Celtic have clinched their seventh successive SPFL Premiership with a 5-0 victory over Old Firm rivals Rangers and are on course to claim a domestic treble for the second season in a row. Manager Brendan Rodgers has been a significant reason for this success and has been linked to the soon to be vacant Arsenal managerial position as a result and there are many Celtic players that have also been attracting transfer speculation based on their performances and potential. The club are in a strong financial position and don’t have to sell but an element of their strategy should be to develop young stars and then maximise the profit they can make on them, especially from the cash rich English Premier League, to reinvest in the team.
Here Pure Fitbaw profiles five Celtic players that English Premier League clubs should be targeting this summer and outline which clubs should be looking at those players. These players are all proven winners, are used to playing in front of huge crowds and have Champions League experience.
Kristoffer Ajer is a 20 year old ball playing, 6’5″ centre back with experience of playing over 100 professional club matches. He was, at the age of 16, the youngest player ever to captain a team in the Eliteserien; Norway’s top football tier. Ajer moved to Celtic at the age of 17 and, after a loan spell at Kilmarnock, has now forced his way in to the first team and is a regular starter at the back for the side and has gained two senior international caps for Norway. His physique is a clear attribute but what really sets him apart is his ability to dribble past opposition players into the midfield, disrupting the opposition’s defensive structure, before picking a pass. He contributes 0.76 secondary shot assists every 90 minutes – these are the passes that lead to a key pass – which is the highest for any centre back in the division this season. Ajer should remain at Celtic for a few more seasons to fully develop but given how rare players with a skillset such as his are Celtic should be ready for interest from top tier teams throughout Europe in the near future.
Who should be interested and why;
Liverpool – Given the success they have had with Virgil Van Dijk Liverpool might be keen to cut out the middleman, Southampton, and get their next tall ball playing defender directly from Celtic. Their own 20 year old Joe Gomez has some similar attributes to Ajer and Liverpool could phase out 32 year old Ragnar Klavan and develop the pair as a future partnership.
Tottenham Hotspur – Toby Alderweireld’s contract talks have stalled and Spurs seem likely to sell him in the summer. Ajer could join, initially as joint third choice with Juan Foyth behind Jan Vertoghen and Davinson Sanchez, to develop under Mauricio Pochetino. Has the pace and ball playing skills required for their system while also adding more height to their backline.
Arsenal – Per Mertesacker is retiring, Laurent Koscielny is 33 soon and both he and Shkodran Mustafi are making regular individual errors. The 20 year old Konstantinos Mavropanos made an assured debut against Manchester United at the weekend and he and Ajer could be eased in over the next couple of seasons before becoming the long term first choice pairing.
Leicester – Wes Morgan and Robert Huth (who hasn’t played all season and seems certain to leave) will both be 34 at start of next season. Loanee Aleksander Dragovic may join permanently in the summer and they do have promising youngsters Elliot Moore and Josh Knight but reinforcements are clearly required to partner Harry Maguire.
Everton – Ashley Williams will be 34 and Phil Jagielka will be 36 at the start of next season. Ramiro Funes Mori is just returning from a serious injury which kept him sidelined for almost a year and Eliaquim Managala returns to Manchester City at the end of a loan spell (which he has been inured for most of) in the summer. Aside from Michael Keane, and even he hasn’t performed at the expected level, Everton need a significant rebuild in this area.
Southampton – The aforementioned middleman could roll the dice on repeating the extraordinary profit they generated on Virgil Van Dijk. If they avoid relegation a more pressing priority may be to purchase a reliable goalscorer for next season but Ajer, even at 20, might already be an upgrade on some of their defenders such as Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida and could develop there before moving higher.
