A young Celtic side, with the average age of the outfield players of 21.9 years old, began Celtic’s defence of the League Cup in style. In front of the veteran Gordon, the defence averaged 19 years old. Ralston (114 mins in a Celtic first team shirt), Ajer (120 mins) and Miller (63 mins) lined up alongside Celtic’s youngest captain since Roy Aitken, Kieran Tierney, who has now appeared in 82 matches. Celtic have completed 50 matches undefeated in domestic football.
League Cup Lift Off
The League Cup campaign last season got off to a scintillating start with a 5-0 win over Motherwell. The football played was hugely entertaining and marked a step forward in terms of the Rodgers regime. Rodgers clearly aimed to make a mark on all the domestic competitions and the side that demolished Motherwell was close to a first X1:
Although McCart, Ralston and Henderson came on late in the game, the starting team was close to the side that was in the middle of navigating the Champions League qualifiers. Eight of that side would start against Hapoel Be’er Sheva a week later.
Rodgers made seven changes from the Rosenborg game. Despite this, in many respects the performance numbers were similar against Kilmarnock as they had been a year ago against Motherwell, as well as the symmetry of the result. 36 shots rained down on Motherwell, with xG of 5.99 to 0.18. Celtic completed 643 passes to only 197 from Motherwell. Yet this was a Celtic side with arguably only 5 first team starters (Gordon, Tierney, Armstrong, Rogic and Griffiths). However, it was the youngsters who shone. It took 88 minutes for Kilmarnock to attempt a shot, McKenzie’s effort blocked by the immense Tierney. Gordon never missed a pass nor had a single moment of danger to deal with. The match facts highlight the gulf:
It would be heartening to think that the blooding of youth was due to increased squad depth and confidence. And there was a reassuring maturity to the defensive players in particular. With no cover for Tierney that you would be comfortable with in a Champions League match, one fit senior central defender, and no striker that can complete 90 minutes, the early season qualifiers are more fraught than should be the case. Rodgers may trust these younger players at that rarefied and high-pressure level if called upon. With a treble behind them and Champions League money banked from last season, it is an incredible position Celtic find themselves in. We will see, as there does not appear any choice.
“Future England Captain”, or ”FEC”, was the nickname given to young cricketer Michael Atherton in the early 1990s. In a role with considerable kudos and weight, Atherton captained his country (England) at 25, relatively young for that role, and repeated the honour a record 54 times. Celtic have their own young leader seemingly destined for the long-term captain’s role in Tierney. Playing an unfamiliar centre back role in a back four, Tierney capped a wonderful performance with a goal that will likely be the best long-range strike of the season.
“What the actual FEC was that?”
With the bulky but largely immobile Erwin isolated, Tierney was free to be deployed as a deep playmaker from the back. The touchline naturally constrains full back play. You can either play forward or inside. Given the relative freedom of the central role, Tierney adopted a hitherto undiscovered pass-finder general role. With Ajer, tall and commanding aerially, and able to surge out with ball at feet from the back, it was a well-balanced pairing.
Firstly, he did his core job well. Defensive Action Success Rate (DASR) measure a range of defensive actions and whether they were successful or not. Only the commanding Ajer exceeded Tierney’s rating. Speed across the ground and tackling decision making are arguably more important for a central defender than height providing you have a tall partner. Tierney’s relatively diminutive frame should not be an impediment to a successful career in that position.
The revelation was his range of passing. 16% of his passes took out at least one opponent. 14 times he was able to get Celtic further forward, bypassing 57 opponents in the process. In the home game against Hearts, Celtic achieved the perfect “10 pack” twice – Gordon to Griffiths and Bitton to Griffiths – and scored once from it. This means that a single pass took out (packed) all 10 outfield opponents. I said in that article (it is quite the modern classic, you should read it – Griffiths Bites Back) that this was very rare. So thank you Celtic for making me look silly. Tierney achieved that against Kilmarnock in the 29th minute. His long pass to Griffiths took out the whole Kilmarnock team and Griffiths never looked like missing when one-on-one with McDonald. Griffiths’ movement is clearly improving.
Overall Tierney oozed confidence and a desire to demonstrably be the captain. Such subjective assessments can be borne out by his error-less performance, his competence at the basics and adding this extra passing dimension to his game. Tierney averaged 11.28 lost passes per 90m last season – easily the highest in the squad (this season he is on 10.88 lost passes per 90m and is second to Hayes on 12). He was not attempting passes into the box as he normally does from left back and therefore his passing was lower risk. However, it illustrates that at such a young age he can play left back, left of a three, left wing and centre back. I suspect he’d do a great job at “6” in front of the defence.
Anthony Ralston had hitherto seen 114 minutes of first team football at Celtic. The comparisons regarding his playing style with Tierney are obvious. But he has the physical bearing and body shape of Mark “Sparky” Hughes the former Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Chelsea (amongst others) and Wales striker. For younger readers, he currently manages Stoke City. Hughes was 5’ 9” tall but his thighs were wider than his waist. Prodigiously strong and with an ability to conjure volleyed goals of unlikely provenance from his stocky but athletic frame. Add in a similarity to Danny McGrain’s bow legged gait, and young Ralston has much to live up to!
LEFT: Hughes in a rare testimonial appearance for Celtic
RIGHT: Ralston doesn’t tell his team mates about his Man Utd pyjamas nor his weekend mullet.
