Celtic’s 2-0 win over Motherwell on Sunday maintained their narrow lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership and marked their fourth league clean sheet in a row – an indicator of the terrific job Neil Lennon has done in rebuilding the defence.
That is no better epitomised by the new options at right and left-back. Going into pre-season that was by far the most concerning area of the squad. Four senior players – Mikael Lustig, Jeremy Toljan, Cristian Gamboa and Emilio Izaguirre – had left the club. When it became inevitable Kieran Tierney’s protracted transfer saga would end with his departure, there were no recognised senior full-backs left.
Since then, five new options have arrived. It could be argued that this investment was long overdue and it had certainly become a sticking point for Brendan Rodgers last summer. But there is no doubting the impact they have made.
Quantity and quality at right-back
This position had been a bane amongst the Hoops support for some time. Lustig’s personality and effort had ensured himself cult status. Nobody will forget his slaloming goal to crown a 5-1 win at Ibrox or his infamous police hat celebration when securing the 2017/18 league title. However, his performances had been questioned for quite a while and the need for an upgrade was obvious. A loan move for Toljan in January didn’t work out and when Lustig’s contract wasn’t renewed, suddenly the Hoops had no right-backs.
Hatem Abd Elhamed was the first replacement to arrive in a reported £1.6m move from Hapoel Be’er Sheva and he has been very impressive. He has become Lennon’s go-to man in that position for the big games and his versatility raises his value even more. His proneness to injury is the only negative so far.
Late in the window, Elhamed was joined by Stoke City defender Moritz Bauer who signed on a season-long loan deal with an option to buy at the end of the season. It’s unclear whether that option will be exercised given his irregular playing time, but he has barely put a foot wrong when he has been called upon. He was excellent when thrown on for his debut at Ibrox and has recorded two assists from his six appearances (Transfermarkt).
But the biggest revelation of all has been Jeremie Frimpong. The pacy 18-year old was signed from Manchester City on transfer deadline day and has progressed quicker than anybody imagined. With the pathway to Pep Guardiola’s first-team squad so crowded, Frimpong followed the example set by Jadon Sancho and took his chance at a club better geared for his current needs. Having not started a game of senior football before moving to Parkhead, he has now made four starts, recorded his first assist, and scored his first career goal in an outstanding performance against Aberdeen.
— Celtic Football Club (@CelticFC) October 27, 2019
It’s been a seamless transition to Scottish football, earning enough trust from Lennon to be handed a starting place in the League Cup semi-final last week. Bought for the future, he looks, instead, to be the present.
How to replace Kieran Tierney?
Suddenly, the right-back slot looks as strong as it has done since the days of Didier Agathe and Jackie McNamara, but what of left-back?
The hardest departure of all to take was that of golden Bhoy Tierney. A lifelong Celtic diehard and part of the club’s youth academy since the age of seven. 15 years, 170 appearances and ten trophies later the temptations of the English Premier League proved too much. But with important Champions League qualifiers on the horizon, there was no time to dwell on the loss of a certain future club captain. In stepped Boli-Bolingoli Mbombo.
The £3m signing from Rapid Vienna had a rather inauspicious start to his Celtic career. He was dropped for of an out-of-position Callum McGregor as they shambolically exited the Champions League qualifiers. It would have been easy for that to be an early death knell in Bolingoli’s Parkhead career and he could have joined an expensive scrapheap featuring the likes of Rafael Scheidt, Derk Boerrigter and, amazingly, Teemu Pukki. But he has responded terrifically from that setback and quickly turned the fan opinion in his favour. While he has a long way to go to match the performances of his predecessor, his superb display in the win over Rangers and his bubbly personality has earned him a cult-like following already.
Boli is not alone in competition for his place. Greg Taylor was another deadline day arrival looking to boost his career to the next level after starring for Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock. However, the form of Boli has kept him out of the team. It wasn’t until October 30th that he finally made his debut although Lennon has stressed that he will get his chance to impress:
“Greg has to be patient. We’ve had a chat with him about it and he knows the situation,” Lennon said. “He hasn’t played yet and it’s difficult for him as Boli Bolingoli has come in and been consistent. Greg has not been kicking down doors or anything like that, he’s been training really well and knows his time will come. The fact he’s not in the squad is because he knows we have Jonny Hayes who can double up positions — right wing, left wing or left back. So it’s pointless having one bona-fide left back when you have a player who can factor a couple of positions for you.
Where Frimpong has been the surprise package on the right flank, Hayes has replicated that on the left. The 32-year old has had to bide his time for a proper crack at Celtic Park and he now appears to be getting it – just not at the position he’d have expected. His work rate and experience has seen him shift back a spot from left winger to left-back to surprisingly good effect.
With Bolingoli injured, Hayes was picked ahead of Taylor to start against Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico. He followed that up with a man of the match performance at the weekend. He caused Motherwell problems all afternoon and it was his cross that lead to the second Celtic goal.
Having started the season with their wings figuratively clipped, Celtic now find themselves in the luxurious scenario of having three reliable options in each full-back position. Despite the loss of ‘Treble Treble’ mainstays Tierney and Lustig, the upgraded strength in depth make the new Bhoys an altogether more powerful proposition.