The 3 most improved Celtic players in 2021

By Euan Davidson

December 25, 2021

You could look at Celtic in the year 2021, and for at least half of it, argue that every single player in Hoops could’ve improved.

But if the first half of the year was a grim spectacle, the second half was full of hope. Ange Postecoglou arrived, and it seemed to give every single member of the squad a lift. No doubt, Big Ange will have known these players, but not on the personal basis he would’ve needed to pick a team. Not at the start, at least.

So, it gave everyone a blank canvas. From Vasilis Barkas to Albian Ajeti, everyone who had underperformed in 2020-21 had the license to start anew.

And, really, you could say almost everyone has improved. But there are some players who stand out head and shoulders above the rest and no, that isn’t a Joe Hart reference.

Whether it was a positional tweak or just more playing time, there are 3 members of the Celtic squad who have exceeded expectations this year, and shown massive progress.

Let’s take a look.

The SPFL do Celtic a massive favour, as Nicholson becomes permanent CEO

The SPFL do Celtic a massive favour, as Nicholson becomes permanent CEO
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Stephen Welsh; a potential Celtic starter in years to come

Stephen Welsh started the calendar year as something of a wildcard option, and finished it as a largely dependable centre-back for Celtic.

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In the 19-20 season, the Coatbridge-born defender wouldn’t have been overly familiar to Celtic supporters. Greenock Morton fans, though, saw him play 18 times, in a promising enough loan spell [Transfermarkt]. From that point, perhaps another loan looked most likely. Or, far worse, anonymity in the purgatory between the first-team and the Academy.

However, that’s not what happened. With Kristoffer Ajer, Christopher Jullien, Shane Duffy and Nir Bitton suffering injuries, loss of form or both, Welsh found himself making appearances under Neil Lennon. In all, he played 21 times last season, rapidly improving as he went along.

With Celtic needing defenders desperately in the summer, Welsh had to step his game up. And, generally speaking, that’s exactly what he’s done. His interceptions and tackles have improved, his sense of positioning is better, and he’s adapted really well to what Ange Postecoglou needs.

Thus far, he’s gone from completing 85% of his passes in the league to nearly 93% [WhoScored?]. He’s also winning far more of his aerial duels, and playing with a competence that belies his age.

He could yet be a really good starter for Celtic. With some quality competition in Cameron Carter-Vickers and Carl Starfelt, he’ll only improve.

Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Callum McGregor; now the Celtic captain, and playing like it

Callum McGregor is arguably our best player, but he’d probably admit 20-21 wasn’t his best campaign. It wasn’t really anyone’s.

With Scott Brown suffering injuries, and Neil Lennon moving his midfield shape practically on the fly, it was only really Player of the Year David Turnbull who shone in the middle of the park. McGregor took a lot of flak for his performances, in a season that needed easy scapegoats.

There were even some murmurs of discontent in the support about him taking over the captaincy from Scott Brown. That looks utterly daft now, and it didn’t make much sense at the time.

To say he’s grown into the role would be underplaying it. Callum McGregor has been utterly colossal, and drives right at the heart of what makes this Postecoglou team entertaining to watch. His natural box-to-box tendencies have been unleashed as a number 6, and despite having more of the ball, it hasn’t impeded his stamina, passing or general performances one iota.

McGregor is averaging more tackles, shots and key passes per 90, while his already metronomic passing has somehow improved too [WhoScored?]. Playing fewer long balls, and dictating play through the middle of the park, McGregor has brilliantly taken up the role vacated by Scott Brown in the summer.

Having shone for Scotland at Euro 2020, he looks utterly freed by the change of staff at Celtic Park. He’s a guaranteed 7 or 8 out of 10 each time he steps on to the pitch and he’s leading the team by example.

A superb footballer.

Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Anthony Ralston; nobody would’ve seen this coming

Who else could we finish on?

It’s maybe a point that’s been laboured somewhat, but there’s a simple metric to show you how things have changed for Anthony Ralston at Celtic. Before the season started, the Academy graduate had played more games for St Johnstone than he ever had for the Hoops.

Yep – despite being handed his Celtic debut in the 15-16 season, Ralston had more football in one season with St Johnstone than he’d ever had in Green and White.

Now, that’s obviously not the case, because Anthony Ralston is far and away the most improved Celtic player of this year, or maybe any other in some time.

Signing a new deal in the summer only served to anger Celtic fans, who had no idea how much was going to happen between seasons. There was even more anxiety when he played in Champions League qualifiers. But then he played in Europa Qualifiers. Then, in the league.

You could genuinely see people’s opinions – mine included – change in real time. Legitimately, I’ve never seen anything like it.

Ralston has been absolutely phenomenal. The CIES Football Observatory and InStat performance Index has Ralston top of every player in Scotland. He even earned a call-up to the Scotland squad [FourFourTwo], after considerable campaigning from Celtic supporters.

Perhaps Ralston was always this good and he wasn’t given a chance. Or, his improvement has been so substantial that nobody could’ve seen it coming.

Either way, it’s been a year to remember for Anthony Ralston.