Grading centre backs will always be much more of a challenge than grading attackers. They…
It’s always good news when a young, talented player signs a new deal with a Scottish club and that was certainly the case this week when Kristoffer Ajer agreed to stay at Celtic for another four years.
The 20-year-old has had quite an impressive 12 months. After spending the second half of last season on loan at Kilmarnock and impressing the Ayrshire locals as best he could, Ajer returned to Celtic last summer and has since gone from backup defender to the club’s latest emerging star, leapfrogging the likes of Nir Bitton, Jozo Simunovic, Marvin Compper and Erik Sviatchenko along the way.
Where the Scottish champions had once dazzled in spite of a wobbly defensive unit, Brendan Rodgers’ side now look far more resolute in their defending. In Ajer – and to a lesser extent Jack Hendry – Celtic fans can finally share the exuberance and hope they lavishly apply to their forward line to a defence that has always looked a little neglected and downright dysfunctional outside of the talents of Kieran Tierney.
But Ajer did only turn 20 last month. And despite a new four-year deal, designed to either deter Europe or England’s biggest clubs or indeed allow the club to cash in when they do come, the Norwegian defender has still only played 34 senior games for the Glasgow side. So are we getting a little ahead of ourselves here or is Ajer genuinely worth the hype?
Ajer’s most obvious trait is his aerial superiority. At 6 ft 5 and with a stride to outrun most strikers, the Norwegian youngster has the frame and physicality to make Gordon Strachan weak at the knees. And since nailing down a spot in Celtic’s first team that’s primarily where his most impressive attributes have come from.
At 6.78 aerial duels per game, Ajer is the Celtic defence’s most frequent aerial dueler with Hendry (5.99), Dedryck Boyata (5.73) and Mikael Lustig (5.25) in steady pursuit. Although the Norwegian defender is only 17th among the league’s defenders due to Celtic naturally doing a lot less defending than most teams in the Scottish Premiership.
However, when we break that down into how many headers Ajer wins we get a clearer picture of just how good he is in the air. When we break the league’s defenders down into the percentage of aerial duels that they win the Norwegian defender sits ninth in the division with a 69.51% success rate.
Although there are still defenders within the league that are better at winning headers – such as the far more experienced Bruno Alves or Christophe Berra – Ajer’s rate is almost identical to Boyata’s equally impressive aerial presence and most importantly considerably better than anything else Rodgers has at his disposal.
Hendry clocks an aerial success rate of around 62.5%, while Simunovic (59%) and the often makeshift central defender Mikael Lustig (62.56%) all linger around 8-10% poorer than Rodgers’ preferred duo. And Sviatchenko, who currently finds himself on loan to Danish club FC Midtjylland, was notching up an average of 57.5% last season before the Celtic manager opted to turn to Ajer.
Another aspect of Ajer’s game that seems to underline Rodgers’ trust in him is his ability to pass and dribble with the ball as a competent, technical player. Since arriving in Glasgow, the Celtic manager has often had to balance physicality (i.e Boyata) with ball control (Simunovic) but in Ajer he may finally have a defender that can do both.
As previously alluded to, Ajer’s strides up the park are an exceptional sight to behold and although not all of them lead to goals or even a constructive use of Celtic’s attacking talents, they do showcase the Norwegian defender’s confidence and ability to start attacks from the heart of defence.
Ajer is currently averaging 1.52 dribbles per game at the moment for Celtic. That’s a fair bit more than Hendry (1.26) – Rodgers’ only other technically proficient central defender – and drastically more than Boyata (0.58) and Simunovic (0.26). In fact, it’s even more than Lustig’s average of 0.56 dribbles per game – which should be a lot higher for a player that plays predominantly at right back.
When it comes to passing the ball and creating plays from defence, it’ll then come as no surprise that Ajer is once again the most accurate among his defensive peers at finding teammates up the park and doing his best to keep the ball on the ground.
The Norwegian attempts just 1.98 long passes per 90 this season, which is a fair bit less than the 2.9 and 2.91 Boyata or Hendry respectively attempt. And while both make more attempted through balls per game than Ajer, the 20-year-old’s success rate of 25% is considerably more impressive than the 12.5% Boyata has averaged this season or indeed the 14.29% Hendry currently stands at.
On top of that, we could also add two further strings to Ajer’s attacking bow. The fledgeling talent’s 81.48% accuracy for passes into the oppositions defensive third is better than any other Celtic central defender and his key passes (the pass that leads to the shot) per 90 average of 0.06 is quite low but still better than what Simunovic, Boyata or Hendry can muster.
Essentially, Ajer is not only dribbling with the ball more often than any other Celtic central defender but he’s also a far more accurate passer of the ball when it comes to finding teammates in the opposing half or indeed in helping his team set up plays.
Indeed, with all this in mind, it’s worth pointing out that Ajer’s breakthrough season has been one in which we’ve seen a defender essentially thrive in almost every aspect of his game. As the current concept of the No.9 must be so much more than his predecessor’s, so too does the modern central defender need to header, tackle and physically win games just as much as he can pull off a perfectly-weighted 40-yard through ball to a midfielder or forward. In this young, Norwegian star Rodgers has a player that can do all of that in the Premiership.
However, the real test of Ajer’s star quality will come this summer when Celtic undertake another perilous journey to qualify for the Champions League. Although Ajer did play in both legs against Zenit St Petersburg, his experience in high-pressure European games is exceptionally limited and it will be in some far-flung, half-empty stadium in Kazakhstan, Lithuania or perhaps even Scandinavia that Celtic fans will turn to their newest defensive gem to ensure they pass the test.
Celtic players can cut their teeth in domestic competitions but it’s within the European limelight that they are truly elevated to star status. It happened last season for Moussa Dembele and this season we saw Callum McGregor dance through Bayern Munich players to the adoration of the Parkhead faithful. Ajer hasn’t put a foot wrong yet, but it will be within the unforgiving arena of European football that we will see what this young player is truly capable of.