Almost two years has passed since 17-year-old Kristoffer Ajer agreed a deal with Ronny Deila and Celtic to bring him to Glasgow. Now, with his teenage years coming to an end he’s fought himself into Brendan Rodgers’ first team. Alex Lawrence, a regular contributor to the highly respected football tactics website spielverlagerung.com, takes a deep dive into the Norwegian’s main trademark – the galloping runs up the field – and how this young dribbler’s talent could potentially change a fundamental part of Celtic’s game.
“A coach has a good idea so he decides to try it out. It might take a while to perfect it but, when it does eventually start to work well, his opponents notice and then they have to come up with their own ideas in response.” – Paco Seirul•lo
Football as a game is constantly changing. From the absolute changes of rule alterations, to stylistic differences and the evolution of how it is played across the world. Not unlike nature, football teams and players who are best suited to their environment will tend to succeed and thrive. Whether through superior ‘abilities’, or advantages afforded through tactics, it is fairly easy to recall examples of players and coaches who have contributed to paradigm shifts across the sport. From Chapman’s W-M and Herrera’s Catenaccio, to Sebes’ Magnificent Magyars. From Cruyff and Sacchi, to Guardiola.
A coach or player who finds an idea better suited to the footballing environment before their rivals, will enjoy a considerable advantage over them. The finding of niches in the modern game is not a straightforward task, but the rewards can be monumental. Leicester City’s title-winning season is perhaps the perfect example of a team riding a niche to great success, with the Foxes making the most of the English top-flight teams’ frailties in possession and their susceptibility to quick counter attacks. In this case, Claudio Ranieri discovered perhaps the most devastating niche in modern football history. The evolutionary cycle of football to which Paco Seirul•lo refers is kickstarted by this type of discovery.
These processes are not just restricted to teams, however. As possession becomes more valued, and better used as a tool, some teams will focus on developing strong pressing schemes to disturb their opponents’ build-up as much as possible. While pressing teams will try to put more pressure on opponents higher up the pitch, defenders who are comfortable on the ball and able to negotiate this pressure are becoming more and more sought-after.
Scotland is not excluded in this regard, though the footballing environment differs somewhat from most of Europe. Man-marking still reigns supreme here, especially in the centre of midfield, and represents probably the biggest niche for teams to potentially exploit – as Brendan Rodgers did so well in his record-breaking first season at Celtic. Despite the Hoops’ success against – and indeed without – man-marking, many teams have doubled down on their approach. The ‘high-pressing’ teams aside (a topic worth its own article entirely, considering the problems Celtic have had in this regard), most of the rest of Celtic’s domestic opponents have looked to try to ‘perfect’ their standard approach, rather than seek an alternative.
The ‘standard’ approach is fairly similar wherever you look, with some slight differences. It typically involve sitting off Celtic’s first-line build-up, and man-marking the passing options ahead of the ball. While there are ways in which this approach could be (and has been) effective to a certain degree – Rangers used this idea as a starting point for their defensive scheme at Ibrox in September – such examples are far and few between. Where Rangers’ system differed, though, from almost all the others was in the extent of their marking, and how they prioritised the centre. While the Ibrox side showed a clear intention of covering the middle of the pitch as well as marking Celtic’s midfielders, this tactic has not been adopted by many of the league’s other teams.
Enter Kristoffer Ajer. The Norwegian teenager ended 2017 on a high, forcing himself into the starting line-up in six of the eight December fixtures, partly due to his ability to exploit the type of defensive approach Celtic face on a weekly basis.
“Some German words are so long that they have a perspective.” – Mark Twain
What sets Ajer apart from his central-defensive Premiership peers is his tendency to dribble into midfield. He is by no means the first player to do so. Indeed, one can fairly easily find clips online of the likes of Lorenzo Amoruso, Madjid Bougherra, and Virgil van Dijk, to name a few, displaying their ability to spot a gap in the midfield and drive into it. However, whereas many of these examples come as a result of huge swathes of space presented in front of a defender, almost sheepishly obliging him to dribble in, Ajer seems to seek out these opportunities, with clear strategic benefit.
Germany, as well as having a World Cup-winning national team, is arguably the world champion of football language. Their infamous compound words allow for a particularly specific lexicon, condensing complex ideas into single words, making it perhaps the ideal concept language.
To give an example of this, the act of a central defender dribbling into midfield with the implied intention of attracting an opponent, thereby generating a free man higher up the pitch is given its own word – andribbeln. Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic have used this tactic often domestically, with Ajer its latest exponent.
