As we enter the summer transfer window, Christian Wulff guides us through some potential defensive targets for Ronny Deila and Celtic from his native Norway.
With at least one part of Celtic’s impressive centre-half pairing this season looking certain to leave the club and with big questions around the current back-up options in the squad – most notably Charlie Mulgrew and Efe Ambrose – it seems like central defence will be the most crucial position for the club to get right in the summer transfer window. Naturally, there will be speculation on whether Ronny Deila will look to Norway to fill the gap that would be left by Jason Denayer and maybe even Virgil van Dijk. If he does, the below is a list of the most likely candidates, looking at their qualities, potential price and the likelihood of a move to Celtic.
It is not an exhaustive list of all Norwegian centre-halves; Håvard Nordtveit is the current first choice for Norway but he is unlikely to leave Borussia Mönchengladbach – where he mostly play as a defensive midfielder – and would probably be out of Celtic’s price range regardless. The 22-year-old Nicolai Næss has had a very good start to the season under Bob Bradley at Stabæk and another former Stabæk (and Celtic) player, Thomas Rogne – who is still only 24 – has had an equally impressive start to the campaign for IFK Gothenburg in Sweden after two lost years at Wigan.
However, the five centre-halves below all have the ability to step right into the Celtic team, with every single one of them likely to be interested in a move to Glasgow this summer.
Fee: Free transfer
Possibility of move: 5/10
Still by far the most famous name on any short-list of Norwegian centre-halves, there is a tempting narrative to be deployed which would neatly see Hangeland finish his career at Celtic.
Set to be released by Crystal Palace this summer, the former Norway captain has said that he would not move to Asia or the Middle East as he is more interested in another football challenge rather than a big final pay-check. Ronny Deila had a track-record at Strømsgodset of signing experienced players – especially centre-halves – that would operate as his lieutenants on the field and support his ideas off it.
Hangeland is likely willing to sacrifice a regular starting place if it meant a chance to be part of Deila’s project at Celtic. He would be a great mentor for the younger defenders at the club and his leadership qualities an undeniable boost for the whole squad.
Then there is the final plot twist; Deila and Hangeland played a season together at Viking ten years ago, something which definitely made a lasting impression on the Celtic manager; he has described Hangeland as the best player he’s ever shared a pitch with.
While there are some sporting questions around Hangeland – he would surely need a quick defensive partner, especially with Celtic’s high pressing game, and he’s never been the very best on the ball – the main blockers for a transfer is certainly money. While he would accept a big reduction from his Premier League wages in return for the challenge at Celtic, the gap is still huge and the club hierarchy is also unlikely to make a 35 year old squad defender – with no re-sale value – one of the club’s highest earners.
If those monetary difficulties can be overcome, Brede Hangeland would provide a short-term injection of experience, mentoring and leadership into the Celtic squad. That could be priceless.
Fee: Free transfer
Possibility of move: 7/10
Ken Remi Stefan Strandberg pricked the attention of many Celtic fans when Tor-Kristian Karlsen – the Norwegian who has been the chief scout for several European clubs, in addition to CEO and sporting director at AS Monaco – added him to his list in the Guardian of the 15 of the best players available on a free transfer this summer. Karlsen’s description of him – good on the ball, an intelligent reader of the game and calm in possession – is very much what you’ll get on the field with Strandberg.
Still, quite a few people in Norway were surprised at his inclusion on such an illustrious list, which shows how is reputation has been damaged by off-the-field issues. Last June he reportedly refused to play for Rosenborg against Lillestrøm just hours before the game, blaming contractual disputes with the club – apparently in reference to his displeasure at Rosenborg’s inability or unwillingness to conclude a sale of him to a club abroad. At the end of August with the transfer window closing, Rosenborg decided not to play him on the day of another game, saying he was not in the right frame of mind with discussions ongoing with another club.
While an uneasy truce between Strandberg and Rosenborg broke out after those transfer negotiations fell through, the questions around his attitudes still seems to cloud the judgement of his playing abilities. He’s been a starter for two of the biggest clubs in Norway, Rosenborg and Vålerenga, since he was 19 and has 25 caps for the Norway U-21 team, captaining them to third place in the European Championship in 2013. Turning 25 in July, the fact that he has only three senior caps for Norway indicate unfulfilled potential in Strandberg, who, while being a good and steady performer in Tippeligaen should be performing even better on a bigger stage.
Stefan Strandberg comes with off-the-pitch baggage and questions around whether he can step up and be the player his undoubtable talent suggest he should become. At Celtic he can get the perfect platform to prove his talent and managerial guidance to unlock his full potential. A risk, but a very tempting one.
Fee: £1 – £1.5 million
Possibility of move: 3/10
As with Strandberg, Vegard Forren also has something to prove, although for somewhat different reasons. The Molde captain has been widely regarded as the best centre-half in the Norwegian league over the last four years, captaining his club to their first ever title in 2011 and then again in 2012 and 2014. He has now established himself as a starter for the national team, looking set to add plenty more appearances to his 21 caps so far.
