No Alarms and No Surprises

At least on the pitch. The Scottish Champions opened the home campaign with a straightforward 4-0 defeat of part-time Northern Irishmen Linfield.


There was no doubting the Bhoy of the Match. Sinclair’s speed of thought and movement lit up the match. His two goals hopefully some recompense for the own goal awarded Linfield last week and taken from his tally. His rapidity appeared several levels above the opponents. All very subjective. What do the numbers say?

Sinclair is a player who tends to operate in bursts of activity followed by significant periods when he barely touches the ball. Last season Sinclair averaged just over 27 completed passes per 90m but managed 72 here (completing 88%). His Usage Rate (proportion of all Celtic possessions) was 11%, lower only than Brown and Tierney. For comparison, Dembele’s Usage Rate was 4% whilst on the opposite wing, if you combined Forrest and Hayes Usage Rates it would be 8%.

But for sheer attacking output, it was a stellar performance:

*A note on some of the terms that will hopefully become familiar as you return for future articles (oh yes you will!). Some should be self-explanatory (e.g. Shots On Target):

xA – Expected Assists – adding up for all the passes that led to chances, what was the Expected Goal value for the shots resulting from Sinclair’s passes.

Dribble Impect – the total value of players outplayed by Sinclair’s runs with the ball. For every defender bypassed you get 3 points, every midfielder 2 points and every forward 1 point.

xNPG – Expected Non-Penalty Goals. Given the location of shots taken, on average how many goals would Sinclair have been expected to score.

Big Chances – aligned to Opta definition so I use that – “A situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range.” In this game, both Sinclair goals were from close range with only the ‘keeper to beat and the ball under control. The other Big Chances in the game were Rogic in the 1st half 6 yards out with only the ‘keeper to beat. Dembele’s 1st half chance from a Tierney cross 3 yards out under minimal pressure was the 4th Big Chance. Dembele’s header from a corner in the 1st half was not deemed a Big Chance as there were 3 players between him and the goal and a flying header is a very difficult technique.

Pack Pass Receives – the number of times Sinclair received the ball where the pass resulted in at least one opponent being taken out the play (i.e. is now behind the ball).

Pack Receive Impect – the total value of players outplayed by Sinclair’s receipt of a pass. For every defender bypassed you get 3 points, every midfielder 2 points and every forward 1 point.

The stand outs are:

1. The number of possessions in the box (11). Against a packed defence playing very narrow with little space between the defensive and midfield lines, finding any space in the Linfield box was hard. Sinclair’s quickness of movement means he often created the half yard to receive the ball. His two goals were from his reaction speed to balls deflecting off defenders. No defenders reacted with anything like his speed.

2. The Pack Receive Impect. 224 is 143 more than the next highest (Rogic). The Pack Receive Impect is a reflection on a player’s ability to a) find space b) control a pass and be positioned to move forward, and c) achieve a and b whilst getting behind at least one opponent. Sinclair was the out ball all night. His control and pace took the team up the pitch and behind defensive players.

Sinclair’s total Impect score (sum of points awarded for taking opponents out the game through passing, receiving or dribbling) was 321. The next highest was Rogic on 292. He averages 3 opponents by passed per pack event, only Rogic on 3.04 was higher.

His influence decreased as the game wore on. For example, in the first half he had 8 possessions in the box, double the next highest (Dembele). In the second half, he only had 3. Both his take-ons were in the first half and he had more passes in the 2nd half, opting to lay it off rather than run with it. Finally, in the first half he was available to take a pass which took out opponents 30 times, and this reduced to 13 in the second half. With the tie clearly won, the experienced Sinclair perhaps manages his game and fitness effectively.

His pass completion of 72 eclipsed the previous high of 63 against Albion Rovers last season. Flat track bully? To balance that he has an unimpressive record in European football and so that record is being improved.

Stuart Who?

Kidding. I showed Armstrong’s value to the team using the new language of Packing and Impect in the last article (difficult to over emphasise what a great use of your time it would be read it – Unpacking Armstrong, and the Avoidance of Cognitive Dissonance). Rodgers spoke about Ntcham, after his debut against Olympique Lyonnaise, about his range of passing, his speed and technique. Familiar themes, but possibly a veiled reference to the Frenchman being able to do a similar job to Armstrong. So, today we got a chance to find out, with Armstrong on the bench and Ntcham taking up a position advanced of centre midfield, slightly to the left.

He is only 21, this was his debut, and it was against part-time opposition. However, there were significant signs of promise. I have introduced Usage Rate. Simply, it is an indicator of involvement or overall contribution to possession. I will track it over the season as an absolute (i.e. each players contribution to the season) and also as a relative – Usage Rate given time on the pitch. As Ntcham was substituted, his overall Usage Rate fell to 10%. When he was on the pitch, his Usage Rate was 13%, which was the highest in the team at that time. To be the most dominant player regarding possession in your European debut suggests a level of confidence.

To the eye he is a player that takes and receives a pass with sure technique. His slightly hunched boxers frame betrays great strength. He appeared well balanced (I love that and don’t have a stat for it!). Very right foot dominant, he attempted 6 shots, none on target, 3 blocked and only 1 from inside the box. Therefore, his shot selection decision making is an initial obvious area for development.

Whilst on very early evidence he does not look like matching Armstrong’s scoring ability (Ntcham has a career NPG90 of 0.14 compared to Armstrong at 0.24), his defensive stats were encouraging. He won 5 challenges and intercepts, losing only 1. His overall Defensive Action Success Rate of 83% was the same as Brown, second only to Tierney.

