An entertaining opening day victory for Celtic over Ross County had added frisson being Flag Day, but mainly so data/analysis nerds like me could assess what tweaks Brendan Rodgers made to Ange Postecoglou’s impressively repeatable system. 

Similarly, an end-to-end encounter with Aberdeen in a tough opening away match-up provided more tactical food for thought. There was much to enthuse about, such as the three-plus expected goals in each tie, Maik Nawrocki’s introduction and both Ross County and Aberdeen’s front-foot approaches. The increase in long balls - as potential tweaks to pressing strategy and team defensive line - were covered in a recent column. 

But arguably, the most eye-catching change has been the role of Kyogo Furuhashi. Postecoglou’s statement signing from Japan has perfected the clinically minimalist executioner role to perfection over the last two seasons. He would sometimes have more shots at goal than touches of the ball (excluding shots). 15.74 possession events per 90 minutes is easily the least involved a player has ever been since this data collection process started (2014/15). The next lowest is 23.78 (Giorgos Giakoumakis in 2021/22).

Given neither Giakoumakis nor Kyogo were greatly involved in build-up under Postecoglou, this is another telling example of a system over personnel dictating the performances. More simply, the role the strikers were asked to play the last two seasons was minimalist in terms of involvement outside the box. The strikers were there to be within the width of the posts to get on the edge of cutbacks and quick, hard crosses, and to occupy the central defenders with constant movement.

The “Messi” Comparison Burden

The Ross County performance was very different to that. Like a throwback to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Kyogo was reimagined as a false nine in the image of Lionel Messi himself. After 20-30 minutes of exuberant Ross County pressing, harrying and crisp passing, the erstwhile goal-hanger suddenly started to wander, come VERY deep, take the ball into feet and rotate it amongst the defenders and midfielders.

READ MORE: Kyogo, Larsson and the art of an elite-level Celtic striker

It was like watching a completely different player. Before the end of the first-half, and after a trademark one-touch finish from central in the box, we had Kyogo spinning to put David Turnbull in for a great one-versus-one chance. In the second half, another first-time pass put Matt O’Riley through, bypassing the striker like a latter-day Phil O’Donnell or Joe Ledley to smash in the fourth. How different was this?

The Complete Forward?

Here are Kyogo's average completed passes per 90 minutes per season:

Celtic Way:

The Ross County game saw 28 completed passes. Aberdeen was a much tougher assignment, and Kyogo completed only eight of 16 attempted passes, but was still often seen coming short. Last season Kyogo's game was distilled down to that of an out-and-out goalscorer, with minimal involvement in open play. With admirable application, he excelled in this role to break the 30-goal mark and win the Golden Boot in Scotland.

What Rodgers has seen is a far more rounded footballer, and it was eye-opening the extent to which Kyogo adapted his game, given last season’s tactical constraints. The Sofascore heatmaps below show Kyogo's total 2022/23 involvements and - next to it - all involvements from the two matches this season.

Celtic Way:

Last season saw red heat spots in the central zones near the goal and the centre circle. In this campaign, there are more expansive movements across the pitch with a concentration just right of centre in the number 10 position. Indeed, Kyogo has created four key passes and one assist so far in two matches, and four of those five have come from the ten spaces as shown by this StatsBomb pass map.

Celtic Way:

His beautiful one-touch assist on the turn for Matt O’Riley for Celtic’s fourth goal of the season was a perfect example of decisive vision executed to the inch. What this change in role allows is a very talented footballer to be more involved in the game, but also to allow Celtic’s midfield eights (in this case mainly Turnbull and O’Riley) to get beyond the front line and attack the spaces Kyogo's movement reveals. Consequently, that pair has three goals from open play in the opening fixtures. They have a combined seven shots in the box and 1.55 non-penalty xG.

READ MORE: Brendan Rodgers' Celtic warning: Reo Hatate must read the room

His contribution was stunning against Ross County and maybe Aberdeen learned a bit as his involvement was more muted despite another trademark clinical finish. As with Rodgers’s tenure in general, this new role is a work in progress and the configuration of the midfielders around him is also key.

But it is refreshing to see such a talented footballer given greater license to impact the game.