How do Celtic’s fringe players measure up to their first-choice counterparts?

How do Celtic’s fringe players measure up to their first-choice counterparts?

By Niall Murray

The knives were out after Celtic’s 1-0 loss to Hearts at the weekend. Some blame the lack of new signings, others blame the grass at Tynecastle while a portion of the Parkhead support say it’s because their side’s fringe players aren’t up to scratch. One thing is true, Celtic looked bereft of ideas in the capital.


Eight of the starting line up started the 4-0 loss to Hearts last season and were looking to make amends. Brendan Rodgers rested a number of key players ahead of the vital Champions League tie against AEK Athens and it showed. They desperately missed Olivier Ntcham in the middle of the park. Similarly, they could’ve done with the injured Dedryck Boyata being available for selection given the physical prowess of their opponents.


Saturday’s defeat couldn’t have come at a worse time for Peter Lawwell and Co. They are already under pressure due to their lack of activity in the transfer market and the loss to the Jambos perhaps emphasised the need for some fresh faces. On the contrary, are Celtic’s fringe players really not good enough to step up? We decided to take a closer look at how they compare to their first choice counterparts.


Jack Hendry


Out of all the fringe players in this article Jack Hendry fits the description least. The 23-year-old plays more regularly than others we’ll focus on, however, he still isn’t considered first choice. He certainly has a lot of potential but if the likes of Boyata, Kristoffer Ajer and Jozo Simunovic were all fit you’d think Hendry would be starting on the bench.



So how does the Scotland international measure up? We, first of all, focused on how Celtic’s main central defenders fared in defensive and aerial duels over the last calendar year. Just before looking at those metrics it’s worth nothing that Hendry’s overall successful defensive actions per 90 minutes were 10.19. This was less than both Boyata (11.12) and Ajer (10.58) but more than Simunovic (8.78).


It is perhaps worth pointing out though that Hendry’s numbers will also include his first half of last season for Dundee. Therefore it’s likely some of his stats may be slightly inflated given he played in a team that would be defending more than Celtic. In defensive duels/90 Hendry comes out on top as he averaged 6.74 per game. Ajer is next with 6.54, followed by Boyata (4.74) and Simunovic (4.25). Conversely, it’s a different story when we look at the percentage each defender wins. Hendry only wins 27.2% of the defensive battles he takes parts in per 90. Simunovic wins a higher percentage than anyone else at 44.66, whilst Boyata (34.74) and Ajer also win a higher proportion than Hendry.


Of course, this is just one metric, when we look at aerial duels Hendry (5.77) takes part in more than both Boyata (5.58) and Simunovic (3.96). Whilst he still wins a higher percentage than Simunovic (60.42), his 63.08 success rate is lower than Ajer’s (68.70) and Boyata’s (70.54). What’s perhaps encouraging for Hendry is that he is competing defensively and in the air and just needs to start winning slightly more of these battles. What would be more concerning is if his win % and overall numbers in each metric were low; it suggests he has potential. After all, he’s still a young talent and is already performing near and sometimes above the level of his centre-back teammates.



A brief look at some of Hendry’s other stats allows us to draw a similar conclusion. The table above shows that again he blocked more shots per 90 (0.19) than Ajer (0.06) but significantly less than Boyata (0.37) and Simunovic (0.29). Similarly, he beats Ajer in the interceptions/90 metric but again lags behind both Simunovic and Boyata. Finally, his average tackles per 90 minutes (0.54) puts him above Boyata (0.45), but not Simunovic (0.66) and Ajer (0.92). Moreover, he wins 45% of his tackles which may be more than Ajer but again isn’t as many as his other two teammates.


Simply put, Hendry is still developing and a bit rough around the edges but he certainly has the potential to be a solid defender for Celtic. His numbers suggest the talent is there he just needs time to improve and perhaps playing alongside a more experienced defender for an extended period of time would be beneficial to him.


Cristian Gamboa


The forgotten man of this Celtic squad. Last season he played a grand total of three games. He’s already played twice this season so when looking at his numbers we’ve included all his games in the last calendar year to try to at least get a rough idea of his performance level. The only way to do this is by including his matches for Costa Rica.



