Celtic remain cream of the crop despite shaky spell

Emerging forces in Scottish football will definitely complicate Celtic's title defence...

Blair Newman

The opening eight rounds of Scottish Premiership fixtures this season have produced unexpected results on a consistent basis, leading to a league table nobody thought was possible prior to the campaign. Currently, Celtic sit third behind Hearts and Hibernian, with Kilmarnock and Livingston separating the reigning champions from fierce rivals Rangers in sixth.

Brendan Rodgers’ side had to negotiate a tough Champions League qualification schedule, eventually reaching the Europa League group stages, whilst managing a turbulent summer transfer window that saw two key players in Stuart Armstrong and Moussa Dembele depart for pastures new.

With crucial midweek games and a squad in transition, Celtic stuttered domestically, giving credence to the idea that their dominance could be challenged this term. Here, our friends at Football Whispers delve deeper into that idea.

It’s difficult to imagine Livingston maintaining their good form. Promoted via the play-offs last season, they are currently on their second manager of the campaign after Kenny Miller’s early exit saw Gary Holt appointed boss. Despite the staff turnover, their playing style remains similar. They play more long balls than anyone else in the Scottish Premiership, focusing on intense defending. While this has allowed them to make life difficult for opponents, their current form may not be sustainable.

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Expected goals (xG) gives us an insight into the quality of chances that a team is creating, while expected goals against (xGA) indicates the quality of chances conceded. Livingston’s xG is the eighth best in Scotland’s top-flight, while their xGA is the seventh best. With this in mind, it’s fair to say they have performed above expectations to reach their current league position of fifth.

They cannot be considered realistic contenders to Celtic’s throne, but what about Hearts, Hibs, Kilmarnock and Rangers? The early numbers back up on-pitch evidence that suggests these four teams may represent more credible challengers.

Hearts began the season in exceptional form, going undefeated in seven league games before a 3-1 loss away to Rangers prior to the international break ended their run. While that result may lead some to predict a decline from the Edinburgh side is on the horizon, they had a number of good scoring opportunities at Ibrox and were ultimately let down by individual errors as opposed to poor tactics.

Craig Levein has made his side a more effective attacking outfit this term, something evidenced by the fact that they are second only to Celtic in terms of xG. This is the result of a new frontline comprised of multiple threats, including Uche Ikpeazu, Steven MacLean and Steven Naismith.

Hearts’ city rivals Hibernian are also now viewed as a genuine force within the Scottish Premiership. Neil Lennon, who won the title on two occasions while manager of Celtic, has implemented exciting and effective attacking play at Easter Road – his side have scored more goals than anyone else in the league.

Seen primarily as a possession-based team, Hibs are also defensively astute, with an xGA only bettered by Celtic, Kilmarnock and Aberdeen. With three quality centre-backs in Efe Ambrose, Ryan Porteous and Paul Hanlon protected by Australian international Mark Milligan and backed up by on-loan Liverpool goalkeeper Adam Bogdan, they appear harder to break down than in previous seasons.

Kilmarnock are the Scottish Premiership’s most improved team in the last year. Under Steve Clarke, they have developed into a resolute defensive side with a growing attacking threat. They are arguably the most cohesive side, with and without the ball, outside of the Old Firm. Defensively, their zonal 4-4-2 has led to the league’s second-best xGA. And, going forward, their xG of 13.4 is better than free-flowing Hibs’ current record.

The only team to have convincingly defeated Killie this term are Rangers, who won 3-1 at Rugby Park in a League Cup clash. Since Steven Gerrard took charge and brought in a more compact defence and an improved attacking structure, Celtic’s biggest rivals have once again looked like real title contenders.

Their sixth-place position at present is not necessarily representative of how good they have actually been so far – they are in the top five both for xG and xGA, while issues such as regular European games and a complete overhaul of the squad haven’t helped them.

The improvements made by Hearts, Hibs, Kilmarnock and Rangers, as well as Celtic’s stumbling start, has led to fresh intrigue regarding the Scottish Premiership, but it’s too soon to state that a title race is on the cards. Rodgers’ side are still the best in the league.

They average 21.2 passes per defensive action; the closest to them in this category are Hibernian, who average 14.5. This suggests that they are the most difficult team to dispossess in Scotland’s top tier, something backed up by the fact they average more possession than anyone else. What’s more, they turn this into chances, leading the xG charts.

Celtic may be defined by their attack, but they are also defending better than their rivals. No team allows their opponents to make fewer passes per defensive action on average than their 4.93, which shows the quality of their pressing. Meanwhile, their xGA is also lower than that achieved by Clarke’s brilliantly organised Kilmarnock.

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Rodgers’ side looked back to their best when thrashing St Johnstone 6-0 before the international break. The combination play of Tom Rogic and James Forrest was crackling, while Odsonne Edouard looked comfortable playing in a wider position to accommodate Leigh Griffiths.

With form and confidence returning to the champions, it’s also worth noting they have emerged from a tough run of games in a reasonably strong position. Their opening eight fixtures included clashes with four of their top-six rivals – Hearts, Kilmarnock, Livingston and Rangers – and Aberdeen, last term’s runners-up. Despite this tough start, they remain just three points off of top spot.

Celtic welcome Hibernian to Parkhead this weekend. Should they secure all three points in that match, they will bolster their own hopes of continued domestic dominance while simultaneously knocking their opposition down a peg or two. The stats suggest Rodgers’ men remain the best in Scotland. Now it’s time for the results to follow.

* Odds subject to change

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