“You did scout Sinclair, didn’t you?”
“Scout Sinclair? I thought you said SCOTT Sinclair!”
All you want is the dullest of 0-0 draws, perhaps nick an away goal, so you can talk about maturity, calmness, development and being a good European side. And you get a 7-goal thriller with defensive calamities thrown in. Football, eh? Celtic By Number’s first ever analysis of a defeat. The up side being there is plenty to discuss. Brew up.
The Important Stuff
Firstly, Celtic are in the Champion’s League Group Stage for the second year running, and that is a fantastic achievement. The money banked alone will have far reaching consequences. The profile of the club is enhanced, making it more attractive to players and sponsors. The Development Squad get the kick back of a UEFA Champions League of their own – opportunity simply not available within the confines of Scottish development football. Player values likely increase as does their experience levels. Lustig gets to meet Neymar again.
Compared to last year our record in the qualifiers is:
A clear improvement, and whilst the game in Astana got nervy at 1-4 with shots reigning in, a play-off record 8-4 aggregate win would have been regarded as a wonderful outcome pre 1st leg.
IT’S ALL GOOD.
But this site was set up partly to ensure a critical eye is kept on Celtic (and opposition) team and player performances, based on as many objective facts as I can register. So, “happy clappers” can bookmark this section and return when feeling queasy. We don’t improve if we don’t constantly question.
Calm Before the Storm
The team selection was surprising in that the two rookie centre backs, Ajer and Bitton, were paired together with no Simunovic. Ajer has played 2,010 minutes as a centre back (the equivalent of just over 22 games), mainly for Kilmarnock (16 times), out of the 81 equivalent games completed in his career. Bitton has played 21,152 minutes in his career (equivalent to 235 full 90 minutes). He has played centre back for 4 games now. Bitton cannot get a game in Celtic’s midfield, yet can be trusted in a completely new position in a key match. They have never played together as a centre back pairing. And here we are, in the most important match of Celtic’s season – the £40 million-pound game, hoping they gel.
Injuries to Boyata and Sviatchenko are undoubtedly unfortunate, but another option would have been to play the more experienced Lustig moved in one position, with one of the two right backs on the bench (Gamboa or Ralston) at right back. Lustig was eventually send to the middle of a back three to restore order, which was telling.
Yet the first half, whilst not perfect, looked comfortable with the away goal banked. Celtic managed 3 shots on target whilst dominating possession. Astana’s goal followed the path set in this tie of freakish deflections favouring the attacking team. Shomko’s shot flew into the net off Ajer who had just cleared his lines with a diving header and was trying to get back into position. He was not helped by Forrest who reacted slower than Shomko to the clearance.
Sinclair’s equaliser was not a surprise, and should have killed the tie given Astana then needed 6 more in 45 minutes. For the Celtic goal, Lustig displayed admirable patience, not releasing the pass until he was sure he could connect with McGregor. When he did he took out 4 opponents and opened the field for McGregor and Astana’s high press had failed again. McGregor found Sinclair and his finish was not a surprise to Celtic supporters but evidently was to Astana.
The home side also mustered 3 shots on target in the first half, the most worrying being the header from Anacic at a corner on 42 minutes, well saved by Gordon. Astana successfully blocked Celtic down the flanks and Griffiths was peripheral completing 2 passes and being involved in 10 possession events. He was dispossessed 4 times and caught offside 3 – and therefore struggled to hold the ball up. Celtic still managed to create chances, moving the ball through the middle via Ntcham and McGregor.
Celtic were having more touches in the box, more possession and had an air of confidence, dammit calmness, at half time. Even at full time, the basic statistics don’t look like a loss (other than xG – annoying hipster nonsense, oh and shots on target):
Collective Loss of Nerve
Brown is heavily touted on this site because the performance data illustrates his worth to the team (the stats came first, then the touting!). Away in Europe, when the pressure is on, the team needs the best and most experienced players to lead by example. In the 47th minutes, Brown’s composure left him and this seemed to unnerve the team. Firstly, he played a blind pass with his wrong foot despite having an opposition player in front and behind him – the example set by Ntcham would have been to be brave on the ball – that is, take it in, take the challenge and recycle safely. The interception was flighted into the box and Brown, desperate to do SOMETHING, ANYTHING to atone for the error, compounded the mistake by head-flicking the ball perfectly over the centre backs to Muzhikov for a precision assist. He couldn’t miss from inside the 6-yard box.
Now Astana were excited and the crowd roused. Goals are not usually down to a single error as per the above, and for the third Astana goal, 2 minutes later, the Celtic team collectively fail.
Celtic have a break, Ajer’s astute pass to McGregor who has his head up, has options as it is 3 v 3 as Astana are pressing high again buoyed by being 2-1 up. This is a great position for Celtic.
