The £4.5million signing from Manchester City made his debut against Linfield on Wednesday night and already has the Parkhead support waxing lyrical about his abilities, as Craig Fowler writes
A signing cannot be judged on one game. Even the most reactionary of fans should know that. However, supporters will always rest easier when a new signing’s debut goes smoothly, especially when he’s the most expensive signing the club have made in a decade.
Olivier Ntcham will face many tougher opponents than Linfield. In fact, with all due respect, there’s a chance every opponent he faces this season will be tougher than the part-time side from the Irish League. Therefore, one must refrain from anointing him as the next big thing to come to Scottish football. And yet, it must be said, he looked pretty damn impressive during his first 60 minutes in a Celtic shirt.
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The Frenchman started the match as part of the midfield two in Celtic’s unorthodox, but no less effective, 3-1-2-3-1 formation. Though his partner may have been Callum McGregor, it was Scott Sinclair whom he regularly interacted with during the match. Last season’s Player of the Year was tasked with keeping the shape of the side, and therefore he stayed wide more often than we’re used to see from the predatory midfield who loves to drift into central areas. It was Ntcham’s job to feed him the football.
In order to do so, Ntcham would often drop a little deeper, almost alongside sitting midfielder Scott Brown, and pick up possession before moving it swiftly on. Some new signings can disappear into the background of games, unsure of how to make an impact amid a team of unfamiliar faces. Ntcham was the opposite. He wanted the football.
Once in possession, he would knock a five or ten-yard pass to a team-mate in space. Linfield sat so deep that it wasn’t hard to find another hooped shirt in the vicinity. He did, however, show off a bit of range with two crossfield passes in the opening period, both of which found their targets in the gap behind the full-back and the byline.
What became quickly apparent about Ntcham’s style was the quickness in which he wanted to move the ball. It was control, touch, pass. Control, touch, pass. Fellow midfielder Nir Bitton has often been criticised by Celtic fans for slowing the tempo down too much, almost being too composed with the ball at his feet. From initial impressions it doesn’t look like Ntcham is going to be that sort of player.
What he does like to do is have a pop at goal whenever the opportunity arises. Overall he had six strikes at the Linfield net, though most were either blocked or deflected. This included Celtic’s opener, when Sinclair was alert to a loose ball and finished at a narrow angle.
In addition to his enthusiasm for driving the ball towards goal, Ntcham also showed the ability to take it for a run when the timing was right. Showing deceptive quickness for someone with such a robust frame, he beat two players on a Celtic counter attack around the 40-minute mark before winning a foul 30 yards from goal. Earlier in the half he coolly, under pressure, dummied the ball and ran around his opponent to keep an attack going.
In the end, he played a significant part in all three goals scored while he was on the field. There may have been an element of luck in two of them, but in football you make your own luck sometimes. The urgency in which he struck the first shot caught the Linfield defence cold, and they were unable to deal with it properly. And his pass for the third may have been wayward, but he showed great drive and intuition to take the pass, move it quickly and then dart into the open space.
It was an encouraging hour and left Celtic fans in great anticipation for what’s going to come next.