The Saints Stubborn but McGregor is Prodigal Son

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An admirably organised and occasionally dangerous St Johnstone came as close as anyone to ending Celtic’s unbeaten domestic record; this now stands at 53 unbeaten. Celtic’s attacking became relentless in the final 22 minutes although it was St Johnstone who had the last chance with a Johnstone header.

The Wright Approach

Many sides have attempted to sit deep and frustrate Celtic, and some have attempted to go man for man to unsettle the Bhoys’ attacking rhythm. None have combined defensive strategies as well as the Saints on this visit to Celtic Park.

Reacting to the right triggers to press, St Johnstone picked up man for man when appropriate. When Celtic had controlled possession, they settled back into an organised 4-4-1-1 low block. Such was the compactness of the defensive spacing, Celtic struggled to break down the St Johnstone lines.

Aberdeen and The Rangers last season attempted the man for man system with some success. But it tended to be an all or nothing approach resulting in team fatigue as the games wore on. What distinguished the Saints approach was their decision making on when to press and when not to. This is a sign of a very well coached team. Wright tends also to pick a very experienced team. I doubt there is an older starting eleven in the league. The combination of experienced and well selected professionals, and good coaching will always give you a chance.

The exception was the young right back Comrie, brought in specifically to man-mark Sinclair. Irrespective of the team triggers or Celtic shape, neither Comrie on Sinclair, nor Foster on Tierney, let their man out their sight. It was a thankless shift but wise. Celtic have been very left side dominant in terms of attacking angles as I have shown in numerous match analysis this season (*Pauses to consider what might be lacking on the right side*). To counter this, and the productive partnership of Tierney and Sinclair, Saints went man for man throughout on the pair. With Celtic’s right flank unproductive (Ralston had O’Halloran to keep an eye on, whilst Forrest had one of his conservative afternoons, checking back and inside rather than risking the outside run against Easton), St Johnstone were able to allow O’Halloran release to get forward.

Last season, the Perth side were similarly difficult to beat but lacked variety and pace in attack. With O’Halloran to compliment the effective target man McLean, they provided greater threat. O’Halloran attempted to drive the young Ralston back especially in the first half. When Ralston was pinned back in the right corner flag, it led to the Saints goal in the 39th (33rd?) minute.

Of course, Celtic were architects of their own downfall. I cannot believe at professional level the “play out from the back” rule trumps all others? When I coached my under 9s, the only time they would see me displeased was if someone booted it out aimlessly – there was a “no fault” rule in place to play out from the back – one Rodgers seemed to acknowledge exists at Celtic post-match. Which is fine for developing young players. But both Ralston (understandably, he is 18) and Gordon seemed determined not to go long. Surely there comes a point when pragmatism must overrule? Gordon’s aimless and casual outside of the boot flick allowed Craig to find McLean for a bizarre but deserved goal.

A goal up at half time, and with Celtic bringing on attacking players off the bench, St Johnstone more and more fell back to a deep but narrow block. Playing narrow means that there are few spaces between defenders so that if someone is a fraction out of position, the error is somewhat mitigated. Also, it means when the ball does deflect randomly, it is likely to fall to a teammate. Contrast this with Celtic and Astana being wide and open last week.

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St Johnstone in the second half. Eight men, narrow and tight, with few spaces to play through for Celtic.

Having a 5’ 7” striker also meant St Johnstone were happy for Celtic to try and launch balls from wide. Nevertheless, St Johnstone defended resolutely.

They posted prodigious numbers; 14 blocked shots, 11 blocked crosses. And admirable concentration with only 1 defensive error and 3 missed attempts to block a cross. The pressure grew in the second half as can clearly be seen – the clearance rate increased, as did the challenge rate. 5 key defensive saves with Mannus (8 saves), O’Shaughnessey (6 blocked shots) and the organiser, Anderson, to the fore ensured Celtic toiled. The young right back, Comrie (another young Scottish professional schooled at Lennoxtown), was so exhausted he fell back against the goal at the last Celtic corner, unable to stand up anymore, saved from falling over only by the white post. They gave everything.

Saints scored 5 league goals against Celtic last season, more than any other team. And they threatened here also creating the two Big Chances (as defined by Opta). McLean’s goal was unimpeded and he had a similarly free header in the second half, finding Gordon’s legs.

