Unpacking Armstrong, and Avoiding Cognitive Dissonance

The Stuart Armstrong “will be / won’t he” sign a new contract saga rumbles on. Rumours of interest from English Premier League sides persist, and why not? After scoring 17 goals last season in winning the treble, the 25-year-old is maturing into the complete central midfielder, and carving an international career.

I have no insight into the thinking of Armstrong, nor what is happening behind the scenes between player, agent(s), club and suitors. But it is a tale we’ve seen on Planet Football many times. Player enters final year of contract, knows he can leave for free in a year. Interested parties smell a bargain. Player seeks maximum recompense. And good luck to him. It is a short career and he is a blossoming talent whose next contract is potentially the most lucrative of his career. Assuming a 3-4 year deal he will be 28 or 29 when the next renewal comes up. He owes it to himself and his family to maximise his earnings and career aspirations in his next move. I am not sure all that needs saying, but football fans being what they are, the murmurs of treachery and “good riddance” are, sadly, inevitable.

He may leave, and we may be disappointed (I will, most definitely). But let’s be honest about the player he is and the value he provides to the team. The “good riddance” comments along with the “he’s easily replaced” remarks reflect the cognitive dissonance of the utterer. Don’t fall into that mentally torturous trap.

The Sacrificial Lamb

When I wrote on the renaissance of Armstrong last season (splendid read, highly recommended, and one click away!), I concluded he needed to perform consistently at the coal face to rival Brown as a first pick central midfielder. Also, that he tended to give the ball away. This was true, based on the data I collected. What was clear was that his performances as a central midfielder far outstripped those when wide left. Armstrong sacrificed himself for the team and did his best in a role where he was less effective than his preferred position for 18 months, under Deila. And we should perhaps remember that when criticising any decision he makes to move – there were no international call ups in his first 18 months at Celtic.

And so, based on the data captured for Armstrong, there were more attacking actions, but also a relatively low pass rate for a central midfielder. What I didn’t realise then is I lacked the language and methodology to describe a player like Armstrong.

The Pack Man

In the initial match summary of the season, the wondrous Celtic Play The Blues (you cannot miss it!), I introduced the use of a concept called “Packing”.

Let me copy the explanation here (edited – the videos in the link are excellent primers):

Time to introduce “Packing” and “Impect”. I have no idea the genesis behind the use of those terms but they are explained very well at Bundesliga.com. My summary:

Packing A completed pass that, on receipt and control, has taken 1 or more opposition players out of the game. That is, they are now behind the ball relative to their own goal.
Pack Rate The total number of players taken out of the play by a completed “pack”.
Impect A value given to the players taken out of the play:

  • 3pts for every defender (taking defenders out the game is really good!)
  • 2pts for each midfielder (taking midfielders out the game exposes the defence)
  • 1pt for a forward (Sviatchenko and Simunovic can pass around the lone striker all day)

The same principle applies to dribbling with the ball, except there is only the dribbler to credit as opposed to having a passer and receiver for a pass. All other passes that do not result in an opposition player being taken out the game get rewarded with – a pass completion of 1! So now all passes have a value AND we can see the relationships between players.”

I don’t believe there is, nor ever will be, a “magic bullet” to ascribe football performance. For balance, the use of packing has been questioned by the respected Statsbomb. In the field of football analytics, there are those seeking to sell services to professional clubs, and in that scenario, I would want to have robustly proven models too. For my use case, the keen amateur hoping to engage the Celtic support to explain performance, I believe “packing” is another very useful tool amongst many in the narrative forming tool box. So, I will persist.

If we consider the performance of the team regarding passing and creativity against Linfield, there are many measures available. Let’s consider pure passing statistics.

This highlights well the Griffiths phenomenon. Completing 13 passes in 69 minutes, only 9 from open play, yet leading the team in xA. That is, his 13 passes resulted in an expected goal return of 0.32 goals. He also created the assist for Rogics’ goal. Unsurprisingly, Rogic provided 5 key passes and Tierney 4. Armstrong created 2 chances, but is well down the xA table with a mere 0.06. This is despite completing 110 passes with 96% success rate. It is not surprising to see the two centre backs and the goalkeeper at the bottom of this analysis. An aside – the two full backs being near the top highlights the extent to which Linfield packed (sorry) the middle of the defence and midfield forcing Celtic wide.