Where Ajer differs from the central-defensive dribblers that came before him (certainly in the modern era), is that his dribbling both serves and is served by his teammates’ group-tactical intentions. In other words, Ajer’s incursions into midfield are supported – and indeed encouraged – consistently by the structure of his team ahead of him, and are systematically used as a tool to break down opposing defences.
In this respect, Ajer’s style of play is almost perfectly suited to exploit the typical domestic man-marking approach. Simply put, since most teams will aim to match Celtic numerically in the middle of the pitch, usually 3v3, Ajer dribbling into the centre gives his side an overload in midfield, which can then be used to break through the opponent’s pressing.
In reality, though, it is the positional advantage – or superiority – which is most significant in these situations. It is, after all, possible to have a 4v3 situation in midfield where no player is free and/or in a beneficial advanced position. The important thing, therefore, is to use the dribble in such a way that the opponent is faced with more possible actions to defend against than he is able to cover – creating a ‘decisional crisis’. By dribbling in, the ball-carrier forces a man-marker to choose between going to press the player dribbling, or staying with his man. If the dribble is well-executed (as long as the positional structure of the team, and movement and body position of the marked player allows it), then whichever player the opponent leaves free will enjoy improved spatiotemporal conditions. In other words, they will have more space, and more time, to carry out their next action, making it more likely to be successful. They will be the ‘free man’, with positional superiority.
Ajer’s dribble into midfield creates a decisional crisis for Holt, as denoted by the red lines. He has to choose between fulfilling his man-marking assignment on Armstrong, putting pressure on the ball-carrier, or blocking the pass through to Sinclair. The winger is free between lines, able to receive forwards – a positional superiority.
Given his clear preference for a positional style of play, the creation of these superiorities is a fundamental trait of Brendan Rodgers’ teams, with Celtic no exception. Many of his attacking strategies have revolved around creating favourable 1v1s on the flanks (particularly with Patrick Roberts), and/or creating, then finding, players with positional superiority in advanced areas. Especially in the case of the latter, their task is often simplified by their manipulation of the opposition midfield. Whatever the means, the desired result is invariably the same – bringing the ball into or through specific spaces, opened enough to be exploited.
Whereas Dedryck Boyata and Jozo Simunovic will tend to look for the pass to these areas (though both are not averse to the occasional foray into enemy territory), Kristoffer Ajer almost exclusively chooses to dribble. While this may be seen as a slower, less effective, and needlessly risky approach by some, the tactical trends in the Premiership (and indeed across the country) allow dribbling in to be a particularly strong means of progressing possession.
The spacing of his central midfield teammates is perhaps the most common method Celtic use to open up a runway for Ajer. Particularly in games where Celtic have used a 3-2-4-1 in possession, the deeper pair of midfielders will often pull to the edges of the central ‘channel’. With opponents afraid to leave the 6s (Celtic’s two central midfielders) unmarked, their own central midfielders will be dragged away from the middle of the pitch. It is not uncommon to see Celtic’s central midfielders on either side of the centre circle, taking their man-marker with them.
Through this positioning, the central midfielders can encourage Ajer to dribble in, but their movement thereafter is just as crucial. They do not move towards the Norwegian, but rather away from him, as to not bring their marker towards the ball-carrier. This, combined with the generally uncompact defences of Scottish teams, is what allows Ajer to go on the galloping runs he so often makes, in which he appears to rarely face any pressure in front of him.
The midfield structure, however, often prevents Ajer’s dribbling from being used in the most optimal way. While their positioning allows and encourages the initial dribbling in, what they do thereafter limits subsequent actions. Since their positional adjustments to his moves into the centre usually see them allowing Ajer to run beyond them, they become unavailable as a forward passing option.
The supporting movements from Celtic’s midfielders leave Ajer with few options to play the ball centrally.
The typical positioning of the rest of the Celtic team does little to compensate for this lack of forward passing options. With the right winger usually tasked with providing the width on that side, and with Scott Sinclair typically reluctant to move inside between the lines off the left (instead favouring staying on the outside or making diagonal runs in behind), that leaves only the striker and 10 in central positions ahead of Ajer.
That is not to say, however, that Celtic won’t be able to use the Norwegian’s dribbling effectively to open up possibilities for forward passes. Creating these possibilities is a matter of positional structure. In situations where Ajer dribbles in centrally and passes, the midfielders whom he had previously overtaken are now required to form the strong positional structure that gives Celtic the best chance of keeping and progressing possession. Perhaps the best example of this would be the creation of triangles and diamonds around the ball, giving the ball-carrier (and each subsequent receiver) multiple passing options.
