As a team who tend to dominate ball possession in virtually every domestic match they play, Celtic require an organised and high-quality midfield. Brendan Rodgers has been able to ensure this in his time at the club so far, packing the centre with ball-players and technicians.
This has allowed his side to break down or overwhelm even the most stubborn and defensively coherent opposition on a consistent basis. Stuart Armstrong has been integral to this, but the 25-year-old has been linked with a move.
With his contract up at the end of next season, the former Dundee United academy graduate is interesting a variety of Premier League suitors. Southampton are the latest club to have reportedly looked his way, with a £3million bid potentially in the offing.
However, as good as Armstrong is, Celtic are not dependent on him. Such is the depth and quality of their midfield options, the reigning Scottish champions are geared up for sustained success with or without the playmaker.
Last season was Armstrong’s best by far. He finally looked every bit a Celtic player, supplying and scoring with a consistency that had been lacking beforehand. His performances were so impressive that Scotland manager Gordon Strachan could ignore him no longer, handing out two caps to the midfielder.
All in all, the 25-year-old scored 15 times in the Scottish Premiership. He also assisted seven of his team-mates’ goals. Thus, he had a direct hand in just over 20 per cent of his team’s remarkable 106 goal haul on their way to the title.
However, he is far from Celtic’s only effective creative presence in midfield. Indeed, Rodgers can also count on Tom Rogic, Callum McGregor and new signing Olivier Ntcham to take up forward-thinking central roles within his starting line-up, while Eboue Kouassi has shown glimpses of true playmaking ability from a slightly deeper role.
COMPARING THE OPTIONS
Taking into account the statistics compiled in the Scottish Premiership, Armstrong was Celtic’s most productive midfielder in an attacking sense. With 15 goals and seven assists over 2,280 minutes of game time, he was directly involved in a goal every 103.6 minutes.
While that’s not quite a goal or assist every game, it’s an impressive figure and acts as evidence of the player’s growth. However, Rogic wasn’t far behind with his output.
The Australian played 1,271 minutes in the league last term. In that time, he found the net on seven occasions, while he set up a further five goals. He had a hand in a Celtic goal every 105.9 minutes – that’s less than three minutes behind Armstrong’s record.
It’s worth noting that Rogic tended to play in a comparatively more advanced position on the pitch, meaning he took up more dangerous areas generally. However, considering he struggled with injury for prolonged spells, that number is a positive one.
There have often been questions asked over whether or not the 24-year-old can play in the same midfield as Armstrong. However, the answer to those questions is often a resounding yes, particularly when it comes to domestic action, where Celtic need all the creativity they can fit into the first XI.
Rogic has the touch, control and strength to take up a slightly deeper role if necessary, and his statistics suggest he could be capable of not only partnering his sought-after team-mate, but replacing him – if necessary, that is.
When it comes to natural replacements for Armstrong, few are as well placed to undertake this task as McGregor is. The 24-year-old has fought hard to assert himself at Celtic and under Rodgers’ guidance he has nailed down a regular starting berth.
More consistent game time and quality tactical advice was accompanied by improved performances on the pitch, with the Scotsman scoring six goals and notching up seven assists from 30 Scottish Premiership appearances last season.
McGregor played 1,933 minutes in the league and in that time he had a direct hand in 13 goals. As such, he was involved in one goal every 148.7 minutes on average. While that’s not quite Armstrong levels of productivity, it is promising.
Ntcham recorded the lowest minutes per goal or assist of all Celtic’s creative midfield options last season. He scored three and set up one in 965 minutes on the pitch, meaning he averaged a goal or assist every 241.3 minutes.
However, it is worth noting that the French powerhouse was playing within the rigorous defensive confines of Serie A. Prospects don’t always shine when up against organised and committed Italian defences, and he found it difficult to open up opposition back lines on a regular basis.
This issue should not be quite so prevalent in the Scottish Premiership with Celtic. Ntcham should find more space and time on the ball, and he should also be better able to impose his immense physicality and make full use of his audacious dribbling.
The early signs are promising, as the former Genoa and Manchester City man has already opened his account. While he is a different style of player to Armstrong, he could end up taking the Scotsman’s place. Indeed, he did just this in the opening league game of the campaign against Hearts.
That match ended 4-1 to the champions, suggesting they can play well and win without their star playmaker of last season. And, with Ntcham, McGregor and Rogic all younger than Armstrong, it could be argued that they have more upside to look forward to.
Celtic are well stocked in central midfield, with an abundance of creators ready and willing to make the step up and play more important roles going forward.