Any hopes that the influential Reo Hatate might be fit for Celtic’s pivotal match against Rangers on Saturday were seemingly dashed on Boxing Day.

Despite Brendan Rodgers stating a return to action was imminent, the Japanese playmaker, missing since he limped off during the 2-2 draw with Atletico Madrid in the Champions League in October, failed to make the bench as Celtic secured a 3-0 win at Dundee on Tuesday.

In Hatate’s absence, the third starting sport in the Celtic midfield has been something of a revolving door over the last few months. David Turnbull, Odin Thiago Holm and Tomoki Iwata have all had the chance to impress in the middle of the park but all have failed to grasp the opportunity, the latter also being impacted by injury. 

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Following back-to-back Premiership losses, Rodgers then turned to on-loan Paulo Bernardo in the Celts' final game before Christmas. Seemingly only fancied by the manager in Europe up until that point, the Benfica loanee was the latest to audition for the final spot in the midfield three alongside captain Callum McGregor and Matt O’Riley.

Quietly effective against Livingston as the Hoops got back on track with a 2-0 win on 23 December, Bernardo then impressed at Dens Park too, opening the scoring and helping Celtic control the midfield in a dominant display.  

Having played a role in steadying the ship following those damaging defeats to Kilmarnock and Hearts, Bernardo now seems certain to start the derby match in Hatate’s continued absence. Here, we look at what Bernardo has offered so far in a Celtic jersey and how he could be primed for a key role in what may well be a season-defining derby day.

Work rate

Bernardo’s work rate, particularly defensively, has been arguably his one standout attribute in his time in the hoops so far. Likely why he was favoured by Rodgers so much in Celtic’s Champions League campaign, his willingness to cover ground and pressure opponents has been fairly relentless.

Only Paris-Saint Germain’s Manuel Ugarte averaged more PAdj Pressures (35.84 per 90) in the group stages of Europe’s top club competition than Bernardo (players that played at least 300 minutes in the competition).

Although a small sample size too, just over 360 minutes, Bernardo is unmatched domestically in the same metric (35.41 per 90) and parameters. No other SPFL Premiership player has averaged more PAdj Tackles (5.33 per 90) than the Portuguese midfielder either, again at the minimum 300-minute cut-off point.

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This work rate and willingness to get his foot in will be key in the chaos as even though Celtic will still likely dominate the ball, a derby match is the one domestic fixture where it won’t be to quite the same level. Celtic will have to be aggressive in their work off the ball if they are to give themselves the best chance of a positive result and Bernardo could play a pivotal role in this.

Bernardo’s position could be especially important in this regard as well. He has, more often than not, taken up the number eight spot on the left side with O’Riley over on the right. O’Riley is more than decent out-of-possession himself but having Bernardo over on that left side would not only hopefully free the Danish international and McGregor up, as it seems to have done in the last few games, but it could also help nullify one of the visitors’ biggest threat, James Tavernier.

The Rangers right-back is still responsible for much of their creative output, averaging their most xG Assisted (0.26 per 90) and Key Passes per 90 (3.13 per 90). Some of this is from his set-pieces but he still leads the way for the Light Blues in both these metrics from open-play too.

As can be seen in the graphic from StatsBomb above, much of Bernardo’s defensive activity has occurred in the kind of areas where Tavernier will likely look to create from, high and wide on the Rangers’ right. Having Bernardo on this side would hopefully go some way to blunting the Rangers captain’s influence on the game. It could be even more important if Luis Palma, as would be expected, starts on the left and Daizen Maeda on the right.

Palma is willing off the ball too but he is not at the level of Maeda, who has often played an important role in pining Tavernier back in derby matches previously. 

Runs beyond

Bernardo’s goal on Tuesday in the City of Discovery showed there was more to his game than just pure work rate. Making a run beyond the forward line, something that the likes of Turnbull and Holm haven’t offered too much of in their chances to stake a claim, Bernardo latched on to a through ball (one of many) from Palma to poke the ball past Trevor Carson in the Dundee goal.

Celtic may have more space to operate than usual domestically, if Rangers open up a bit, as they likely will at some point. They still have the best defence in the league though, averaging just 0.54 open-play xG against per 90 compared to Celtic’s 0.80. Having a midfielder runner willing to go beyond and attack space down the side of the centre-back and inside the full-back, or centre-back and outside centre-back as it was in Dundee, could therefore be very useful.

His willingness to not only do the hard yards to help win the ball back will therefore also need to be matched by a desire to make these kinds of runs again on Saturday.

Midfield balance

Rodgers praised Bernardo’s maturity post-match at Dens Park but also hinted at some of the reasoning behind his lack of domestic minutes – "He's maybe not started so much in the domestic games because he's still understanding the style and what's required.”

That ‘understanding of style’ is more likely in possession that Rodgers is referring to.  As encouraging as his recent performances have been, it is clear that it is on the ball that the 21-year-old still has to show he has what it takes to become a regular starter at Celtic.

He’s been neat and tidy enough on the ball, as would be expected from a player who has come through the ranks at a club like Benfica. However, as the above radar highlights, Bernardo hasn’t exactly caught the eye in possession.

Again, albeit with a small sample size at this stage, some of his passing metrics are sparse, to say the least. He’s only averaged just under one deep progression, passes and dribbles/carries into the opposition's final third, per 90 in the league. For context, O’Riley has averaged just under four per 90 this season, Turnbull just under five and Hatate over six.

He's offered nothing by way of xG Assisted, quite literally, failing to register a single key pass in his 360-plus league minutes. Even in less than four full games, this is still pretty grim for a Celtic number eight. He’s also turning the ball over at a higher rate than either O’Riley or Turnbull but less than Hatate. Of course, Hatate’s sample size is also smaller given his limited minutes this season.

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This is not to say he’s played no part on the ball at all though. His xGBuildUp (1.23 per 90), StatsBomb’s model which attributes the xG of the final shot to all players involved in the possession, compares much more favourably to Turnbull (0.98 per 90) and O’Riley (0.92 per 90) but not at the level of Hatate (1.53 per 90). So although he hasn’t been the one ‘making things happen’ at the end of periods of possession, he is functional enough on the ball.

Looking at just Saturday in isolation too, with the ball progression of McGregor and the creativity of O’Riley perhaps Bernardo won’t need to find a new level in possession. Keeping the ball ticking over may be enough.

If he can do that while bringing those also parts of his game that he has shown, his tireless work rate and his willingness to break into the box from deep, then he may well help provide a midfield balance that offers Celtic the platform for derby success.