The hardest position to play in this Celtic team: why leeway needs to be given to two players

This might seem an odd question, but what is the hardest position to play in the Celtic team right now?

Some would answer full-back, given that manager Ange Postecoglou demands 90 minutes of box-to-box energy on each flanks. Others might say central midfield, given the intense pressing when out of possession. It certainly isn’t striker, given the amount of chances created by the assist king Jota alone.

Being a centre-half for a team that is top of the league and reigning champions doesn’t, on paper at least, seem an arduous task, but there is a strong argument for saying that it is one of the most demanding roles in this Celtic team.

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Firstly, they are expected to keep a clean sheet every week. There’s pressure there. But in this iteration of Celtic, they are so exposed. Because the full-backs dash forward at will and Postecoglou is very reluctant to deploy a bona-fide sitting midfielder, the two centre-backs are left on their own, sometimes up against two strikers. Moreover, there is a request upon them to step forward and start attacks. The Australian manager admits that he asks them to push up and augment the forward line.

Of course, supporters don’t often see this side of the game. It can lead to more mistakes, in a higher-risk strategy. On Saturday, in the 2-1 win over Motherwell, the centre-halves were Stephen Welsh and Moritz Jenz. Neither are first-choice in this position, usually back-up to the currently injured Cameron Carter-Vickers and Carl Starfelt. Welsh and Jenz had some hairy moments in a match that Celtic generally struggled in across the whole team but Postecoglou is pleased with what they are giving him.

"They did okay, they did well,” Postecoglou responded when asked to give an appraisal on the duo. “They didn't have to do too much defending. They stepped out a few times which is good.

"It's hard because last year Carl and Cam were mainstays, neither of them really got injured. I have always felt centre-back pairings are really important in terms of understanding, in terms of knowing each other's movements, the sort of idiosyncrasies they have. When you put one in, it's a lot easier to adjust. But for Welshy and Mo, who has only been with for us a couple of months, as a new defensive pairing it's not easy. Especially with the way we play, because they have a lot of the ball, we are very aggressive with our defending, they have to do a lot of one-on-one defending and covering at the same time.

"So it's not easy but I think every game they play they will get a better understanding of one another, which I think will help us. You can have as strong a squad as possible but in my experience in football every now and then you will get hit in the same area and you realise why you need four centre-halves. Even then you are thinking 'well, have we got enough?' But you can only have so many players. But they were better today and I'm sure they will grow confident from there.”

Celtic's Stephen Welsh applauds the fans at full time during a cinch Premiership match between Celtic and Motherwell at Celtic Park, on October 01, 2022, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)Celtic's Stephen Welsh applauds the fans at full time during a cinch Premiership match between Celtic and Motherwell at Celtic Park, on October 01, 2022, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)
Celtic's Stephen Welsh applauds the fans at full time during a cinch Premiership match between Celtic and Motherwell at Celtic Park, on October 01, 2022, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

The likelihood is that both will be needed against RB Leipzig on Wednesday in the Champions League, with Carter-Vickers and Starfelt battling against the clock to be fit. “We will see,” said Postecoglou when asked about Carter-Vickers’ chances. “He got some treatment again and will get some on Sunday and we will see how he is Monday and Tuesday and make a decision. He is not far away but we have another 12 games in 40-odd days so I am not going to put him in unless he is absolutely right because it would be silly of us to put him in and then lose him for another few games, particularly with Carl out for at least another couple of weeks. Cam's pretty good, if he is ready he will play and put his hand up, I don't need to question that. But we have got to make sure we make the right decision. We will give him every chance.”

If it is indeed Welsh and Jenz tasked with keeping the German Bundesliga outfit quiet, then they will need more help from those in front of them than they got on Saturday, when Celtic toiled against a resolute Motherwell team. Kyogo Furuhashi’s 16th-minute opener ought to have settled the hosts down but they never truly hit their stride and were undone just before half-time by a comical own goal involving Josip Juranovic and Joe Hart. Only the right-back and goalkeeper will be able to tell you who was at fault, but there were many a groan and a couple of giggles when Juranovic’s chested pass back to Hart was misdirected, the ball trundling towards goal and beyond the flailing goalie to add to the calamity. It gave Motherwell something to build on in the second half.

Their good work was undone when Reo Hatate uncorked a vintage strike into Liam Kelly’s far corner on 64 minutes, a goal fit to win most matches. The Japanese, the best of an average bunch, blotted his copybook just before full time though with a slack pass that required Celtic captain Callum McGregor to haul down Ross Tierney as he scampered in on goal and take a red card for the team. Had the dismissal came ten minutes earlier, then one wonders whether the champions would have held on. Motherwell played well and weren’t short of confidence, only in tangible quality.

As it was, Celtic prevailed 2-1 to reclaim top-spot in the cinch Premiership they ceded to Rangers earlier on Saturday, but improvement will be needed for the rest of a jam-packed October.

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