Celtic’s two league matches under Brendan Rodgers have certainly been entertaining for the fans.

The Ross County tie had six goals, 21 shots and expected goals of 3.2 – 0.86. At Pittodrie, as well as four goals, there were 26 shots, with xG estimated to be 3.0 to 1.2. One might almost call it 'Ange-ball'.

The initial promise of Postecoglou's tactics – chaotic attacking football with goals at both ends, was glimpsed in the early days of the 2021-22 season. Through to the end of September 2021, xG for in the league averaged 3.12 and against 0.84.

But what those tactical choices became was a ruthlessly efficient attacking machine that also strangled the life out of the opponent’s attacking capabilities. Relentless pressing, forcing the opponent deep, and maintaining intensity through utilising five attacking substitutes left little room for overpowered SPFL opponents to breathe. Up to a chaotic game at Tynecastle in October 2022, Celtic’s average xG against in the league had dropped to 0.59.


So, it feels a bit like going back in time and what it comes down to is a relative lack of control. Average possession in the SPFL last season was 70 per cent, with pass completion from open play at 87 per cent. Yet, in the two matches so far, possession is 69 per cent and open play completion 85 per cent. Small margins and slight reductions, yet that is not how it feels watching. What is feeding that perception?

Midfield gaps

At half-time on Sunday, I tweeted uncharacteristically. I say “uncharacteristically” because I usually like to avoid offering performance opinions without the data to support them. Otherwise, I’m just another emotional fan on Twitter (which isn’t a criticism).

The tweet was:

One of the many issues with doing this is seeming to single out the captain for criticism and not having the space afforded here to provide adequate context. Also, I fell into the trap of focusing on a) things that happened very early in the game (the first impressions which last) and b) recency bias – the things that happened just before half-time.

However, I now have space to explain myself better as, fortunately for me, there was merit in highlighting an issue, even if signalling Callum McGregor is probably unfair. This is the second minute. Graeme Shinnie outmuscles McGregor in central midfield.

Look at the massive space in central midfield. David Turnbull and Matt O’Riley are both ahead of the ball. Greg Taylor and Anthony Ralston are in the traditional full-back positions. That leaves the isolated McGregor defending a huge swathe of grass. The result is Aberdeen breaking into this position.

In the end, Aberdeen butcher that immediate opportunity, but Turnbull trips a player on the very edge of the box and the home side have the first shot of the match from a dangerous central position. Imagine if the above scenario was presented to pot one or two European sides. Shivers. In the fourth minute, Celtic have a corner. From the clearance, Liel Abada loses possession.

This is midway inside the Aberdeen half, but it is a very central position, and Celtic have committed numbers forward for the set play. Once Abada loses the ball, this is the transition:

McGregor and Ralston are behind the ball and the other central midfielders are not even in shot. Taylor is struggling to keep up wide-left. It is almost a three versus two and given the centricity of the ball, opens huge potential for the opponent.

Again – imagine if this is Luka Modric or Fedi Valverde on the ball with Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo ahead. Thankfully Polvara does not have the top-end pace and their break fizzles out. Then, what triggered the tweet, in the 42nd minute, McGregor again loses possession but this time at the edge of his own box.

Taylor is caught ahead of the ball and O’Riley and Turnbull are also well behind play. This situation resulted in a central shot blocked from Polvara and then a chance was created from the resulting corner.

Why is this important?

You might think three scenarios out of 45 minutes of play is insignificant. However, your deepest midfield pivot or number six should never lose possession centrally – rule number one. Safety in possession in that position is paramount. So, it’s on McGregor for being outmuscled and careless, but it is on the manager for the rest defence alignment. “Rest defence” refers to when in possession, what are the defensive players doing – i.e. how are the rest (those not attacking) aligned?

READ MORE: Meet Quentin Merlin: Celtic's latest left-back target

In these three scenarios where Celtic lost the ball in a central area (and remember it does not matter whether you lose the ball in the middle of the opponent’s half, on halfway, or in your own half - if you lose the ball centrally, there is usually trouble ahead) the midfield was often ahead of the ball and the full-backs are wide. Under Postecoglou, he mitigated the transition risk by inverting the full-backs alongside McGregor and protecting the central channels.

With both Turnbull and O’Riley pushed on and looking for opportunities to break beyond the newly wandering Kyogo Furuhashi, there is minimal midfield protection alongside McGregor. Also, as the full-backs are more overlapping than inverting, so the central spaces are relatively unprotected.

On-ball shape

StatsBomb’s passing network from the first half shows that when in possession, McGregor was isolated in an island in central midfield.

Not only is his circle small (low involvement – McGregor completed 23 passes in the first half) you can see how unconnected he is relative to team-mates, and that average spacing if the ball is lost becomes a huge area for the opposition to break into.

Second half improvements

Credit is due to Rodgers for addressing this in the second 45. Reo Hatate was brought on to replace Turnbull, and he tends to sit deeper than Turnbull who prefers a more number 10 oriented role. O’Riley also dropped back further to support the captain.

There were no significant centrally led transitions from Aberdeen in the half. Aberdeen generated 1.0 xG in the first half and only 0.19 in the second half. Here are the average positions and passing network in the second half from StatsBomb:

Note how much closer Hatate (and then Odin Thiago Holm) played to McGregor and O’Riley, too. The result? McGregor completed 39 passes in the second half (14 more than anyone else) and Celtic mainly controlled the match with their conductor-in-chief leading the orchestra.

READ MORE: Rodgers issues Celtic transfer update as he reveals tactical tweaks


Team dynamics are a fragile beast, and a few yards difference in starting position can make a significant difference. Celtic - in the first half against Aberdeen - did not get their spacing and alignment of rest defence right and were horribly exposed in transitions. This in turn exposed the captain, who at 30 is declining in speed to some degree.

In the second half, Celtic realigned the central midfield to bring the players closer and to ensure greater solidity in transition. McGregor then flourished. Celtic needs to protect him more as he ages, hence my constant request for more athleticism in the central area. But, in the end, Rodger’s tweaked it successfully, so credit is due for that.