Time for the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly from Saturday’s Celtic vs Dundee United game. I’ll start with the fact the game was nowhere near the Kilmarnock performance, and within the context of a 38 game season, would characterize it as “fine.” The initial report for the game is xG 2.74 for Celtic vs 0.28 for Dundee Utd.
Two performances standout as Good with caveats. I believe the most impactful player in the game was Christie, and the overwhelming nature of his impact was good. He won 17 of 31 duels & 0.47 xG. The caveat, which I am sure most are already aware- shooting. He took 9 shots, which was triple his 19-20 league avg, and 6 were from beyond the 18, including the terrible free kick attempt. The aggregate xG on those 6 shots was 0.14. His 3 shots inside the box were total of 0.33. Several of his long range shots he took despite advanced teammates available for pass. Brown had what I would call a good 19-20 level game. He won 15 of 23 duels completed 41 of 45 passes, made 2 Key Passes, and even had a little xA at 0.08. The caveat for his performance will be addressed in the Bad.
My next Good is purely subjective, and is the presence and control Barkas displayed. Obviously he went largely untested, though the one shot from range was a rip snorter, and he secured it with ease- could easily have been a rebound or pushed out for a corner. I also really like that he is comfortable and seems to prefer distribution via throws rather than aimless kicks. Will have to see him when under more pressure vs better opponents, but I am very encouraged so far.
Dundee United are not a good team and have offered very little scoring threat in any of their league games so far, totaling just 3.42 in non-penalty xG over the four games prior to Saturday. The Bad starts with the fact the Celtic performance was more in line with what we saw last season away to Motherwell or Aberdeen, which is not ideal given the relative quality of the opponent. Despite them offering little threat forward, Celtic struggled to control the ball. To put this comment into perspective, passes attempted were 487 vs 2019-2020 season average of 555, while possession was right around the average at 63%. The structure of our midfield in 4-2-3-1 remains a concern and defensive transitions still a big problem.
Let’s take a look at some examples of these issues, and start with a sequence in the 9th minute where Utd were pressing high. Bitton played wide left to Taylor but despite supposedly two sitting midfielders, neither was central or available. Once played to Taylor they got into better positions briefly, but then Brown dropped deep.
Next was an example of what happened when McGregor was more central and deeper to be available in 18th minute. Bitton took out 3-4 defenders with a line splitting pass to McGregor who turned and then switched play to Frimpong, resulting in a corner.
Now we jump to 32nd minute and we see how deep McGregor was dropping to help break the high press. McGregor took out 2 defenders with a pass to Ntcham, who then took out another defensive line with a pass to Moi. Note position of Brown in all 3 screenshots.
Moi was tackled and a defensive transition started. Ntcham presses but was bypassed and the break was on. In 3 seconds Brown and McGregor were blown by and massive space in middle was wide open. Fortunately United aren’t very good so result was a pretty aimless shot from wide right.
Note I placed a triangle around Moi and his tracking back. I think he was fine yesterday and in the group of players whose output was around average 2019-2020 levels. The main drop-off was in volume of passes across the board, and it was pretty evenly distributed. Now back to the 23rd minute for another example of defensive transition.
Brown was caught forward pressing and easily bypassed. McGregor’s positioning resulted in United being central with the ball on a break in wide open space. So much for “center” mids! These are the kinds of issues which may become amplified Wednesday and/or generally vs better opponents. We get away with the poor discipline and lack of midfield structure/athleticism vs most SPFL opponents, but it has been an issue for 18+ months now.
Now for the Ugly- unfortunately there is no time left to address these issues in a way that would allow the team to settle in and get used to playing with different personnel. Celtic are left heading into Wednesday either continuing with the same vulnerabilities or making a sudden major shift in personnel. Neither path is ideal. Celtic have had 3 domestic games vs inferior opponents and Edouard has still not registered any xA or Key Passes. McGregor is still stuck in the Upside Down in a role that blunts his effectiveness, and Taylor cannot beat SPFL RB’s 1 vs 1.
None of this necessarily means we cannot, or will not, beat a team the level of Ferencvaros Wednesday playing the same system with a similar lineup. Rather, I believe that the extended layoff, preseason, and the 1st 4 games have squandered a chance to address these issues. Risks remain unnecessarily high as a result, in my opinion. Let us all hope that normal single game variance, also known as “luck,” smiles upon Celtic on Wednesday.