Right Back Where We Left Off

In the third article in the series of 2016/17 season reviews, I look at the performance of the full backs. A key position the way Celtic play, much is expected in the attacking third from the Celtic wide defence, especially domestically.

Right Back Appearances

In his 6th season at Celtic, Lustig held down the right sided defensive position under his new manager. Completing 4132 minutes, this was his busiest season by 217 minutes. His last 3 seasons he has racked up 3 out of 4 of his highest appearance totals. Injury impacted 2013/14 and 2014/15 but a reputation for injury proneness seems to stick. I look at Lustig in detail here: “Michael, That’s a Beach Ball”.

He started 48 of 59 matches, missing 2 with injury and being rested out for 6 matches. Given Tierney’s use as an advanced attacking wing back, Lustig has been used primarily as an orthodox right back. Given his height and positional discipline, he can be trusted to make a back 3 when Tierney advances. Additionally, he has started or finished 19 matches as a centre back. Into his 30s, this may be a longer-term position for him.

Gamboa was a Rodgers signing, rescued from the Land of the Giants at West Bromich Albion. Very fast and direct, Gamboa has played the role of squad player. He has only been omitted from the match day 16 on 3 occasions, but completed 90 mins on only 9 occasions.

Before Gamboa’s arrival, Janko started crucial European Chapions League qualifiers away to Lincoln Red Imps, at home to FC Astana and away in Hapoel Be’er Sheva. The latter experience proved his last so far for Celtic. A loan spell at Barnsley followed. He managed 14 appearances and 1 goal for The Tykes.

Anthony Ralston is part of the Scotland Under 20 side that reached the Toulon Tournament semi-final. A strong, broad thighed player, similar in technique to Kieran Tierney, he has been given his break through this season. He received 8 mins in the League Cup win over Motherwell. His full debut followed in May at home to St Johnstone and he managed the full 90 mins. Ralston is one of the hot academy prospects and we can perhaps expect to see more of him next season.

Left Back Appearances

A supporter’s dream is to have one of their own become an established star in the team. Before Martin O’Neill purchased big name players for significant money, the Celtic first team usually had a representation of “grow your own” players. Tierney is a throwback in many ways. An ex ball boy now international star player, he plays with unbridled enthusiasm and obvious love for the game. His physical and direct approach also echoes a more distant era of brylcreem and hob nail boots. Incredibly, he only missed 15 matches with a cruciate injury to his knee. Otherwise, when available he plays, and generally lasts the 90 mins. The passing of the left back baton was analysed in “Celtic Loves You More Than You Will Know”.

Izaguirre is a similarly whole-hearted player, taking more risks in defence, and less precise in attack. This season he has completed the transition to back up player. Deputising ably for the stricken Tierney from the end of October 16, he was consigned to the bench as soon as Tierney regained fitness after the January 17 break. Gamboa has been preferred as the full back bench option meaning Izaguirre has not even made the match 16 squad on 20 occasions. Extending his contract for a year, it would nevertheless be surprising if Izaguirre settled for a pipe and slippers playing existence in his very early 30s, despite his obvious love for the club.

Calvin Miller has been considered one of the most promising attacking players of his generation from the age of 16. Predominantly a striker or quick wide attacker, he managed 14 goals and 13 assists with the Development Squad this season. It was therefore surprising that in the hectic month of December, Miller should be given his full Celtic debut as a left back, at home to Partick Thistle. He was given 63 mins, and at 19, can perhaps be expected to feature more regularly next season. But in what position?


The Defensive Action Success Rate is an attempt to look at defensive contribution by combining many data points to form an overall effectiveness assessment. Simply, it is the number of challenges won (whether possession is secured or not) plus the number if intercepts (again whether possession is secured or not) compared to the number of challenges lost plus the number of fouls conceded. The result is expressed as a %.

Lustig has the highest average of tackles won outright:

An outright challenge won means the challenge was successful and possession was maintained for Celtic.

Lustig comes out as the most defensively sound. There are many possible reasons for this:

  • He is a tall, strong player and wins most of his aerial challenges.
  • He has played 19 matches as central defender where defending and winning challenges is more a primary requirement than that of an attacking wing back like Tierney.
  • His role in the team is more defensive than the other full backs. Lacking pace compared to the other faster more agile full backs, he is less likely to be in the opposition final third, and therefore on the receiving end of challenges from opposition defenders.

