Celtic completed their 48th domestic match unbeaten, 47 this season, meaning all three domestic trophies were secured for the first time since Martin O’Neill’s side of 2000/01. The club claimed the Scottish FA Cup for a record 38th time. An unbeaten treble is surely unreachable as a record Scottish season. In a week when the club celebrated 50 years since the triumph in Lisbon, the 2016/17 season is destined to be added to the list of iconic seasons such as ‘67, ‘69, ‘88, ’98, ’01.
Get It In t’Mixer
With Celtic set up as expected, the in-form McGregor taking his place in a 4-3-3 in preference to Rogic, Dembele returning to the bench and Lustig restored at right back, it was Aberdeen’s approach which carried most intrigue. As discussed in Between a Rock, Paper, Scissors and a Hard Place, there wasn’t much McInnes had not tried in meetings this season.
After going 3 goals down in the last league meeting at Pittodrie, the Dons had gone very direct, then when out of possession marked man for man before retreating to a low block once Celtic had controlled possession. A similar approach had been tried at in the league game at Celtic Park with some success. Celtic were limited to 1 shot on target but scored from Boyata’s header. In both games, the Dons had some success breaking Celtic’s fluency, but had struggled to create chances themselves, and had tired as the game progressed to the final 3rd.
McInnes sent out his team to play a very similar way again – an exhausting game plan. When in possession the aim was to get the ball forward to the 6ft 3in Stockley as quickly as possible, and from there get the ball into the box with the fewest touches. The objective was to make the game a war, physically, and a lottery as far as where the headed challenges and flicks would end up. From goal kicks the ball was loaded onto the relatively small Tierney. Driven by the fear of the Celtic counter attack, the Dons treated the ball like the proverbial hot potato, not dwelling for a second before launching it nearer the Celtic goal. Celtic managed only 18 interceptions as there simply weren’t many passes to intercept – Aberdeen completed 123. This is 58 less than the previous lowest Aberdeen had managed, losing 4-1 in August at Celtic Park. Their pass completion and possession were also the lowest of any meeting with Celtic this season.
Aberdeen have talented players such as Shinnie, McLean, McGinn and Hayes. Could they have been trusted more to show their quality in possession? McGinn provided 4 key passes and McLean and Shinnie both had 3 efforts at goal, McLean also providing 2 dangerous crosses neither found their target. Had Aberdeen been able to control possession more, they would have spent less time chasing their markers and fighting for high balls and perhaps lasted longer physically. It requires huge physical effort and concentration to play this way, and the Aberdeen players should be commended for this commitment.
The game plan was given a significant boost by an early goal. Inevitably from a set play, Griffiths, who had his usual mixture of infuriating and incisive play, completely lost Hayes’ run allowing the Irishman to skilfully half volley home from 7 yards.
Although Celtic equalised immediately from kick off, completing 17 passes before McGregor was tackled, as Aberdeen’s man to man seemed to cause confusion between the Dons players as to which space to take, the Dons commendably forced Celtic back for the next 25 minutes. Pressing high and winning possession from Brown, this was Aberdeen’s golden period in the match as they had 3 shots on target in 4 minutes.
Before half time Celtic started to gain a small measure of control even if many passes were amongst the centre backs. Lacking an obvious out ball with the man to man marking ahead of them, it nevertheless slowed the momentum and retained control of the match for Celtic. Griffiths centre to Sinclair on half time was the best chance created.
The momentum had started to shift before half time. Between the 33rd and 74th minutes Aberdeen did not have a shot on target. Between the 39th and 68th minutes, Celtic fashioned 10 efforts at goal to the Dons 1 albeit without possession control. Aberdeen’s best moment came when the stand in left back McGregor dallied on a pass back from a corner allowing Hayes in. Between the timing of his pass and the timing of the run from McLean, they couldn’t connect and Dons best chance was gone.
Once Rooney replaced Stockley on 62m, Aberdeen’s ability to play long channel balls and fight for knock downs was diminished. McInnes had few options on the bench to strengthen the team. I wonder what he thought would happen from around the hour mark when his team’s energy levels started to sink badly following their sapping strategy?
As had happened at Celtic Park in the 1-0 game and at Pittodrie in the 3-1 game, Aberdeen could not maintain the high press nor man to man coverage. Celtic took inexorable control of the game. The second half saw Celtic have 21 efforts to Aberdeen’s 3. The goal coming in the 92nd minute added drama, but it would not have been a surprise had the goal come any time from the 60th minute.
Celtic completed 218 passes in the first half but 245 in the second. Aberdeen had 9 efforts at goal in the first half but only 3 in the second. Those 9 shots were fashioned from only 58 completed passes.
Aberdeen had a huge advantage in possessions won – either challenges won – most often aerial, or interceptions. Having the far taller side, Celtic struggled to win the first headed challenge and were often positioned to win the knock downs. Celtic won possession from 30 challenges lost – i.e. the Celtic player lost the physical challenge but the 2nd ball ended up at a Celtic player. In comparison only 22 challenges were lost outright – i.e. the Aberdeen player won the challenge and maintained possession.
Aberdeen have been successful this season in forcing Celtic into defensive errors, and 5 is above Celtic’s average of 3.3 per 90m. They created only 1 clear chance, however, and with 5 shots on target, but 3 of those from low probability long range efforts, once again Aberdeen struggled to turn errors into scoring opportunities.
Don’t Interrupt Your Enemy When He Is Making Mistakes
Rodgers has many times this season intervened from the side-lines to improve the fortunes of the side. I will write about this later. On this day, Rodgers did very little, which is sometimes the hardest thing to do especially when your team is uncharacteristically giving the ball away and becoming flustered by the oppositions approach. It was a big call to drop McGregor back to left back once Tierney went off, to accommodate the attacking Rogic, especially as Celtic were struggling to get the ball forward with any control. Rodgers also got lucky when McGregor’s error went unpunished in the one glaring opportunity Aberdeen created in the 2nd half.
Despite having Forrest and Dembele in reserve, as well as the searing pace of Gamboa, Rodgers had confidence his selected team would manage the game and work out a way to win. That showed incredible trust and confidence – it would have been easier to make a change and been seen to do something.
Sure enough, as in prior games versus the Dons, Aberdeen could not keep up their high energy approach and Celtic had wave after wave of attack in the last 20 minutes. There was sufficient goal threat on the park to believe of one of them would come good. At the dying embers it was Rogic to score Celtic’s 150th goal of the season – the 6th time the team had won from a losing position.
As the lightning struck, the thunder roared from the Celtic end – Rodgers perfect season was complete.
After You…No, No After You
The Bhoy of the Match award is the hardest one so far.
But there must be one, so: