Celtic didn’t need an epic goalscoring moment to punctuate how delighted they were to have captain Callum McGregor back from injury but they’ll take it.
Ange Postecoglou’s side restored their nine-point lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership, with their main man in midfield ensuring a dominant but often impotent display did not end in frustration.
As if Celtic weren’t delighted enough to have captain Callum McGregor back from injury.
Before the match, Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou was typically forthright about the benefit of his captain’s return, with McGregor featuring for the first time since he was ruled out with a knee injury in October: “The boys stepped up. We did awfully well without him. But he makes our team better.”
Aberdeen were in their best run of home form since 2017, with five league wins in a row at Pittodrie Stadium, and parked the bus to frustrate the visitors. As a result, Celtic had 81 per cent possession, attempted 856 passes and shot 33 times, setting records for possession, passing and shooting numbers for the season.
Celtic set up in their usual 4-3-3 shape against Aberdeen, with Matt O’Riley returning to a right-sided No 8 role as McGregor slotted back in at the base of midfield.
O’Riley had a difficult readjustment initially, making poor touches and missing opportunities to interchange with Anthony Ralston despite gaps in Aberdeen’s system behind Duk, their left-sided forward. Ralston himself was reticent to attack, mindful of Duk’s counter-attacking threat, and didn’t stretch the pitch with his typical overlapping runs.
Ahead of him, Daizen Maeda was ineffective without space to run into and lacks the dribbling ability to compensate.
On the other flank, Aberdeen’s defenders doubled up on Jota, shepherding him into unproductive areas where he couldn’t deliver a useful final ball. Reo Hatate didn’t help much, failing to make his customary movements to offer wide overloads or a passing option ahead of play. To make way for Mcgregor’s return, Hatate was less involved in ball progression and struggled to adapt.
Ironically, after months out injured, McGregor was one of the few Celtic starters to play to their usual level.
Midway through the first half, McGregor demonstrated his creative ability by varying Celtic’s style of attack. Moving in between Aberdeen’s forward pairing, he collected the ball from team-mate Cameron Carter-Vickers on the halfway line.
McGregor was completely unpressured — neither forward pressed him and Aberdeen’s central midfield trio sat very deep. Until this point in the fixture, Celtic had probed their opposition’s 5-3-2 deep block patiently with short, low passes.
McGregor had the vision to spot Kyogo Furuhashi’s run and the technique to play a long, high pass into the small space behind the Aberdeen defence.
Kyogo knocked the ball past Aberdeen goalkeeper Kelle Roos as it landed but, due to a tight angle, was unable to score or assist a team-mate. However, McGregor had shown that switching up Celtic’s approach could lead to chances.
The game was run through McGregor. He attempted 180 passes, completing 170 of them. Aberdeen’s entire team completed just 119. He did try and move Celtic higher up the park, making 31 passes into the final third.
By half-time, Celtic had shot 15 times, matching their tally after 45 minutes against Dundee United in their 9-0 win at Tannadice on August 28. On that day, Celtic had already scored four times by the break while against Aberdeen, two-thirds of their efforts were from outside the penalty area.
This profligacy, and Aberdeen’s frustrating tactics, meant Celtic needed McGregor’s calm leadership and impactful play even more as time went on.
“We needed that today because it’s easy for me to sit here and say we’ve got to stick to the process and play our football, but when you’re out there and you’re so dominant and you haven’t scored it’s easy to get anxious,” said Postecoglou post-match. “Cal (McGregor) kept his foot on the accelerator just the right amount.”
An hour into the game, with Celtic now possessing the ball even more than they had in the first half but still unable to make a breakthrough, McGregor floored that metaphorical accelerator pedal.
His quick pass found O’Riley on the right wing and McGregor opted to risk leaving central midfield, sprinting past his team-mate on the overlap.
The initiative shown by Celtic’s captain came to nothing as his cross was blocked by Aberdeen’s deep back line.
However, McGregor then displayed his tenacious work rate by immediately attempting to recover the ball from the opposition.
He was successful, winning a throw-in and enabling Celtic to keep the pressure on high up the park. This moment highlighted McGregor’s unique ability to give Celtic attacking impetus and defensive security.
Behind McGregor’s proactive protection, Carter-Vickers and Carl Starfelt acted as sweepers. The latter particularly impressed as Celtic limited Aberdeen to only two shots, neither of which hit the target. That’s now seven league games this season in which Celtic have allowed their opponents just five or fewer shots.
McGregor finally made the attacking breakthrough in the 87th minute of the match.
Celtic had squeezed the play after a corner, pinning a tiring Aberdeen close to their own goal. James Forrest, in possession on the edge of the penalty area on his team’s left wing, was helped by Greg Taylor’s underlapping run beyond the forward line.
This smart movement, which had rarely occurred until late on in the game, seemed to unnerve Aberdeen — in the grab below, you can see midfielder Connor Barron and central defender Ross McCrorie both tracking Taylor’s run…
…which opened up space inside for Forrest. O’Riley moved towards him, attracting the attention of more Aberdeen players as McGregor drifted unnoticed into the vacated spot behind, and the Celtic captain received his team-mate’s cute backheeled pass.
Thanks to the runs of his colleagues and his own situational awareness, McGregor, in contrast to his four previous efforts at goal in this game, had room to shoot.
His fine finish, Celtic’s 200th goal under Postecoglou, sealed a heroic return from injury.
This was Celtic’s 17th goal in the final 15 minutes of a match this season, a testament to their resilience.
? The scenes in Pittodrie!
Watch @CelticTV‘s Unique Angle of Callum McGregor’s late winner now ⤵#ABECEL | #cinchPrem | #COYBIG? pic.twitter.com/ORmi4R0TSg
— Celtic TV (@CelticTV) December 18, 2022
Since the 2-0 defeat at St Mirren in mid-September, Celtic have won all nine of their Scottish Premiership games but six of those victories have been by just a single goal, including their last three. They have required patience against defensive tactics from domestic opponents.
However, the previous two games — a 2-1 away win at Motherwell and a 2-1 home win against Ross County — had an expected goals (xG) difference, per Opta, of approximately just 1.0 xG between the teams. That’s a small margin for error.
Against Aberdeen, despite being forced into long shots, Celtic created an xG difference between the teams of more than 2.0. They may have needed McGregor for inspiration but the win was well-deserved.