It is perhaps not surprising that the 30-year-old, 57-time capped Swede with World Cup and European Championship experience, should be the most solid defender of the peer group. Lustig is also the most natural defender of the group. He had a particularly memorable game at centre back away to Ross County, winning all 10 challenges and completing 5 interceptions.

Izaguirre was part of the side that gained creditable draws at Manchester City and Borussia Moenchengladach, additionally performing well at home to Barcelona. He played the full 90m of the League Cup victory over Aberdeen as well as the 1-0 success at Pittodrie in October 16. On return to the side away at Ross County in October he had an eye-catching match. Completing a season high 82 passes, he won a remarkable 8 challenges cleanly. He also completed 3 dribbles successfully.

Janko’s high tackle success rate may be the result of a small sample, winning 9 of his 14 challenges in two games at home to FC Astana and at home to Motherwell in the League Cup. Janko seems particularly weak in the challenge, however. In the away tie against Hapoel Be’er Sheva, his final appearance on the season, he outright lost 8 challenges and lost all 10 he contested. Additionally, he contributed 3 defensive errors including the collision with Gordon that cost the second goal. His wretched night was compounded by being awarded a penalty against for a trip committed 2 yards outside the box. A week later he was shipped out to Barnsley on loan and his Celtic career may be over.

Tierney has a surprisingly low challenge success rate for a player who “likes a tackle”. He wins 1.91 challenges per 90m that result in Celtic losing possession. He loses 3.52 challenges per 90m. There are perhaps two reasons to explain Tierney’s numbers:

  • Tierney plays in a more advanced position than the other full backs. With Sinclair generally playing in one as an inside left, Tierney is usually the highest and widest Celt down the left. Being in attacking positions as an effective winger means that he is subject to challenges, and is also not in a defensive position to effect challenges.
  • Opposition teams undoubtedly target Tierney with big right to left switches and aerial balls from the ‘keeper. The relatively diminutive Tierney often loses out in such challenges. I do not differentiate between aerial and ground based challenges but next season I will.

Gamboa plays as a more orthodox full back and wins 4.88 challenges per 90m whilst losing only 2.54.

Intercept rates are a good indicator of positioning, decision making and anticipation:

Izaguirre commits the most interceptions, but is successful in maintaining possession with only 43% of them. I would characterise Izaguirre as the most compulsive of the group. Lustig has the next highest intercept rate (he is effective blocking crosses – good positioning and large frame!). Gamboa has the lowest intercept rate and lowest successful maintenance of possession rate. This seems surprising as he is very quick, and an experienced international. My observation is that both defending and attacking Gamboa is the most passive of the group, rarely committing to either defensive nor attacking actions. The intercept rate is an insight into why Tierney is so effective – although not committing the highest rate of intercepts, he has the best possession won rate, indicative of good decision making and timing.

Tierney and Lustig also have the highest clearance rates. This is indicative of a safety-first attitude when required (“out it”!), and therefore defensive decision making. Izaguirre will tend to try and play out from the back, which has its risks.

Regarding the Crime Count, Tierney and Lustig concede less fouls than the other full backs per 90m. Tierney has a very low foul rate which again could be reflective of his advanced position on the left wing and thus being involved in comparatively fewer defensive actions. It may also be reflective of good timing and decision making. Izaguirre, for example, concedes free kicks nearly 3 time the rate of Tierney. He can be rash – his challenge on Suarez to concede a penalty to Barcelona at home was particularly naïve. A season low for Izaguirre was being substituted in the 4-3 win at Motherwell after 30 mins as Cadden was running past him and he picked up an early yellow card.

Lustig is sometimes exposed for pace, having a particularly torrid game against McKay of The Rangers in the December meeting. He also received yellow cards for dissent, being one of the more vocal and strident on the park. He does display leadership and is part of the back bone of the tea. His running battle with Neymar at home to Barcelona being particularly memorable. Gamboa is again shown as strangely passive, conceding less than a foul a game with no cards.

Finally, it is not a coincidence that the players with the lowest defensive error rates are the two regular full backs. The experienced Lustig and attack minded Tierney both average 0.3 errors per 90m or less. Janko’s very high 0.95 rate is partly explained by small data size (476 mins played) and skewed by the career limiting performance in Be’er Sheva.


The modern full back is arguably the most demanding position on the field. As well as the normal defensive responsibilities, the full backs are often the widest players, and expected to contribute to attacking shape throughout. Especially at Celtic, where domestically the team has over 65% possession, the full backs need to contribute creatively.

