As part of the review of the St Mirren cup tie last weekend, I opined on the Huddle Breakdown that Celtic were relatively speaking 'too easy to play through'.

It is a well-worn football phrase but what does it mean? In my vocabulary, I use the ‘packing’ concepts to put substance and data behind such an assertion. Packing measures a multitude of actions but primarily the act of getting the ball forward and scoring the impact of that in terms of opposition players taken out of the game. ‘Out the game’ means that they are wrong side of the ball relative to their own goal.

READ MORE: Rodgers says Celtic lacked 'hunger' to stop Kilmarnock goal

You could also think of this as ‘line breaking’. Teams tend to set up in a defensive shape in lines. For example, the classic 4-4-2 shape involves three lines. If you are packing the opposition successfully you are disrupting those lines.

Packing contains many elements – passing, receiving, dribbling, recoveries, and turnovers. I want to focus on passing, as that is by far the most common packing action.

St Mirren packing

Here is the history of packing score St Mirren has achieved against Celtic since I started collecting the metrics in 2018.

Despite the win, this was St Mirren’s highest pass packing score against Celtic in the records I have – 277. They average 137 and the previous high was 263 in February 2021 when Celtic prevailed 4-0 on a bumpy pitch with three late goals having obtained 60 percent possession – the lowest they have ever recorded against this opponent.

Context is key, of course. It was a cup tie; St Mirren were chasing the game for long periods after conceding early in each half. They had nothing to lose and had to go all out and attack given it was win or bust. So, is this part of a trend or just a context-led one-off?

Pack pass history SPFL

Here is the history of pack passing rates each season across all competitions. The rate is the average number of Celtic players taken out each game.

The lowest figure recorded was in 2018-19 when Brendan Rodgers’s team achieved peak control. It rose under Neil Lennon and again under Ange Postecoglou initially as his high-risk brand of front-foot football was implemented. Rates dropped in his second season, but this season is at an all-time high of over 108 Celtic players bypassed per game.

An important context is that in general the football in the SPFL has become more direct. Also, Celtic play the highest defensive line in the league at around 50 metres from their own goal under Rodgers. This will tend to expose the team to longer passes over the top of the midfield and defence. Therefore, we can expect to see the trend for more packing, but this is the ‘worst’ season yet.

READ MORE: Detailed player ratings for Celtic's draw against Kilmarnock

The objective of packing is to take opponents out of the game meaning fewer defenders between the ball and the goal. Clearly, then, the more opposition defenders you can eliminate the better. Taking defenders out of the game with forward passes will often mean you have severely disrupted the back line and they are in scrambling mode.

Here is the trend in terms of Celtic defenders being taken out of the game since 2017-18.

This season sees the most defenders taken out of the game (12.74) since records began and more than during the dysfunctional 2020-21 season. That was the year Celtic had an ageing Scott Brown shielding Shane Duffy, Diego Laxalt and Jeremie Frimpong in a transition nightmare.

Indeed, here is the average expected assist value the opponents achieve from pack passes:

This season is seeing over 2.5 chances, with a value of 0.36 xA being created per game by the opposition. This is higher than even the nadir of 2020-21.


Celtic are as easy to play through as measured by opposition pack passing as they ever have been in recent times, but most worryingly more so than the incoherent 2020-21 season.

Teams are creating more chances of better quality from pack passes, and the number of Celtic defenders taken out of the game is the highest on record. The obvious question is why?

READ MORE: Celtic instant analysis as two vital points spilled in Killie draw

To answer that I will be back next week to look at the individual components of the team and assess which parts of the sieve are the leakiest.