It looks like Celtic are using the dollars from Saudi Arabia after the sale of Jota to bolster the contracts of key players.

This is all part of a gradual growth – increasing the ceiling for the top performers over the long term to allow the club to attract better players. Recently, Kyogo Furuhashi, Daizen Maeda and now captain Callum McGregor have all committed to long-term contracts.

McGregor’s is the most remarkable, as his extension was for five years. While this almost guarantees legendary status should he fulfil the time, it is quite unusual to grant such a long contract to an over-30-year-old central midfielder.

Given the wear and tear of the engine room, it is a position requiring sustained physical performance as well as technical.

The Brown Experience

Part of the role as sceptical analyst and the experience we had on the Huddle Breakdown raising the spectre of Scott Brown’s natural age-based decline left many scars. The latter was a sad tale in the end, as the club arguably relied on the midfield fulcrum for at least two seasons too many given the evidence in the data of decline.

Is that a fair comparison given the robustness of Brown’s game and that he often seemed to play through injury? Both McGregor and Brown were born in June, so the comparison is straightforward. At age 30, Brown had completed 33360 career minutes – the equivalent of 373.3 full 90 minutes. As McGregor reaches 30, he has completed 35811 career minutes – the equivalent of 397.9 completed matches.

READ MORE: Why good news is always readily available for Celtic

McGregor has more minutes in his legs at the same age as Brown. Both play a key central midfield role. So, we should take heed. Let’s dive into McGregor’s data over the last few seasons.


The StatsBomb data for last season compared to the previous for SPFL matches:

Celtic Way:

McGregor’s passing, deep progressions and contribution to expected goals through build-up play remain league-leading on a percentile basis, although absolute values are down. According to StatsBomb, the number of defensive actions is down considerably and he is one of the players in the league to apply the least amount of pressure on the opposition.

Let’s look at 2021-22 compared to 2020-21.

Celtic Way:

McGregor, under Ange Postecoglou, saw an improvement over the last season under Neil Lennon. Probably not a surprise and probably a trend across the squad. The defensive action quantity under Lennon was raised considerably but fell back to Lennon levels last season. The passing and deep-creating data remained league-leading.

It is worth taking a look at pressing in more detail given it is a key pillar for both Postecoglou and Brendan Rodgers' team style:

Celtic Way:

There is a clear five-year trend for a reduction in the volume of both pressing and counter-pressing (pressing the opposition within five seconds of losing the ball). Consequently, the volume of regains of possession from pressing activity is also trending downward. 

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Some of this might be explained by the nature of McGregor’s role as the deepest midfielder but it is also a natural outcome of age-related decline. It is now worth breaking that down with reference to data for ALL matches in all competitions.

Defensive actions

Below is the usual framework concentrating on only defensive actions and whether they were successful and whether possession was secured.

Celtic Way:

Showing again the Lennon 2020-21 season as being the low water mark, McGregor’s defensive performances have improved season on season as he adapts to the number six position over time. There may be a drop off in the volume of defensive actions, but the outcomes in terms of securing the ball for his team, are more effective.

Celtic Way:

This all suggests a maturing into the defensive aspects of the holding midfield role. The volume of activity dropping last season could be as simple as the extraordinary level of control Celtic had on league games and the relative lack of danger the opposition was able to generate.

Some of this trend may be explained by increased smarts on the part of the captain – when and where to engage – being more selective, making better decisions.

Ball progression

This plots the number of ball carries per 90 minutes with the number of pack passes.

Celtic Way:

The volume of ball carries is decreasing over time and last season was the lowest of the five campaigns under review. The volume of pack passes has increased but there were fewer this term than last.

Both of those aspects can come down to managerial instruction and team style. It would be expected that the volume of pack passes improved under Postecoglou as aggressive vertical passing was a life choice and as the team understood the patterns better so the link-ups increased.

READ MORE: Brendan Rodgers already has his Celtic impact player - Ryan McGinlay

There are fewer more thrilling sights for Celtic fans than a McGregor drive from deep. Having fewer of those can be seen as a natural age decline feature. It is natural to have less lung-bursting runs in the tank, although as the holding midfielder, the onus is less on him to make them.

If we look at deep completions:

Celtic Way:

There is a drop off in the number of passes completed from deeper areas into more forward areas over time. 


Here we view the number of chances created per 90 minutes and their quality as expressed by expected assists:

Celtic Way:

McGregor has been gradually creating less direct chances from deep and last season's 1.24 was the lowest in five terms. But the value of those chances was higher than the previous two seasons. This may be reflective of another feature of Ange-ball to work the ball into good scoring positions rather than lump it into the box at the earliest.

Goal threat

McGregor scored some vital goals last season, none more so than a late winner at Aberdeen. It has been a while since he was a regular contributor, given his deep-lying role, but it cannot be denied he is becoming less and less of a goal threat:

Celtic Way:

As during the last Lennon season, his xG per 90 minutes is less than 0.1 now. This is not a problem for the whole team as clearly the number eights, wingers and strikers are posing a considerable threat. But it is indicative of McGregor getting into fewer scoring positions and less likely to make that explosive run into the box.

On Ball Value

StatsBomb takes all a player’s contributions in the round in it’s proprietary OBV metric. 

Here is the five-year trend for McGregor:

Celtic Way:

Whilst McGregor’s overall on-ball value increased last season over the previous, the trend is once more downwards as he enters his 30s.


There was much celebration of McGregor’s five-year contract. He remains a vital cog in Celtic’s team, especially in the setting of tempo and his leadership of the dressing room.

There is evidence that the defensive side of his game is becoming more nuanced with a reduced volume of activity but better quality of outcomes. He remains peerless in Scotland in terms of his involvement in overall build-up play. But Celtic need to use the example of Scott Brown to monitor closely the impact of age-based decline on a player who has more minutes in the legs than Brown did at the same age.

The signs are clear: lower volumes of defending; less direct creativity; less ball carrying; less goal threat; much less pressing intensity. All these are clear indicators of the natural physical declines of age. That is not to say that he is not still integral but at some point, if these trends continue there will be a tipping point, as happened with Brown, whereby the value to the team must be a question and debate. Celtic don't need to be considering McGregor’s role in the team. However, the warning signs are there.

What will be fascinating is to see the next iteration of performance metrics under Rodgers. The specific role he will be asked to play will be subtly different and may generate difference performance data. Let’s not forget that team style and instruction play a major role on the number six data.