The 20 year old left back made his senior competitive debut for Celtic in April 2015 and has excelled ever since – recently claiming the PFA Scotland Young Player of the Year award for the third time in a row. He has good defensive positional awareness, is difficult to beat in one on one situations and has the technique and drive to be an attacking threat. This season, in the league, he is making 1.57 key passes every 90 minutes, and has five assists. Tierney is also versatile, having played as a left wing back, a left sided centre back and even, for Scotland, as right back. He has already captained Scotland, is viewed as a future club captain and recently extended his contract up to 2023 so it would take a very large bid for Celtic to even consider his sale.
Who should be interested and why;
Manchester United – In December 2017 Jose Mourinho remarked that rivals Manchester City; “buy full backs for the price of strikers”. Given the advancing age of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia and how out of favour Luke Shaw is it seems likely United will also soon need to spend big in this area, especially on the left. Tierney would provide the professionalism, industry and crosses into the box that the manager wants for potentially half the price City paid for right back Kyle Walker.
Tottenham Hotspur – With Danny Rose likely to be sold in the summer Spurs are in need of a new left back to compete with Ben Davies. Tierney’s positional versatility, capable of playing as a full back, wing back or even a left sided centre back, means he would be a smart purchase for the North London club given their use of different systems.
Arsenal – Sead Kolasinac did sign last summer but hasn’t been a guaranteed starter and Tierney could be viewed as a better long term replacement for the now 32 year old Nacho Monreal given his aforementioned positional versatility and leadership qualities.
Olivier Ntcham joined Manchester City, from Le Havre, at the age of 16 and developed there before moving on a two year loan to Genoa in August 2015. During that period he progressed through the France national team youth levels and is currently a member of the Under 21 squad. The young Frenchman, viewed at one time as the likely successor to Yaya Toure at Manchester City, has a good mix of physical and technical attributes and is improving his execution of difficult passes as this video of Sunday’s Old Firm clash first half demonstrates.
Celtic bought him for £4.5 million in August 2017 and in his first season the midfielder has scored 5 goals and makes 1.83 key passes every 90 minutes. It has to be hoped that he will remain in Glasgow to continue his development, especially as Scott Brown may have to reduce the minutes he plays due to age, but a bid of three times what they paid might turn Celtic’s head.
Who should be interested and why;
Everton – Poor recruitment last summer left Everton with an imbalanced squad and James McCarthy’s broken leg has further reduced their midfield options. Wayne Rooney has filled in but Ntcham would offer more dynamism and power and hopefully help improve on Everton’s 6.9 key passes per 90 minutes – which is the second lowest in the league.
Leicester – Leicester may have to replace Wilfred Ndidi given interest in him from other clubs and, while he would have to adjust to a more direct game than at Celtic, Ntcham has the physique to play box to box and could even play as the most advanced midfielder behind Jamie Vardy.
Watford – Abdoulaye Doucouré is a rumoured transfer for target for, among others, Tottenham Hotspur, and Ntcham could replace his compatriot to continue the all French centre midfield partnership with Étienne Capoue. Left sided attacker Richarlison would benefit from the opportunity to link up with Ntcham in the 4-2-3-1 formation Watford have generally used under Javi Gracia.
Last season Stuart Armstrong scored a quite incredible 15 league goals for Celtic. This season he has played less – as Olivier Ntcham has become first choice next to Scott Brown in midfield – and his scoring output has regressed, to a total of 3 so far, but when he plays he is still contributing in significant ways; providing 3.19 key passes every 90 minutes, 2.41 secondary shot assists every 90 minutes and having the second highest xAssists per 90 in the league. The Scotland international’s contract expires in 2019 and, as talks to extend it have stalled, he seems the most likely of these Celtic players to be sold this summer. Whichever club buys him would be picking up a player with excellent technique, skilled at driving forward and linking with the attack on the left side of central midfield.
Who should be interested and why;
Bournemouth – Armstrong could be a good positional replacement for 31 year old Andrew Surman but might require Bournemouth to switch to a three man midfield so there is more insurance behind him. If his move enforced this change that might not be a bad thing given Bournemouth currently have the highest xG Against in the EPL this season.
