The last eight years have been quite the ride for the Celtic support. From the 2011-12 squad that got the ball rolling on the quest for ten-in-a-row right through to the Celtic team of today.
Neil Lennon was there for the first title in the sequence, and will hope to be here in 2021 to deliver the elusive tenth consecutive title. In between then and now, there was the Deila era which was rich in silverware but ultimately soured by a Scottish-Cup semi-final loss to Rangers. That loss reportedly led to the appointment of Brendan Rodgers. A spell which saw every domestic trophy available brought back to Paradise in relentless fashion.
If trophies are one common theme across the last eight years, a more recent thread was Celtic’s search for a right-back who can play a part in the continued success plotted by Neil Lennon.
There have been numerous applicants over the years. Efrain Juarez, Cha Du-Ri, Mark Wilson and Adam Matthews all had spells in the position with mixed success.
The real incumbent in the position though was Mikael Lustig. Lustig arrived at Celtic Park with little to no fanfare and left in the summer as a modern hero of the club.
Lustig will be fondly remembered for all the trophies he won as well as some iconic moments such as his late goal at Ibrox to make it ‘five’ as Rangers TV so glibly described it. There was time he nabbed the policeman’s hat.
In recent years though, replacing the experienced Swede became a real issue. Jeremy Toljan came on loan from Dortmund in January to the great delight of the Celtic support but was unable to dislodge Lustig and left quietly at the end of his expensive loan-spell with just 14 appearances.
In the summer transformation, Lustig left and Celtic recruited three players able to compete for the position. Hatem Abd Elhamed, Moritz Bauer (loan) and Jeremie Frimpong.
The league campaign started with an encouraging performance from new recruit Elhamed in the rout against St Johnstone. Moritz Bauer has also provided meaningful contributions however it is 18-year-old recruit Jeremie Frimpong who has excited the Celtic fans.
Frimpong was one of a glut of youth prospects brought to the club on deadline day, arriving for a reported initial-fee of £350,000 from Manchester City with potential add-ons makings the fee closer to £1million.
With game time likely to be limited at Pep Guardiola’s side, what will the Dutch youth International bring to Celtic?
I’ll lay my cards on the table early doors here, I think Jeremie Frimpong looks like a very special prospect. It is of course too soon to know for sure, particularly given the fact he is so young. Young players seldom develop in a linear fashion. What we have seen so far though is immensely encouraging.
Since joining, Frimpong has started in two league matches and two in the Betfred Cup. The most notable thing about Frimpong’s game time so far is how explosive he looks – particularly from a standing start.
Whilst Lennonball is primarily centred on high intensity football with a focus on progressing the ball quickly, there are games were the opposition simply don’t allow this type of progression to take place.
The most obvious example is the loss to Livingston. Even accounting for the early red-card to Ryan Christie; Livingston kept their shape, stayed compact and stopped Celtic from getting into positions to shoot.
Where does Frimpong come in then? His skill-set is incredibly valuable in these kind of games – notably his ability to create separation. That is his ability to find open space by beating a man on the dribble. On his league debut in the 6-0 demolition of Ross County, the fifth goal was created when Frimpong faced up to Michael Gardyne.
There are eight County players in their own 18-yard box and Frimpong gets a slow moving ball with Gardyne in a sound defensive position. As he receives the ball, he shifts his body facing away from the County goal – a passive action suggesting the ball is going backwards or to the edge of the box.
Frimpong though used his acceleration to switch himself to the by-line, leaving Gardyne behind before picking out an unmarked James Forrest.
In the Livingston game, Moritz Bauer played at right-back however he doesn’t have that kind of pace – if indeed anyone in the squad does.
Where Rodgers put great emphasis on positional play – making sure the spaces between each player were just right in order to maximise the space, Lennon’s style is more direct and focused on creating overloads on the wings.
Another aspect of Frimpong’s game is his ability to tuck in and play in the space between the opposition central-defender and full-back. This is something Pep Guardiola has demanded from his full-backs. Given the quality of coaching through all levels at Manchester City, it is possible that Frimpong would have been developed to play both as a traditional overlapping full-back and as an inverted full-back who can help with the build-up play.
At Celtic, the full-backs are primarily used to overlap the wide players. Whilst Elyounoussi is more likely to drift central from the left to get into shooting positions, James Forrest tends to mix things up a little more. He can play as a more traditional winger, holding his width but as the goal highlighted above shows, he can also tuck in and get into shooting positions.
Frimpong’s ability to play both roles might give that balance alongside Forrest which will allow the flexibility in build-up play that Neil Lennon desires.
