There is no question that last week was one of Celtic’s worst in recent memory. After going out with a whimper in a 2-0 home defeat to Glasgow rivals Rangers, a 3-1 Europa League loss to AC Milan was promptly followed by more dropped points away at Aberdeen. Talk of pressure on Hoops boss Neil Lennon has rocketed and pundits across the country have been in discussion over whether the champions’ season is petering out.
It’s worth remembering, however, that prior to these results, Celtic had won seven league games on the bounce. While two league games without a win is hardly desirable, it was only the second and third times respectively that they have dropped points so far this season – so is it really fair to speak of a so-called crisis?
The real questions marks raised haven’t just surrounded the results, though, but the performances too. So what was different last week to the seven wins before that? I took a look at the numbers to find out.
In Celtic’s seven league fixtures before their game with Rangers (against Dundee United, Motherwell, Ross County, St Mirren, Livingston, Hibernian and St Johnstone respectively), they averaged 67.5% of ball possession. Against Rangers, this number dropped to 57% and at Pittodrie it was 62%. In both matches they had less of the ball than they’ve become accustomed to, so could this have had an impact on the outcome?
It’s hard to say. In games against opponents closer to Celtic’s level, it’s only natural that they will have less of the ball and they will have surely planned for this. High possession statistics aren’t necessarily a metric that lead to positive results, either; when Celtic were put out of Champions League qualifying by Ferencvaros, they had 71% of the ball and still lost 2-1.
A more relevant stat could be the numbers of attempts Celtic are having on their opponent’s goal. In their seven-game winning streak, they averaged 18.7 shots per game – from which an average of 7.4 were on target. Throughout these matches, they mustered an average of 2.7 goals every ninety minutes.
Come the Old Firm and Celtic managed only five efforts, and zero on target. This wasn’t just a drop; it was a mighty fall and it could hint at one reason for their poor performance. So what led to this dramatic decline?
The joint absence of Ryan Christie and Odsonne Edouard may go a long way to explaining this. Of the players who started for Celtic at Parkhead, only Patryk Klimala has higher goal contributions per 90 minutes this season (Christie with 0.88 goals and assists per 90 minutes and Edouard with 0.69). Two of Celtic’s chief goal-makers were missing and their creativity was sorely missed.
It’s surely no coincidence that with Christie back in the side against Aberdeen, Celtic’s attempts on goal rose to 14 and they converted three of these chances (Christie got a goal himself, albeit from the penalty spot).
The problem against the Dons clearly wasn’t scoring goals. The main issue (which also reared its ugly head against Rangers) was keeping them out. Celtic had only let in three goals in their seven domestic games prior to the Glasgow derby (an average of 0.4 per game) but went on to concede five in two straight league matches.
There are two main factors to consider when analysing this decrease in defensive solidarity. The Old Firm result is perhaps easier to look at in this instance; two players with barely any Scottish Premiership experience were included in the starting lineup. Stephen Welsh made only his second league appearance for the side in Lennon’s chosen back three, while Diego Laxalt was a SPFL debutant at wing back. A first Celtic appearance is never an easy task, but being thrown in at the deep end like this was a particularly bold choice from Lennon.
He was forced into these changes, of course. Hatem Abd Elhamed (who had started in defence in three of Celtic’s four previous games) was out, and so was Christopher Jullien. It was a makeshift back five with a limited number of competitive minutes between it, so it was no surprise that Rangers were able to exploit it.
The Aberdeen contest brought an interesting change of tactics from Lennon. Having started with three central defenders in Celtic’s eight previous competitive matches (including the Old Firm) he reverted to a back four for the clash with Derek McInnes’ side. Had the manager lost faith in the system after falling to consecutive defeats using it? Whatever the reason, the tweak certainly didn’t pay off as Celtic shipped three goals.
Make no mistake – a crisis for Celtic is not the same as a crisis for other Scottish clubs. Win their game in hand and they’ll still be within three points of Rangers at the top of the table, and they have a Scottish Cup semi-final to look forward to this weekend. Depending on the way things go, Celtic could once again be favourites for the title within a few weeks.
However, deeper underlying issues can be found when looking at the stats. A decrease in possession and shots on goal, as well as an increase in attempts on their own goal, three games in a row suggests Lennon isn’t sure how to set his team up in big games.
New creative outlets must be found for instances where Christie and Edouard are unavailable. A lack of cutting edge up front, mixed with shortcomings at the back in terms of ability and personnel, means the Hoops have their work cut out if they want to achieve ten titles in a row.
The numbers only tell part of the story in football, but those from Celtic’s week from hell will ring alarm bells in the ears of even the most devoted of Hoops fans.