With this in mind, perhaps a different type of supporting movement from the central midfielders would be more efficient. Instead of moving back, towards their own goal, they could still move away from Ajer and give him space, but do so going forwards – or at least in a way which would give them access to space ahead of them, for layoffs and such. This type of support would help form those central triangles and diamonds, giving Celtic the positional structures they could use to break through stubborn defences. Additionally, it would dramatically increase their ability to get players in advanced areas with positional superiority, and give them multiple routes to get the ball to these free players.
Moreover, keeping more players inside the opposing block would not necessarily detract from Celtic’s defence of the counter attack. The dropping movements of the central midfielders, as well as affording the ball-carrier more space ahead of him, serve as a means to cover the space he leaves behind. While this seems a prudent tactic, preparing for a possible counter attack should the dribbler lose possession is potentially a self-fulfilling prophecy. With fewer players ahead of him to pass to, a player like Ajer runs the risk of being crowded out and losing possession. Furthermore, since there are fewer teammates in the area, there is not as strong a counterpressing presence and thus more counter attacks for those midfielders to defend against. In that respect, it could be argued that pre-emptively dropping the midfielders back is to move from a proactive defensive transition tactic to a reactive one, with little perceived benefit.
In any case, such cover is perhaps even ‘overprotection’. The second central defender moving across to cover, as well as maybe adjustments from one or both of the fullbacks towards the inside, would shorten the distances across the back line just as well as dropping extra players back, without compromising the positional structure. Another way of looking at it might be to consider that the distances between and behind players in the last line will only become a problem should the ball be lost and the counter attack not prevented. If more importance is placed upon multiple strong connections to the ball-carrier in advanced areas, the chance of losing possession likely decreases. Furthermore, the well-spaced structure supports effective counterpressing, meaning fewer counter attacks and fewer long passes into depth, making the rest of the defence less directly involved.
Midway through the first half of their home game against Partick Thistle, Celtic slightly changed their system. Instead of the usual 4-2-3-1 to 3-2-4-1 switch, with Tierney pushing all the way up on the left side while Lustig tucked in, both fullbacks were given licence to push forwards aggressively, in a much more ‘conventional’ 4-3-3. In this system, Brown often drops quite deep (sometimes between or beside the centrebacks), and is usually the only one to cover for Ajer during his dribbles. This system has more or less remained since then, and has altered the dynamic of his dribbling in.
The issue of reduced access in counterpressing is still prevalent when Brown drops into the back line. This was most visible in the 30 December Rangers game, where the guests were able to counter attack with far more frequency and success than Celtic would have liked, due to how disconnected Brown was from possession. An aspect of play he perhaps does not get enough credit for, the Celtic captain is arguably the finest in the league at stepping forwards when his more advanced teammates lose possession, and assertively reclaiming it. When he removes himself from the positional structure by covering a dribbling centre-back, he limits his ability to display one of his greatest strengths.
The system change has, however, improved the conditions for Ajer once he dribbles in. With the fullbacks now giving width in advanced areas (and making more runs into depth, even), the wingers are free to move infield. This gives Ajer a couple of very promising passing options, since these players are likely to be free, and should have a good body position – negating, somewhat, the effect of having dribbled past a teammate or two.
With regards to the dribbles themselves, they certainly make for some of the most striking viewing in the Premiership. The magnificence of the sight of Kristoffer Ajer’s huge frame hurtling down the middle of the pitch is dampened, perhaps, only by the fact that he does not take off and soar into the skies surrounding the stadium.
Indeed, the imagery of a jumbo jet is apt for the Norwegian’s dribbling. The speed he picks up and the momentum he gains as he sets off from the back line is such that it is difficult to physically impede him. Even strikers who track his runs have a hard time – such is the size of his frame that it is practically impossible to reach the ball from the ‘wrong side’. Even for the players facing him front-on, catching up to the centre-back is a tough ask. Since these players are typically midfielders man-marking Ajer’s teammates, by the time they decide to leave their man and put pressure on the ball-carrier, he’s well on his way to dribbling past them. This leaves opponents forced to turn to intercept him, whilst also starting from a near-standing start – in a not all too dissimilar fashion as is seen when guards dribble ‘downhill’ towards the hoop in basketball. This leaves them next to no chance of making up the required ground.
