With the Scottish Premiership title all but wrapped up, Celtic could be forgiven for taking their foot off the gas from time to time, yet in Wednesday night’s 0-0 draw with Dundee another tepid performance seemed to suggest something more troublesome was brewing in the background.
Despite having over 20 attempts on the Dundee goal, the Scottish champions simply couldn’t find a route to scoring. In fact, Dedryck Boyata perhaps came the closest when an ill-timed slide tackle in the first half bounced off the on-running Dundee forward only to then role past Craig Gordon in goals and hit the inside of the Celtic post.
It was an underwhelming performance that unfortunately characterised the poor form Brendan Rodgers’ side currently find themselves in: three draws and one defeat in their last 10 games. Most teams would be happy with that kind of form but for Celtic it can often lead to grumbles from a support that demand a whole lot more.
The problem is that the Bhoys simply aren’t playing as well as last season. When the stats for this current campaign are compared to the unbeaten one of last year it quickly becomes abundantly clear.
Last season’s champions walked to the Premiership title scoring an average of 2.66 goals per game. This current campaign has Rodgers’ side netting 1.91 on average. Similarly, Celtic’s shots and passes in to the final third per game are also both down on last season’s averages.
Narrowing in on Celtic’s ability to create goals this season compared to last offers a clearer understanding of what’s going wrong. Last season the Parkhead side were averaging 9.32 through balls per game and that figure has now dropped to seven. And key passes per game have fallen from 2.91 to 2.25.
Perhaps the most obvious fault in Celtic’s team this season is one man: Scott Sinclair. Hailed by many in the previous campaign as their key talisman in attack, the English forward hasn’t looked anything like himself this season. It has cost his team dearly.
For example, in last season’s Premiership, Sinclair was averaging 0.69 goals and 0.31 assists per game. Those figures have both dropped significantly, with the Celtic forward only picking up 0.44 goals and 0.16 assist per game.
To put that in to a wider context, it means Sinclair bagged 21 goals and eight assist last season yet currently finds himself on nine goals and assists this time around with just six league games left.
Of course, Sinclair isn’t the only player to experience a lull in form this season. Although Moussa Dembélé had to contend with overcoming a hamstring injury at the start of the campaign, he hasn’t quite looked himself this year even when fully fit. His goals per game has, worringly, dropped from 0.87 in last season’s campaign to almost half that, with a running tally of just 0.44 in this current league run.
Most teams can contend with one goalscorer losing a bit of form. Usually a midfielder or two can step in with the odd goal from one game to the next, or a backup forward can step in to the role and pick up the slack. But Rodgers has had to improvise and shuffle his team around to compensate for both of last season’s top goalscorers getting nowhere near the heights they had previously set.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t been as easy as the manager had probably envisaged. Although James Forrest has caught the eye when called upon, netting 16 goals this season, the vast majority of Celtic’s other attacking players have also been largely unavailable.
Tom Rogic has featured in just 17 of Celtic’s 32 league games to date, contributing a mere four goals to the cause. While Stuart Armstrong has had to contend with constant knee injuries that have limited his goalscoring from 17 last season to just five so far in this campaign.
Similarly Leigh Griffiths, who scored 18 goals and picked up 15 assists last season, has been out for most of this current campaign with a calf injury that has limited what he could offer his Celtic colleagues.
Rodgers and the players haven't been able to recreate the perfect storm of yesteryear but it doesn't mean it won't happen again next year after a full pre-season.
Ultimately, there’s no overarching theory or deep-rooted problem running through Celtic’s slightly diminishing form this season. Injuries and poor form have simply accumulated at Parkhead and Rodgers has had to continue marching on in spite of it all. Even if his team aren’t quite as dazzling as they were last season.