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Celtic moved closer to the top of the Scottish Premiership with an emphatic 5-0 trouncing of league-leading Heart of Midlothian at Parkhead last weekend.
The nature of the win, with flowing attacking play resulting in a glut of goals, underlined the reigning champions’ return to form. However, despite the resurgence, their excellent recent defensive record has gone under the radar.
In seven straight domestic wins, Brendan Rodgers’ side have conceded just two goals and kept six clean sheets. Their back line deserves credit for their role in this defensive improvement and Filip Benković has been at the heart of the upturn. The Croat has featured in seven games all in all, and in those seven games only Neil Lennon’s Hibernian have managed to find the net.
Celtic were first linked with Benković prior to last season’s January transfer window. The player, at that time, was enjoying his third straight campaign of first-team football with Dinamo Zagreb. He had already captained his club in a Champions League match against Sevilla at the tender age of 19 and was rumoured to be interesting some of England’s top sides, including Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
Ultimately, the 21-year-old signed for Leicester City in the summer, joining for a fee of £13million. The money involved in the move explained why Celtic hadn’t made a serious bid to sign the youngster – the fee Leicester paid was around £4million more than the record-breaking amount the Scottish giants paid for Odsonne Edouard in the same window.
However, while a permanent deal wasn’t financially viable, a loan deal was arranged when Benković decided a temporary spell away would be best for his career. He arrived in Glasgow on deadline day for a season-long loan; within two weeks he made his debut against St Mirren.
The move to Celtic evidenced the player’s mentality – he wanted to continue developing rather than sit on the substitutes’ bench.
“I made the transfer to Leicester but I saw their situation – there were a lot of defenders,” he said per the Daily Record. “I looked at the situation realistically and wanted somewhere to have a better chance to play and to improve my game. It’s football and sometimes you must look to other places to get a chance because only with games can you get better.”
So far, Benković has received the game time he wanted to further his progress. In the process, he has bolstered Celtic’s defence.
An assured centre-back, he keeps things simple with the ball. Rarely does he take more than two touches, ensuring build-up remains at a reasonably high tempo, and he doesn’t over-complicate proceedings, preferring to find a nearby teammate than opt for the thrilling diagonal or play into congested areas. All of this minimises the risk of turnovers and helps Celtic to dominate possession.
Without the ball, he is equally efficient. Standing tall at 6ft 4ins, he is a physically strong defender who tends to win his one-on-one duels. He’s tough, organised and committed, and he has not yet been caught out since arriving in Scottish football. As a consequence, Rodgers’ side have looked a far more commanding defensive outfit in recent weeks.
Benković’s performances have caught the eye, with former Celtic striker John Hartson writing that the centre-back “exudes composure and confidence at the back” in a column for the Evening Times. Club legend David Hay has also waxed lyrical about the 21-year-old’s showings.
“I don’t think I’m the only one who has really taken to Filip Benković. For me, he looks the part,” Hay said. “He is a reliable central defender, which is exactly what Celtic have been searching for.
“Calm under the ball or with it at his feet, he reads the game superbly, never seems to be rushed and I can see why Leicester City paid £13million for him in the summer.”
As well as passing the eye test, Benković’s numbers compare favourably to his central defensive colleagues. Kristoffer Ajer is the only one to average more defensive and aerial duels per 90 minutes, but Benković’s success rates in both categories – 55.85 per cent and 83.4 per cent respectively – are substantially higher than that of Ajer, Dedryck Boyata, Jack Hendry, and Jozo Šimunović.
Furthermore, while Benković averages fewer interceptions per 90 than all bar Ajer, he averages more clearances and blocks than any of his centre-back teammates.
These statistics only serve to confirm his quality in duels on the ground or in the air, as well as his blunt-yet-effective, mistake-free approach to defending.
In short, when he plays, Celtic play better. In seven games with Benkovic in defence, their expected goals against (xGA) per 90 minutes is 0.47 compared to a season average of 0.78. Their shots conceded per 90 is 1.71 compared to a season average of 2.75. And their goals against per 90 is 0.29 compared to a season average of 0.71.
While the quality and quantity of goals scored has garnered most of the headlines, good defending has been the unsung aspect behind Celtic’s recent success.
And, as the numbers show, Benković’s role in the defence’s increasing solidity cannot be understated.