Celtic’s 2-1 victory over Inter Milan on 25th May 1967 was celebrated not just for the fact it was the first time any British club had won the European Cup (indeed, any Northern European club) but because it was seen as a victory for attacking football over the “catenaccio” style of defensive (predominantly) Italian football.
An extraordinary game emotionally for any Celtic supporter, the match was nonetheless extraordinary from a performance analysis perspective. But before you think “he’s going to suck the joy out of this with spreadsheets”, the intention is to provide nuance (yes, and never published (?) numbers) and texture to a performance of breath-taking courage and conviction.
Before we start in earnest, there are some wonderfully evocative aspects to the match from a different time. The goalkeepers do not wear gloves; all the throw ins and corners are taken by whomever is nearest the ball; the Celtic players only have numbers on their shorts, and with the video in very grainy black and white, all the players look quite similar with “sensible” haircuts. I will therefore predict a reasonable high rate of user error on my part capturing the action (no replays!) – it took a while to appreciate the nuance of movement and running gait of each player – apart from wee Johnstone of course!
Under Helenio Herrera, Inter Milan had been European Champions in 1963/64 and 1964/65. The Milanese had only conceded 3 goals in the run to the Final (1 to Vasas of Hungary and 2 in the semi-final to CSKA Sofia – requiring a third game 1-0 to quality). Herrera always maintained his team had defensive discipline combined with attacking menace. The left back, 6ft 3in Facchetti had a prodigious (Gemmell-esque?) scoring record. Midfield was run by the elegant Mario Corso, and the glue was the wonderful Sandro Mazzola. Everything positive Inter did this day came from Mazzola. A player of vision, agility, balance and control, he forced Simpson into a good save in 3m. Following a Celtic corner, Inter broke and Mazzola angled a wonderful through pass to Cappellini who was bundled over by the covering Craig. Mazzola calmly sent Simpson the wrong way. 7m in and Inter would never again have a shot on target in this final.
The early lead suited the Italians who fell back very deep and let Celtic have possession. Burgnich was assigned the role of man-marking Johnstone. In the opening 7m as well as Mazzola’s 2 efforts on target, Johnstone also had had 2. They were to be his last, as Celtic’s most celebrated attacking weapon was nullified by stifling marking. A sweeper behind the man markers was complimented by a very deep block of four or five midfielders.
What followed for the next 83m (there was no added time despite several injuries and Inter time wasting), was relentless attack versus experienced and organised defence.
Although the great Ajax team of the 1970’s was yet to emerge, Celtic had a template of their own to try and breakdown the massed ranks of deep lying opponents. What is striking is the movement and freedom given to the four forward players – Johnstone, Lennox, Chalmers and Wallace. Wallace was to a large extent sacrificed as the out and out striker. Johnstone and Lennox had freedom to wander and try and get on the ball although such a deep defence largely nullified their pace – not once did either get a run in behind. Lennox completed 2 dribbles and Johnstone 3. Johnstone, of course, never gave up and ended with 5 unsuccessful dribbles. Lennox only managed 1 shot the whole game, the joint lowest with Clark.
Chalmers was given even greater freedom – I honestly could not tell you where he was playing. A heat map may show him predominantly in an inside right (number 8) position. The nominal number 9 ran at the defence from deep, dropped wide and provided a link to the forwards from midfield. Completing 22 of 30 passes, he managed 5 shots, 1 on target – the most famous goal.
With an assist and a goal, the two full backs attacked almost constantly. Given more freedom of space and time than the well marshalled wingers, Craig was 3rd only to the midfield duo in completed passes (34). As well as his assist, he managed 2 efforts off target.
Gemmell was a force of nature. At one point I was sure he’d had more shots at goal than completed passes. He only completed 17 passes and gave the ball away 13 times – he made Tierney look like Platini. He committed 4 fouls, being the only player cautioned for the one bad foul of the game, and lost 4 out of 6 challenges. BUT. As well as the wonderfully struck right footed thunderbolt from an attacking central midfield position (!) he managed 9 shots at goal, 5 on target. Add in the 2 successful dribbles and 3 failed attempts to create a chance, you have quite the modern total footballer.
