“See that empty stand?”
“The pie stall is just behind it”
Celtic overcame the slow and awkward (I’m talking about the 4G pitch, not the Kilmarnock centre forward!) to register another clean sheet and away win. The 19-year-old defence once again proved impregnable. Happy to keep possession and rack up a season high 800 completed passes, two moments of magic from Rogic allowed Forrest and McGregor to ensure the points at the end of each half.
A Bright Start
McCulloch was clear pre-match that he wanted to avoid their fate at Celtic Park when Kilmarnock were 3-0 down after 29 minutes. Keep it tight and see where it takes you. Hardly rocket science, but it needs implementing. Celtic controlled the ball from the kick off, yet after 20 minutes, the game was panning out exactly as their manager would have hoped for.
Kilmarnock v Celtic, 20 minute snapshot
Despite struggling to obtain possession, and Celtic racking up 10 passes a minute, the visitors had only taken out an opponent with 9% of those passes: Kilmarnock were compact in their 4-4-1-1 shape. And they were making maximum use of their limited possession. Kilmarnock had 2 corners to 0, had 5 touches in the box to Celtic 3, and had limited Celtic to 1 shot in the box from Forrest and 4 outside. Their defence only had to effect 4 clearances in this period indicating a lack of pressure.
It is of course exceptionally difficult to maintain this for 90 minutes, but there was hope for McCulloch. His team followed orders so well for the first 30 mins that Celtic did not have a shot at goal between the 19th and 30th minutes.
The Wizard of Oz
What Celtic do have is match winners throughout the team. Celtic had 7 shots on target all by different players. You could tell Griffiths was not playing! For the second match in a row, it was the Australian Riquelme (Roquelme if you will) who produced the magic moments to unlock the defence. With similarities to the Astana game, Rogic was relatively quiet other than twice springing to life with devastating effect. In the SPFL he can occasionally look like he is playing several ages down in boy’s football. I am not claiming he is anywhere near the same standard of player, but this aspect reminds me of Thierry Henry in his peak at Arsenal. As both are a physically imposing 6’ 2”, this enhances that perception. The diminutive Frizzell will rarely have had as uncomfortable an afternoon.
I realise the previous paragraph risks over egging it. However, having players who can change games is the mark of a very strong side. In the Astana tie he similarly changed the game with a burst into the box with power, pace, control, and decisiveness. Rogic completed 10 passes against Astana. He was peripheral for most of the match. Yet still had a major impact on it.
His pass to McGregor for the second goal assist was a beautiful piece of geometry. His run had been tracked but the retreating and tired defenders were completely out of synch with each other in terms of cutting out the reverse pass.
Rogic is lasting 90 minutes physically more regularly now. He can still contribute more evenly across those full matches but I suspect Rodgers will settle for regular and match-winning sprinkles of magic dust.
Has Miller’s Time Come?
19-year old Miller had his third career outing as a left back for the first team. His attacking prowess was evident as he completed 3 successful dribbles, equal highest of the game. A striker or wide attacker through his youth career, the opposition penalty box is a natural home, and he found it 6 times, more than any other player. He had two good chances to score and attempted to create 3 chances from many promising positions but did not manage to create any.
Slight of frame compared to “Sparky” Ralston and the equally muscular Tierney, he nevertheless displayed hitherto unseen defensive solidity. Winning 3 aerial and 2 tackle duels outright, his Defensive Action Success Rate of 85% was behind only Ajer. He won 11 challenges overall, with Ajer on 12. He was dribbled past twice, and positioning and body shape can continue to be developed when defending.
This was a step forward compared to his two previous first team outings, and hugely promising.
If you are my age, your idea of an effective centre half probably looks a bit like this:
Actually, you probably prefer this:
No one ever accused Ron “Chopper” Harris or even Claudio Gentile of looking like a private school Head Boy. But as us Gen Xers adjust to Millenials’ mindset, we have quite the modern central defender in our midst. With almost Elvish features, tall and angular of frame, Ajer’s bearing does not suggest you are about to be hit with the force of an Eddie Stobart truck. But Rodgers prefers footballers, and the ex-attacking or defensive midfield captain of IK Start seems to fit requirements.
“Greer. Tell Boyd it’s time for his fagging”.
Ajer dominated the vast(Ed: you can stop there)ly experienced Boyd. Clearly slightly past his prime, but supported by three lively wingers in McKenzie, Thomas and Jones, Ajer had to be vigilant as his co defenders were all liable to fancy a trot up the field. He led the defensive metrics comfortably, and allied this to sound passing.
