The Scottish football season is finally over and although it was another clean sweep for…
So far this season Celtic’s form – or lack thereof – has been intrinsically linked to events off the pitch. Fans and the media have fixated on what needs to be brought from outside in to this team, while very little – aside from Dedryck Boyata’s absence – has been made of the team Brendan Rodgers has had to rely upon.
That makes perfect sense for the most part. While the transfer window is open, rich clubs like Celtic will be engulfed in endless transfer rumours and speculation over where they can improve their squad. The Scottish champions certainly have the means to bring in outstanding players and therefore that’s where most of the debate has landed. Yet it does somewhat ignore what has happened on the pitch thus far.
Last week’s defeat to AEK Athens was dominated by the Boyata drama, which ultimately masked some genuine problems in this team aside from whether a young player like Jack Hendry should or shouldn’t have been playing in a game of such magnitude. There were other problems in Rodgers’ team and they have so far been entirely overlooked. Problems like the notable demise of Scott Brown.
After just turning 33, most would have predicted the Celtic captain’s form would begin to tail off either this season or the next, but against AEK and in other clashes so far this season we’ve seen Brown look limited and even frustrated where he once thrived. And when we look at the numbers it suggests key parts of his game have been diminishing for quite some time.
At the base of Celtic’s midfield, Brown has dazzled as not only the general at the very heart of Celtic’s team but also managed to effectively play as a defensive midfielder and deep-lying playmaker simultaneously. What makes the Celtic captain so impressive is his ability to thread a pass just as well as he can shoulder an opposing player off the ball and stop a counter attack.
However, when it comes to the defensive side of his game we have seen some notable dips in his averages this season. For example, the amount of defensive duels Brown attempted in the 2016/17 season stood at an impressive 8.38 per game and that largely stayed at the same rate last season at 8.27, but as we can see so far in this campaign it has taken a notable dip down to 7.76 per match.
Similarly, Brown’s ability to intercept the ball is becoming less and less apparent for Celtic. In fact, his drop from 6.38 in the 2016/17 season to an average of just 4.82 interceptions per game in this current season is an even more notable drop off from the last two campaigns for the Scottish champions.
Although these numbers may seem rather abstract on a graph, they essentially translate to Brown missing one defensive action per game (an attempted header, blocked shot, tackle, etc.) compared to last season and almost two interceptions per game. Which is a huge deal for Celtic’s only defensive midfielder.
Unfortunately, the other side of Brown’s game – the deep-lying playmaker role – has also taken a notable dip so far this season. And although it may not be as integral to Celtic’s overall game it undoubtedly plays a huge part in the 33-year-old’s use for his team and needs to be noted.
As we can see in the graph above, which shows Brown’s passes per 90 minutes, his passing accuracy, the amount of passes he made in to the opposing box per 90 minutes and general through balls, there are notable dips almost across the board.
While the Celtic captain has actually been more accurate with his passing this season, he is currently averaging over 10 fewer passes per match than he was last season and six fewer than he was in the 2016/17 season. It’s worth considering here that Brown is – by far – the most routine passer of the ball for Celtic and Rodgers’ entire game plan is built around the metronome-like manner in which his captain moves the ball from left to right. If Brown is doing that less and less then Celtic may find themselves struggling to get the ball to either wing as quickly or frequently as they are used to and may find it harder and harder to break opposing sides down.
This is perhaps most evident in the really attacking metrics, in which we measure how many passes Brown makes in to the opposing box and general through balls. In the 2016/17 season the midfielder was averaging 1.56 per game, which then fell to 0.93 last season and now currently stands at just 0.71 passes per match in this current campaign. And when it comes to through balls his average has fallen from 0.76 per game to just 0.35.
If any eagle-eyed Celtic fans pondered whether their captain looked a little tepid against AEK then they may be interested to note that Brown only attempted one pass in to the opposing box in the second leg and only attempted one through ball across both legs. Sure, the central midfielder is by no means a playmaker like Callum McGregor or Scott Sinclair, but his ability to pick out passes that could lead to goals has undoubtedly been diminishing for quite some time.
Of course, we are only eight games in to the new season and Brown has had to contend with a handful of tricky European ties within those opening matches, but for many of the metrics mentioned today we could already note a drop from the previous two seasons. The Celtic captain may revert back to his old self and drive up his interceptions or key passes but at the age of 33 it seems unlikely. Rodgers has plenty of off-the-field issues to contend with right now but there may be a problem at the heart of this Celtic team that is getting more and more troublesome by the day.