After 585 days without defeat and 620 days since failing to score against Scottish opposition, records came to a shuddering halt at a gleeful Tynecastle. A hugely committed home performance brought a deserved 4-0 victory. Celtic have been relentless during Rodger’s tenure, but it is how they respond to a setback that will help define the legacy.
Levein made much of copying Anderlecht as a template to stop Celtic. That was gilding the lily somewhat as the Belgians had completed 645 passes at Celtic Park allied to speed of movement. What Levein sought to emulate was the high and aggressive press employed by the Belgian Champions. And in this regard Hearts were hugely successful.
Celtic were contained to 296 open play passes. Only Dundee had restricted Celtic to under 300 this season as the Hoops laboured to a 1-0 win. It was also the type of possession. There was none of the controlled possession probing for gaps in the defence. All the passes had to be played quickly as relentless pressure was put on the receiver. Tynecastle is one of the smaller playing surfaces in the league, and a soft, slippery pitch did not easily support quick passing football. Celtic failed to complete 91 passes, 10 more than any other domestic game this season. Averaging 90% pass completion over the season, the Hoops averaged 76% here, 7% lower than at home to Dundee where McCann’s side similarly flustered the Bhoys.
The fulcrum of the Champions possession football is usually Brown. The 16-year-old Cochrane was stationed, as McGinn of Hibernian had been, as a kind of 10, but with more orthodox midfield duties. It was a bold move, but the youthful midfielder restricted the Scotland captain to just 13 completed passes in the first half. Brown averages 89 completed passes per 90m. His total 30 completed passes are 15 less than the previous low for the season domestically. Brown had a pretty good game, relishing the unstructured nature of it. He won 16 challenges which is 2 more than any other game this season. And he reclaimed possession 14 times, another season high. But he could not dictate attacking tempo
The other starting point for Celtic possession is Gordon. This outlet too was choked off by the high press. Gordon failed to complete 23 passes in addition to being forced into 3 clearances. Giving the ball away 26 times is 9 more than a similarly high pressing Motherwell managed to force in the 1-1 at Fir Park.
Without control, Celtic were sucked into a long ball lottery. With Griffiths as the main striker, this was not going to be fruitful. This game took me longer to capture than any other as virtually every possession involved the ball cannoning around off players with it being unclear whether there had been a challenge, a deflection, a miss control or what. In short, it was a mess. And this suited Hearts perfectly.
I record “Deflections” to differentiate from “Interceptions”. A deflection is where the ball hits a player without him making any effort for it i.e. inadvertent. It is a lottery where it will go. In an average game, there are 6 defections by Celtic players. Here there were 15, 10 possessions going to Hearts players as a result. There were 19 deflections off Hearts players, 9 possessions going to maroon shirts. This is also indicative of the fact Hearts were faster to the second balls, of which there were many.
Clearances are where a player essentially boots the ball down the field, or out of play, with no specific target in mind. It is a defensive move aimed at clearing the ball from danger. Most clearances result in losing possession. Celtic normally clear the ball 22 times on average. Such was the intensity of the Hearts press they were forced into 39 clearances. Possession was maintained only 9 times. Celtic normally force 31 clearances from the opposition. But here, Hearts were keen to simply bang the ball long whether there was a pass on or not. They effected 54 clearances and managed to maintain possession 9 times.
With midfielders rushing to join Lafferty for the second balls, Hearts aimed to keep the pressure on Celtic. And Lafferty was successful in disrupting the Celtic defence. Simunovic and Boyata both lost 5 aerial challenges each. In all, irrespective of the challenge winner, Hearts picked up possession from aerial challenges on the Celtic backs 11 times. Simunovic has only lost 4 aerial challenges outright all season but lost 3 here. He had only committed 6 defensive errors all season, but was forced into 3 here. It was a wretched game for the Bosnian.
Celtic won as many challenges as Hearts – it was 74 each (the most challenges in a match involving Celtic this season). This was 5 more than Celtic have won in any domestic game this season. It wasn’t that Celtic did not compete, it was that they were forced to play a style of game they didn’t want to.
