One of the stranger stories in the papers yesterday was the one about how Norway’s national team suffered over the weekend from the maladies which continue to plague Kristofer Ajer.
It’s almost as if there is a big surprise that he’s poor at defending set-pieces.
This is partly the fault of Neil Lennon of course.
This problem has haunted all three of the clubs he has managed and he has got no solution to it. It’s to do with coaching and bad positional tactics.
The same problem afflicts Kennedy, which proves that neither he nor Lennon is anywhere near as good as some people made out. The atrocious defending for the goal against the Ibrox club was just one case in point.
But there’s another problem, of course, and it might come as a shock to some people to be made aware of it, and I include the Norwegian national coach in this, he who thinks Ajer should leave Celtic for the good of his career and to become a better player.
Ready for this guys?
Here goes; Kris Ajer isn’t actually a defender!
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And it’s really that simple! People tend to forget this in all the analysis they do about his flaws.
He’s not actually a defender at all, but a midfield player who has certain defensive attributes which a couple of different Celtic managers identified and tried to mould.
The worst of it is, you can see clearly that Ajer is a midfielder in how he plays, in the way he runs with the ball, in his range of passing, in the timing of his tackles.
Let’s put this a different way; we all know that Lionel Messi is the greatest player in the history of the game.
(Oh yes we do, we’re not even arguing about it!)
But if you were to put Messi at central defence instead of in attack, even against a modestly good team, not necessarily even a great one, he would be a fish out of water.
He wouldn’t know where to stand, how to run, which way to move when an attacking player jinked with the ball … it would be disastrous.
Players don’t just get picked in whatever positions are available and there’s a very good reason why and I’ve written about this time and time again. Defenders have a different sense of the game than attackers.
They see the movement of the ball differently. They have a different skill-set.
When a kid has developed certain talents as a youth player you can hone those talents, but you cannot invent fresh ones. Footballers play on instinct, and the instinct to dive to your left to save a shot is a different instinct than that which the striker has taking that shot.
Saying that a defender’s game is all about tackling – which Ajer does well – is like saying a striker’s game is all about scoring goals. It’s true to a point … but only to a point.
Why do you think some of the world’s most well know strikers have lower strike ratios than other lesser players?
A good striker can hold up the ball for others, can play little knock-ons and one-twos with a partner … I hate to say this but it’s why some managers like the likes of Ollie McBurnie.
Playing in the top third of the pitch requires one set of skills.
Playing in the bottom third requires another set.
Midfield is an area divided into segments because some midfielders specialise in defensive skills and others in attacking skills. Some play in the middle. Some play out wide. Some just in front of the defence, others just behind the attack.
But they are still midfielders first and foremost.
Kris Ajer is definitely not a defender.
He can’t head the ball worth a damn for a start, a crucial skill in a centre back. His positional sense is abysmal and that’s another critical part of a defender’s game. It’s why we’ll never realise the kind of money for him, in that position, that we’d like.
Is Ajer worth the £20 million we allegedly wanted? As a central defender, God no, never, and there’s no way we were ever getting that for him in that position.
As a defensive midfielder, I can see that there’s a major talent which we’ve never utilised properly.
This was part of the Deila-Rodgers-Lennon experimental process.
It was Ronny’s coaches, faced with a dearth of defenders, who tried to convert Ajer into one.
It was Rodgers’ great idea to play defensive midfielders at central defence in homage to Barcelona’s innovative tactic of playing Mascherano there. That was a response to playing against defensive teams who only ever played one up front; Brendan realised we face the same issue every week and knew that the solution would work just as well for us.
And in Scotland, certainly, it did.
But you see the obvious flaw in the strategy every time these guys come about a decent forward line. They crumble. They get found out. Which is all that has happened to Ajer here and with the Norwegian national team.
On the other hand, look at Stephen Welsh … going from strength to strength playing in his natural position.
Now, as long as the next coach at Parkhead doesn’t think he can play as a right back …
For Ajer, I believe the next phase of his career should be in his natural position, where he will acquit himself with distinction. It’s only a pity that it’s unlikely to be at Celtic Park, where he would be a phenomenon in that role and make it his own.
Thanks to everyone who drew my attention to the GLARING error in the original, which had Ajer as a Swede and not a Norwegian. This is the danger when I hurry to finish something; whenever I see my inbox fill up that’s a Bad Sign. But this is why I have all you good people to keep an eye out for me!
Amended accordingly with my thanks.