With Thursday’s highly anticipated Champions League draw fast approaching, one pressing issue that has caught the eye is… Celtic’s pressing.
Much has been made of Daizen Maeda’s exploits in this regard. Stats for sprint speeds and miles covered were generally regaled when he was only a rumored signing, and certainly since the start of his eight-month tenure at Parkhead.
Undoubtedly, Maeda’s efforts have been reflected in various tally stats, as this defense and pressing-focused radar comparing him to Jota in league games indicates:
We can see that Maeda defended and pressed at nearly double Jota’s rate for associated pressures and retakes, with lower but still significantly higher rates across the board. With one exception.
Jota was a bit more efficient in his defense, meaning he won more tackles and defended against dribblers with greater efficiency.
The net impact of all of this is what Defensive Action On-Ball Value (OBV) is designed to try to measure:
It probably won’t come as a surprise that Jota’s attack-centric OBV metrics were far superior to Maeda’s, but he even matched it in Defensive Action OBV. This introduces another question, how did the team fare defending and pressing with Maeda compared to without?
The first two rows of the table were separated in the period of last season from the closing of the summer transfer window until December, then from January until today. I chose to exclude the July and August games of last season due to the big change in player roster and the distorting impact of the two huge thrashings from Dundee and St Mirren.
The various metrics provide a window into the evolution of ‘Ange-ball’, with the players‘ arrival in January last season coinciding with a significant increase in the intensity of pressing.
Importantly, the higher intensity was also accompanied by higher efficiency, as evidenced by the increase in pressure recovery percentage and backpressure recovery percentage.
The average open game chance quality has increased – even though the overall open game xG has been basically the same – as has the number of shots generated by high pressure.
All other things being equal, the higher quality of odds should reduce the variance of outcomes from game to game (i.e. “bad luck”).
However, how will this evolution in Celtic’s style of play translate against significantly higher quality opponents in the Champions League?
There is no StatsBomb data for the Europa Conference League games against Bodo/Glimt, but we can deduce even from the eye tests of those games that Celtic’s pressing wasn’t very successful.
As we look back to the pre-Maeda fixtures in the Europa League group stage last season, here’s how Celtic ranked among the 32 sides in various related metrics:
The table shows various Celtic opposition measures (denoted by ‘-a’) as well as some of the urgent measures already covered in the domestic league.
We can see that the Hoops struggled mightily to limit their opponents’ chances in all facets of open play. At the same time, their ability to create chances out of the high press was limited, despite their volume and relative press efficiency having been average for the 32 teams in the group stage.
Moreover, Celtic conceded by far the most shots from the opposition’s high pressure, averaging six against the 31st-ranked side at 4.5 shots.
Although it seems clear that the change in style of play from the January transfer window has contributed to Celtic’s current unbeaten run in the league, it remains to be feared that much of this is due to the combination of Ange Postecoglou’s system/coaching with the wide disparity in player quality enjoyed by the Parkhead team domestically.
Pressing and counter-pressing effectively requires coordination and an entire team performing their duties. Even though Maeda is an elite individual player in relation to pressing, playing against a higher level of opposition will likely require his teammates to do a better job of matching him to be truly effective.
That can be a tall order given the evidence from last season. Celtic do not appear to have made enough improvements at the personnel level to facilitate a material improvement in dealing with the high pressure from opponents. Maeda may need heroic effort from his teammates to make the most of the Hoops’ high pressure; if that doesn’t happen, Celtic could face a huge challenge to overcome the number of high-quality chances Champions League opponents can create against them.