The treacherous nature of playing teams half way through their season, in July, was amplified as Celtic struggled against a well organised Norwegian champion. Off the field events had dominated the headlines in the build-up, but on the field, there were worrying echoes of the Deila reign in Europe as the game started slowly, then got worse.
By the end, Celtic looked like they were swimming through treacle against limited but sprightly opponents. Some familiar traits came to the fore.
The Horseshoe of Futility
With a nod to 11tegen11, Celtic’s ultimately comfortable 2-0 win at Linfield was characterised by many circuits around the horseshoe of futility. That is, recycling the ball across the midfield and down the flanks, and back again. Like Linfield, Rosenborg deployed a low, deep block defence in a 4-5-1 shape. They kept the “Lord” Bendtner up front on his own. Rarely leaving the width of the penalty area, and unconcerned about isolation from midfield colleagues, the ex-Arsenal man managed to distract the Celtic defence without pressing, nor moving much at all really.
Again, note this shows all Pack passes only – i.e. passes that took at least one opponent out the play. It does not show ALL passes. Celtic passed the ball 445 times in the first half without creating a single chance of note. The thinnest lines above represent 1 completed pass in the connection. Rogic managed to connect with more players than Griffiths or Demeble tend to do, but dropped deeper to achieve that. Brown sprayed passes hither and thither. Lustig and Tierney were generally available, but time and again turned back and recycled the ball backwards. The normally telepathic Tierney and Sinclair connected 3 times to any effect. Armstrong, Rogic, Forrest and Sinclair, the creative leads, completed 77 passes between them in the first half compared to Brown’s 89.
With Ajer, Simunovic and Brown completing 207 of the 445 Celtic passes, Rosenborg forced Celtic into a pattern of regressive play. Such concentration of possession in the middle, deep territory is usually a “bad thing”. Reminiscent of the Brown and Bitton axis. Out of possession, the Norwegians were rigid and disciplined in their shape.
Hang on, wasn’t that last week?
By half time, Celtic had crafted a single half chance for Forrest to head weakly on target, and an Ajer header from a corner. The dogged Norwegians held their shape and blocked – 6 shots in the first half, 4 by the redoubtable Skjelvik. It wasn’t just the lack of a focal striking option, Sinclair and Forrest were isolated. The one ray of light saw Ntcham take out 3 defenders and all 5 midfielders to find Armstrong in the box, but he was soon crowded out.
What A Flogged Horse Looks Like
Surely the second half would be better? Rodgers will work it out. It wasn’t. The diagram above shows the full 45 minutes. The meaningful connections all but dried up with Sinclair virtually redundant – he completed 4 passes from 5 attempts. Hayes was tried at striker and possibly Sinclair later on – it was hard to tell. Of 121 passes that took out at least one opponent, 42 took out only 1. Usually it was the ambling Bendtner, who watched glibly as he waited to fight for the next high ball. This is a tad unfair, as in Jensen, Konradson and Midtjso, Rosenborg had three midfielders capable of sliding passes through the Celtic defence when not hounding Armstrong, Ntcham and Rogic and preventing meaningful forward progression. Only 17% of Celtic’s passes took out an opponent whilst the guests managed to “pack” Celtic players from 26% of their attempts.
Rosenborg were a significant step up from Linfield (think Albion Rovers), but their overall stats would be equivalent to a St Johnstone or Aberdeen on a good day at Celtic Park. They completed 209 passes and their PEI of 66% compares with Aberdeen averaging 196 passes and 57% PEI last season against Celtic. The difference their match fitness made, and Celtic’s apparent lack of depth off the bench, meant Celtic regressed as the match wore on. Ntcham, Benyu and Hayes are bound to take time to integrate. Game changers are needed from the bench if Champions League standards are to be reached. Still, it was strange not to see the direct running of McGregor utilised.
Why We Are Here
The use of so-called “advanced” statistics, like xG and Packing/Impect, highlight the misleading nature of many “traditional” statistics. If we consider some of the common metrics used to illustrate this match, it would appear Celtic were über dominant.
And now we’ll consider a different set of metrics:
That’s more like it!
A far more balanced view emerges. By the xG metric, Celtic were lucky to escape. Rosenborg had 5 shots on target to Celtic’s 3, with the xG of 0.64 – 1.01. The Norwegians created the one Big Chance of the game when de Lanlay scooped the ball over the bar from 8 yards. The xG statistic is a useful antidote to being fooled that possession of 81%-19% renders the ball-hoggers truly dominant.
Whilst Celtic managed 10 shots inside the box, Rosenborg managed 8. Sure, Celtic created more shooting opportunities reflected in the xA (Expected Assists) of 0.92 – 0.62 but 10 of Celtic’s 18 shots were blocked. This reflects good defensive organisation and positioning, as well as poor shot selection / execution.
There is enough here for Celtic to feel they were dominant – the ability to maintain possession overall reflected in the PEI. Are Rosenborg encouraged by their chance to possession ratio, or disheartened not to have scored?
There were audible disgruntlements on several occasions when Brown played passes too long to the flanks, and twice, when he intercepted long kick outs despite better placed colleagues sweeping behind. With Bendtner content to watch Celtic try their worst to break the defence down, and no obvious number 10, Rosenborg ceded possession to Brown especially. Sinclair and Forrest struggled to find any space, and Rogic tended to drift to familiar territory and so the central of their defence could remain compact.
It was left to Brown to set the tempo and try and move the defence. I have never recorded such a dominant individual performance in terms of the amount of possession Brown had. He represents 19% of all Celtic’s possession events. His 145 completed passes are the highest I have recorded for a single player in 4 seasons. The next highest was 89 and he was 63% higher than that. This is not a positive as Brown is not the creative force of the team. But he manfully tried to switch the play, as well as undertaking his usual defensive midfield jobs.
He was the team’s most successful defender, and beat more opponents with his passing than any other player. On the other side, he also inadvertently set up Rosenborg’s best chance with a loose back pass.
But overall, he led the team as best he could to try and get forward, even having a shot on target in the last minute. Having to play riskier passes than he normally attempts was not his fault given the failure of others to break the lines consistently.
He was my Bhoy of the Match, by miles.
The Norwegian Spruce
Despite only 30 minutes of Celtic first team action, at home to Lincoln Red Imps last season, Ajer slotted into the side with ease. Tall, upright, certain. Perhaps emboldened by playing his fellow countrymen, there were no nerves defensively. He led the team committing 3 fouls, the victim of cunning opponents, height and overzealous reaching for headed challenges!
Such was the ease of gait, his relaxed air and balanced passing game, the only regret is he did not stride out from the back more, and vary the angle and intensity of the initial attacks, giving his captain a breather. He covered his full backs well, especially the roaming Tierney, who gets caught in some terrible defensive positions occasionally, by blocking 2 crosses. An accomplished passer of the ball, it appears there is a lot more to come from the 19-year-old Norwegian.
Keep the Faith
A confident Rodgers seems sure that Celtic will be better in the second leg. No goals conceded at home renders the tie evenly matched for next week. Another week of fitness, and the discovery of a striker in the squad will assist. They have certainly lived to fight another day. Celtic must be reborn with an intuition of immortality.