This analysis focusses on the final pass, and does not consider what came before. Neither Armstrong nor Brown, despite 229 successful passes ay 96% accuracy fare well using this analysis.

Power Pack

Let’s now consider the Pack and Impect data.

Firstly, by the Swedish way, a shout out to Lustig. He does like a long speculative pass, no bad thing against packed defences. 29% of his passes took out at least one opponent.

But the Packing and Impect statistics were seemingly invented to showcase what Armstrong is all about. 43% of all his 110 successful passes (47 passes!) took out at least one opponent (he averaged 2.91 opponents taken out with each successful pack pass). No one else comes close.

I know this is only one game but (confirmation bias alert) I was convinced last season that Armstrong would be a star by this measure. Simply, he breaks the defensive lines. Yes, he can often give the ball away but that is the nature of risk/reward when attempting to beat opponents rather than play the safe option (let’s not call it the “Bitton pass”). Armstrong progresses the team up the park into areas closer to goal thus increasing the risk to the opposition of a shot or a chance being created. I will stick my neck out to say we’d see this pattern in most games he plays. Priceless.

A final statistical reveal is his connections – whom do his pack passes put in possession?

Armstrong connects effectively with Sinclair, arguably our most dangerous attacker (oh, Paddy!). He is also effective bringing Tierney and Rogic into the game, showing a left sided bias. It is interesting his relative lack of connection with Forrest given Forrest was the top pack receiver in the game. I can only attribute this to the fact Armstrong predominantly plays right to left as a right footer. His connections with Dembele also highlight a further limitation of our beloved Griffalo who was on the pitch for 69 minutes. But not for this article.

Conclusion

The Packing and Impect statistics powerfully illustrate the worth of Armstrong to the team. At 25, he is maturing nicely and we are all benefitting from the patience both parties have shown during his Celtic career. He would be a huge loss in my opinion. A 21-year-old French prospect is not a direct replacement just because he cost a lot of money. I passionately hope Armstrong stays. If he does not, he leaves with my best wishes and I suspect he will always be known as the Pack Man.

12 thoughts on “Unpacking Armstrong, and Avoiding Cognitive Dissonance

  1. Very technical and I struggled to get through it. Let me say this though, Armstrong is a phenomenal player and would be the signing of this transfer window if we secured him long term. The player is one of a unique few who can sit 2 steps behind the play giving them the knack of arriving late on to the ball to score some great goals. His goal against Linfield at Parkhead was typical of that. Most of his goals are like that. The other attribute is that he always tries to pick his spot, usually deep into one of the 4 corners giving the keeper no chance. Very rarely blasts away at it. Against Linfield he is only on for 20 minutes and scores a cracker! Give him what he wants!

    • Thanks for the feedback. Sorry you struggled to get through it – I have failed to some extent if that is the case. I introduced a new concept so will continue to try harder to explain it better.

      His goal scoring record last season was remarkable especially as many of his shots were from low probability ranges yet he has that knack as you said of picking his spot and almost passing it is.

      If you look at Scoring Contribution (Goals and Assists per 90m excluding penalties) he is 2nd only to Rogic amongst central midfielders. Now given Rogic is an advanced 10, Armstrong is easily the most productive central midfielder in the league with 0.51 G or A per 90m. Next best would be McGregor!

  2. Great read – one of your best!
    Complete validation that statistics can help analyse games and players.
    I only hope that we can see a full season of pack statistics with Armstrong and that his name isn’t removed from list come the end of summer…!

    • Thanks Gav. As I mentioned there is no “magic stat” but with enough data points patterns do emerge.

  3. I note that the quality of the opposition for this sample is not emphasised.
    I reckon we should try to keep Stuart as he is still developing and it would be remiss to refine him to his present level and then lose him in the final straight which would go against our present model for one thing and a bad example to other agents. For me he still gives away possession too readily at crucial times in midfield against better quality players who are then able to punish us. I don’t blame him for trying to make the most of his career time, he maybe think he is striking while the iron is hot, and hope he can strike a compromise and stay. But with further development and glory experience under his belt he would command more money and a higher class of club. Hope they all can work it out.