Newcastle – The Tyneside club have only completed 155 passes within 20 yards of their opponents goal this season so far, excluding crosses. This is the 14th lowest in the league and they could certainly do with more creativity from central midfield. Few teams, let alone one managed by Rafa Benitez, could accommodate Armstrong and Jonjo Shelvey in the same midfield but they could provide good competition for each other and the Scot might surprise those clamouring for Shelvey to be ‘on the plane’ to the 2018 World Cup by bettering his contribution of just 2 assists this season so far.
Crystal Palace – In their last four league matches Crystal Palace have started with four central midfielders; James McArthur, Yohan Cabaye, Luke Milivojevic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. With Cabaye now 32 years old and Loftus-Cheek due to return to Chelsea at the end of his loan this summer they may require some central midfield reinforcements – particularly if Hodgson intends to continue with this sort of set up. Armstrong could link up well with Christian Benteke, who is due a scoring upturn having converted just 2 goals from an xG of 11 this season.
Odsonne Édouard scored the opening goal, and went on to add a second, in Celtic’s title clinching 5-0 victory over Rangers on Sunday 29th April. The 20 year old French striker, on loan from PSG, has now scored 9 league goals in 1012 minutes for Celtic which gives him the lowest minutes per goal ratio in the division – scoring once every 112 minutes. In addition, he is making 1.34 key passes every 90 minutes which is almost exactly the same as what his compatriot and Celtic teammate Moussa Dembélé is producing.
Édouard is due to return to PSG at the end of the season but Celtic do, reportedly, have a future transfer fee of around £8 million agreed. He has huge potential, which can be traced back to the 2015 UEFA European Under 17 Championship at which he was top scorer and named best player, and is starting to fulfill that promise at a senior professional level. Celtic seem likely to secure him on a permanent deal, especially if they sell Dembélé, but other clubs should be ready to pounce if they fail to.
WHO SHOULD BE INTERESTED AND WHY;
Leicester – Jamie Vardy is now 31 so Leicester cannot expect to rely on his goal scoring for much longer and most of their recent attacking recruitment has not worked out. Kelechi Iheanacho has scored once in fifteen league games since his £25 million transfer from Manchester City and Ahmed Musa, Leonardo Ulloa and Islam Slimani have been loaned out. Édouard might not be the high profile signing they would want but could provide excellent competition for Iheanacho.
Crystal Palace – Palace have struggled for goals this season, with Christian Benteke only scoring twice from open play in comparison to an xG output of 9.50. Norwegian striker Alexander Sørloth has signed but half of his minutes so far have been spent in a wide left role and he is yet to score. Benteke may well experience a goal scoring upturn but Édouard could be a smart alternative to the club’s existing options.
Southampton – The Saints have been linked with Celtic’s Tom Rogic this week but while the Australian has undoubted technical ability it is hard to understand how the player, a natural number 10, would fit into their current 3-4-3 system. One thing that would be a fit would be a natural goal scorer. Their top scorer is Charlie Austin – who has only been available for 791 minutes – with six open play goals. Their other forwards range, in terms of xG per 90 minutes from open play, from Shane Long at 0.23 to Guido Carrillo at 0.11 and Manolo Gabbiadini at just 0.10.
Brighton – Reportedly interested in Moussa Dembélé, the Seagulls might be wise to consider switching their attention to ‘French Eddy’. Top scorer Glenn Murray is 35 in September and, although Brighton are an impressive 11th in the league, needs someone to share the burden given that the club have scored the fifth least goals this season.
Fulham – Aleksandar Mitrović has been red hot since joining on loan earlier this year; scoring 0.8 goals every 90 minutes. He is due to return to parent club Newcastle United this summer and, if Fulham fail to sign him on a permanent deal, Édouard could be an option to take his place. The Cottagers do already have a young French striker, Aboubakar Kamara, so may be looking for more top level experience and could enjoy the opportunity to get their own back on Celtic after they lost Moussa Dembélé to the Hoops.