There a number of reasons why the prospect of Celtic losing Kristoffer Ajer is scary.
For one thing, he’s been far and away our best defender this season. While the defence in general has been shaky, and – yes – he’s not brilliant in the air, Ajer has radically improved this season. Not a natural centre-back, Ajer’s reading of the game has been impressive.
His improved organisation means we don’t see as many last-ditch, inch-perfect slide tackles. The ones we see him celebrating like a goal. Big moments they may be, but the mark of a truly top-class defender is not having to make those kinds of challenges. Add to that his improved discipline and leadership qualities, and there’s the makings of a classy defender there. At just 22, time is undoubtedly on his side.
But something strange has happened over recent months; Ajer’s become one of Celtic’s main attacking threats. Especially under John Kennedy, the Norwegian has been given license to roam forward, and in doing so, he creates a number of problems for opposition players.
Foremost of those is the absolute chaos he brings. When he charges up the pitch in possession, it causes overlaps across the opposition half. The defensive line drives forward with him, and whether Ajer finds the sensible pass or continues his attacking momentum, it means that Celtic play an incredibly high line.
Kristoffer Ajer is making it happen for Celtic
Let’s take a look at the most recent game. Celtic overpowered Livingston. It was 6-0, but it could’ve been 10. While Elyounoussi, Forrest, Turnbull and others took the plaudits, Ajer was a massive part of it. With a fantastic assist and a clean sheet, the Norwegian was crucial in the best parts of Celtic’s performance.
Time and again, he showed confidence on the ball. He was taking players on, moving into channels and creating overlaps in wide areas, even. On occasion, he would drift right-wards, letting Jonjoe Kenny lose his man and cut inside to drag players out of position.
Other times, he was dominating central areas in Livingston’s half. This had the effect of creating something of a front 5 or even 6 for Celtic while in possession. Scott Brown, nowadays a deep-lying ball-winner, could operate outside the 18-yard box and create nightmare match-ups for David Martindale’s side.
It might not sound like much, but remember our previous meetings against Livi. Everything was sparse and through the middle. Plenty of crossing opportunities came, but there was little end result. Time and again, the Bhoys were forced to shoot from outside the box, unable to work the space between the defenders and the goalkeeper. On Saturday, though, Celtic had 17 shots, and just 2 were from range [WhoScored?].
A massive part of that was Ajer. By dictating play from deep and dragging his whole back-line forward, Celtic were able to hound Robby McCrorie in the Livingston goal.
What if Ajer leaves?
In the likely scenario that Kristoffer Ajer departs in the summer, the next Celtic manager will be left with a big decision to make. Finding ball-playing centre-backs like Ajer isn’t easy to do whatsoever. The last time we saw someone play like Ajer, it was Virgil van Dijk. I’m not saying that the Norwegian is of nearly the same standard as the Liverpool man. It’s just that it seems as if Ajer has been watching film of van Dijk’s Celtic performances.
If Ajer departs, then, it’s possible that Stephen Welsh will be trained to follow Ajer’s example. However, as good as he’s been, he isn’t a fraction as comfortable on the ball as the midfielder-turned-centre-back. Christopher Jullien also has many qualities, but he doesn’t have the skill-set of Ajer in terms of attacking play.
We’d be losing a huge asset, not just from a defensive perspective. That’s a real blow going forward. The footballing education Ajer’s had, and his positional flexibility, is unusual and enormously advantageous. There are certainly things he can work on, and he’s by no means immune to being caught in possession against high-quality opposition.
Against Rangers this weekend, Ajer has a huge opportunity. If he has the confidence to set the agenda like he has over recent weeks, there’s little to suggest he can’t dominate again.