Last season, only Partick Thistle had more than 10 shots at the Celtic goal in a domestic match, and only three times did teams manage 4 shots on target, beating the Saints 3 here. Impressively, 7 of their attempts were from inside the box and 3 outside, compared to Celtic’s 20 from outside the box and 17 inside (13 in the last 22 minutes).

Huge credit then to Wright and his team. Celtic were, however, able to adapt enough to rescue a point.

First Half Fruitlessness

Partly due to St Johnstone’s defensive effectiveness, but also due to the cumulative weariness of qualifying for the Champions League in a campaign began in mid-July, and the effects of returning from an 8,000-mile trip from Kazakhstan, Celtic were sluggish. The connections were not happening and the centre backs and central midfielders were having too much of the ball, unable to locate forward targets and getting it to stick up front.

A reminder that this records Pack Passes only – i.e. passes that take out at least one opponent. Note also that I am becoming a lot stricter with myself in terms of what constitutes a pack pass, and how many players are really taken out the game. Net/net, there will be less pack events than recorded in the earlier games of the season.

What the pack pass map highlights is that both the connections between Tierney and Sinclair, so important to Celtic’s attack, and the connections between Brown and Ntcham, crucial to recycling the ball quickly, were blocked effectively by St Johnstone so that no telling passes were completed. Plenty of non-threatening passes were played between the centre backs and the central midfielders, but few that disrupted St Johnstone’s defensive shape.

The right side was particularly barren with Ralston preoccupied with O’Halloran. Forrest played 13 successful passes, giving the ball away once. It was 35 minutes before Forrest gave the ball away – that might sound impressive but the winger needs to take chances. He did not complete nor attempt a single dribble. He had one shot on target from outside the box and provided 2 key passes for shots from Rogic and Griffiths. But with Ntcham and Brown in the side, and Ralston having to remain at station, surely Forrest had to take more risk?

A positive was that the improved movement of Griffiths is again evident but rather than the deadly sight of him running in behind, his receipts were from coming short to get involved. As such much of his possession was away from goal.

Lustig’s range of passing is highlighted, moving into the right centre back position gives his passing more scope – he led the team with a Pass Impect of 30, Bitton not far behind on 28. Which highlights the problem – Celtic were reliant on the centre backs to make telling passes. What compounded the lack of creativity was that Brown and Ntcham effectively did the same job – an echo of the Brown and Bitton days under Deila. It is not necessary to have two sitting midfielders against SPFL opposition at home. Making matters worse, Ntcham seemed fatigue of brain and limb, his rhythm of passing and movement not quite calibrated. Not excessively profligate, but the normal exemplary control and passing was betrayed by 1 miss control, 1 defensive error with a faulty pass back, and 1 simple pass played out to audible frustration from the Frenchman. Small details, but allied to the complete lack of his attacking contribution, it is time to remember he is only 21 and had just played perhaps the outstanding performance of his career in Astana.

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“Between the white sticks, the white sticks, between them, get the ball between them.”

Credit to Rodgers, he doesn’t wait too long to make a change. In the second half Armstrong came on for Ntcham and Hayes for Forrest wide right.

Second Chances

Despite the changes, and a flurry of long range efforts, Celtic continued to toil, St Johnstone to foil, and to threaten, until McGregor was introduced for Ralston on 62 minutes signalling aggressive attacking intent. This coincided with St Johnstone inevitably tiring, and falling back into two banks of 4, not having Celtic’s comparative riches on the bench, Craig having to be used after 2 minutes.

This shows connected Pack Passes from the 62nd minute onwards when McGregor came on. There hadn’t been many in the first 17 minutes of the half. Now McGregor could support Rogic and Armstrong and find space between the two lines of 4. Sinclair and Tierney were increasingly connected as the two-man markers tired – you cannot man mark for more than 50-55 minutes.

Bitton also started to find his connections – yes, the defence are deeper but this perhaps indicates if he must be played at centre back, the play him as one of a 3 with more time and space to pick passes and more cover when asked to defend.

As Saints narrowed into a deep 4-4-1-1, so the flanks opened up and Griffiths could concentrate on staying in the box, therefore connecting less overall. Armstrong’s energy and willingness to make runs saw him the significant receiver, taking up positions Ntcham did not.

The above illustrates this well. Ntcham had 1 Pack Receive in the first half, whilst Armstrong received 7 passes taking out opponents.

Armstrong’s overall attacking threat can clearly be seen comparing the relative performances with Ntcham. As well as getting into the box 3 times to connect, he also had 3 shots at goal neither of which Ntcham achieved. Not the best game to judge the young Frenchman, a reminder of Armstrong’s gifts as well, but to see them play together would also be enticing.

