The growing partnership between Kristoffer Ajer and Christopher Jullien at the heart of the Celtic defence has been a highlight of their successful start to the season.
The pair needed to gel quickly after the defensive duo that began the last campaign as first choice at Paradise both moved on. Dedryck Boyata exited on a free transfer to Hertha Berlin while Filip Benkovic returned to Leicester City after the completion of his season-long loan. The fact their absence hasn’t yet been felt speaks volumes about the performances of Ajer and Jullien.
Are Celtic becoming too dependent on Kris and Chris?
A £7m transfer fee was a significant outlay and laboured Jullien with a large degree of expectancy upon his unveiling. After a bedding-in period over summer, he is now proving to be worth every penny. A dominant display at Ibrox and an 89th-minute winner against Lazio has provided him with two defining moments in his burgeoning Celtic career. Alongside him, Ajer has been a rock. He has the third most amount of minutes played for Celtic this season, behind only Scott Brown and Callum McGregor.
Since Celtic’s Champions League exit to Cluj on 13 August – a game Jullien controversially started on the bench – the pair have started together in all but two of the next 19 games. The only exceptions being a League Cup match against Partick Thistle and the 2-0 win over Rangers when injury ruled out Ajer.
But does this indicate an over-reliance on the duo? Is the club in danger of burning out their two most important defenders? Neil Lennon has stated the club is looking to do business in the January transfer window. Could that pave the way for the return of 21-year old Benkovic from Leicester? It’s a move that could prove beneficial for all parties and has even been endorsed by Brendan Rodgers.
Benkovic being frozen out at red-hot Leicester
The Croatian international has found his opportunities very limited since his return to Leicester. Reunited with old manager Rodgers and given the departure of Harry Maguire, he perhaps would have expected a decent amount of game time. However, the fantastic form of Jonny Evans and Çağlar Söyüncü has prevented that.
With no European football, there is also less scope for rotation with Rodgers picking the same back four in every league game so far this season. It’s hard to argue against that when you see the end results. He is one of two Leicester players registered for the Premier League yet to appear in a matchday squad. Third choice goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic being the other. (Transfermarkt).
Benkovic earned plenty of goodwill amongst the Celtic support after a superb first half to the 2018/19 season. He helped the team keep 11 clean sheets in a run of 15 straight starts in the league from October to January.
The second half of the year proved more difficult. An ankle injury disrupted his progress just as Rodgers was leaving for his parent club. His replacement Lennon preferred to select players whom he knew were at the club for the long-term. Benkovic and fellow loanees Jeremy Toljan, Oliver Burke and Timothy Weah all, therefore, struggled for action as Celtic wrapped up their third treble in succession. Despite that, there are plenty of Celtic supporters who would love to see the Croat return to Glasgow. It’s an admiration that appears reciprocated.
Stronger competition is needed at Celtic Park
While Ajer and Jullien look undroppable on current form, no club can rely on only two quality centre-backs to guide them through an entire season, let alone a Celtic team who will still be fighting on three fronts come the new year. Right now, their back-ups all have question marks hanging over them.
Nir Bitton has been the most regular alternative, but his natural position is in midfield and his lack of pace is an issue. Jozo Simunovic has proven himself to be a useful squad player, but it’s difficult to rely on a player that has been regularly hampered by injuries throughout his stay in Glasgow. He last played on 22 August and won’t return until the new year after a clean-up operation on his knee in September.
Hatem Abd Elhamed has filled in at the centre of defence on a couple of occasions despite being signed as a right back. Competition is strong in that position and his versatility is welcome. Again, though, using him as a centre-back takes away from his natural qualities. Then there is forgotten man Jack Hendry. The much-maligned former Dundee player remains at the club but has made only one brief appearance this season as a substitute in a 5-0 thrashing of Partick Thistle in the League Cup. That was the first time he had even been named in a matchday squad in the last eight months (Transfermarkt).
Bringing Benkovic in as a reliable third option would greatly improve the options available to Lennon. He’s a player already familiar with the team set-up and could immediately provide stiff competition for a starting place. After the winter break, Celtic will be playing every three or four days so he’d be virtually guaranteed game time. Playing in such a high-pressure environment would surely be better for him than being stuck in the reserves at Leicester City.