Brendan Rodgers can seemingly do no wrong at Celtic Park. The Northern Irish coach has…
Celtic’s 3-0 defeat to Zenit St Petersburg and elimination from the Europa League on Thursday night was a bitter pill to swallow for a travelling support that had seen their side dominate Roberto Mancini’s team and had hoped to see more of the same in the second leg.
However that wasn’t to be, and despite Brendan Rodgers’ decision to start with the very same first XI and formation as the successful first leg, a hugely different outcome came from the corresponding 90 minutes of football. Not only were Celtic notably poorer across the pitch than they had been in Glasgow a week before but their opponents on the night also looked far better.
Perhaps the most notable issue for Celtic from the very start of the match was in their inability to properly attack Zenit with much purpose. Although Rodgers’ side didn’t exactly pepper the opposing goal with clear-cut chances in the first leg, Thursday’s match showcased far too few goalscoring chances from the Scottish champions. And that’s evident from their expected goals (xG) figures across the two legs dropping from 0.84 to 0.33, according to @11Tegen11.
That struggle to pierce through Zenit’s defensive line was apparent in Callum McGregor’s contrasting performances across both legs. As we can see in the graphic above, which shows where the young, Scottish No.10 took his touches in the first leg (orange) and the second (blue), McGregor was having to drop far deeper in the St Petersburg Arena and really struggled to get on the ball in the final third of the pitch.
In both ties, McGregor was often the furthest forward player in a Celtic shirt and in the match at Celtic Park that ultimately paid off when he scored a wonderful volley at the back post in the 78th minute. Yet on Thursday night he didn’t once get a touch of the ball in the Zenit box and only had one clear touch on the edge of the area. Sure, the 24-year-old talent played 30 minutes less football in the second leg but it’s still abundantly clear that the service provided to him on each night varied dramatically.
A large part of Celtic’s reliance on McGregor in the first leg and a factor in his inability to replicate his form in the second leg was down to the continued form (or lack thereof) of Moussa Dembele as the team’s lone striker.
Rodgers was his usual, coy self in the post-match interviews when he praised the forward’s hold-up play but in truth, Dembele offered very little in either match and significantly limited what Celtic could do in Zenit’s half of the pitch.
As we can see from the data shown above, Dembele lost the ball on 17 occasions over the course of both games, with a slight increase in his ability to hold on to it in the second leg. However, his ability to create key passes (passes that lead to shots) or simply pass the ball forward in attack took a notable dip in Russia.
For comparison’s sake, Zenit’s main striker, Aleksandr Kokorin, only lost possession of the ball once on Thursday night while picking up two shots, three key passes and of course a vital goal in the 61st minute. Over the course of both legs, Dembele didn’t attempt a single shot on the Zenit goal.
Of course, another huge fault in Celtic’s game was the dreadful defending that was on show over the course of the match. We could spend the rest of this article talking about Jozo Simunovic’s marking for the first goal, Dorus de Vries’ truly bizarre attempt at saving the second or Mikael Lustig’s abject defending for the third, yet that’s all perfectly clear to anyone that watched the game.
Indeed, that wasn’t the full extent of Celtic’s poor attempt at keeping a clean sheet on the night and although Zenit were clearly galvanised through at least two gifted goals Rodgers’ side didn’t exactly make it hard for them to create chances.
Although Scott Brown probably wouldn’t call himself a defensive midfielder, he is tasked with protecting the back line and in the first leg he did that superbly well. Not only did the club captain make more tackles than any other Celtic player in the dominating performance in Glasgow, but he also led the interceptions chart too. In many regards, last week was a stellar example of what Brown can do when at the top of his game.
Unfortunately, the central midfielder was also one of the numerous players that simply didn’t match his first-leg excellence when tasked with repeating the feat in Russia. As we can see from the graph above, Brown’s interceptions fell from five to one from one game to the next, while his tackles also fell from five to two.
Although Celtic fans may not want to hear it, their captain wasn’t nearly as industrious in the middle of the park on Thursday night and that allowed Zenit to exploit their porous defence to their full advantage.
When we look at Zenit’s attacking stats that seems to ring true. Not only did the club’s xG jump up from 0.42 in the first leg to 1.49 on Thursday (via @11tegen11) but they also increased their number of key passes from three to eight, while their attempted through balls increased from zero to three.
At this point, it’s definitely worth stating that the scoreline certainly flattered Mancini’s side. Yet as we can see Celtic’s main problem on the night was actually themselves. Performances from key players didn’t come and not only did Rodgers’ side fail to attack with any ferocity but they also left themselves wide open at the back. And as such the Scottish champions deserved to go out at this stage of the competition.