Celtic moved to 63 domestic matches unbeaten on Saturday afternoon, breaking a British record they set a century ago. The Scottish champions achieved that historic feat with a 4-0 crushing of St. Johnstone away from home, with goals coming from Scott Sinclair, Moussa Dembélé and Olivier Ntcham, as well as an own goal from Steven Anderson.
While making history, Brendan Rodgers’ side also extended their lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership table, moving four points clear of second-placed Aberdeen and nine clear of fierce rivals Rangers, albeit having played a game more.
Celtic opted for the exact same system and personnel that performed so well in midweek against Bayern Munich. Against the odds, they competed with the German giants throughout, creating multiple chances and controlling possession for large spells. They lost 2-1 and exited the Champions League, but gained confidence.
They took that belief into Saturday’s clash with St. Johnstone, who were simply unable to put up a decent fight. In the end, the Bhoys enjoyed 71 per cent of possession, had 21 more shots and 13 more shots on target. Here, we analyse the four key tactical insights from the game.
BACK THREE WORKS AGAIN FOR CELTIC
Against Bayern, Rodgers went with a rough 3-6-1 system which had plenty of fluidity in midfield. The shape worked well, causing the German side countless problems. On the back of that team display, the Celtic manager correctly decided not to change things up against St. Johnstone.
The back three almost always meant that they had an extra man in the build-up of possession. Dedryck Boyata was sometimes deliberately left by the home side’s defence, which is an indication of the Belgian’s lack of incisive passing. However, he did help to progress the ball well simply by driving forward.
Nir Bitton was given much more attention by the St. Johnstone defence, but he rarely anything away and regularly used his strength, composure and technique to drive beyond his man and provoke pressure further up the pitch.
ST. JOHNSTONE MAN-MARK
Tommy Wright’s side are renowned as one of the tougher nuts to crack in the Scottish Premiership. Their resolute defence is largely down to an intensive man-marking style that sees them look to cover every individual opponent closely all over the pitch.
This style was present once again against Celtic on Saturday afternoon, but it only worked well as a form of damage limitation for a portion of the first half. While it meant that the Celtic ball-player had few open options to pass to, it also allowed said ball-player to move up without encountering real pressure.
St. Johnstone’s man-marking approach meant there was a lack of collective pressing and cohesive possession; too many of their players were out of position upon regaining the ball, making it easier for their visitors to counter-press and immediately win it back.
BROWN CONDUCTS BRILLIANTLY
Scott Brown is seen by some as a limited bruiser, but he proved once again on Saturday that he is so much more to his team. The Celtic captain moved intelligently and passed efficiently to conduct build-up and ensure his side were able to build attacks successfully.
Even without the ball, the 32-year-old was able to affect the game positively. He would occasionally drop back into the defensive line, creating numerical superiority and enabling one of the centre-backs to push on. Alternatively, he would pull to the side and encourage Bitton to drive forward centrally into the space vacated.
Prompting, probing and linking, Brown ensured that Celtic’s passing was purposeful and progressive.
FLUID ATTACK TROUBLES HOME SIDE
After the game, Rodgers told Sky Sports he was pleased with the way his side orchestrated attacks. “I think we showed some great quality football in our positioning,” he stated, “and how we played out of pressure.”
St. Johnstone’s man-marking eventually played into Celtic’s hands in this respect, as it led to several situations of 1v1s in isolation that they were destined to lose.
Further forward, the fluidity of Rodgers' side made them extremely difficult to mark man-to-man. Dembélé led the line well, dropping back into midfield to reduce the distance between he and his team-mates and offer a forward pass.
From there he looked to pass off to runners or turn and dribble; whatever his decision, he dragged defenders out with him.
A telling example of the dangers this posed were seen during the build-up to Celtic’s third goal. Anderson followed the French striker into a deep position, leaving St. Johnstone’s exposed defensive line to do so.
However, having failed to win possession or force it backwards, he left space behind to be attacked. Running back and facing his own goal, he inadvertently tapped in past Zander Clark.