This article was written before Celtic vs Hibernian on December 6, 2023

One of the observations I see regularly about Celtic’s play this season is that under Brendan Rodgers the pace of the team is more ponderous than under Ange Postecoglou.

There is no doubt there are differences in approach between the two coaches. Postecoglou encouraged aggressive vertical passing but within a framework of controlled possession.

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Under Rodgers, and especially in Europe, the emphasis has more been on control with perhaps less vertical passing. Indeed, last season the team averaged 88 pack passes (forward passes taking opponents out of the game) and this season this has dropped to 80 – a decrease of nine per cent. The eye test supports the decrease in speed of play but what does the data say?


Let us build up some comparative benchmarks and start with Postecoglou’s first season.

The chart maps the total points each SPFL team achieved versus the average speed of pass from receipt by each team.

This is the average amount of time any player on that side took to get a pass off after receiving the ball. To emphasise the small margins in professional sport, the ‘slowest’ time to pass is 1.74 (Dundee) and the quickest is 1.35 (Celtic). So, the difference between the tortoise and the hare is a mere 0.39 of a second. However, on such small margins will wildly extreme human perceptions be formed.

What is interesting is that there seems a strong correlation between points achieved (bear in mind in SPFL due to the split some teams had higher points than those above them) and time to pass. It is a little bumpy in the middle but then there isn’t much difference between the sides in terms of points achieved in that section. Dundee finished bottom and were slowest, whilst the top three of Celtic, Rangers and Heart of Midlothian were the quickest.


Now Postecoglou’s almost masterpiece of a second season.

Last season, there was a greater degree of homogeneity across the bulk of the league. The teams who tend to play more long balls (Livingston and St Mirren) tended to have slightly slower time to pass.

But again, the top four teams had the fastest times to pass with Celtic at 1.35, identical to the season prior the quickest. Rangers were slightly faster under Michael Beale than Giovanni van Bronkhorst, but only by 0.02 seconds per pass. Aberdeen and Heart of Midlothian were third and fifth quickest and next in the league.

What of this season?


The correlation stands up to another season, albeit the long-ball-heavy St Mirren are responsible for a blip now.

Livingston are the slowest at 1.79 seconds to pass and are bottom of the table. At the top Celtic have decreased from 1.35 under Postecoglou to 1.37 under Rodgers. Rangers under Phillipe Clement have settled into an average between the previous two seasons at 1.44. Heart of Midlothian in third place are also third quickest at 1.51. Why does this matter?

It seems as if the quicker you move the ball in general the better the team does. This is likely to do with being able to move opponents around before they settle into shape and hitting runners earlier to stretch the play. It is not a direct correlation at the midpoints as we have seen but then there are usually very few points between sides in the middle of the table.

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The better sides tend to have better, more technical players more capable of executing and receiving passes played at a faster pace. The inverse is no doubt true at the bottom of the league.

The margins seem tiny, but consider that Celtic attempt 656 passes per SPFL match. Playing 0.02 seconds per pass slower results in a total delay across 90 minutes of 13 seconds compared to Postecoglou’s side.

Again, such are the fine margins in professional sport – consider the impact of a second or two delay in picking out a single Kyogo Furuhashi run. Let’s dig into the Celtic numbers some more.

Celtic's time to pass

The centre-backs at Celtic attempt on average 191 open-play passes per 90 minutes (Liam Scales and Cameron Carter-Vickers). That’s 29 per cent of all Celtic attempted passes from open play. Therefore, the centre-backs are vital to setting the tempo of the team.

Here are the numbers for the centre-backs who have played over 900 minutes in each of the last three seasons.

Despite the team time to pass getting slightly slower under Rodgers, main centre-back Carter-Vickers has been getting quicker season on season. This is slightly surprising given his hamstring injury this term and the perception he may be still fully recovering. However, his time to pass is now 1.46 compared to 1.56 seconds per pass when he first joined the club.

It is also surprising to me that Carl Starfelt was the quickest of those mapped here at 1.39 in his second season, which - like Carter-Vickers - was quicker than his first season. Liam Scales is slower than those two stalwarts under Postecoglou and averages 1.5 seconds per pass this season. Bear in mind the team average is 1.37.


Rodgers spoke before the St Johnstone game of his desire for the team to move the ball quicker than had been evident both at home to Motherwell and away in Rome. His side is slightly slower moving the ball compared to Postecoglou’s side, but only by 0.02 seconds per pass.

The centre-backs have the onus because they attempt nearly 30 per cent of all passes between them. Centre-backs, I suspect, will always be slower to move the ball than the team average. This is because a) they are under less pressure generally so will use the time, and b) the consequences for them losing the ball will tend to be most severe so greater care is needed. The Celtic centre-back average is about 1.48 seconds per pass compared to the team average of 1.37.

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Carter-Vickers is becoming quicker at moving the ball and this season he is at 1.46 seconds per pass. Scales has not yet matched the player he replaced (Starfelt) and is slower at 1.5 seconds per pass.

This is an area, therefore, that the Irishman can continue to develop as he maintains his current fine run on the side.