Grading centre backs will always be much more of a challenge than grading attackers. They…
Celtic put on another impressive show of dominance in Sunday’s 4-0 thrashing of Rangers at Hampden Park. Although the Ibrox side were poor by their own standards, Brendan Rodgers’ side were diligent, composed and showcased the kind of performance we’ve seen a dozen times since the former Liverpool manager came north.
When Celtic are this good it doesn’t really matter which domestic challenger stands before them. Whether it be Aberdeen, Rangers or Motherwell in (another) cup final, the former invincibles are still pretty untouchable when they get in to top gear.
Yet at the very heart of Sunday’s game was a newcomer. A relative novice, still learning his trade in the wheelings and dealings of Old Firm drama and the all-round hustle and bustle of Scottish football. This was only Olivier Ntcham’s third match against Rangers. Yet you wouldn’t have known it from his calm and composed performance.
Indeed, it’s a true testament to the young, French U21 international and how quickly he’s managed to settle in to life at Celtic that it’s quite easy to forget that he only arrived in Glasgow nine months ago against the lavish backdrop of a £4.5 million transfer fee. Where other players would have wrestled and squirmed to justify such a price tag, Ntcham has quietly got on with things and made himself indispensable when nobody was watching.
A large part of that is down to Ntcham’s versatility. The 22-year old can play the calm and collected metronome role of Nir Bitton, the tougher, more physical defensive midfield position of Scott Brown or – in arguably his best role – Ntcham can of course move further up the pitch and play as an attacking midfielder like Stuart Armstrong. And in all three cases Ntcham has stepped in when needed and done superbly well.
If you don’t believe me just look at the stats. When we compare all of Celtic’s central midfielders – Brown, Ntcham, Bitton, Armstrong, Tom Rogic, Callum McGregor and Eboue Kouassi – it’s the young, Frenchman that comes out on top in passes in to the opposing third every 90 minutes. Although Ntcham’s attacking talents may not be as obvious in terms of goals or assists, he is often the one creating an attacking move two or three passes before the goal.
If that’s not enough, then we can also underline Ntcham’s average of 1.41 through passes per game this season. That current rate is twice as potent at McGregor’s average but also pips Armstrong’s 0.82 per game by quite a margin. Only Rogic averages more in this Celtic squad.
Similarly, when we look at who tends to make Celtic’s establishing passes Ntcham is once again at the very top, second only to Armstrong with 1.31 passes per game. Which, when we consider that Ntcham has spent much of this season playing further back than Armstrong, is even more impressive. Whichever way we look at it, Ntcham is undoubtedly one of Cetlic’s most useful and important attacking midfielders.
And in many ways he should only become more and more important to the Scottish champions in the coming seasons. His main rivals in Celtic’s midfield – Armstrong and Rogic – are both running in to the last year of their contracts and could be off this summer, not only leaving space for Ntcham to play further up the pitch but also offering him the chance to engulf the responsibilities and reputations both players currently have as Celtic’s playmakers-in-chief.
Rodgers will also have to contend with Brown moving on too. Although the Celtic captain has been superb this season and has shown no signs of slowing down, there’s no denying that we’re quickly approaching the point in which the club will have to begin preparing for the inevitable scenario of replacing the central midfielder.
Although Ntcham wouldn’t be an ideal like-for-like replacement, the club would look to the young midfielder to take on a large chunk of Brown’s leadership role in the middle of the park if someone like John McGinn was quickly shoehorned in to the side either this summer or the next.
Aside from McGregor, it’s quite easy to look at Celtic’s current roster of central midfielders and safely assume that Ntcham may be the only one left at the club in three or four years time. This squad is due something of a renovation in the middle of the park and any plans for the future should be built around this young, talented French player.