Celtic’s two wins in four days over Hearts and Dundee have put them both in the League Cup semi-final and within touching distance of the league leaders. These four match graphics illustrates some of the tactical trends and player performances that help shaped the victories.
1) Benkovic Goes Diagonal
Short pass sideways to right back. Short pass sideways back to centre-back. Short pass sideways to the other centre-back. Short pass sideways to left back. Short pass sideways back to centre-back. Short pass sideways to the other centre-back.
Sound familiar? A common frustration with Celtic’s build-up this season has been the lack of penetration: the back 4 passing it among themselves, maybe bringing it out to a wide midfielder, who then passes it back for the ball to be circulated around the pitch again in a non-threatening U-shape, the opponent’s deep defensive block happy to shuffle side-ways as required.
One solution is for one centre-back to advance with the ball, either trying to pass an opponent or simply running into the often big areas of open space in front of him. It forces the opposition to make a decision, drags them out of the deep block and potentially creates the needed space centrally.
Kristoffer Ajer is a player willing and comfortable to make those runs and Celtic’s (for now) other young, exciting centre-back, Filip Benkovic, demonstrated another possible solution against Hearts in the league cup semi-final. In last 25 minutes of the first half (when Eboue Kouassi was struggling with injury, before going off), and with Celtic facing a settled defence, he pinged five long diagonal ball from his left centre-back position over to the right flank, well inside Hearts’ half.
They all hit their target, three to an advanced Mikael Lustig and the other two reaching James Forrest. It even seemed to have inspired Ajer, who pinged a similar diagonal ball from right to left in the second half, finding Scott Sinclair in a good position.
Against Dundee, Benkovic only had one such diagonal ball, but they were simply not needed as much with Celtic having very little trouble progressing up the pitch.
As with Ajer’s dribbles, it is a tool to be used sparingly and when the circumstances are right – such as when stalling against a rigid Heart’s defence. Having a centre-back comfortable running the ball up the pitch and another capable of switching play rapidly and accurately from the back could be invaluable for Celtic, both against a deeper lying defence and opponents who press harder and higher up the pitch.
2) Craig Gordon’s Long Balls
On the latest 90MinuteCynic podcast there was an interesting discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of Craig Gordon compared to Scott Bain. It was generally agreed that while Gordon was the superior shot-stopper, Bain’s distribution was much better. Passing quality, especially for goalkeepers, can be tricky to measure accurately. What we can look at with some more confidence is patterns of passing.
As the podcast discussion originated from Bain’s performance versus Hearts, I looked at his distribution in this game compared to Gordon’s in the 1-0 loss at Tynecastle. One obvious difference was the amount of times Gordon attempted a long pass (40 metres or more) compared to Bain. Gordon’s 28 long passes made up 53% of his total passes in that game. Bain’s 7 long passes in the semi-final were only 21% of his total.
One game is a very small sample and a goalkeeper’s distribution pattern will obviously be affected by the overall tactics of the team, the nature of that game and specific instructions by the manager. But even in the recent home win over Hibs, 47% of Gordon’s passes had gone long.
So I widened the sample: focusing only on domestic games, Gordon has played the 10 league matches and Bain the 3 league cup games this season (an admittedly small sample). Overall, 39% of Gordon’s passes have been classified as long, with Bain only attempting a pass over 40 meters 13% of the time.
InStat classify a ‘medium length’ pass as between 15 and 40 meters. 71% of Bain’s passes come under this category, while Gordon’s total is 55%. If you’ve already done your maths, you’ll know that the totals are 6% for Gordon and 15% for Bain when it comes to short passes. In fact, Bain have attempted as many short passes in his 3 games combined (15), as Gordon has in his 10 matches.
As mentioned, measuring quality of distribution is tricky without bigger samples and more detailed data. But there is a pattern emerging that Gordon chooses to go for the longer pass (with a higher probability of losing possession) a lot more often than Scott Bain. While Bain’s chances outside the league cup final might be limited, this is one to keep an eye on throughout the season.
3) Callum Busquets
Another topic on the latest 90MinuteCynic podcast (you should really listen to it) was whether a more ball playing defensive midfielder was a better fit for Brendan Rodgers’ ideal playing style. With Scott Brown and now his most like-for-like replacement Eboue Kouassi both injured, it seems like the deep pivot of Celtic’s midfield is set to be Callum McGregor.
In the previous 3G Tactics article, we looked at how McGregor took on the deep-lying role when Scott Brown went off against Hibs and it was a similar pattern against Hearts, Kouassi this time leaving the pitch almost at the same time.
McGregor struggled in the first half against Hearts and his 7 open play passes in the 25 minutes Kouassi played is testament to how much on the periphery he was, both metaphorically and literally out on the left wing. Moving in centrally did get McGregor more involved but a tally of 57 passes (10 of which was inaccurate) shows it was a game that largely passed him by.
While it was against lower quality opposition, the game against Dundee gave us a glimpse of how McGregor could flourish as a deep playmaker. His 126 passes (only missing 5) was the 4th highest total by any player in the league this season, with only Celtic centre-backs exceeding it. It was a commanding performance, setting up and keeping Celtic attacks going from his central position. It also didn’t stop him getting involved higher up the pitch.
A player lauded for his flexibility in several positions, will deep and central be the location that accelerates Callum McGregor’s career as he moves into his peak years?
4) Ryan Christie: Half-space hero
What a difference a week makes. After the loss to Leipzig, Ryan Christie was by many being reluctantly dismissed as a Celtic first team player. 135 minutes of playing time later, he is suddenly a highly exciting addition to a Celtic attack on fire. So where does he fit in?
In Christie’s only other domestic start – the away loss to Kilmarnock- he was asked to operate more centrally behind the striker, and struggled to impact the game in a largely make-shift team.
Against Hearts and Dundee, Christie has been asked to operate deeper and wider, with great success. With Callum McGregor moving deeper and more centrally, Christie now have an unique opportunity to make the vacant left half-space his own, a role that might fit his natural abilities better than they do McGregor.