But the big question mark hanging over Forren is what happened during the six months at the start of 2013. After turning down a trial at Liverpool, Forren signed for Southampton on the same day in January as the club fired Nigel Adkins. Mauricio Pochettino did not give him a single game for the club and when Dejan Lovren was brought in from Lyon in the close season, Forren decided that he was too far down the pecking order and returned to Molde without a single senior appearance in England. Having received an initial £2.5 million for Forren, Molde made a net profit of around £1 million after they brought him back to the club only six months later.
At 27, Forren is still very much interested in another foreign adventure, especially considering his experience at Southampton, openly saying that is willing to move ‘in any transfer window’. He is a similar type to Strandberg; confident on the ball and more than capable to play it out of defence. He doesn’t have the same speed as Jason Denayer or Virgil van Dijk, although he would be a match for the Dutch defender when it comes to taking free-kicks (2.55 min in).
While he is more established and proven domestically than Strandberg, Forren is two years older, would require a decent transfer fee (he is contracted to the end of 2016) and is likely to have less of a re-sell value for Celtic.
Forren is probably the safer choice of the two at this moment but Strandberg’s arguably bigger potential and the fact that he would be a cheaper investment means a Celtic transfer for Forren is a lot less likely.
Fredrik Semb Berge
Fee: £1 – £1.5 million
Possibility of move: 4/10
You wouldn’t have to look far past Vegard Forren to discover another potential centre-half target for Celtic. Fredrik Semb Berge is currently on loan at Molde from Brøndby in Denmark and has replaced Even Hovland (more about him below) as Forren’s partner in the middle of the Norwegian champions’ defence
Semb Berge was probably the centre-half in Tippeligaen on the most upward career trajectory when he signed for Brøndby last summer. He was consistently improving at Odd Grenland, who needed a £250,000 investment in the player from a lottery-winning fan in order to avoid selling him to Molde in 2013. The supporter’s ownership stake in Semb Berge’s playing licence was 25% and he most likely recouped his investment when the centre-half joined Brøndby the year after.
The Danish club – arguably the second biggest in Denmark after FC Copenhagen – was supposed to be the perfect stepping stone in Semb Berge’s career, catapulting him into being a first choice for Norway and drawing the attention of bigger clubs around Europe. Then Daniel Agger happened.
The Liverpool veteran had made a late decision to leave Liverpool by mutual consent, saying returning to Brøndby was the only thing that would stop him from retiring. The club put together an economic package to bring its former hero back and after Semb Berge had started the first seven games of the season he didn’t play for Brøndby again before choosing Molde when a loan move was arranged this winter.
His tackling and positional strength compliments Forren’s more ball-carrying style very well but it is still unknown whether Brøndby would consider a permanent offer from Molde this summer. Semb Berge is contracted for three more seasons with the Danish club and could still have a future with them considering Agger’s advancing age and injury record. While Molde do have the money, Celtic would have no problem matching their financial power if they see Semb Berge as complimenting Virgil van Dijk’s strengths as well as he does Forren’s. They would be getting a 25-year-old desperate to kick-start the best years of what looked like a very promising career after this unexpected snag.
Fee: £1.5 – 2 million
Probability of move: 2/10
The third defender on the list with a connection with Molde, Hovland became the club’s then record signing when they finally succeeded in bringing him from Sogndal in 2012. He made his debut for his local club at 18 in 2007, his leadership qualities evident early on as he became club captain and also had trials at Manchester United. He was awarded the league’s defender of the year award in 2011 – all the more impressive an achievement playing for such a small club as Sogndal.
A talented, statuesque (6ft 3 inch), all-round centre-half, his progress has been slightly hampered by injuries; only two months after signing for Molde, he was ruled out for the rest of the season. He bounced back and become an integral part of the team, winning the cup in 2013 and setting Molde on its way to winning the league the following year. Before Hovland could complete that campaign with Molde, newly relegated 1. FC Nurnberg brought him over to Germany as part of their push to return to the Bundesliga on the first attempt.
Injury again struck Hovland shortly after completing a transfer, a thigh injury putting him on the side-lines for two months before he could make his debut in late September. He didn’t become a regular starter until November but since then he has been quietly impressive, getting a total of 21 league starts during Nurnberg’s somewhat disappointing season, which saw them ending ninth.
Nurnberg is still a big club, getting attendances of over 30,000 even in the second tier, with next year being the first time this century the club has spent two successive seasons outside the Bundesliga.
Hovland might be resistant to a move when he’s now in an established position at a club that could be playing in one of the top European leagues from 2016.
However, at 26 he will probably be looking at having at least one more big move and his style will suit well both in the Scottish league and in Europe for Celtic. He is probably the least likely candidate among the Norwegian centre-halves on this list but if a window of opportunity opened for whatever reason, Celtic they should take it; they would be getting a very accomplished and experienced centre-half that in addition to having his best years ahead of him is a natural leader and fighter.