Celtic’s attacking tendencies on the left-hand side have been highlighted on the Analysis podcast. It could be argued this was a legacy issue with Lustig’s attacking prowess becoming less potent in recent years. To redress the balance, more is needed from the right flank.
Frimpong’s goal against in the 4-0 win over Aberdeen highlights what he can offer from a deeper position. He received the ball on the right touchline and was comfortable driving into space centrally. Playing a reverse pass to Edouard and filling the space vacated by the Frenchman, he was able to get himself into a goal scoring position and had some good fortune on his side to finish the move off. It is a goal which was powered by the youngster’s pace and determination but also highlighted his intelligence.
In two league games, the youngster has directly contributed to two goals. In an attacking sense, WyScout data attributes the following to Frimpong in the matches against Ross County, Aberdeen and Hibernian (excludes his debut against Partick Thistle):
19 dribbles (78.9% successful), 15 progressive runs, 13 touches in opposition box and three shot assists.
The full back position has evolved and continues to do so. The likes of Dani Alves, Phillip Lahm and Marcelo have redefined what it meant to be a full back. The top full-backs at this moment in time; the likes of Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander Arnold, Joshua Kimmich and Jordi Alba – what do they have in common? They are able to progress the ball for their team.
Ball progression is classed by Modernfitba as ‘players who are adept at moving the ball towards the opponent’s goal and into dangerous areas, be it through passing or carrying the ball at their feet’. These guys are not only defending and attacking in the final third, but acting as outlets to move the ball up the field. This is most notable at Liverpool where the system Klopp has built is almost entirely reliant on the full backs to progress the ball – much to the consternation of much of the Liverpool support. The reason many still can’t fully get on board with it is because it means the midfield three do very little in terms of creation and ball progression. This is by design though – the midfield three are there to cover the space that the full backs leave.
Celtic’s first choice midfield this season has primarily been Scott Brown, Callum McGregor and Ryan Christie. Brown and McGregor are certainly not limited in their passing however we are interested in when an attack breaks down – this can leave Celtic vulnerable in transition.
For possession based teams, protecting against counter attacks is of paramount concern. Manchester City do it by keeping an absurdly high level of possession and when they lose it they press so high with such coordination that most teams don’t have the technical ability to play out of the press.
It is what Liverpool do that is perhaps more interesting and ‘easier’ to replicate. An interesting article was published recently by Get Goalside on the topic of full back progression. One of the main upsides with this system is it allows your midfield to play more conservatively and protect against counter attacks. The theory goes that losing the ball in central areas is vastly more dangerous than losing it from wide. The solution to this? Let your full-backs progress the ball with riskier passes and have your midfield hold their shape, keep the ball ticking over and cut out passing lanes.
Celtic’s first choice trio of Brown, McGregor and Christie are capable of doing these things – it may be the best solution in the bigger games where opposition teams are capable of breaking on Celtic in numbers. Lazio’s opening goal at Celtic Park started with Ryan Christie losing the ball on the edge of the 18-yard-box. McGregor was in line with Christie as the ball broke lose – this left Brown isolated in midfield. Lazio broke straight through the centre of the pitch and Lazaro was able to run unimpeded from the right with McGregor and Boli in particular caught too high up the pitch.
Astonishingly, Boli is actually the most advanced Celtic player on the pitch as the ball breaks loose.
Brown attempts to press the ball, but the distance he has to cover is too great and it’s an easy pass for Milinkovic-Savic to play into Caicedo. Within a few seconds, Lazio are able to open the scoring from a Celtic attack.
In the vast majority of games Celtic play, they are able to commit both full- backs forward in addition to McGregor at times. But it is games like Lazio where this approach can leave Celtic exposed to the talent of a technically proficient side. Christie is an excellent presser of the ball, McGregor is very useful sitting behind the ball, he can recycle possession well and isn’t really the type of midfielder who plays a high number of risky passes in central areas. McGregor is more of a volume passer and generally speaking his passes tend to be short. Here is his pass map away to Lazio:
All of the above can work alongside what appears to be the prodigious talent of Frimpong. His acceleration and technical ability lend themselves to playing in a modern system which could help resolve an issue which Celtic have had in defending in transition. With Frimpong and his left-sided counterpart Boli playing high up the pitch, they have the recovery pace to get back into position to help Scott Brown (primarily) defensively.
Given the club recently secured their place in the knockout round of the Europa League, moving forward, this may be an approach worth considering. Celtic are in a strong position in the sense that they have depth at right-back with Elhamed, Bauer and Frimpong. Frimpong’s potential though is clear and building a system that gets the most from the full-backs which also suits our current first choice midfield is the best way of continuing the evolution of this Celtic team in the quest for continued success.