Why Kristoffer Ajer might not have been in best role for Celtic

It might appear academic when considering that Kristoffer Ajer agitated for a move away from Celtic last summer.

Celtic's Kristoffer Ajer could possibly have better shouldered midfield responsibilities than his central defence duties. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

However, just imagine the mountainous Norwegian had an unexpected change of heart over signing an extension to a contract with a year left to run. A change of position for the 23-year-old should be the outcome of that unlikely scenario.

Ajer’s surging, near-unstoppable, mazy runs from deep in Celtic’s derby debacle on Sunday, meant his contribution even in the 4-1 loss would have represented a capable midfield showing. However, the problem at the weekend, and perhaps longer than has been fully appreciated, is that he was berthed in the heart of defence. Precious little in that department from Ajer suggested he truly cuts it as a centre-back in a highly-pressurised environment.

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At 6ft 6ins, and boasting a sharp turn of pace, the player seems precisely the sort of physical specimen that should be able to defend his penalty area from both aerial and ground threats. Yet, he failed miserably on both fronts. When it comes to attacking high balls, or sensing danger, Ajer’s frame and fleet-footeness have been providing false impressions.

He is neither aggressive enough, nor seems to possess the required natural defensive instincts to repel opponents’ attacks. The upshot is that he could be held culpable for three of Rangers’ four goals. He did not get tight enough to Kemar Roofe for the home side’s first - his standing off the striker crucial in allowing the wriggle-room to shape his body and chest the ball in. Even more criminal from Ajer was his decision not only to fail to close the gap on Alfredo Morelos as he faced up to the Colombian as he prepared to shoot, but turning his back when the forward delivered the thunderous effort to make it 2-1. His part in Rangers’ third goal was equally inglorious as - not for the first but perhaps more like the 33rd time this season - he got under a header to allow Roofe to nod in.

Beyond these pivotal moments, Ajer exhibited a real self-containment. No impression was given that he took on board his status as the senior, experienced centre-back of Celtic’s backline pair. As a result Stephen Welsh was left to manage his way through only his 17th start for the club.

When Ajer was recruited from home country club Start in January 2016, he was then playing as a midfielder. It is easy to see why. He has great feet, strong running power, and can spot a pass. Ultimately, converting him into a centre-back, may not have been the best use of his talents. Not least when he has lacked the guidance and more combative centre-back approach of a partner such as Dedryck Boyata or Christopher Jullien, who has been lost to injury this season but in retrospect compensated for Ajer’s more lax tendencies around his own penalty area.

Celtic have lacked the necessary physicality, both in defence and midfield, in this ruinous season for them. And the simple fact is that Ajer couldn’t be deployed to give them greater bulk and power in the centre of the park as a consequence of the paucity of suitable centre-back alternatives. That issue might have resulted in a missed opportunity.

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