McGregor’s short pass, and the over commitment of the Astana players, reverses the transition. Now Celtic do not have sufficient cover.
That’s a warning, but thankfully Astana are forced back with possession and Celtic have a chance to restructure. It is unusual for teams to score when the defence has a chance to reform its shape. But several poor decisions undo this. McGregor having lost the ball trots back to where his starting position is on the right of the midfield three. Unfortunately, he leaves the danger – he isn’t really doing anything where he is. Sinclair doesn’t see it either and he fails to track back. Tierney now has 2 players coming at him which will influence what he does next. On the other side, Shomko runs inside and past Forrest with no challenge. Bitton is a bit far from Twumasi but redeemable, and Ajer is all over Kabananga, nice and tight.
When Shomko crosses, Bitton utterly fails to react to Twumasi, who is further from him when the goal is scored than in the build-up. Tierney was hamstrung with 2 players to watch – who knows what communication occurred?
That’s 3 times in 3 games that Bitton has failed to react to danger from his man. He watched Doolan then left him to allow a free header from in front of goal that the 103-goal striker missed in the game against Partick Thistle. Against Kilmarnock, Bitton was marking Brophy at a corner and then left him allowing a free shot – Kilmarnock’s best chance. In both games Celtic were 1-0 up and could have been pegged back to 1-1. The SPFL bottom half strikers missed, the Champions League striker didn’t. SURPRISE. Bitton fails to react to dangerous situations. Unlike Brown, who tried too hard to rectify a mistake and compounded it, Bitton freezes. It could have cost 4 SPFL points and it put unnecessary strain on Champions League participation.
It got worse.
Rodgers is an astute reader of momentum in football, but frankly needed the astuteness of Kazakh iron ore to see this needed changing. Ralston came on for Forrest, Rogic for Sinclair, and Celtic went 5 at the back with Lustig sent to band aid between Ajer and Bitton. (Ajer did fine, by the way, but is a kid, and needs help beside him). And for the next 20 minutes, order was restored. After the 3rd goal, Astana didn’t threaten again for 5 minutes, and had no shots until the 4th goal. Celtic had 4 shots in that time as Griffiths grew into the game.
The 4th goal is therefore the most disappointing as the substitutions had been made, the shape reset and order restored. It felt like the old Celtic in Europe away, self-destructing.
Griffiths has a great chance on 69 mins, shooting over with his right foot from Tierney’s cross. Astana react quickly, and Tierney is struggling to get back. But Brown is covering and Ntcham is in position. Bitton is tight to Kabanaga, so assuming Brown and Lusting (behind) can cover, it should be fine.
The team is thrown into chaos because Bitton lets Kabanaga run away from him and challenge for the high ball. Bitton, as the centre back, marking the centre forward, cannot leave his man – you challenge for the high ball. This has the duel effect of taking both Brown, now the wrong side of Kabananga, and Tierney, drawn towards the danger, out the game.
It’s not irretrievable though because Kabanaga’s flick takes Twumasi wide. “Big manual for big centre half’s” page 10 – if drawn out wide, don’t let the man come inside you – take everything if you must! Bitton lets Twumasi run past him, doesn’t touch him. Tierney is still struggling to get back due to the above, and Lustig can now sense the danger, because he is a defender.
Lustig must try and anticipate what Twumasi will do, gambles on the cut back and loses. Gordon may think he should have saved a near post shot, for the second time this season. Bitton is last on the scene, still apparently oblivious to the danger.
It got worse.
At 4-1 with 20 minutes to go, if Twumasi scores again, then what are the odds of another 2 for Astana in the closing period? Bitton again lets Twumasi simply run past him with no physical contact or pressure on the ball. Yes, he is in the box but I refer to the 89th minute when Ajer and Lustig are touch tight to the attackers when Muzhikov plays a great pass into the danger area. It is a very dangerous pass, but the attackers have no freedom to move to the ball.
Twumasi had ran past Bitton in the 14th minutes of the first half. Bitton’s body shape and positioning are not those of a natural central defender. Which is not surprising. He passed it quite well although gave the ball away 10 times. He recorded the 2nd best Pass Impect and assisted Griffith’s goal. But the core requirements of the role?
After the O’Connell / Ambrose / Lustig experiments in qualifying last year, you’d hope a massive lesson would have been learnt. But here we are. Bitton has been placed in this position and I am sure has gamely tried his best. He should not have been placed there. The centre back pairing is the foundation layer for the team.
Everyone Has a (Half) Off Day
As seen above, the captain made a bad situation worse to start the second half mini crisis of confidence. When Brown loses it, what then?
Most worrying was that he then faded from the game, as if even his seemingly unshakeable confidence was dented. Brown is usually a reliable player in the big matches but the contrast between his first and second halves was concerning:
He was his usual self in the first half, putting out fires (5 challenges won – more than any other Celt) and completing more passes than anyone else (54). The 2 errors leading to the goal seemed to influence him and his involvement dropped. Normally Brown is the Celt with the most possession events per game (122) but he was involved in only 38 in the second half.