Given his attacking brief, it is no surprise to see Tierney the clear leader in the assist mini league. He had the 6th most assists in the squad and was the only defender in the list of players on double figures. Tierney and Izaguirre attempt and complete around the same number of chances per 90m. The fact Tierney has an assist rate of 0.31 and Izaguirre 0.06 is perhaps an indicator of the quality of chances they create. Whilst an Izaguirre chance is often a high, hard “cross” into the box, Tierney’s creative output is characterised by the cut back or otherwise targeted “pass” into the danger area. Twice this season Izaguirre has failed to complete 6 passes to create chances (home to Dundee and home to Ross County). There is much about his game Tierney can continue to improve and his general passing is one – easily the least number of passes completed and the least accurate.

It is Tierney’s creative output that is the real differentiator between himself and the other full backs. Only four players have more assists per 90m (Forrest, Roberts, Griffiths and Demeble) and he has the same rate as Sinclair. He also attempts to create more chances that any other full back (2.46 per 90m).

Lustig, given his 19 matches in central defence, and more defensive role in the team, nonetheless has contributed 6 assists. A sound passer, having the highest pass completion rate of 88%, he is seemingly careful in his delivery, being successful with 51% of attempts to create a chance. Another Lustig feature is his long passing. Notable examples are the pass to Dembele that removed all 10 outfield players from the game, allowing Dembele to turn and set up McGregor for the opening goal in the Scottish Cup Semi-Final. A potential pass of the season released Rogic away to Aberdeen for a clear chance. His most memorable pass of the season though, was the “rabonna” to McGregor to set up Dembele for the team goal of the century away to St Johnstone.

Dribble success means the next action was attempted after the take on was complete. Tierney is also the dribble king, succeeding with 1.55 per 90m. He has attempted over 100 in the season and has been successful 59% of the time. Again, his advanced position influences this but no other full back comes close to the danger he poses on the run.

Janko attempts the next most per game, but his 32% success rate indicates either poor decision making (is the dribble the right option?) or execution (can you control the ball at pace and under pressure?).

Izaguirre is a little more circumspect than Tierney, only attempting 1.29 per 90m (Tierney attempts 2.61) but the more experienced player completes 60% successfully, the best in the peer group.

Lustig very rarely attempts to take players on, but managed to complete all 6 dribbles he attempted successfully. The tallest and slowest of the group, this is not surprising.

And finally, Gamboa is a mystery. Perhaps the quickest player in the squad, he only attempts 1 dribble per match and has the lowest success rate (27%) of all the full backs. Perhaps he lacks the technique, or confidence, to compliment his speed?

Goal Scoring

Not the core skill for this group, but with Celtic such a dominant attacking team in Scotland, the full backs can provide a useful attacking option against packed defences. In the 50th anniversary year of Lisbon, we all remember it was Craig and Gemmell who finally unlocked the Inter Milan catenaccio. Lustig is very useful aerially and is brought up for corners and free kicks.

Whilst Lustig wins the full back Golden Boot with 4, it is Tierney who has had the best quality shots, with an xG of 2.37 compared to 2 goals scored. Lustig’s has outperformed his xG. His effort at Ibrox to cap the 5-1 win will live long in the memory, culminating as it did with a curling effort from outside the box into the bottom corner. Equally skilful was the opener against Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Cup. He controlled a high ball, turned, and finished inside the 6-yard box.

Izaguirre with 1 shot on target and Janko with 0 have relatively few minutes played.


Lustig and Tierney have firmly established themselves as the 1st choice full backs although they play different roles. The tall, experienced Swede is equally comfortable at central defence or stepping into a back three. His aerial strength as well as adequate technique means he not only leads the full back peer group in defensive action success, but he also has contributed 4 goals.

The 19-year-old Tierney is rated one of Scotland’s best prospects. He has plenty of scope to improve, especially his defensive work although he adopts a safety-first approach to this. As an attacking full back, I doubt he has a peer in Scottish football and may be one of the foremost attacking talents in Europe in his position and certainly for his age. 2 goals and 12 assists is a terrific return and is it the quality of his final 3rd passing, and indeed shot selection, that marks him out.

As backups, the experienced Izaguirre is a safe option at left full back. The right sided Gamboa brings experience and blistering pace yet seems rather passive in his actions.

In the wings, the right sided full back Ralston seems the best prospect and I hope we see more of him in 2017/18.

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