Watching these Champions League Qualifiers for many of years, they are to be endured not enjoyed. But on a remarkable night in the Celtic Park maelstrom of rain, noise and colour, Celtic rendered the journey 1/3rd of the way around the world to Kazakhstan virtually a sightseeing tour with a 5-0 win against FC Astana. (Other than having a four-game unbeaten run away from home to defend as well as a six-game clean sheet streak.)
The Luck of the Irish?
Before getting too carried away, it must be acknowledged that occasionally it is just your night. And Celtic cannot have wished the breaks to go their way to any greater extent. 5 goals from 3 shots on target with 2 own goals. 5 goals but an Expected Goals of 0.55. Astana missed their one Big Chance when Postnikov headed wide from a corner immediately after Celtic’s opening goal. Even on Expected Assists, Celtic led only 1.06 to 0.65 – it doesn’t look like a 5-0.
Celtic dominance, sure, but those goals:
- The first, following Rogic’ Champions League standard burst into the box saw him chip right footed across goal. It looked neither a cross nor a shot, and had the defender not toe-poked it in, it may not have reached the incoming Griffiths.
- For the second, Rogic was challenged in midfield and the resulting loose ball sped directly to goal wrong footing the defenders, but not the alert Sinclair. Although his first touch took him quite wide, the shot found the far side net, with the ‘keeper perhaps disappointed not to get more on it.
- The third saw Rogic taken out late in the air. Both players went down with head injuries, normally a trigger for the referee to stop the game. He let Celtic’s attack develop and Sinclair and Griffiths combined well for the goal. The shot went through the ‘keepers legs. But injured both players had to be withdrawn. It was certainly an unusual decision to allow play to continue.
- And for the fifth, Griffiths shot was going well wide before hitting the defenders leg and arrowing into the corner of the net.
The fourth was a thing of beauty. Celtic were calm and relentless, and played with a maturity not normal in these high-pressure encounters. They deserved the win, but I can’t recall so many favourable breaks.
What will be the impact of a second year of Champions League income for Celtic? The legacy of this game could be profound for Celtic’s future.
Go Right. Score. Repeat.
Celtic found unrelenting joy in the inside right position, the left of Astana’s defence. As I have shown repeatedly, Celtic tend to attack more down the left, where Tierney and Sinclair both have license to get forward throughout the game. But on this occasion, Celtic found a weakness and pursued it relentlessly.
1-0 Lustig combines with Rogic. He “Packs” the 3 covering midfielders, and no one gets back to Rogic.
Logvinenko and the captain, Shomko, are experienced international players, but their positioning allowed a huge gap for Rogic to drive into. Reprising his Cup Final exploits, the Australian drove into the box and the panicked and disorganised defence was forced into an own goal.
Before the goal, Celtic’s two chances, from a Griffiths free kick and a Forrest cross, both came from the right side of the Celtic attack.
2-0 the Lustig pass, Griffiths controlled header and Sinclair movement are top class. But that defending…
The players who displayed Champions League levels of movement and then the ability to make big moments count (Rogic, Sinclair, Forrest) were nowhere near Bhoy of the Match, yet magic moments beat teams at this level. Lustig’s pass before this once again took out half the Astana team to the insider right position. Griffiths cushion header to Rogic was well executed. Sinclair’s anticipation and speed of movement whether it had been Rogic playing the through ball or the tackler inadvertently sending the ball towards his own goal, was high quality.
3-0 A simple but accurate long ball from Bitton has Astana in huge trouble if Rogic can help on – he can
Shomko once again sits on Forrest who is on the touchline. At no point once Rogic heads on and Sinclair and Griffiths combine, does the left back come into picture as the goal is scored. The number 6, the protecting midfielder, Maevski, is half way inside the Celtic half. The defence has no protection and is poorly spaced.
4-0 Ntcham’s glorious pass, Griffiths movement and touch. They all have time and space to do this.
This time Forrest is not standing on the chalk but has come inside. Shomko is several yards away from him, and has also allowed a large gap between himself and his centre back. Griffiths movement is excellent as is his touch. Forrest makes the run, it is not tracked by Shomko and the best goal of the night seals it.
5-0 Shomko gifts it to Armstrong. One accurate pass and great movement again, and it’s over.