Celtic need more than one leader – Lustig visibly grew more vocal as the game wore on. Since Brown will have halves like this, others must fill the leadership void. An odd statistic is that in the second half, past Astana’s fourth goal, Celtic did not concede a single foul whilst Astana conceded 13. Sometimes you need to rattle someone to wake the team up (are you listening Nir?). A job for Brown, normally.
A reminder that the above pass map shows completed pack passes only (passes taking out at least one opponent) and not all passes. The thicker the line the more connections between those players. The map shows the connections for the for the first 57 minutes – i.e. the starting eleven.
At Celtic Park, Astana had displayed tactical naivety deploying a high press despite the time zone penalty and leaving huge gaps between their midfield three and defence. Credit then that they identified Celtic’s strengths and set up to deny the left side of Celtic’s attack.
Celtic are normally left side biased with Tierney and Sinclair combining to effect. Usually Lustig manages to connect long and short, and down the right side.
What this shows is that the fulcrum for moving Celtic through the Astana lines was Ntcham, and McGregor acted as primary receiver. Forrest and Griffiths were barely involved, although Forrest completed 16 first half passes, only one created a shooting chance, for McGregor. Griffiths did not touch the ball in the first 15 minutes. Sinclair made the most of his meagre possession, with 3 first half shots and a goal.
Let’s consider McGregor and Ntcham.
The Continuing Evolution of McGregor
McGregor has consistently proven his worth within Rodger’s squad, but this season has started ahead of Rogic. There was disappointment but not surprise at the lack of a Scotland call up. McGregor’s role in the team last season is summarised here – Water Carrying for Galacticos (of its oeuvre, this defines excellence, please read!).
McGregor’s distinction in this match was his ability to find space and receive the pass. He led the team in Impect Pass receipts, with 15. He then played simple passes from there, usually in the final third. His pass to Sinclair created a good chance, the ball perhaps slightly behind him, before setting up the Sinclair first half goal.
The problem with McGregor centrally, is when defending, he doesn’t offer as much as other options. He only won 33% of challenges, and although he did not give the ball away until the 42nd minute, his stray pass to Sinclair started the chain of events for the 3rd Astana goal as seen above. He only gave 2 passes away in 57 minutes. He was soon off for Rogic, a more robust presence able to withstand the Astana pressing better.
What A Champions League First Touch Looks Like
We are still to see what type of player Ntcham will turn out to be. More physically robust than Armstrong and McGregor, he doesn’t actively engage in many challenges (he wins less tackles (1.54) per 90m than all but McGregor of the central midfielders, but loses less outright (0.51) than any of them). Displaying a wide range of passing, he doesn’t often provide the pass for the assist or chance (Armstrong has 2.87 Key Passes per 90m, Ntcham 1.54). The first touch of an angel, he appears one of the most one-footed players I have ever seen. And despite scoring 2 goals already in his Celtic career, his shot selection looks ambitious to be kind, and random otherwise – both his goals have benefited hugely from deflections.
A set of contractions to be sure, but Bhoy of the Match here.
He contributed box to box, leading the defensive stats, was the most penetrative passer, and capped it with the tie settling 2nd Celtic goal. This goal highlighted aspects of Celtic’s play that could not be filed under “naïve”, and were therefore encouraging. Griffiths, knowing he was going to lose the header to the far larger Anacic, challenged in such a way as to nudge the big centre back. The resulting header was therefore weak. Armstrong’s headed pass to Rogic from the choked clearance was controlled and well executed. Rogic drove at the defence causing panic whilst Armstrong supported. Finally, Armstrong’s pass to Ntcham was perfectly weighted – it is tempting to over hit those passes but he caressed it perfectly for Ntcham to hit.
Ntcham’s only blip was a miss-placed pass on 45 minutes allowing Muzhikov a long range shot just off target.
Many aspects of his performance to work through, and huge development potential. But his ability to take and give a pass under pressure is what is needed at the highest level. Some of those shot choices though!
A remarkable tie, punctuated with defensive errors and deflections. Neither captain (Shomko and Brown) will relish their respective away performances, Shomko’s in Glasgow being a nightmare of epic proportions (the tie was fittingly book-ended with Griffith’s scoring on 90 minutes; once again down Shomko’s inside right channel).
With 45 minutes left, Astana needed 6 goals and yet they had hope at 4-1 after 69 minutes. Celtic’s defensive arrangements should be held up to scrutiny, therefore. Two years in a row without a settled central two is difficult to forgive.
But all this will hopefully be remedied once the music starts and Paris Saint-Germain are in town. Vive le Celtic!
This is how it feels to have not f****d up as badly as it seemed 10 minutes ago.