An unexpected joy for me was watching the performance of John Clark. A calm, well balanced player, hard as nails in the tackle (winning 4 of 5 challenges and committing 4 fouls), he elegantly brought Celtic up the field on many occasions, providing 2 key passes for shots at goal. Celtic played with a fluidity except one – McNeill was the last sentinel. Upright, disciplined, he never lost a challenge and completed 19 of 22 passes.
Simpson was not called into action after picking the ball out the net on 7m. He gave possession away once the whole match parrying a Mazzola header. He completed 19 passes, caught 3 crosses, and performed the one outstanding comedy moment of the match, back heeling the ball away from an Inter attacker in central midfield as the Italians broke from a Celtic corner (again!). Quite the modern sweeper / keeper!
There are two players I have not mentioned.
Dogs of War
Rarely can a side have had two central midfielders as complete as Auld and Murdoch. One left footed and one right, both could play with either foot. Inter, dropping so deep, ceded the midfield to this pair. Celtic could often go from Simpson to a defender to Auld or Murdoch and in two passes be able to threaten.
As you can see from the passing statistics (above), there were relatively few passes by modern standards. Celtic average 431 completed passes in Champions League games this season. This was a different style of football. There was very little, if any, horizontal side to side passing, probing, patient. Almost all passes were vertical other than the time-consuming goal kicks from Inter. I don’t recall a single pass chain of more than 6 passes. So deep were Inter they had to move forward with long direct passes. Celtic could advance to the Inter area with very few passes due to the depth of the Inter block.
This allowed Auld and Murdoch to flourish. Up and down the pitch they ran all game. Auld had a frustrating first half, giving the ball away 10 times and only completing 17 passes. In the 2nd half he found his range completing 22 from 29. Auld led the team with 4 successful dribbles. He had 5 shots at goal including one on target. From a wide free kick, he created the clearest chance of the 2nd half allowing Murdoch a close-range header. Overall, he provided 7 key passes (passes resulting in shots at goal) – the highest by any Celt. Defensively, he managed 4 interceptions. The stocky but elegant Auld drove the team forward and grew in influence as the game developed. Not as positionally disciplined as Murdoch, Auld could appear on the wing, and was caught offside at one point.
Bobby Murdoch ran the match. On the biggest stage, against the toughest opponents, he gave a performance of total footballing endeavour. And the numbers illustrate this perfectly:
- 52 completed passes, 13 more than any other Celt;
- 91 possession events, 18 more than any other Celt;
- 6 challenges won, 2nd only to Craig (8);
- 7 interceptions, every one keeping possession for Celtic, 4 more than any other Celt;
- 10 shots on goal, 1 more than Gemmell, with 3 on target including the one Chalmers deflected in;
- 5 key passes, 2nd only to Auld (7);
- 3 fouls committed, Gemmell and Clark committed 4;
- A wonderful, Zidane-esque volley was breathtakingly saved by the excellent Sarti on 67m – the moment of the match (please watch the link – Zidane’s famous goal is a combination of beauty and utter finality).
But mainly he was beautiful to watch – elegant, balanced and two-footed (there is no blimin’ excuse, kids!).
This match is the story of Celtic attacking, but before we explore attacking endeavours, what of the defensive performance?
Inter were incredibly disciplined and were never caught either outnumbered at the back nor did they allow a Celt in behind their defence. Celtic’s attackers were blisteringly quick, especially Lennox and Johnstone. Despite the relentless attacking, Inter did not give up many defensive errors (1!). They effected many clearances as you would expect, and, remarkably, intercepted 66 times – I have never seen such a high number of interceptions before. 5 key defensive saves are also high, and the experienced international goalkeeper Sarti was responsible for most of them.
Celtic’s defenders were mainly attacking although 2 defensive errors accrued from McNeill and Clark giving possession away in dangerous areas, as well as Craig’s clumsy penalty.
McNeill played with the figurative cigar, so unruffled was he. Craig made amends for his penalty aberration with the most challenges won (8). Clark won 4 of his 5 challenges and matched Gemmell’s 4 fouls conceded. He did not have a lot of defending to do and was mainly used as a catalyst for attack.
Murdoch’s work rate was prodigious as we have seen. Gemmell, well, what a collection of stats!
