Paul John Dykes:
The image of this elegant, 6’ 5” Norwegian, gliding through opposition defences like a biblical character through the Red Sea, is one we should all savour.
For Kristoffer Ajer is one of the finest prospects of Celtic’s eight-in-a-row era, and it is just a matter of time before the vulturous clubs of elite status, or more specifically greater financial clout, begin to spread their grubby wings to circle Celtic Park again.
I’ve heard the criticisms – he can’t defend; can’t keep his hands off opponents; was posted missing for Rangers’ winner last month…
I’d counter all of that by pointing out that he is still developing as a centre-half, is a born leader, celebrates tackles like his life depends on it, and turns defence into attack with a coolness that belies his 21 years.
Now with just under 200 career appearances (plus 14 international caps) in the tank, Ajer has developed a solid understanding with Chris Jullien at the heart of Celtic’s defence.
Having been plucked from the relative obscurity of the Norwegian Eliteserien’s lower reaches by fellow countryman, Ronny Deila, Ajer has already shown enough class to arouse the interests of AC Milan, Arsenal and Leicester.
Ajer was born during the campaign when Celtic stopped the ten; now he needs to stay and lead his side to their very own ten. It is imperative that Celtic do everything in their power to keep him beyond the end of this season.Listen to the latest episode of the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind
The most telling thing for me is that our Players of the Month for December are dominated by our centre-backs. It was a month of grind, and a game too far for most. Neil Lennon showed faith in his tried, trusted and successful performers, but we are left to wonder if he ignored warning signals. Or, like us, did he have utter belief in his players turning up one last time?
Neil has shown belief in Ajer, who is still learning and is years away from being in his prime as a centre-back. His partner is at the accepted prime age for defenders when they are long in the tooth and been there, seen it and done it.
And I believe we are seeing that in Ajer. We are seeing potential in a player who has moments of doubt and rashness. A player who struggles against certain opponents but also carries his talent well. Really well at times, and there were times during December when he just needed to be steady and was, hence this award.
My worry is the number of games he has played and the potential for burn-out. Mental exhaustion is just as worrying as physical exhaustion. With that, I wouldn’t be averse to a more experienced centre-back being brought in to allow Ajer to develop and rest when needed.
At 21-years-old, Ajer is far from the finished article. At times his positioning lets him down and he has a tendency to see red and dive in to a situation, where a cooler and more experienced head would possibly prevail.
But with every game, every week and every season, he improves. And will continue to do so, with players around him to learn from, be they on the same or opposing side.
What he brings to the team now is a level of passion and fight that is only otherwise visible in Scott Brown. He will back every player in green and white to the hilt. At times he strides out of defence on a marauding run, ready to put all and sundry to the sword. In defence, he acts as our own Colossus, putting everything on the line to repel all invaders.
There are some things you learn and some things you can’t.
In the meantime, feed the Norwegian Bear!
Two key composite defensive metrics and Ajer…
* Defensive Action Success Rate (DASR)%
* Possession Won %
Possession W 87%
Possession W 89%
Possession W 91%
After stalling last season, Ajer benefitted from being part of a steady partnership with Jullien. There are rough edges, for sure, but Celtic have a genuine talent in this lad.
ACSOM’s Player of the Month for December:
1️⃣ Kris Ajer
2️⃣ Christopher Jullien
3️⃣ Ryan Christie