The final league game of the season had plenty at stake for Celtic with modern invincibility in sight. Celtic once lost a single league game and still finished second, under Tommy Burns, but there was to be no such heartache this season. Commendably Hearts showed signs of improvement under new coach Cathro, defending deep and in numbers to frustrate a circumspect but determined home side. Once the opener went in, it wasn’t until a flurry of corners and chances at the end when the Edinburgh side threatened.
A record of 34 wins and 4 draws is remarkable in any era, as are 106 points and 106 goals scored. Celtic have barely looked like losing any league game and fans will wonder how strong they will be next season as Rodgers crafts the team in his image, and the players are further understanding of his requirements.
First Half Frustration
Perhaps the weight of history following the wonderful Lisbon Lions tifo, and the expectation of once in a lifetime records within grasp, but Celtic struggled for 45 minutes to break Hearts down. Hearts adopted a 5-4-1 low block, defending deep and only engaging once Celtic crossed half way. When in possession they tried to adapt to 3-5-2 as Goncalves or Johnsen would spring forward from the midfield defensive positions held.
Celtic were also quite cautious in their pass selection. Knowing that a draw would guarantee invincibility, few extravagant chances were taken. In the first half Celtic only created 1 chance, from a characteristic Tierney cut back, and failed with 5 more against a packed defence. A clear opportunity arose as the Griffiths / Boyata combination again functioned at a corner but Boyata’s effort was cleared off the one. Otherwise Celtic were restricted to long rage efforts, having 11 other efforts, only 2 from inside the box.
It appeared that Cathro had gone back to basics and worked on defensive shape, which they largely maintained with discipline. Had it not been for Celtic indiscipline, Hearts may not have registered any efforts in that sterile first half. But 3 free kicks yielded 3 long range low probability efforts.
Celtic, dominant but perhaps watchful to ensure maintenance of the unbeaten record, and Hearts, focussed on restoring confidence with stout defence, finished 0-0 at the half.
Tellingly, the two full backs, Gamboa and Tierney, had very high pass completion – Gamboa 90% and Tierney an uncharacteristic 92%. They average 87% and 82% respectively. Whilst it surprises me that Gamboa does not trust his pace to beat players more (only completed 4 dribbles in 1345 mins all season), Tierney usually bombs on. Therefore, their relative circumspection (Tierney did create 1 chance and attempted 2 more – his break pedal only works so far) was indicative of Celtic keeping their defensive shape. Tierney has only surpassed his pass completion % in the home game vs Aberdeen (4-1).
The Difference Maker
Rodgers is not one for delay when he senses momentum shifting or his team stalling. For the 2nd half, Rogic came on for Gamboa – Rodgers perhaps reasoning he did not really need 4 defenders. But more importantly, realising that no one was getting between Hearts deep defensive lines.
This had many impacts:
- McGregor played deeper and seemed more effective facing goal and coming from deep (14 passes 1st half; 53 passes 2nd half!)
- The Celtic attackers now had a means to link the attack through Rogic – characteristically under Rodgers his change reaped almost immediate reward with Rogic feeding Roberts to cross for Griffiths to score after 50m
- The negative was that Armstrong became marginalised. With Brown (55 passes) and McGregor (53) dominating central midfield, and Rogic (23 passes) linking from the “10” position, Armstrong struggled to get into the game and completed 12 passes. He did, of course, seal the invincible season with the 2nd goal – you can’t keep a good hairstyle down!
You Can’t Win?
Writing this after the Scottish Cup Final, a theme of mine has been ways to combat Celtic. It may be that Celtic are just too good compared to domestic opposition and Rodgers has certainly instilled a mental toughness and ability to sort out different problems.
When Hearts finally switched to the high press, chasing an equaliser, Celtic had brought on Toure. His simple but effective long pass eliminated the press, and Griffiths’ expert control and cross eventually fell for Armstrong (quiet ‘til then) to smash home. Celtic immediately adapted to the Hearts press and a quality pass, control and movement and anticipation from Armstrong sealed the points.
Bhoy of the Match
On his final appearance (hmmm).