Craig Fowler argues that Celtic should stick with the teenager in the centre of the defence in order to help the player realise his incredible potential
It’s been another quiet transfer window from Celtic and fans, naturally, are getting impatient. The dip in performance leading up to January had many wondering whether Brendan Rodgers has already improved the current core of the side as much as anyone possibly can, and if they want to take the next step and assert themselves on the continent then they’ll need to bring in a few top class players in order to do so. Unfortunately, things aren’t quite so simple.
Signing a proven talent isn’t easy if you’re a Scottish club, especially in the January transfer window. Great players come with greater cost, both in terms of transfer fees and weekly wage. To recruit someone who’ll definitely improve the side, it’ll likely see a new transfer record set and the star in question become their highest paid player.
Are Celtic ready to do that? It’s been two seasons of back-to-back Champions League football, so they’re on their way to expanding the budget. But having qualified in consecutive campaigns before (even four seasons under Gordon Strachan) the board will know that it doesn’t guarantee success the following year, especially with Scotland’s poor club co-efficient and the path to the money pot becoming increasingly treacherous with each tweak to the qualifying rounds.
Furthermore, Celtic aren’t shopping in a market stacked with available talent. A signing who’ll appease the fans (and critical ex-pros) will have to be someone who is better than what’s in the current squad, affordable to the club’s budget, preferably young enough that they can get better, but not so good that an English Premier League side will be sniffing about.
A good example of why it’s so tough is Olivier Ntcham, the marquee signing from last summer at £4.5million. The Frenchman has great potential and is certainly more than good enough for the Scottish league. But has he made the team much better, if at all, on the European stage? Not yet anyway.
That’s where Celtic are at this moment. In time, with continued qualification, they can become a side who can go out and buy a top player in his peak years from one of the other big-fish-in-small-pond clubs who often appear in the Champions League. At this moment, though, with Scotland’s miserly TV deal, it would be a case of speculating to accumulate, and we all know how horribly wrong that can go.
Even when they’ve managed to get themselves a bona-fide star, it’s usually been a younger player; a project they develop and later sell on, like Virgil van Dijk, Victor Wanyama, Fraser Forster, and even Moussa Dembele. While they could certainly be a little more active in this window, to shake things up if nothing else, they still operate under the same model.
That’s why, regardless of how many defenders they recruit in this window, Krisoffer Ajer must remain a part of the regular defensive rotation for the rest of this campaign.
Injuries and Jozo Simunovic’s drop in form have necessitated Ajer’s ascent into the first-team. Before then he was very much a long-term project. Loaned out to Kilmarnock last term, he impressed during his spell at Rugby Park, but was still expected to see little action in the Celtic starting XI. Up until the start of December he’d featured in only six games. He’s played another six since then and has been the most dependable centre-back over that time. It’s a small sample size, yes, but it’s enough to highlight the enormous potential the 19-year-old has.
He arrived at Celtic as an attacking central midfielder from IK Start in his native Norway. Right away his new club had him pegged as a centre-half of the future, and it’s easy to see why. Not only does he have the physical advantages - standing well over six foot - he fits the mold of a modern day central defender thanks to the ease in which he both carries and passes the ball out from defence.
We had anticipated this, though. After all, why else turn a playmaker into a centre-back? What’s really exciting about Ajer is the defensive prowess he’s already shown. At present, he leads the Scottish Premiership in two significant advanced stats for a player in his position. He’s No.1 for all Scottish Premiership players in aerial prowess, winning a whopping 80 per cent of his duels. He also sits atop the pile for percentage of defensive duels won. He’s not getting bullied by robust opponents. Though he may look wiry, he’s showing strength beyond his years, and should naturally get tougher as time goes on. He’s got the raw tools to be a really excellent defender, and not just in Scottish football.
Obviously, there are parts of his game which need to improve before we can anoint him as the next Virgil van Dijk. A section of the Parkhead crowd were critical in the wake of the draw with Rangers, questioning his anticipation and positioning at a couple of the chances which came the way of Alfredo Morelos. Most were willing to forgive these errors, recognising that they’re going to be made by someone with so little experience at the position. Besides, in a couple of those chances, it could easily be argued that his more accomplished partner, Dedryck Boyata, was equally at fault, if not more so.
Celtic should be equally as forgiving. While they may wish to sign a centre-half with experience for their Europa League adventure (with Marvin Compper ineligible to play) they should still have Ajer as his partner. Playing regularly will make him better, and should help him realise his true potential quicker. There is almost nothing to lose on the domestic scene - they would probably win the title even if they played the rest of the season with a man down - and there’s enough evidence to suggest the other centre-backs at the club aren’t going to be able to improve the team on the continent in the long term.
Supporters are always longing for the next star to come to the club. In Ajer, they already have one in their midst.