Celtic could be forced into playing untested defenders for crucial matches

By Euan Davidson

June 4, 2021

See when the Kristoffer Ajer news broke earlier, a lot of Celtic fans were thinking the same thing.

“Nir Bitton at centre-back again, then?”

The Israeli international has been at Celtic for a considerable length of time. He’s outlasted Neil Lennon twice, as well as Ronny Deila and Brendan Rodgers, since signing in 2013. But when he was signed, it was as a holding midfielder; someone who can direct the tempo in matches.

Under Rodgers, that role was often used to perfection. In games where Celtic could afford to absorb some pressure and see out games, Bitton was a frequent contributor. Not quite a victory cigar of a player, but a sign that things were going well.

But with so much disruption to our defence since Bitton joined, he’s been forced to deputise as a centre-back, and even now, he still looks uncomfortable in that role. He’s made 52 appearances as a defender during his career [Transfermarkt], and a considerable number of those have come when Celtic were short on numbers. So without Jullien, and with Ajer leaving, our defence looks threadbare for the Champions League qualifiers.

Even Jack Hendry, who struggled at that level against AEK Athens in 2018, looks to be leaving Celtic. Or at the very least, his future is uncertain. So next to Stephen Welsh, who is there?

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It might be time to drop Leo Hjelde in at the deep end.

Celtic could do worse than trying out young Norwegian talent, risky at it is

Yep. Leo Hjelde.

Now, this would obviously represent a gigantic step up in terms of opposition for the Norwegian youth international, but these games have been the making of Celtic players before. Kieran Tierney, for example, impressed at that level not long after coming into the Bhoys squad. Ajer, himself, used European experience to fortify his skill-set.

The same could be true of Hjelde. Yes, it’s a massive risk, but his presence improved Ross County’s defence considerably in 20-21. With John ‘Yogi’ Hughes and Leo Hjelde in tow, the Staggies went from conceding over 2 goals a game to roughly 1.5. That’s a huge improvement, and ultimately, it was a major factor in them staying up.

Bitton: a solid player, but not a centre-back / (Photo by Craig Foy/SNS Group via Getty Images)

If it has shades of Ajer at Killie, then it should. Yes, Hjelde is just 17, but he’s a natural centre-back. That gives him the jump on Bitton, who has never truly looked comfortable in a back-line, least of all in Europe.

Yes, this is a huge risk we’re talking about. But this is where Celtic find themselves, and with little other options ahead of some crucial matches, don’t be surprised to see Hjelde line-up in big matches before too long.

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