The Hearts press served to contain Celtic and stop any sort of structured built up. Their long ball game then disrupted the Celtic defence forcing turn overs and errors. Celtic failed to cope.
But what of the creative side of the game? Football can be considered very simple: take your chances and if the opposition don’t take their, you win. Celtic created 11 shooting opportunities within the width of the 6-yard box and inside the area. This is easily a season high. Think of such chances as roughly a 20% probability of scoring. Celtic “should” have scored 2. Instead 5 were blocked, 3 by the excellent Smith, 5 missed, and the one on target from Griffiths was in the 90th minute.
Griffiths had three chances presented to him by Forrest in the first half within this position and took none of them. Two of those were at 0-0. Forrest provided 5 chances overall, and with an Expected Assist of 0.899 must be disappointed not to have an assist or two. He couldn’t have done more.
Cochrane took his chance within the same zone, with a hard and accurate left foot shot. Indeed, Hearts had three chances within the same zone and two resulted in goals, the other from Milinkovic after Simunovic’s slip.
Milinkovic finished the game with 2 goals, 1 assist and 1 key pass. His Expected Scoring Contribution (xSC) was 1.222, the highest in the match.
Overall the Expected Goals (xG) for each side were Celtic 0.395 to Hearts 1.397 (this counts non-penalty shots on target only). In terms of chances created (shot not necessarily on target) it was, respectively, 1.982 to 1.691. To be fair to Hearts, most of Celtic’s chances came when chasing the game and the damage had been done.
Defensive errors played a part in all 4 goals. This was due to the pressure exerted, but also the slippery pitch played apart in 3 of the goals. This is not an excuse: it was the same for both teams. Over the 90 minutes I noted Hearts players slipping 3 times. One of those, on 58 minutes by Brandon, resulted in a potential Celtic break against a disorganised defence. However, Forrest immediately slipped over and lost possession. Celtic players slipped over 15 times. This impacted, to some degree, three of the goals.
For the first goal. Tierney slips and cannot recover to help defend Boyata’s failed pass. It probably makes little difference as Cowie’s quick pass was excellently controlled and dispatched by Cochrane.
Simunovic slips and falls over for the 3rd goal, although he had already failed to read the high punt from Randall and was in difficulty.
Finally, for the 4th goal, Lustig slips in midfield and in the space where he should have been, Milinkovic sends Callachan away. Again, the more important error is Gordon bringing down Callachan who has miss controlled the ball and both are moving away from goal, with the Hearts man now on his weak foot. It was a crazy decision from Gordon to commit to the unnecessary challenge.
74m Lustig slips in midfield and Callachan runs in behind him for the penalty
The game was no less frenetic for Hearts than Celtic and if the away players had insufficiently long studs or otherwise deficient footwear, that is a criminal lack of professionalism. Errors abounded but slips contributed to 3 of the 4 goals.
For the 2nd goal, Simunovic who had easily his worst game for the Hoops, leaves Lafferty despite Lustig and Boyata covering the advancing Milinkovic. Even with open field, Lafferty does not back his pace to get near to goal, but his shot was unerringly accurate.
31m Simunovic moves away from Lafferty to the ball, despite the cover. Lafferty scores.
Celtic average 2.5 defensive errors per match but there were 6 here. Hearts were not error free, but none were punished. Such is football!
Bhoy of the Match
Despite the missed pass for the first goal, Boyata did not do much wrong and won 13 challenges, losing 6.
Brown as mentioned above had seasons best figures for challenges won and possessions won.
Dembele came on and held the ball up connecting with the midfield. He completed 18 passes, only failing with 3.
But the Bhoy of the Match was Forrest who set up 5 chances, and had the highest Impect score of 75, joint highest CAT score of 9 and the highest Expected Scoring Contribution of 0.899. GLOSSARY if unsure what that means!
A thoroughly deserved win by Hearts. Their fans can surely expect the same intensity of performance in each and every game. It is how Celtic respond that is now of more interest to the Hoops.