One goal and two assists. Stats any of Celtic’s attackers would be proud of for any game. But these figures for Saturday’s 3-1 win over Kilmarnock were those of the Hoops’ enterprising central defenders who have been integral to the champions terrific form in 2020.
After trailing to an early Eamonn Brophy penalty, Kristoffer Ajer levelled the scores from a Christopher Jullien cutback to make it two goals in his last two league games. Jozo Simunovic then played the integral role in setting up Odsonne Edouard for the second. Only Leigh Griffiths academic third didn’t directly feature one of Celtic’s back three.
That extended Celtic’s lead at the top to 12 points after another Rangers stumble. Nine-in-a-row is now tantalisingly close. Should they see it out, Neil Lennon will have his centre backs to thank for some fantastic contributions.
Kristoffer Ajer and Christopher Jullien
The £7m spent on Jullien in the summer looks like better business with each passing week. After taking a while to bed in during the summer, the Frenchman is now showing real leadership qualities at the heart of the defence.
His aerial dominance has been his most outwardly obvious trait. When Celtic were put under severe pressure by FC Copenhagen in the second half of last week’s 1-1 draw, Jullien – aided by the mountainous Fraser Forster – was the main reason Celtic remain favourites to progress to the next round. His 11 headers won was four more than anyone else and earned him WhoScored’s star man with an 8.4 rating. An ‘immense’ performance according to Lennon.
It’s not only in their own area where Celtic have benefitted, though. Griffiths deliveries from set-pieces have greatly increased their dead-ball threat and Jullien is usually the target. He has seven goals this season; more than Rangers own £7m summer acquisition Ryan Kent.
Ryan Kent. 6 goals and 4 assists.
Kristoffer Ajer. 4 goals and 2 assists.
Christopher Jullien. 7 goals and 1 assist.
— CelticLisboa (@CelticLisboaa) February 23, 2020
Ajer has continued his progress nicely, although he has looked less composed at times this season. His marauding runs from centre back provide a different and unexpected dimension to attack. The currently successful 3-5-2 system only encourages such forays forward. His experience playing as a defensive midfielder adds to his quality on the ball and he displayed his composure and attacking instincts with the superbly taken winner against Aberdeen last week.
Still only 21, Ajer has plenty of scope for further improvement and playing alongside Jullien can only help.
Simunovic deserves huge credit for the way he has stepped seamlessly back into the team following the winter break. The Croatian had missed five months of the season after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery in September. On his return, he may have been rightfully wondering where he stood in Lennon’s pecking order given the success of the Ajer-Jullien partnership.
While his status as third choice was demonstrated by his absence from the starting line-up in Denmark, his league performances have shown his worth. The shift to 3-5-2 has suited him down to the ground. Playing on the right of the back three has allowed him to show off a decent range of passing as well as his robust style of defending.
There are still errors in his game that need to be eradicated. A mistake and subsequent rash attempt at retrieving the situation put Celtic in early trouble at the weekend. However, it didn’t take long to make amends when his willingness to win the ball back and charge forward in support of the attackers led to the crucial second goal.
He must also prove that his body can stand up to the test of an intense run-in to the season. Nir Bitton and the injured Hatem Abd Elhamed are the only other options with neither as natural a fit at the back as Simunovic.
The man who matters most at Parkhead has been suitably impressed. Manager Lennon hinted at a possible new contract for Simunovic at the end of last month, describing him as “a top player.”
A central defender should still be high on Celtic’s shopping list for the summer, particularly if 3-5-2 becomes Lennon’s go-to formation and not merely a brief experiment. But for now, his three central defenders are working in perfect tandem.