3 ball-playing centre-backs who'd fit seamlessly into Ange's Celtic

By Euan Davidson

March 26, 2022

We’ve talked before, you and I, about building from a position of strength, and no area has been stronger than centre-back at Celtic this season.

We’re far removed from the shambles of last campaign. Organised, well-drilled and brave, the pairing of Carl Starfelt and Cameron Carter-Vickers has been excellent over 21-22. Ange Postecoglou, a famed attacking coach, has built a defence that is truly hard to beat.

However, we need to face up to a reality. Cameron Carter-Vickers, much as we’d love him to say, might not be at Celtic Park next season. If we did get him, it’d be fantastic – he and Starfelt only seem to build a better understanding as weeks go by.

Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

You can bet, though, that Celtic scouts are keeping their eye out for a potential replacement. Perhaps they already have two in-house, with Bosun Lawal and Dane Murray. The duo have been extremely impressive at Celtic B Team level.

That’s as may be, though. In terms of steeling ourselves for European competition, another centre-back might do the trick. But what kind?

We had a look around the leagues, specifically focussing on ability to press, pass and even create. Tackle winning percentages and interceptions are fine and well, but Ange Postecoglou’s system needs centre-backs who’ll play high, can win the ball back quickly, and have a bit more to their game.

So, without further ado, here are three ball-playing centre-backs that we think would do well for Ange’s Celtic.

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Experience, guile and impressive numbers; Koffi Djidji might fit the bill for Ange’s Celtic

In the past with these kinds of articles, age has been a focus point. Ideally, you’d want to sign a player for Celtic that can impress, before leaving for more than we paid. That’s been the model, to varying degrees, at Celtic for a while now.

However, 29 is hardly ancient, and Koffi Djidji’s Serie A experience would be more than handy. The French/Ivorian centre-back has made 20 appearances for Torino this season, and he’s turning heads with his numbers.

Firstly, the basics; Torino have conceded just 30 goals this season. Though they’re 11th, their defence is overwhelmingly out-performing the teams around them. Verona, above them, have conceded 17 more, Bologna have let 44 goals in [Sky Sports]. Djidji is certainly playing his part, with 2.2 tackles and 1.6 interceptions a game [WhoScored?].

Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images

Advanced stats show an even brighter picture. Djidji, is the 97th percentile for ball pressures amongst every centre back in the Top 5 European leagues [FBRef]. He also receives 0.51 progressive passes per 90, showing that he’s capable of playing high up and receiving the ball with ease, while he also takes on more dribbles a game than most of his contemporaries.

His short passing could use work, hovering just under 90% completion, but he has a decent distribution range, and those numbers would skyrocket at Ange’s Celtic.

Experienced, more than capable of winning his Aerial Duels, and with a good few years left in the tank, Djidji might be worth a look.

Emanuel Aiwu – a great option for Ange’s Celtic, at just 21

The last time we signed a player from Rapid Vienna, he ended up having one decent season, before breaking lockdown rules and receiving the biggest fine for a Celtic player in years.

Still, it’d be daft not to consider the talent coming out of the Austrian Bundesliga these days, and Emanuel Aiwu is a very talented man indeed.

Aiwu’s numbers are astonishing. He averages 19 ball pressures per 90 minutes, ranking him amongst the most aggressive pressing centre-backs in Europe [FBRef]. What’s more, it works; he ranks extremely highly amongst top European centre-backs for successful tackles and interceptions.

Photo by ANP via Getty Images

What’s more, he loves carrying the ball, a la Kristoffer Ajer, a key trait for a centre-back in Ange’s Celtic side. 0.8 dribbles a game in the Europa League is pretty considerable [WhoScored?].

Admittedly, his passing numbers don’t stand out, but he has the energy and intensity to improve ten-fold at just 21. Carl Starfelt’s pass completion rate wasn’t outstanding before joining Celtic; his is now the highest in the Scottish Premiership.

There are flaws in his game; Aiwu could be more commanding aerially. Stylistically, though, Aiwu is a name for the future.

Houboulang Mendes might be smartest pick of the lot for Celtic

Lorient, by their own standards, aren’t having a phenomenal season [Ligue 1], but it’s not down to centre-back Houboulang Mendes.

Mendes, who can also play at right-back, is an interesting player. At 23, he’s got over 100 professional appearances, most of those coming on the right flank. However, he’s been moved centrally this season, and it’s yielded some impressive individual results.

Compared to other centre-backs around Europe, Mendes is a creative powerhouse. He creates 0.97 shot-creating actions a game – think “key pass” for a similar metric. Essentially, he makes things happens for his team-mates, and finds them in space so they can shoot. It’s that simple.

Photo by DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images

His progressive carries and dribbles are similarly impressive. Mendes carries the ball forward at least five yards more than 3.5 times a game [FBRef], showing a willingness to get on the ball and advance into opposition territory.

French-Guinean, the 23 year old can’t take too much of the burden for Lorient’s struggles. He’s excellent in the press, winning the ball back an average of over 4 times a game from pressing opposition. Combine that with 92% short pass completion, and you have a player who’d fit well into Ange’s high-intensity, win it and move it on philosophy at Celtic.

The best part? Mendes is a free agent in the summer [Transfermarkt]. If you want a free agent centre-back who can immediately adept to a high press and attack from the back, then Houboulang Mendes might be your man.

Read more: Celtic youngsters like Karamoko Dembele can’t be punished for showing ambition