Ajer uses this dynamic advantage exceptionally well, even when it does not seem to exist. While he is not the flashiest of dribblers, he has displayed functional ‘tricks’ to create opportunities for him to use his size, strength, and speed. Most impressive of these is his use of a ‘stop and go’. This is used sometimes in scenarios when he is receiving a pass, and is about to be pressed by an opponent. He will stop the ball dead, and shape to return the pass. This sends the pressing player to block the passing line, slowing him down and taking him away from the area in front – the space Ajer wants to dribble into.
While this is very impressive, and though his physical attributes are a marvel to behold, there is plenty of scope for Ajer to improve his dribbles, particularly with regards to his speed. Though his acceleration and high top-speed help him burst through gaps in the first line of pressure, it can have some negative ramifications further down the line. His style of dribbling is more dependent on overwhelming the opponents through pace, rather than through feints or changes of speed and direction. Dribbling at constant speeds, not only does he make his trajectory somewhat predictable to the opponent, but he can also end up killing the very space he should be exploiting. By almost sprinting at the opposition, he closes the distance to them very quickly, which in turn gives his teammates little time to take up good positions and prepare their body positioning and field of view appropriately.
Compressing this space has further effects on the rest of Ajer’s team. With less space to operate in, the other attackers will now be forced to play at a higher rhythm than would be required otherwise. Such a reduction in the time available for each action in a tight area gives rise to a higher likelihood of mistakes, and ultimately loss of possession.
Additionally, Ajer himself has less time for the post-dribble distribution. The speed of his dribbling in gives him less time to evaluate the scene, placing considerable strain on his perception and decision-making skills, leaving him prone to hurried execution of poor decisions. A common scenario in which this is visible sees Ajer dribbling straight forwards into the midfield area, before changing course slightly to the right or left when meeting an opponent. In these situations, he not only limits his options by ‘closing off’ the other area of the pitch, but he often turns away from the potentially more ‘beneficial’ option, likely due to the speed at which he forces himself to make this decision.
This has more wide-reaching consequences as well. Since a dribble into the centre attracts pressure towards that area, it follows that space must be opened in another – typically on the flanks. Indeed, a dribble in is an effective way to precede a pass to the flank to an open winger, since it vastly improves the conditions in which he receives the ball. Even though Ajer has only played a few of his matches with Patrick Roberts this season, undoubtedly the Celtic player most synonymous with this tactic, the speed at which he dribbles in affords him less time to look for and recognise these 1v1 situations in distant areas. That Ajer rarely plays these longer passes to the flank suggests that he is too rushed to see them in the first place.
A scene from Celtic’s win at Linfield earlier this season. Armstrong’s dribble in attracts the right-sided opponents, giving Sinclair a lot more space and time to attack the goal. Dribbling in as a centre-back has the same effect. Players in distant areas are likely to see their spatiotemporal conditions improve, making them more viable as attacking options to use. On the other hand, players closest to the ball-carrier will come under much more pressure if they receive a pass.
It should be noted that some aspects of Ajer’s speed control – or lack thereof – can be attributed to his opponents. The most common reaction to his dribbling through the first line of pressure is immediate back-pressing from the forward(s), forcing him to continue forwards at pace. While this type of recovery run from an opponent is largely unavoidable, the extent to which it affects a dribble into midfield is at least partially under Ajer’s control. The Norwegian can put more initial distance between himself and the forward by manipulating him with short passes first, coupled with improved pre-orientation (the positioning and field of view he has before he receives the ball), giving him more of a head-start on his opponent. One interesting way this could be achieved would be to pass short to his central defensive partner, inviting the forward to press along this line and prevent a pass back. Instead of dropping further back to escape the cover shadow of the pressing player, stepping forward would achieve the same result, as well as giving Ajer a huge positional and dynamic advantage. The general lack of compactness behind the first line of pressure for most Scottish teams would allow this tactic to be particularly powerful. Alternatively, starting dribbles from an ‘outside’ position and dribbling diagonally towards the centre could help him avoid pressure from behind, and thus allow him to control his speed more easily.
A contemporary that Ajer could take inspiration from is currently lighting up the Dutch Eredivisie for Ajax. Much like the Norwegian, Frenkie de Jong has played much of his career as a midfielder before being moved to the centre of defence, where he too has approached the position with a dribble-heavy style, much to the fascination of fans and tactics enthusiasts alike. Especially adept at almost all aforementioned methods of creating favourable conditions for dribbling, Frenkie’s forays from deep are particularly dangerous.
