How can Stuart Armstrong’s return help galvanise Celtic?

How can Stuart Armstrong’s return help galvanise Celtic?

By Niall Murray

It’s been another year of domestic domination for Celtic. They sit ten points clear at the top of the Premiership and are very much on track to complete another treble. That said, unlike last season this campaign has not been a breeze for the Parkhead side.


Replicating the form of last year’s invincibles was always going to be a tall order. After all, going a full season unbeaten is an unbelievable achievement for any side no matter the circumstances. However this season we’ve not only seen Celtic lose games but also look pretty flat on many occasions. Of course, they’ve still often been able to grind out results and as the old cliche tells us that’s the sign of a championship winning team.


Many players are still having impressive seasons: Scott Brown, Kieran Tierney and Callum McGregor have all delivered for Celtic. Similarly, Olivier Ntcham has stepped up and been the main beneficiary of Stuart Armstrong’s absence.


Conversely, there’s no doubt Celtic have missed Armstrong in this campaign. Contract negotiations seemed to affect his performances at the start of the season and since then a knee injury and hernia surgery have meant the Scotland international has missed a sizeable chunk of the season. He’s now back and after some game time under his belt against Rangers and Motherwell is raring to go, which can only be good news for Celtic.


Although Brendan Rodgers’ side still looks on course for a historic second treble, they do look flat. They’ve dropped nine points in their last ten games and failed to score in four of them. This is where Armstrong comes in. He may just be the fresh legs Celtic need to galvanise them ahead of their final push towards more silverware.



What Stuart Armstrong brings to the table


Armstrong was pivotal in Celtic’s success last season. The midfielder scored a whopping 15 goals and provided seven assists. To give that some context, the only Celtic players with more assists were Patrick Roberts, Scott Sinclair and James Forrest. Moreover, he finished the season as Celtic’s top goalscorer and on the same number of goals as Motherwell’s talismanic striker, Louis Moult.



The graph above highlights just how much of a contribution Armstrong makes when it comes to setting up goals. Compared to Celtic’s central midfielders he comes out on top as he averages 0.31 assists per 90 minutes. Armstrong’s assist rate is higher than that of more attacking players like Tom Rogic (0.26) and Callum McGregor (0.15). However what is more startling is just how much of a gap there is between him and Olivier Ntcham (0.06) in this metric. After all, the Frenchman is the player who often plays the same position as Armstrong.


Compared to the majority of his teammates Armstrong has had less game time. What’s impressive is that he is still Celtic’s fourth-best assist provider in the Premiership. The only players who have produced more are Moussa Dembele (7), Tierney (5) and Scott Sinclair (5). Simply put, that’s an impressive return from the Scotland international.


Creativity and creating opportunities


Goals and assists are not all that Armstrong brings to this Celtic side. In fact, he’s a vital component in the Parkhead side’s ability to create scoring chances. Celtic were never going to replicate the ungodly number of goals they scored last campaign, but Armstrong is the kind of player that allows them to produce more opportunities on goal. The graph below explains.



Firstly, and perhaps most startling, is the number of key passes Armstrong makes compared to Celtic’s other central midfielders. Simply put, a key pass is a pass that leads to a shot on goal. This campaign Armstrong averages just under three of these a match (2.99). This is significantly more than Ntcham (1.80), McGregor (1.67), Rogic (1.50), Brown (0.88), and Eboue Kouassi (0.85).


Furthermore, only Forrest (49) and Tierney (40) have produced more overall key passes than Armstrong (39) this season. It’s fair to say that Celtic are much more likely to create goalscoring opportunities when the 25-year-old is in the team. However, key passes aren’t the only department that Armstrong excels in. He also produces an impressive number of secondary shot assists (SSA) and establishing passes (EP) compared to his central midfield teammates.


SSA are the passes before a key pass and in this metric Armstrong (2.15) is only bested by Rogic (2.38). EP are the passes that come before an SSA and again the 25-year-old Scotland international comes out on top. He produces 1.30 on average per 90 minutes. What does this tell us? Simply put, it tells us that Armstrong is a key cog in this Celtic side when it comes to the build-up play that leads to goalscoring opportunities.


This is highlighted in the graph above in the xG Chain/90 section. This measures how involved a player is in the overall build up to a shot on goal. Armstrong’s credentials are clear to see here. He’s involved in the xG Chain more than any other central midfielder at Celtic.


The 25-year-old is vital for Celtic in terms of creating chances and his return comes at the perfect time for Rodgers and his team. A fit and raring to go Armstrong might just be the shot in the arm the Parkhead side need as they look to fufil their ambitions of completing another historic domestic treble.


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