It is now about 02:40am for the Astana players as far as their body clocks are concerned. Shomko may have produced the most hapless defensive performance ever seen at Celtic Park. He charges up the pitch and passes back straight to Armstrong. He takes out the defence with an accurate pass to Griffiths, who’d started to move as soon as Armstrong received it. He got the luck with the deflection off the abrasive Shitov.
All 5 goals came from the inside right position. And they came from transition (2) or long balls (3). Celtic’s normal state is passing and control side to side and probing. Astana were vulnerable when the defence was not set, and repeatedly the left had side was exposed. They set out to play a high press with a high 4-3-3. Celtic had the players with movement, pace and passing ability to exploit the resulting spaces. Celtic may enjoy being the away side.
Time Zoned Out
Last season, in the 2-1 Celtic win, Astana were always in the game and didn’t seem to visibly tire. They seemed to be playing for extra time so must have had confidence in their fitness. Hope and adrenalin is a powerful combination. Over 20 games into their season, coming West over five time zones is nevertheless tiring on the body and mind. You tend to notice these things more when losing. Astana visibly wilted as the game went on, and the difference between first and second half stats highlights this.
The passing became visibly ragged. In the first half Astana put together 23 then 17 consecutive passes. They did not achieve any Pack passes, i.e. they did not take out any Celtic players, but they at least imposed some control. I don’t recall more than 3 consecutive passes in the second half. The flurry of fouls also highlighted the frustration and mental fatigue.
For Celtic travelling East, and therefore playing in the afternoon, it won’t be as traumatic on the body clock. They also appear a fitter, better conditioned team.
Taken For Granted?
A performance on the night that did not stand out to me, nor did I detect much heralding online afterwards, was our experienced Swede Lustig. I do try and limit the number of tables of data I throw at you as it is not for everyone. But here is the Defensive Action Success Rate, minus the goalkeeper and the two substitutes (trust me, it just makes sense).
Normally, the high 70s% will win it. Lustig did not lose a defensive challenge. He also effected 8 clearances. I thought initially he was at fault for the Astana Big Chance from the corner, but it was Simunovic who let Postnikov go. Simunovic was a little shaky all night. This also highlights the power of work Brown does.
The other point to make is that Tierney’s defensive stats are generally average to poor. But he plays such an attacking role in the team it almost makes more sense to compare him to the wingers!
I have spoken a lot about Packing. Here is the full Pack Pass table for the match.
A quick reminder of what the columns mean:
- Pack Passes = the numbers of passes that bypass at least one opponent
- Pack Rate = the number of opponents bypassed
- Pass Impect = the value of opponents bypassed where a defender 3pts, midfielder 2 pts, forward 1pt
- Impect Pass % = the proportion of all that players passes that are Pack Passes
19 times Lustig bypassed Astana players with his passing and as we have seen, two of his long balls led to goals 1 and 2. 25% of all his passes took out opponents and he took out more of them (53) than any other player. Lustig may not have registered on the xG or xA charts, but his defensive work and passing led the way.
Ntcham was very quiet by his standards despite the buzz after the game about his performance. In general, his performance was a little below his previous outings. He competed well physically, and positioned himself well to either receive the ball in space, or support Brown in defence. More to come from him.
Bhoy of the Match
Registering 3 assists in such a crucial game is a remarkable feat. The hardest pass in football is usually the final one to create chances. Griffiths did not score, his wayward late effort hitting Shitov on the shin and deflecting in, but he weighted perfect passes for Sinclair and Forrest to do so. Despite being on the ball less than any other Celt (his Usage Rate was 4%), he easily had the highest Receive Impect score (Tierney was next on 99). This means that he received passes that took out opponents 13 times, and those passes took out a total of 62 opponents. Rewarding the receiver of a pass recognises the movement to find space, and the technique to take and control the pass. As well as his overall fitness, Griffiths’ movement and touch this season seems to have improved dramatically. There may be a correlation. Tired minds and bodies don’t tend to make the runs nor execute the technique as well. His movement and control for the 5th goal at the end of the game (and remember he has had fitness doubts with a calf problem this season) were excellent.
It is not over yet and Celtic want to maintain momentum and performance levels. Going away to Astana and getting a result would be a further indicator of progress. A 5-0 win in the context of the Champions League play off scenario, was a joy. But Celtic got all the breaks, and deservedly so, hence the article title. I suspect it is not a message Rodgers need to reinforce as this team look focussed, and above all, calm.
Kazakhstan? It’s over there, next to the Tunnocks factory.