"They didn't want the ball... this was an ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style."

So spoke the late, great Johan Cruyff. He wasn’t talking about Aberdeen, of course, but the phrase could just as easily have been transposed from 2010, when he actually said it about the Netherlands’ World Cup tactics, to post-match at Pittodrie at the weekend.

Celtic’s 1-0 win restored their nine-point lead at the top of the SPFL Premiership while extending their unbeaten streak in the north-east to 19 matches, the Dons’ longest winless run against the champions.

Even by Scottish football’s standards, this 1-0 win was a one-sided affair the likes of which you will do well to see again this season. Part of the reason for that was Celtic’s standard possession-based intensity but a great deal was simply Aberdeen’s unwillingness to engage in a game of football.

“I can't remember a game where we were so dominant,” Ange Postecoglou noted straight after the final whistle. “We probably should've won a lot more comfortably.”

Yet in the lead-up to the match there was quite a bit of positivity emanating from the Granite City. Attendances, by all accounts, are rising at Pittodrie again under Jim Goodwin. The Dons sit third in the Premiership and had made their home something of a fortress again with nine wins from 10 matches there before Celtic rocked up on Saturday.

Goodwin had said himself in the build-up to the match that he felt his team – with only one true draw all season (their League Cup tie against Annan went to penalties were they picked up the extra point) – have brought "a certain level of excitement back to the city". That supposed excitement was conspicuous by its absence from the men in red on Saturday afternoon.

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"There needs to be a gameplan in place," Goodwin had said ahead of the match, having had a month to prepare his team to cause an upset. "We have worked on it over the last few weeks. If we can carry that out the way we have worked on, then we will give ourselves a chance.”

This gameplan to ‘shock Celtic’ would, you imagine, have been more of a shock to those returning Dons supporters who turned up perhaps expecting to see some of that excitement their team had brought back and instead paid around £30 to watch Celtic work through their passing drills.

Derek McInnes was routinely lambasted for not putting up a better fight against Celtic, yet Goodwin’s brand of ‘competing’ made his erstwhile predecessor’s tactics seem like they belonged to the man quoted at the start of this article.

Most teams do not as a rule enjoy more of the ball against Celtic domestically anyway, that much is true. By all means plan for that eventuality, fine. But for one of only two non-Glasgow teams in the division who do statistically spend more time with the ball than without it (the other being Hibs) to virtually give up any pretense of passing football was disappointing.

Goodwin referred to his tactical choices again after the match, saying: “We went with a gameplan of denying Celtic space in behind, trying to frustrate them and hit them on the counter-attack – and I thought that we did that for large periods of the game. There is disappointment in terms of our overall possession and we didn't do enough with the ball when we had it."

Celtic Way:

But blootering the ball halfway to Norway at every given opportunity is not the same as counter-attacking. The hosts’ passing success rate was 59 per cent which reflects not that their passes were necessarily just going astray as much as a distinct 'lump it and see' mentality. Indeed, that McGregor out-passed the whole Aberdeen team by himself 173 to 136 is as damning for the Dons as it is delightful for the Celtic skipper.

Wyscout notes the Dons did register an actual counter-attack (yes, singular). It didn't lead to a shot. Their xG eventually reached 0.04, the worst of any Celtic opponent this season and the lowest since Ross County's 0.02 xG display in the Hoops' 4-0 win at Parkhead in March.

One hesitates to use the phrase 'anti-football' again, oft-overused as it is. Yet what other term can you employ to refer to a team which abandoned any intent of passing or scoring in the game, much less actually winning it?

So how did Celtic get there in the end? Despite the home team’s tactics, the champions did create at a decent rate. Their 2.68 xG was their second-highest since October. It suggests a two or three-goal margin of victory would have been a fair reflection and that Postecoglou was correct: the Hoops should have won by more.

Faced with the lowest of blocks, the manager commended his players for their composed reaction to it.

“When you're dominating games it's hard – when they sit so deep we've got to create the energy, the drive, the tempo in the game,” Postecoglou said. “We had some good chances that usually we'd put away but through that whole sort of process, we never lost or wavered from our approach and it was great for the skipper to step up.”

Celtic Way: Aberdeen's total pass map versus Callum McGregor's individual oneAberdeen's total pass map versus Callum McGregor's individual one (Image: StatsBomb)

Step up McGregor did. And in a vital, understated way that goes beyond his considerable match statsheet and further than simply staying calm in the face of adversity. 

The best way I can think to describe what I mean is this. If you’ve ever seen the movie Men In Black, you’ll remember a scene where Will Smith’s character, Agent J, is part of a group being tested for entry into the organisation.

The group, all highly-impressive military men, are told to take a traditional paper-and-pencil test. The problem is they’re all seated in awkwardly-shaped egg chairs and the scene unfolds with each of them struggling to figure out exactly how they’re meant to fill in their answers without ruining the test.

Agent J, though, clocks a small white table in the corner of the room and simply stands up, walks across and drags it all the way over to his own awkwardly-shaped egg chair where he proceeds in relative comfort as the others look around wondering why they never thought of that.

See where I’m going with that, admittedly quite random, analogy? With time ticking away at Pittodrie McGregor not only, as the manager said, kept Celtic focused and calm as he always does but crucially identified that perhaps doing something slightly different was required given the environment they found themselves in.

When he realised what they’d been doing – largely working it into the penalty area via through balls and crosses – hadn’t yet worked he changed the confines of the situation, actively encouraged his men to take more long shots and eventually took the winning one himself.

He began to think, literally on this occasion, outside of the box. Rather than simply reacting to his environment he used it to Celtic's advantage. He adapted… and he won.

In the end, for all the talk of a contain-and-counter gameplan and the ends justifying the particularly depressing means, Aberdeen got neither performance nor result.

Celtic still got both and so the final scoreline read thus: Anti-football 0, Ange-ball 1.