Kilmarnock had one moment of danger in the first half when Boyd pinned Ajer back in the box as the last man, needing a team mate to make a run for the layoff. Ajer got a simple foot in but this required strength, concentration, and nerve.
The impression I have is of a player playing within himself. He seemed desperate to embark on a pitch length dribble, and has the tools to be able to attempt long, accurate passes. Ajer did not contribute to the attacking threat in this game, but looks capable of scoring either from set plays or from breaking forward and joining the attack late.
It is rare for Celtic to a) loan a player to another Premier club and b) for a Celtic player sent out on loan to become a regular part of the first team squad upon return. By all accounts he was a standout on loan at Kilmarnock last season. I hope we see a lot more of him.
The Dominator Captain
In his 33rd year, there is no doubt Brown is passing into the final stage of his career. Rodgers has further accelerated a move backwards on the field that had started under Deila. No longer pressing high and bursting into the box on a regular basis, Brown is more likely to be seen dropping back between the central defenders allowing the full backs to stay high and wide. Four simple metrics show the changing nature of his role:
His is completing almost double the number of passes per 90m compared to four seasons ago, and his accuracy continues to increase. Of course, this is due to playing passes in les attacking positions – less risky passes, higher completion. His Assist rate has decreased steadily as has his Chances Created rate. Note that the reason for the increase this season is that I have changed how Chances Created is calculated to align with Opta. It is now simply the sum of Assists + Key Passes (passes leading to a shot). Previously I used to make a judgement on whether a pass had created a chance. Therefore, this metric will have gone up across the team.
You may think, “so what?”, he paddles the ball back and forth across the defence, it’s hardly exciting? Thankfully, I have a much wider set of metrics captured that help describe a player like Brown. Football stats are generally very good on attacking metrics – xG, xA and so forth. Defensive stats are always trickier as good defensive play is often about what does not happen, not what did. However, we have Defensive Action Success Rate (DASR), and for passing, I have Packing and Impect which rates every pass that takes out at least one opponent. So how did Brown do?
156 broke the CBN abacus, and the cell max value on the spreadsheet, for completed passes. To provide some context, Kilmarnock completed 122. The next highest was Ajer on 112. I appreciate it is meaningless in itself, which is why I record Packing. Although Brown did not create any chances, he regularly (27 times) took out at least one opponent with a pass, therefore starting to move the team up the park. He led the team in this regard.
Now there is at least one Bad Stat here which I will confess to (Ed: only one???). The Expected Goals model I use is very simple as it is freely available. Unfortunately, it lacks any complexity in terms of factoring in height of pass, number of opponents in the way, angle of shot, whether it is a header etc. Therefore, Brown’s header from a corner in the first half, on target, is deemed the “best” (highest xG) of the game as it occurred in the 6-yard box in the centre of the goal. Clearly Brown was challenged and it was a header which is normally more difficult than a shot. Whereas McGregor’s goal had a much lower xG as it was from outside the width of the goal posts – just. Despite the fact he was clear with no opponents AND only just outside the 6-yard box. I am actively looking for an alternative but free Expected Goals model. But I wanted to be transparent about that.
ANYWAY, that aside, Brown not only dominated the possession, but got the team moving forward whilst also performing to his usual high standard as regards defensive duties. Seven successful challenges are low for Brown, but Kilmarnock were hardly anywhere near him. We mustn’t take the captain for granted and I hope I now have the language and metrics to better illustrate his overall contribution.
The youngsters all had admirable games in many ways, but Brown is the standard for any aspiring first team challenger. He was my Bhoy of the Match.
For once Rodger’s changes did not strengthen the team. Both Bitton (losing Brophy at a corner and giving the ball away in the centre of the goal) and Lustig (giving the ball away in a dangerous area and allowing Jones to nick the ball off him and create a chance) registered two defensive errors each. Celtic racked up 5 defensive errors to only 1 from Kilmarnock who defended with discipline before tiring.
Forrest was doing a fine job as the number 9 before being replaced by Griffiths. He only gave the ball away 4 times, had 5 possessions in the box, 3 shots inside the box and a goal. Also, 7 times he received the ball to complete pack passes.
I could go on at length about many of the other performances: the mature Ralston, the healing Armstrong, and deciphering what to make of Benyu (very much work in progress).
Overall, as with the Astana game, patience, calmness, and a sprinkling of magic saw another 3 points secured. Only 9% of Celtic’s passes outplayed an opponent, a season low. The 4G pitch was dry, slow and had a strange bounce. Circumspect Celtic found a way to win, again.