This season was meant to be all about Celtic’s tenth SPFL crown in a row. Though, for various reasons, that has fallen by the wayside.
The Hoops are 23 points behind Rangers and it looks as though their pursuit of ten in a row is falling flat in the dirt.
This has been a disastrous campaign and it’s rather surprising that Neil Lennon is still in the job. With the likes of Odsonne Edouard and Kristoffer Ajer repeatedly linked with moves away, times could get even tougher for the Northern Irishman.
It’s clear why the former is such a pillar for Celtic – he scored 28 times and registered 19 assists last season. Ajer, however, seems to coast through games with undoubted solidity in the backline.
Signed for a grand total of £0, Ajer arrived as a free transfer when he was just 17-years-old in 2016. Since then, he has come on leaps and bounds, establishing himself as a leader and stalwart of Lennon’s side.
The very fact Celtic valued the centre-back at around £20m last summer is a testament to what they’ve done with the player and indeed, how impressive the business has been.
Since heading to Scotland, the 22-year-old has played on 159 occasions for the Hoops and along the way, has earned comparisons to a certain Brazilian legend in Cafu.
Of course, Ajer can play at right-back and as a holding midfielder as well, but it’s in the middle of a back four where he’s looked the most comfortable. He has become an impenetrable wall on his way to winning three consecutive Scottish Premiership crowns.
Though, most impressive is the fact that even during tough times, he’s stood out. Celtic’s defence has been woeful this season, conceding 19 in six Europa League outings and shipping 11 more goals than Rangers in three fewer games in the league.
That being said, Ajer has still been a rock.
John Hartson commented earlier this month: “He’s grabbing the bull by the horns and he’s almost dragging the team through, even to these draws. You see him making these lung-bursting runs forward, he’s marauding with that big stride, he’s challenging, on his backside, making blocks, in the opposition’s penalty area.”
Hartson continued: “He’s a credit to the rest of the players. They should all look at him and if they’d all adopted the same attitude as Ajer then might have made a better fist of it in terms of holding on to the title.”
That’s about as good as praise can get, but let’s analyse the statistics too. The Norwegian has won more tackles per game (1.5) than any other centre-back in the squad this season, while his pass success rate of 89.2% is the fourth-highest of Celtic’s regular starters.
Furthermore, he ranks in the same place for interceptions per game (1.3). This isn’t a player who hides away and he has shown as much this season. The fact he stepped up and slammed home the winning penalty in the Scottish Cup final is evidence.
Considering they didn’t pay a penny for him, this has been outstanding business. The £10k-per-week earner is a vital cog in the machine at Parkhead.