Celtic passed the ball less in the 2nd half (267 to 308 from open play), and attempted more dribbles to get through the narrow and deep defence. Sometimes less passing is good as more (and quicker) forward momentum was attempted. Rather than have two deep recycling midfielders (Brown and Ntcham) Celtic effectively had none in the 2nd half when Brown dropped into the back to allow Tierney to advance. It is telling that only once McGregor came on and Celtic pushed an extra midfielder forward, did the chances open against a tiring defence. All Celtic’s 13 shots in the box in the 2nd half came after the 68th minute.

On the flanks, the speedy Hayes was more of a gambler than Forrest. Hayes can appear careless and to make poor decisions over shooting and when to pass, but he nevertheless is a productive presence. His xA90 (Expected Assists per 90 mins) is the second highest in the squad this season at 0.38, slightly lower than Griffiths (0.4).

Although only attempting one dribble, Hayes was more direct in terms of getting into the box, and had 2 attempts on target including a late back post header that produced a fine save from the redoubtable Mannus. In all Hayes had 4 key passes (passing resulting in shots) to 2 from Forrest and his xG of 0.58 was behind only Sinclair (1.13).

A wee moan. Celtic had 11 corners. Only 1 created a chance as Lustig headed onto the bar late on. I know Griffith’s delivery is very good. He is also the most natural finisher and good in the air despite his size. Furthermore, we had another left footed player who racked up 24 assists last season on the field in Hayes. Surely, he was the better option for corner duty with Griffiths threatening in the box?

This was probably Hayes most productive performance so far in the Hoops, but it is fair to say that the right attacking wide spot is there to be grabbed (*cough*). Who would be the natural number 7? (*cough*)

Sinning Saints?

To get a result at Celtic Park also requires a modicum of luck and there were two big calls for Collum to make that could have affected the outcome. Both went the way of the Perth side.

Firstly, in the 69th minutes, Rogic wriggled into the box and shot at goal. The ball struck Paton, and there was an immediate appeal from the players and crowd for a hand-ball penalty.

From the camera angle behind the goal, it can clearly be seen that the arm, half way up the defender’s body, comes out and blocks the shot. It therefore looks a clear penalty, and the referee had an unimpeded view and would have seen the angle of the arm and the daylight between it and the rest of the body. To mitigate, Rogic is very close, and whether either the referee could not be 100% sure, or deemed the defender to be too close to have changed his body shape, he did not give it. It looked a clear penalty.

As tends to happen, the second controversial incident was only 3 minutes away. McLean catches Tierney a little late and they come together. Words are exchanged and as they disentangle, at the same moment McLean’s arm comes up and out in a swinging action, Tierney goes to the ground. Collum is looking right at it.

I have not seen any other angle but what struck me is that a) Tierney did not appear to be in any discomfort nor even appeal and b) Collum’s position is very good. I suspect that McLean pulled away from Tierney quite aggressively (hence the yellow card) but that there was no contact with Tierney. It does look bad from this angle but perhaps less so from Collum’s angle. If McLean had connected it would have been a heck of a dunt.

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Hands up if everything is going your way today.

The Badger in The Box

Finally, the Bhoy of the Match. More for perseverance than actual output, Sinclair was persistence personified. Time and again he drove at the two right sided markers Comrie and Foster. No player tried more to make things happen, attempting take ons, shots and appearing in the box 13 times to take possession – a season record.

He led the team with xSC (Expected Scoring Contribution) with a combined xA and xG of 1.22 but no reward despite a glorious flashing drive against the bar. He was even denied an assist as his attempted 1-2 with McGregor bounced back off Anderson for the midfielder to score the equaliser. 33 completed passes is a busy day for Sinclair (he averaged 27 last season). He led the team in most scoring KPIs, attempting 4 shots in the box, managing 2 on target. He couldn’t force a winner but can now enjoy the international break.

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Sinclair in the box, Mannus saves. A game summarised in 6 words (not 2551).

One thought on “The Saints Stubborn but McGregor is Prodigal Son

  1. […] An admirably organised and occasionally dangerous St Johnstone came as close as anyone to ending Celtic’s unbeaten domestic record; this now stands at 53 unbeaten. Celtic’s attacking became relentless in the final 22 minutes although it was St Johnstone who had the last chance with a Johnstone header. The Wright Approach Many sides have attempted … Read More […]

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