Such comparisons are of course fun, but unfair. Ralston appears to be able to carve out his own piece of Celtic history. Admittedly against limited opposition, he saw off one left winger subbed at half time (Jones), and I had to check my notes to remember who was playing there for Kilmarnock in the second half (Graham). Such defensive dominance allowed him to get forward and contribute 2 assists. Additionally, he scored his first goal for the club, a decisive and brave header from a Griffiths corner – a goal the combative Sparky Hughes would have been proud of.
Much more fun than managing Stoke City….
Despite 2 assists, Ralston generally played it safe passing-wise and was bottom of the team league table with only 7% of his passes taking out an opponent. His overall Impect score was 40, 10th in the team and just ahead of Gordon. This is not a criticism but an interesting counter point to Miller as we will see below. We must consider that on the left we had Miller and occasionally Tierney moving forward and Ralston could often be seen moving across one place to ensure centre coverage with Ajer. His defensive positional discipline was impressive. With 13 successful challenges and interceptions and winning possession outright 11 times, Ralston ruled the team defensive action tables.
I hope we see him against better opposition, which given current recruitment policy may be sooner rather than later. The thought of Ralston and Tierney down the defensive flanks for years to come is an enticing one.
With Izaguirre moving on, there isn’t another natural senior left back at the club. The options appear to be a) play Tierney in every game, b) a youngster once rated one of the top prospects in word football as a striker, c) play someone out of position like Ralston or Hayes. It doesn’t scream “Champions League”!
Yet, Miller was given his second Celtic outing after 63 minutes in the League against Partick Thistle last December. Played as a striker or attacking left forward for his junior career with Celtic and Scotland, the coaching staff see a potential left back. Undoubtedly a gifted player, this is quite a risk for him to take, career wise. But there is a vacancy, so….
Defensively he was ok. Not as strong in the challenge as his fellow defenders, he also was dribbled past 2 times, the most on the team (usually a spot reserved for Brown or Armstrong). With 13% Usage Rate you can argue he was the most influential player on the day in terms of possession. He completed more passes than any other player. He also completed more dribbles (3) although two other players (Hayes and Ajer) matched this. His Expected Scoring Contribution was only 0.06 reflecting that he got into many promising positions without the end delivery Tierney and Ralston managed. Miller had 4 possessions in the box, 2nd only to Armstrong, Rogic and Griffiths. His Total Impect (score of players bypassed through passing, receiving and dribbling) was 193, the highest on the team. In particular he found space well on the left and was located, often by Tierney (5 times), but also Ntcham, Armstrong, Gordon and Ajer who all achieved 3 pack passes to Miller.
Had he added “end product”, a goal or assist, he would be right up there for Bhoy of the Match with Tierney and Ralston. However, and more importantly, performance wise, he was a key contributor throughout the match. Clearly, he needs to continue to develop defensively.
The final youngster to highlight is the Norwegian Ajer. A leaving legacy from Deila, he played as an attacking and central midfielder for his previous club, Start. Captain at 16 (the youngest in league history), he left the club for Celtic having managed 14 goals in 61 appearances in the Tippeligaen.
As with Tierney (originally a left winger) and Miler (above), the Celtic coaching staff believe Ajer’s future is to retrain in a new position – as a central defender. This is not lazy old-school thinking based on his height (6’ 5” – sorry – I am old-school when it comes to player height!), but because Rodgers wants his defenders to be more than capable footballers, and to bring the ball forward from the centre. This was seen to thrilling effect 3 times against Kilmarnock, Ajer’s long elegant stride ate up the ground as he advanced through their central ranks. As a midfielder, his passing is sure, and he already has 14 senior goals despite still being a teenager.
The complete package then…?
Ajer has the defensive aspects of the game at this level – he would need to develop further against better opposition as with the other younger players. As you would expect he is sure in possession, with only Gordon above him who completed 100% of his 40 passes. Bringing the ball out of the back, bypassing 15 players over 3 successful attempts was both exciting to watch and effective against the deep 9-man block. Additionally, he managed 2 attempts on goal from corners, with 1 on target albeit off his left knee as he was being held by Broadfoot.
Once again, the promise is obvious, but would you go into a Champions League group final qualifier, never mind a Group match, with a player learning his trade in this key position? Ajer could not have done any more, it was a consummate performance.
Celtic’s young defenders were the stand out from this match albeit against limited opposition. Burke, McKenzie, Jones and Erwin will offer threat at SPFL level, but here they were limited to a single blocked shot.
There was an interesting snippet on Twitter (and apologies, I cannot recall whom to attribute) where it was suggested Patrick Roberts lacked “presence” and therefore Manchester City thought he wouldn’t make it at the level they aspire to which is arguably the highest level of the game (Ed: Do you have to bring Roberts into every article? CBN: Yes – my blog). If this rumoured comment is true, it is a fascinating insight into the thinking at that level. Back at Celtic, what Tierney does not lack is presence. He played this match as if he had always played as a centre back in a back four. His gloriously struck goal capped a peerless performance.
It is to the credit of Celtic’s other youngsters that you could make a cogent case for any of Ralston, Ajer or Miller to have been the Bhoy of the Match. It was a fascinating insight into Celtic’s near future. Given the current injury and recruitment situations, those boys may be tested under the most severe scrutiny sooner rather than later.
Methods to leave Broadfoot with egg on his face, Part Two.