Many describe third place teams in the Champions League groups “parachuting” into the Europa League. If we apply this metaphor to Celtic’s performance in their final Champions League group match against Anderlecht, the Celtic plane suffered some turbulence before the crew ejected and headed into the Europa League and Stuart Armstrong was the drunk pilot doing shots of whiskey before take off.
Overly complicated metaphors aside, Stuart Armstrong’s performance in the first half at home to Anderlecht had many Celtic supporters ready to move on from the midfielder. Armstrong is coming off a season last year where he was seemingly the first name on the Celtic team sheet, getting call ups and starts for the Scottish National team, and even leading the Tartan Army to victory (albeit too little too late for the World Cup). Armstrong finished the SPFL season 13 goals and 6 assists, good for a 0.79 Goals + Assists per 90 minutes.
However, as this season began and the good feeling surrounding the well quaffed midfielder started to fade away. Armstrong was on a contract that expired at the end of the season and seemed to be an impasse on a new agreement. Though a one year extension was eventually agreed to, as fans sometimes do, Celtic supporters were not too pleased with a player who seemed to be looking for greener pastures.
This feeling, combined with a reduction in goals and assists has only furthered the belief among some Celtic supporters that Stuart Armstrong is now surplus to requirements. Indeed, Armstrong is on the score sheet less, scoring only 1 goal and 3 assists so far in league play, 0.49 Goals + Assists per 90 minutes in the SPFL. These numbers have some Celtic fans asking, “What is wrong with Stuart Armstrong?”
And the answer to that question is “Nothing, thanks.” We can expand upon that answer and add a “regressing to the mean”. If you are here, you are likely at least somewhat familiar with the advanced stats in football and that they may tell us more about a players performance compared to traditional stats. While Armstrong may not be hitting the heights he did last season in goals and assists, what do these underlying stats such as xG, xA and others say?
If we first compare expected goals for Stuart Armstrong, we do see numbers that have gotten worse so far this season. Last season in 2,168 minutes, Armstrong had an xG per 90 minutes of 0.33. If we compare that to this season, we see a decreased xG at 0.12 per 90 in 818 minutes. It seems so far that the midfielder is no longer the goal threat he was last season.
However, we might need to dig a little deeper into these shot numbers. First, let us address the elephant in the room with Armstrong’s xG numbers last year. Despite putting up very impressive numbers, Armstrong overachieved his xG numbers in his goals scored, scoring 13 goals with an xG of 7.90. Now, some players are able to consistently able to over-achieve their xG over multiple seasons, but so far this season it seems Armstrong is not showing he is able to do that.
Of course, it is still too early in the season to come to widespread conclusions, however there is no shame for a central midfielder not being able to continuously finish at that high of a rate. With his xG total at 1.02 and 1 goal scored, Armstrong is about at where we would expect. In addition to perhaps seeing a regression to the mean scoring goals, Stuart Armstrong has also found additional competition for spots in the Celtic midfield.
While Armstrong was not around the Celtic first team until this time last season, from that point on it seemed he was one of the first names on Brendan Rodgers team sheet. However, this season we have seen the emergence of Callum McGregor, goal scoring threat, as well as Oliver Ntcham’s arrival. McGregor has contributed 5 goals already this season in league play, while Ntcham has also added 3 goals.
This competition has seen Armstrong playing less. Last season, Armstrong appeared in 63.39% of available minutes in league play, while this season he has only appeared in 54.37% of available minutes. He has seen a slightly reduced role so far this season, but while he has not been able to score as much for Celtic this season, he has contributed to the attack other ways.
While Armstrong might be seeing some regression when it comes to goal scoring and xG, his passing numbers suggest he is at a similar if not better level than he was last season. Last season, he averaged 0.24 xA per 90 minutes, while this year he is averaging 0.29 xA per 90. He averaged 1.79 Key Passes per 90 minutes (or passes that lead to a shot), but is averaging 2.4 this season. All of this has lead to a similar Assists per 90 minutes for Armstrong as last season, averaging 0.37 per 90 this year compared to 0.42 last season. He is setting up his teammates just as well when he is playing, he is just seeing them converted at a slightly reduced rate.
Along with stats showing how he sets up shots, Armstrong also seems to be just as vital in Celtic’s attack overall as he was last season. Looking at xSA, which quantifies the pass before the pass before the shot, Armstong is averaging 0.17 xSA per 90 minutes this season, while last season he averaged 0.07 per 90. This is another metric showing Armstrong has been more than a great head of hair this season.
Tuesday night was a rough night for Celtic and their supporters. There is no hiding that Armstrong had a poor game and was subbed out because of it. This game seemed to be the final piece of evidence for many Celtic supporters that Armstrong has regressed and is no longer necessary. However, over this European campaign, who DID have good performances? Ntcham seemed to do much better than Armstrong at home against Anderlecht and set up goals in Belgium, yet his passing was erratic before those goals. The list of Celtic players who get a passing grade in Europe this campaign is a short one and casting Stuart Armstrong aside because of a small sample against superior competition seems short sided.
Yet, Armstrong still seems destined for pastures new soon. He added a year to his contract, but will find himself on an expiring contract at the start of next season. While he his stats suggest a player still able to create for his teammates, we might not be able to expect a double digit goal total from him every year. If Celtic were to get in offer in January or in the summer that is near their valuation of him, it might be wise to sell. If someone offers a transfer sum for a goal scoring midfielder for Armstrong, I would certainly take that offer.
This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.