assist?”, Boyata’s pass was highly effective as it by-passed the entire Aberdeen midfield. This is called “packing” and I will be measuring this explicitly next season – i.e. assessing pass effectiveness as measured by how many opposition players are taken out the game by the pass and the receipt.
Boyata has now scored in three consecutive matches. I cannot recall when a defender has matched that without the aid of penalties and I hope someone can do some factual pursuit in the comment section!
Those familiar with my Celtic By Numbers articles and Twitter feed (celticbynumbers@Alan_Morrison67 – please follow me!) will know that the numbers tell me Patrick Roberts is a bit special. So, mention out to him as although starved of the ball and completing only 8 passes in 90 minutes, he still managed to have two shots at goal, one on target, create 1 chances and provide 2 key passes (passes that result in efforts at goal). Did I say he was special?
Conversely Aberdeen did an excellent job of keeping Sinclair quiet. Although he nearly scored a wonder goal into the top left corner, this was his only effort. He created no chances nor provided any key passes, managing 9 completed passes in 90 mins and losing all 7 challenges.
Aberdeen were fiercely competitive and hunted Celtic all-round the park in a desperate attempt to ensure morale was not fatally damaged ahead of the Cup Final. I don’t recall seeing a disparity in possession won such as this. Other sides have won more challenges than this with the highest being St Johnstone who won 66% of all challenges in the 4-2 early season game. (NB A “challenge” is a tackle or aerial duel. Next season I will split this out).
A “Clearance” is basically not an attempted pass – i.e. where the player humps it up the park or out of danger (bit like an elephant, you know it when you see it). Celtic don’t generally effect many clearances because a) they rarely are under pressure and b) there style is to pass it out from the back. Consequently 61 is a bit of an outlier but 3 less than Celtic launched away at Hearts in the season opener. Celtic average 28.4 clearances per domestic match compared to 31 by the opposition. As an aside, under Deila the average was 26.6 – Rodgers is slightly more pragmatic.
For all the constant aerial bombardment and man to man marking across the park, Celtic not only did not give up many chances, but I only awarded 3 defensive errors. Twice Simunovic and once Boyata gave the ball away in dangerous positions leading to Aberdeen efforts. By contract Aberdeen had 4 defensive errors including Taylor losing Boyata for the 1st goal and Lewis failing to stop Griffiths speculative but long ranger effort for 3-0.
I am still working to finesse this view. Recording defensive actions is easy enough but the extent it tells you about the defender’s performance is quite tricky. Most defending depends on a) being in the right position (what measures your success is what does not happen rather than what does) and b) is a collective endeavour (team positioning and communication are paramount). Neither of the latter are within my gift to record as such without spending what little time is left of my day video editing (I have neither the time, software nor skills for this).
But hopefully this view offers some insight. Boyata, who since his return to the team is determined to keep it simple, cleared the ball 17 times – a season high by any Celtic player (you can read all about him here – Deeds of Boyata). Simunovic meanwhile, won 9 of his 11 challenges. At the games start, for some reason Celtic had Simunovic marking Stockley. The mountainous Dons forward ruffled the Croat up early on. Why the more muscular Boyata was not the marker I do not know. With Simnovic being the more skilful footballer, he makes a better foil for a traditional centre half like Boyata. Once marking duties were switched, Boyata largely contained Stockley.
It is noticeable that both Sviatchenko and Bitton steadied and strengthened the team, both being reliable defenders. In the absence of Brown, it was a very attacking line up from Rodgers including both Rogic and McGregor and omitting the more conservative Bitton in midfield. Aberdeen had at least 6 very tall players with O’Conner playing in defensive midfield and Stockley preferred to Rooney: their approach was clear from the selection. Rodgers was vindicated by the result and the start. However, both Armstrong and McGregor were harried and bullied off the ball throughout winning only 4 challenges between them. They lost 16 challenges. In that sense, Brown was a great miss and it is perhaps a surprise Bitton did not start. Armstrong did manage to get away with committing 5 fouls without a yellow card.
Finally, a word about Tierney. His defensive stats above show that, as Sviatchenko only played 12 minutes, he effectively led the defensive actions league. Which is admirable as otherwise the young lad had a nightmare! His first 5 pass attempts went to Aberdeen players – I don’t recall seeing that in 3 years of capturing this data. By 15 mins he had completed 2 passes and gave it away 8 times. By the end of the game he had completed 24 passes, giving away 17 – 59% passing is very poor for a defender. He did attempt to create 2 chances, neither came off. Another data point I will introduce next season is whether a player blocks or allows a cross. Lustig blocked around 4 crosses whilst Tierney allowed 2. So, plenty of development opportunities yet.
Celtic domestic matches are often quite similar – Celtic dominate possession and it is a matter of how effective they are at creating and taking chances. This was a very different style of match and gratifying for the away team that on an awkward surface against motivated and physically larger opposition playing very direct football, they found a way to win.