The game had 41 fouls. This sounds like an absolute war. Celtic’s matches this season average 22. Whether the German refereeing was particularly idiosyncratic, or the game has changed a lot, but of 41 fouls I would say 1 was bad, from Gemmell, and he was cautioned. The referee literally called a foul for any physical contact. This may partly explain the lack of extended pass chains and the relatively even possession and passing statistics – the game was broken up so frequently changing possession. Oddly, at Inter’s penalty, the dissent and disagreement from the Celtic players was quite extreme by modern standards, but no cautions!
“I’ve never seen a team so much on the attack as Celtic are”
The 42 shots at goal stat has become legendary. I doubt any team has had more in a major European final. And of course, this being a numbers site, we need to look at this more closely.
The story of the 1967 final is one of two gamblers playing to the last cent, both convinced their strategy would prevail. Herrera backed his defence to hold firm against any attack. He was largely successful. Celtic had 42 shots, an extraordinary number, but many of them were very low probability chances. Half the shots (21) came from a distance outside the 18-yard box – these are low probability efforts – on average only 3% of shots outside the box result in goals. A further 10 came within the box but outside the width of the goal – again, low probability.
Herrera could gamble that by ceding the midfield and dropping deep suffocating the space of Lennox, Johnstone, Chalmers whilst giving the arch poacher Wallace no room, Celtic would need to have more than 65 shots to score 2 from that area. They only created 3 clear chances all game.
Celtic only managed 2 attempts from inside the “red” zone – i.e. central to the goal and no more than 6 yards out. Both were headers under pressure and only one was on target.
Stein therefore gambled both his full backs, often his “spare” central defender (Clark) and allowed his attacking players to go where they may to create problems. He also released Chalmers to play a free attacking midfield role which meant Celtic maintained possession in the key central areas as he supplemented the dominant Auld and Murdoch. It was of course high risk, but Inter did not break effectively after the 7th minute.
And Celtic had players who could strike accurately from distance. With Lennox, Celtic 2nd all-time top scorer (273), Wallace (135 goals), Chalmers (228 goals) and Johnstone (130 goals) all shackled, Stein relied on the supporting cast to bombard the Inter goal, through sheer attrition. Top of the shots was Murdoch (10 shots – 105 goals for Celtic), Gemmell (9 shots – 63 for Celtic) and Auld (5 shots – 85 for Celtic). It was therefore a sound strategy – can there ever have been a team with so many cumulative career goals for one club?
The longest Celtic played without a shot on goal was 7 minutes – between the 18th and 22nd minutes. In the 2nd half, there was never more than 4 minutes between Celtic shots. The bombardment was ceaseless. And Stein gambled that eventually through sheer weight of efforts, something HAD to give. And it did, twice.
On 63 minutes, it was the unexpected combination of the right back Craig in the box, cutting back to the left back Gemmell in the attacking midfield position. What should not have been a surprise was the brutal right foot finish. Gemmell score 4 in the European Cup run, including this – “thunderstruck” – against FC Zurich.
At this point the commenters are sure Celtic will go on to win. Inter had one long range and weak effort from the impressive Mazzola on 83 minutes – their first shot since the 7th minute and their last of the game. Celtic carried on relentlessly. After the equalising goal, another 13 shots rained in until the 85th minute and Murdoch had his 10th and final effort of the game. Perhaps with the defence tiring, and not having to have picked up the deep lying Chalmers man to man throughout, the defence were caught out by the Celtic number 9 lurking on the edge of the 6-yard box – orthodox territory for a number 9 but not on this day. It was the end for Inter.
Inter could not manage a single effort in the last 5 minutes. As crazy as it seems, Gemmell continued to pour forward in the 88th minute. Finally, Auld, the very modern midfielder, took it into the corner to kill the game.
Every single Celtic outfield player had at least 1 effort at goal. And every single Celtic player played at least 1 key pass allowing a shot. Total football indeed.
Bhoy of the Match
I think Celtic supporters are so in awe of the Lisbon Lions it is almost considered disrespectful to call out one performance over any other. I certainly had never realised the extent to which one player dominated the final. Oh, to have been able to see Bobby Murdoch play – he would have been a giant in the modern game such was the range of his attributes.
The Final Whistle