    • Agree that for packing I only have the Linfield game and they arguably are the worst team we have faced in my time recording the stats! Also I have never seen a team defend so deep and even 10 part time players strung across the box a re very difficult to break down if they are concentrated and determined enough. But of course we need to build up more data for this metric. Agree on your other points. I think both parties have been patient thus far – Armstrong being played out of position for 18 months and Celtic in developing him and nurturing him.

  4. what an absolutely amazing article, it seemed more like a scientific report lol. never seen anything like it. well done.

  5. He owes it to himself to maximise his earnings… Does he aye? Some of you might understand this greed but I am seemingly one of the few who does not. I think its extremely safe to say that Celtic will be offering Armstrong a 4 year deal in the region of 25k per week. That’s four million pounds before tax guaranteed. Last I checked, that’s vastly more than 90% of people will ever earn in their lives working real jobs for half a century. Barring bad luck, he then has another major contract after that.

    So where exactly is this widespread understanding coming from for not being happy with that offer because some tinpot club happens to be offering more? How deranged by modern society do you need to be where you see more as better than more than enough to the point that you cannot fathom it being rejected for non financial reasons?

    What I really don’t understand is that these are grown men we are talking about, grown men spending significant percentages of their meagre in comparison earnings to follow this team. Why bother if you are apparently more than happy to see a man ditch it to ‘maximise his earnings’. For a player to leave Celtic for a Stoke, should be an insult to us all, that is the bottom line. But it seems the money obsessed are actually getting a buzz out of another man maximising his earnings, fantasising about all that surplus paper.

    Stuart Armstrong is good player for Scotland, we want as many good Scottish players in the team as possible, but he isn’t going to take us to the next level in the Champions League, so ultimately it doesn’t really matter for Celtic one way or the other. There is no credible domestic challenge and Armstrong is not of the class to be the difference between 4th and 3rd in the Group stages.

    This is the reason why I will never accept his move if he goes, hes not a Wanyama or a Van Dijk who were clearly too good for the SPL and were moving to the next stepping stone in their career. As much as it pains me after growing up with Henrik Larsson knocking back Man United to play for Celtic, that players are considered to good to play in this league, I can understand it in their cases that they moved to achieve their full potential as players.

    Stuart Armstrong will only ever step down from Celtic, I don’t care what league he goes to, he is at the summit of his career and he has the chance to become a name in the history of a great club. If he throws it away because 6m before tax is better than 4m, then i’ll be quite happy that a guy with those values doesn’t write his name in our history.

    • Thanks for your considered post.

      I share your overarching concerns around overall football salaries but it is a reality we cannot ignore. As a (still) young man building what is a short career, he has to consider all the options. I can only surmise that it is taking so long to resolve one way or the other because Armstrong himself is a thoughtful person and will take his time to assess what is right for HIM and HIS career. Same as we would all do in life and our own careers. The main thrust of my piece is was to respond to those who now say “its no big loss” in response to his potential leaving. Classic cognitive dissonance. I will be very unhappy if he leaves but I can simultaneously be understand of the young mans position. I kind of agree he will step down in the sense of the whole Celtic experience – the supporters, the glory, Europe AND a good wage. But we are all different with out own motivators and so long as Armstrong respects the club I don’t personally see the need to criticise him. And he is developing into a really strong player.

  6. Obviously you need more data for Armstrong’s play against a team that can actually play football.
    What would be the term to use for taking out 2 or 3 of your own players by giving the ball away?
    I would be interested to see his stats on this.
    Excellent site BTW. I and probably everyone else who reads your pieces, appreciate how much time it must take to record and analyse the data.

    • The stats are pass COmplete % and Passes Given away. But the full picture is combining that (centre backs playing low risk 5 yards passes all day have hogh pass complete %) with the Pack and Impect scores. With Armstrong it is often high risk/high reward. If someone give the ball away in central midfield letting the oppo break on us I’ll often award a defensive error as well.

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