I awarded Ntcham 2 assists on debut. The first because his shot was deflected into Sinclair’s path. The second a cross field pass to Rogic. He gets an ethereal ½ an assist for the 3rd goal as his attempted pass was defected to Sinclair by a defender!

His most Armstrong-like performance attribute however is his Pass Impect %. That is, the proportion of all his passes that result in at least one opponent being taken out the game. In the last report, I showed that 44% of Armstrong’s passes took out at least one opponent – this was miles more than any other Celtic player and I would confidently predict a similar pattern in most games he plays. Ntcham achieved this with 36% of his passes, the most by 3% over Brown and 4% over Rogic. (An aside – Benyu was only on the pitch 16 minutes but of his 20 completed passes, 7 took out at least one opponent which is 35%. Hmmm.).

Clearly over 1 match against such limited opponents it is too early to be definitive. Early signs to be monitored are of a player more defensively robust than Armstrong but lacking the precision of finishing and final third passing ability the 25 year-old Scot has matured into.

Let’s not get too carried away, but a good start:

*A further note on some of the terms that will hopefully become familiar:

Defensive Action Success Rate – A ratio between the number of successful challenges and intercepts versus unsuccessful challenges, intercepts and fouls conceded.

Chances Created – total number of passes completed that result in a shot at goal.

Impect Pass % – the ratio of total passes from that player that take out at least one opponent.

Pass Impect – the total number of points awarded for players taken out by a successful pass from that player. Points awarded for every defender bypassed you get 3 points, every midfielder 2 points and every forward 1 point.

Left Wing Bias

With Sinclair so dominant, and Ntcham a magnet for the ball, it is perhaps not a surprise that the Celtic attacks were predominantly down the left. Add in Tierney who ended the match with the highest overall full match Usage Rate (13%) and Celtic could be accused of being lop sided. Indeed, at half time to remedy this, McGregor and Rogic were switched. Rogic moved from the centre to an advanced right sided half role. McGregor move inside one to a more central midfield role. Rogic, however, tended to drift right to left with his predominant left foot, and continued to link well with the left sided players.

Here’s a new toy for you – my attempt at pass maps! Now this ONLY includes passes that result in at least one opponent being taken out the game – i.e. Pack passes. Passes across the back between e.g. Simunovic, Lustig, Brown are not included – i.e. passes between Celtic players where no opposition player is taken out the play. So, it is passes that count in terms of getting Celtic past their opponents and nearer the goal as they also must be forward passes. The thicker the line, the more the number of passes between the players. Here is the 1st half:

Useful? I wouldn’t stress about not identifying all the lines. Visually, what hopefully draws your attention and therefore communicates the message, are the number of thick black lines between Ntcham, Tierney and Sinclair. Sinclair was a magnet for the ball from almost everyone, receiving pack passes from six team mates. 4 times Lustig found Sinclair with long diagonals. But the main axis for progress was through Tierney and Ntcham to Sinclair and Sinclair to Tierney. Curiously Tierney never passed to Ntcham for a pack pass in the 1st half.

What is also clear is that Dembele did not get the ball into the advanced forward areas from the right at all in the 1st half for a Pack pass. Sinclair was so effective creating and taking space, Celtic could create 17 shots in the 1st half. But against better opposition, this will be seen as predictable and therefore easy to defend against.

In the 2nd half, Rogic and McGregor were switched, with McGregor more central and Rogic attacking from an old-fashioned inside right position. Eventually Armstrong replaced Ntcham and Benyu for McGregor and Hayes for Forrest.

Here is the 2nd half pass map for pack passes only, incorporating the subs:

This is a little better balanced. It is interesting the increased number of connections Rogic made from a position of insider right rather than central. The connectivity of McGregor and Forrest did not improve much. The Rogic to Forrest / Hayes line is all Rogic to Hayes.

Forrest did not complete a single pass that beat an opponent in the 2nd half and McGregor only managed two – each one taking out one opponent each. Benyu connected 5 times with Dembele as well as 2 other pack passes in his 16 minutes. Hayes 3 successful dribbles took out 10 opponents. Getting passes that take out opponents from the right into Dembele again proved impossible.

Against Rosenborg, there may be a case of Armstrong replacing McGregor and Hayes replacing Forrest given Celtic are at home and will be looking to gain an advantage before visiting Trondheim. Forrest is sound defensively, but it is players who take opponents out the game that will be required at home.

Are You East Kilbride In Disguise?

I was going to say it is difficult to over emphasise the one-sided nature of the tie. But it isn’t. And here are some numbers that illustrate this point perfectly.

Like the early rounds of domestic cups, teams of such differing resources can be pitted against each other that the outcome looks like two different sports were being played. Gorge yourself on this stat feast (this is a handpicked selection of the particularly one-sided ones, for effect):

Celtic struggled to hit the target, managing to do so from only 9 out of 40 attempts. A long-range effort from Rogic, and a deflection from a long-range effort from Ntcham that fell to Sinclair, illustrated that deep defence can get breached from distance. Overall, the part-time team defended with great discipline and concentration over both games, maintaining team shape. In addition, their veteran goalkeeper, Carroll, made a total of 15 saves over both ties, some of them exceptional.

To flog this horse with a heavy blunt instrument, Gordon did not touch the ball until the 27th minutes. Over two matches he did not have a single save to make nor did he once concede possession from a pass. Linfield’s one shot of the second leg was the result of a set play, winning the header in the box, and a speculative overhead kick. In the 89th minute. A reminder of that particular risk against any opposition.

Rogic: 1 goal, 8 shots, 5 chances created an overall Impect score of 293. Busy.

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