Defending Kristoffer Ajer's departure from Celtic and why Carl Starfelt could ultimately be an improvement

All things considered, Kristoffer Ajer had a really strong 2020/21 season.

Kristoffer Ajer left Celtic to join Brentford for a reported £13.5 million deal. Picture: SNS

That sounds egregious considering the context of Celtic’s failed ten-in-a-row bid where, with perhaps the exception of David Turnbull (who had youth and freshness on his side), every single player was criticised by fans and pundits, but this was still a side that tallied 77 points and, for all their troubles, would have competed for the title race down to the last couple of weeks in most seasons. The fact that they didn’t speaks as much about Rangers’ dominance as it does their own failing.

Well, Kris Ajer was voted player of the year for this team and it was a deserved honour. Though he followed the trend of the club’s established stars and didn’t have as good a campaign as those prior, he didn’t drop off anywhere near as much in terms of individual performance. And that in itself is impressive because he had the right to drop off the most.

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If reports are to be believed, he made it clear to Celtic last summer that he would like to go challenge himself at a higher level and earn boatloads of cash doing so. The problem was that Celtic had a historic title to chase and, therefore, nobody was going anywhere. If Ajer was sulking he didn’t show it, unlike some of his team-mates.

Carl Starfelt is a Swedish internationalist.

He was also playing in a defence that was falling to pieces around him. Injury robbed him of his most competent partner, Christopher Jullien, for the majority of the season, while Shane Duffy was an absolute disaster of a signing. Nir Bitton continued to do Nir Bitton things when playing alongside the Norwegian in reserve (i.e. perform against the jobbers; fall to bits at the first sign of a proper challenge) and Ajer ended up the campaign looking after youngster Stephen Welsh. Not to mention the fact the goalkeeper behind him changed about every three weeks and he often had to cover for a sub-par right-back, or even play the position himself. It’s a wonder he didn’t fall to bits.

The time was definitely right for the player to move on and Celtic can count themselves fortunate they still got in excess of £13.5million for someone in the last year of their contract. They will surely have inserted a sell-on clause into the deal also, which could reap them a generous benefit in the future as he definitely has the ball-playing ability, stature, strength and defensive tools to one day be sold to a bigger club for three times as much.

He goes with the best wishes of most level-headed Celtic fans, though there remains an element of the support who seem to treat every departure as a betrayal on par with Judas Iscariot. He played a significant role in the club winning three of four consecutive trebles and shouldn’t be blamed for trying to further his career. Yes, Celtic are a much bigger and historic club than Brentford, but let’s not be naive. Playing for a club in the bottom half of the English Premier League, regardless of who the team is, provides a clearer pathway to joining one of the world’s most prestigious clubs than playing in Scotland.

Into the fray steps Carl Starfelt. The Swedish centre-back was confirmed shortly after Ajer’s departure, joining in a reported £4.5m move from Rubin Kazan. The timing of his arrival immediately identifies him as the former Celt’s replacement, though it’s likely the club will be in the market for another experienced central defender, especially after Bitton’s latest high-profile gaffe in the 1-1 draw with Midtjylland in Champins League qualifying on Tuesday evening.

Ajer was a tremendously important player for Celtic due to his ability to cut through the defensive lines. Having a centre-back capable of dribbling past opponents and pushing the play up the park is a massively underrated weapon to have, particularly for the bigger clubs who’re often met with a wall of resistance every time they get near the opposing penalty area. That’s because there’s only so many match-winning threats the dogged defence can hope to cover, and you can frequently see defensive structures collapse when an unexpected interloper arrives to assist his attacking team-mates.

Playing at centre-back, Ajer averaged 1.26 one-on-one dribble attempts, 4.16 progressive runs and 0.31 shot assists per 90 minutes last season (per Wyscout). For Starfelt at Rubin Kazan last term it was 0.21 dribbles, 0.3 progressive runs and 0.05 shot assists. Though we can expect all three of these stats to rise as he plays on a team more dominant against the league’s opposition, it’s clear that he’s not a like-for-like replacement.

What Celtic will lose in ball-carrying they hope to make up in passing. Starfelt is superior to Ajer in that regard, averaging 94.1 per cent accuracy on attempted passes and 86.9 on forward passes, compared with Ajer’s 92.4 and 84.6. New manager Ange Postecoglou has made it known he wants his defenders to pass the ball quickly and sharply, and Starfelt fits the bill.

There’s also scope for him to provide greater defensively solidity. His lack of aerial ability is a concern – particularly as Welsh also lacks dominance in the air, though this should recede as a problem once Jullien returns to the side – but Starfelt ranks clearly ahead of his fellow Scandinavian in percentage of defensive duels won (79 to 72.4), loose balls (69.2 to 56.1), slide tackles (75 to 43.8) and interceptions (5.12 to 4.26). This is the area where he’ll mostly be judged. Postecoglou has promised attacking football and the early indications are Celtic will play with a very high line, which will eventually leave the centre-backs exposed to counter-attacks.

If the Swede can snuff out these dangers regularly then he may prove himself a better fit than Ajer, while Celtic will net themselves a cool £9m profit to help rebuild other areas of the team.

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