The graph above highlights Mikael Lustig and Gamboa’s defensive stats for the last calendar year. Simply put, Gamboa only comes out on top in a couple of metrics. Those are in the number of tackles per 90 where he performs an average of 1.63 per match compared to Lustig’s 0.59. Similarly, the Costa Rican international actually takes part in more defensive duels/90 (7.79) than his Swedish counterpart (6.77) and has a higher winning percentage.


Of course, it’s hard to look too much into this give the limited game time at club level and consequential small sample size we have to work with. Although he looked decent enough, in his rare outings in a green and white jersey, against Rosenborg Rodgers obviously doesn’t think he is good enough. Lustig himself is on the decline so you’d think it wouldn’t take too much to displace him at right-back.


Eboue Kouassi


Eboue Kouassi is another one, like Gamboa, who hasn’t seen a lot of game time during his short career at the Hoops. Perhaps signed with one eye looking to the future, the Ivorian faces tough competition in Scott Brown and Olivier Ntcham when it comes to securing the defensive midfield berth in this Celtic side.


We decided to focus in on some passing stats for the three midfielders to see how Kouassi measured up to Brown and Ntcham. It’s again important to note that we are working with a small sample size for Kouassi. In the last calendar year, he’s played 725 minutes which is nothing compared to Ntcham (3820) and Brown (5403).


In general passes per 90 minutes, Brown and Ntcham unsurprisingly come out on top. However, Kouassi has a slightly higher passing accuracy (90.41%) than Ntcham (88.64%). The point needs to be stressed that Kouassi’s numbers may be closer to Ntcham and Brown’s due to him playing less. Their numbers are based on a significant number of minutes and them consistently performing at the highest level. In essence, there’s no guarantee Kouassi’s numbers would remain this high were he to play more game time as it would require a great deal of consistency. Of course, if you want to look at it in a more optimistic light, his numbers could get higher with the more playing time he’s given.


Ntcham and Brown are often the engine room and driving force in the Celtic midfield so it was important to look at the number of forward passes they play per 90. Ntcham completes 19.47 on average whereas Brown’s number comes out at 18.24. Both are a bit higher than Kouassi who only plays around 12.73 forward passes per game. Similarly, the 20-year-old’s pass accuracy is also the lowest when it comes to this type of pass.


Kouassi actually plays marginally more key passes than Brown per 90. Those are passes that lead to a shot and Ntcham plays the most of out of the trio (0.18). The other passing metric we decided to look at is forward passes. Again Kouassi doesn’t really measure up in terms of the number of forward passes he plays per game (8.44). He’s not a mile off Brown (9.59) and Ntcham (11.74) but still needs to improve to catch up.


In essence, Kouassi isn’t up to the standards of Brown or Ntcham when it comes to filling the defensive midfield role. However, does anyone really expect him to be? He’s only 20-years-old and is still developing as a player. That said, if a player is signed for £3million surely they should be good enough to already do a job for you at a domestic level.


Jonny Hayes and Ryan Christie


Jonny Hayes has been desperately unlucky since joining Celtic. His time in the East End of Glasgow has been blighted by injury but this season it looks like he might finally get some game time under his belt. Conversely, Ryan Christie, who had a very good season at Aberdeen last campaign, doesn’t appear to be in Rodgers’ plans. This begs the question? Is he good enough? And if he isn’t then surely it would be better for the player and club if he left or at least went out on loan.


Celtic have strong wingers in Scott Sinclair and James Forrest. Moreover, if they employ a system that uses wing-backs they also have Kieran Tierney as an option. So are Hayes and Christie good enough to step up for the Champions at a domestic level at least?



First off we looked at goals and assists. Forrest and Sinclair have significantly better scoring records than Hayes and Christie no matter which way you frame it. Sinclair scored 15 goals whilst Forrest found the back of the net an impressive 18 times. By turning our attention to the goals/90 column we get a better idea of how each player performs in front of goal. Forrest and Sinclair average 0.36 goals a game which is more than double both Christie (0.17) and Hayes (0.13).


What’s interesting is that both Hayes and Christie’s expected goals per 90 (xG/90), is higher than their actual average. This means they miss opportunities they should really be scoring. On the contrary, Forrest xG/90 is actually significantly lower than his actual goals per 90 tally meaning he’s taking advantage of even half-chances that come his way. Sinclair’s xG is slightly higher than his actual tally, but not by much.


