The Champions’ defence opened with a 49th unbeaten domestic game as flag day was marked with a dominant win over Heart of Midlothian. With 75% possession and 713 passes completed, to 145 by the visitors, there was slight disappointment at losing the first goal of the season. Much of the game resembled a training match, and if referee Clancy had implemented any sanction for either persistent fouling or persistent dissent, it could have been a lot worse for the manager-less opposition.
Not in a very good mood
Preying on the Wing
Hearts set up with two youthful full backs, Brandon and Smith, on the right side, and the rugged Pole Grzelak on the left with another youth, Moore, in front of him. The shape was generally 4-1-4-1 with Lafferty “leaving one on” the defence on his own with Bauban anchoring. Cowie tried to get forward, but between him, Bauban and Djoum they failed to control Ntcham setting the match tempo.
A reminder: The pass map shows ONLY shows completed passes that bypass (“pack”) at least one opposition player. It is not a map of all completed passes. 713 would be a big black blob!
Unlike against Rosenborg, Celtic were able to progress down the flanks with ease. Despite there being two full backs on the Celtic left, Ntcham could feed the advancing Tierney time and again. On the right Lustig established a productive furrow to Forrest and then Hayes. On both flanks, the receiving player could move forward rather than having to come back in and recycle the ball back wards as happened against the Norwegians. 5 times the Maroons failed to block crosses, succeeding 4 times. Consequently, there was a good service into Griffiths from wide. There was no need for the normally metronomic connections between Tierney and Sinclair to be over worked.
Brandon was successful with his distribution from the back, achieving 7 pack passes, with a total Impect score of 42. But defensively, the young Hearts defender, and his colleagues, failed to stem Celtic’s wide advances.
Art of Movement
The art of good movement is a skill well learned as a striker. The risk of having a player at the pointy end of the pitch who does not appreciate this art remains extant as Dembele is injured. Celtic had the luxury of withdrawing Griffiths after 67 minutes but there may not always be that opportunity.
Compared to the deep and narrow straight jacket applied by Rosenborg, there seemed to be gaps galore for the Celtic forwards to find space. Having the Perfect Pack (bypassing all 10 outfield players with 1 pass) is rare, and therefore to do it twice (and pack 9 players on another occasion) should be cause for sombre reflection in the Hearts dressing room.
Twice Griffiths’ movement provided the opportunity for accurate long passes. Firstly, on 29 minutes, Bitton spotted the run and took out the whole Hearts team with a languid through ball releasing Griffiths onto Hamilton. Griffiths controlled it and the ball deflected off Hamilton and back to Griffiths to fashion an agile finish. I give the assist to Bitton as I don’t consider the goalkeeper deflecting the ball to be a break in possession. This is consistent with Fantasy League assists.
The Perfect 10 Pack #1
7 minutes later, a Hearts team distracted by another bout of dissent from Lafferty, failed to anticipate Gordon’s long goal kick to the alert Griffiths. No goal resulted this time. Gordon generally looks to build from the back, and Hearts are set up to counter the short pass. It is useful for Celtic to have the long option to seed uncertainty within the minds of defences.
The Perfect 10 Pack #2
Griffiths Bhoy of the Match performance saw the first Celtic goals by a striker of the season. Characteristically there was not a lot of linking the play and passing the ball back to defenders. Just 67 minutes of menace.
His Usage Rate was 4%, higher than Gordon, and his 19 passes included 8 free kick passes. 79% pass completion is good for Griffiths who usually averages less than 70%. But it was his movement that shone in the league opener, and added to his sprightly, impact performance against Rosenborg hints at a fitter, sharper striker?
Young McGregor has been lauded for his last two performances. Playing with hitherto uncharacteristic assertiveness and confidence, he seems to have mentally grown into the Celtic first team picture. But his Hearts outing was the classic tale of two halves.
Leave them wanting more
Tidy enough in the 1st half, he gave the ball away 4 times from scant possession. Although managing to get into the box 3 times, there was little reward and his only shot of the half was on 45 minutes. Celtic had such dominance down the flanks, there were rare excursions down the middle.
In 30 2nd half minutes, McGregor’s match caught fire. Perhaps marginally offside, he provided the movement for Brown to “pack” 9 Hearts players with a through ball leading to Griffiths diving header on 63 minutes.
Just the 9 men packed this time. McGregor fed by Brown.
4 shots rained down on Hamilton, 3 hitting the target and his finish for the goal on 73 minutes was conclusive.
Given his current form, will it be McGregor or Rogic for FC Astana?
Pack Man 2
New singing Ntcham replaced the “pack” man Armstrong, sorely out of sorts against Rosenborg. Ntcham dominated the game, reducing Brown to assistant water carrier duties. Brown poured tremendous effort into the European clashes and was subdued here. His Defensive Action Success Rate (DASR) was 50% and his error nearly led to a second Hearts consolation goal late on for Djoum. Averaging 110 completed passes per 90m, he completed a mere 82, the 5th highest in the team. His PEI was 3% off average at 88% and 11% Usage Rate well below his 15% average. Only 5% of his passes took out an opponent. It was an uncharacteristic performance from Brown, and perhaps indicative that he will need careful managing and resting throughout the campaign.
It barely mattered to the cadence of this game however, and in Ntcham, Celtic had someone to set the tempo. His Usage Rate was 15% – the highest in the team (when Celtic had possession, he had possession 15% of the time. With Celtic having 75% possession, Ntcham had possession for 11% of the match!).
And it was all about the passing. Leading the team on passing stats across the board, and linking particularly effectively with Tierney, 21% of his passes took out at least one opponent. He seems like a player that needs a “10” in front of him, his passes generally being the pass before the chance. The range of his passes is impressive, in terms of distance, angle and pace.
The concepts of xChain and Secondary Assist may be useful here – counting all the participants in the lead up to chances. I would love to do that but fear it would take me more than a week to do one match!
As a comparator to Armstrong however, he is not a like for like replacement. His shot selection is particularly poor, electing to shoot from low probability locations twice. He never broke beyond the forward, nor received possession once in the box. Defensively as well, he had little to do, but only succeeded with one of his 4 defensive actions.
It is very early days for a very young player and there are aspects of huge promise here. And plenty of attributes for Rodgers and staff to work on.