Ajer’s pass selection after dribbling in is occasionally very impressive. He almost always progresses the play positively, with incisive passes centrally or out to the flank to the advancing fullback. Many of the issues discussed earlier, though, with regards to his dribbling speed carry over to his distribution.
The obstacles that come with dribbling through the centre also apply to making short passes. As mentioned before, dribbling into the centre brings with it increased pressure, in the form of more opponents having improved pressing access to the ball-carrier and teammates in the surrounding area. After dribbling in, effort should be made to pass the ball away from this area, for two main reasons. With the objectives for almost all sequences of possession in a positional style being to keep possession and/or attack the opposing goal, moving the ball away from the pressure-zone after dribbling in serves both of these. If pressure is increased in one area by more opponents moving towards it, that leaves other areas free – free players with positional superiority are likely to be found in those spaces, and should be sought out as a matter of course – and obviously playing away from pressure reduces the team’s chances of losing the ball. It follows, then, that making short passes after dribbling in is hardly recommendable.
That said, not all passes after a dribble in have to be long balls to the wing. Stepping into midfield and playing short is possible, and can even have some considerable benefit, though this requires near perfect conditions. The player receiving a short pass from the centreback does so with a reduction in spatiotemporal conditions due to the improved pressing access of the opponents, and will likely have to play quickly in tight spaces. Following such a sharp increase in rhythm, these positions suddenly become incredibly ‘sharp’ and tricky, with little margin for error. A strong positional structure around the receiving player is required to give him, and each subsequent receiver in the area, the possibility to escape with high-speed combinations. This, of course, demands a very high level of group-tactical ability, and is out of reach for all but a few teams. For these few, though, a centre-back dribbling in to ramp up the tempo in a small area is a devastating tactic to burst through tight spaces at lightning speed.
In the main, however, Celtic struggle in this regard. Their aforementioned midfield structure does not tend to allow for high-speed combinations in the centre – though with their slight change in style since the Hearts defeat, there is some exciting potential for this type of play to become a (semi)regular feature.
Ajer dribbles in along the line of the pass and plays with a player in the same area. Both actions negatively affect the spatiotemporal conditions for Dembele, giving him less space and time to receive the ball in, and greatly speeding up the rhythm of the game. While McGregor maintains a strong structure with his supporting run (one of his biggest strengths), Dembele is not prepared for the pass. Receiving with an awkward body position, he struggles to find the third man cleanly with his layoff.
As mentioned earlier in this section, the ideas and principles which apply to dribbling also affect (at least in some way) the pass thereafter. The matter of controlling the speed of the dribble has a knock-on effect when it comes to the pass. Occasionally the defender will dribble ‘down the line of the pass’ – he will dribble straight towards the receiving player before he passes it. This, of course, brings with it the same problems as passing to the nearest player, since it immediately increases the pressure around the ball and reduces the time and space the receiver has by the time he gets the ball. Therefore, any positional advantage the intended receiver may have had at one stage in the scene is lessened as the length of the pass decreases. It is, indeed, possible that the dribble is required as a means to give the receiver time to be prepared for the pass. For the same reasoning as before, it is better to control the speed of the dribble and slow down than to dribble towards a teammate and play short.
It would be impossible to discuss the technical points of Ajer’s passing without mentioning his left foot. His reluctance to use his weaker side under seemingly any circumstance restricts a lot of his game. Should he develop use of his left foot to even a passable level, his effectiveness would increase dramatically. Due to how unwilling he is to play with his left, passes to the right side must be preceded by a slight turn with the ball in that direction. As has already been highlighted, this restricts his ability to play easily with the other side of the pitch straight away, and thus telegraphs his intentions to the opponent, putting his teammate under more pressure.
Furthermore, his choices against teams that press high occasionally leave his teammates out to dry. Particularly against Rangers, the first domestic match for Celtic in which he experienced high pressing, Ajer was sometimes guilty of passing wide to Tierney on the touchline whilst under pressure, and not moving quickly enough to give him the option to play back. The result was a handful of needless losses of possession, traceable back to the centreback’s decisions.
However, these slight misgivings should not detract from what Kristoffer Ajer is: a game-changing talent. Playing regularly under a coach who clearly sees value in his unique skillset, and who has already developed players in his position with such strong results, will only bring benefits for someone still a teenager until April. If he can continue developing at the rate he already has, and if his team can support his talents adequately, he is more than capable of turning what was once his niche into a fundamental part of his and Celtic’s game.