When it comes to assists Hayes and Christie actually come out on top. Christie averaged 0.24 and Hayes 0.26 which trumps both Forrest (0.19) and Sinclair (0.15). This is certainly impressive, and not to take away from this stat, but when you look at xA/90 it perhaps gives us a look at the bigger picture. Both Hayes and Christie’s xA/90 is lower than their actual assists per 90 meaning that some of their actual assists weren’t expected to end in goals. Similarly, Forrest and Sinclair have higher xA/90 meaning their actual number of assists would be higher were their teammates to take the chances they set up for them.



Of course, goals and assists are just one way of looking at a winger’s effectiveness. We also looked their ability to deliver crosses and take on the opposition. At first glance Jonny Hayes looks like the crossing king, averaging 5.27 every match. However, his accuracy is lower than the other three wingers we’re focusing on as only 17.5% of his deliveries find a teammate. Ryan Christie only plays 2.52 crosses a match but has a much higher accuracy of 35.29%. Sinclair plays the fewest crosses on average (1.39) but has the second highest accuracy (31.48%). Meanwhile, James Forrest plays roughly 3 crosses per 90 and has an accuracy of 30.5%.


When it comes to dribbling Forrest beats his man the most (78.72%). Hayes is behind him with a success rate of just under 74%; he also has the highest number of dribbles per 90 (8.57). Ryan Christie on the other hand only performs 6.31 dribbles/90 with 57.75% of those successful. The final metric we looked at was the number of touches a player takes in an opponent’s box. Hayes (2.77) and Christie (2.19) lag a bit behind both Forrest (4.20) and Sinclair (4.61) here.


There’s certainly a bit of a gap in quality when you compare Hayes and Christie to Celtic’s first choice wingers. That said, they both have proven they are good enough to perform for Aberdeen at Premiership level. There’s no excuse for them not to perform for Celtic. Simply put, should be at a high enough level to help Celtic in domestic competitions but are some way off both Sinclair and Forrest.


Scott Allan


Last but not least we look at a mythical beast named Scott Allan. Last time the creative midfielder was spotted he was having a grand old time in Scotland’s capital and the sunshine was very much shining on him in Leith. He had returned to the player we all knew and admired and there was perhaps some optimism that on his return to Parkhead he might get a sniff of some game time in a Celtic shirt. That optimism was misplaced as Allan is nowhere to be seen.


It’s understandable in a way given the options Celtic have in terms of attacking, creative midfielders. With Callum McGregor, Tom Rogic and even Sinclair, they are spoiled for choice. Is Allan really an option for them? In fact, even if he was, do they need him?



If you followed Allan last season it’ll be no surprise to you that his numbers are good. He had a stellar season at both Dundee and Hibs and contributed significantly to any success either team had. He’s a great passer of the ball and a creative outlet. This can be seen when looking at the assists/90 column. Allan comes out on top (0.31) and has more than double the average of Rogic (0.14), McGregor (0.15) and Sinclair (0.06). He does average less goals than Celtic’s three first choice attacking midfielders but it can be argued that he makes up for it in other areas.


As the table above shows, Allan comes out on top in key passes per 90 minutes. That’s a pass that leads to a shot. Moreover, he also remarkably has the highest stats for second and third assists/90. A secondary shot assist is a pass that leads to a key pass and third assist is the one before that. In essence, it means that he is playing more passes in the build-up to shots on goal than anyone else.


Where Rogic and Co. are slightly better than Allan is their passing accuracy in the final third. Allan only completes 59.2% of these passes which is noticeably lower than Sinclair (88.12), McGregor (85.90) and Rogic (78.44). Of course, this is just a snippet of what these players contribute to Celtic. McGregor and Rogic, in particular, are huge players for the Hoops and perform at the highest of levels. However, looking at his numbers and performances last season surely Allan would be worth a shot in a couple of league games if there were injuries or players were needing to be rested?


Celtic’s fringe players are fringe players for a reason, but millions have been spent on the ones mentioned in this article. Looking at their stats, they aren’t good enough to start in this Celtic squad, but they should be at a level where they can still do a job domestically for the team during busy periods of the season.

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