During his time in Italy, Olivier Ntcham flattered to deceive. He was capable of the stunning, the unpredictable, the beautiful, but his delivery was inconsistent. His greatest moment on loan at Genoa came in the dying moments of a home game with Bologna – with his side trailing 1-0, he calmly unleashed a rocket of a right-footed strike into the net from outside the penalty box.
Initially, his time in Serie A was seen as a precursor to his announcement on the continental stage. He would develop in a rigorously tactical league, refine his football intelligence and return to Manchester City ready to take on the Premier League. But that goal against Bologna was the exception rather than the rule; he didn’t quite hit the high notes enough.
Instead of returning to City, he joined Celtic in the summer for a significant £4.5million fee that made him the sixth most expensive player ever signed by the club. Most of those ahead of him in that list, such as Neil Lennon, John Hartson and Chris Sutton, went on to become legends at Parkhead. There was immediate, intense pressure on his shoulders.
However, the recent evidence suggests Ntcham is coping well with said pressure. His latest performance, coming in a 3-1 win over Hamilton Academical, attracted plaudits, not least because of a superb strike to open the scoring. On 12 minutes, Scott Sinclair hit the by-line and pulled back a floated cross. Ntcham steadied himself, watched the ball drop, and connected perfectly, finding the net with a volley.
It’s hard to imagine a more emphatic finish. For those who saw the 21-year-old playing in Italy, it no doubt reminded them of his goal against Bologna. Yet this strike came not at the last gasp, when nobody expected it, but in the middle of a match, with the scores even.
Ntcham is settling well in Scotland and is proving to be an impactful signing for more reasons than the occasional wonder-goal. The big challenge ahead will be to build on his positive start, nail down a regular starting berth, and cement a legacy with Celtic.
NTCHAM SETTLES IN
Against Hamilton, Ntcham followed up his goal with some clever forward forays and off the ball movement that saw him get into dangerous positions between the lines. He also made several intelligent passes – some long-range switches if play; some intricate through balls in tight spaces – and threatened the opposition goalkeeper with a powerful drive from outside the 18-yard box.
The Frenchman put in the sort of all-round performance that maximised his unique combination of gifts, earning praise from his team-mate James Forrest.
“Olivier has come in the last few games and looked really good,” Forrest told the Daily Record. “He’s a good player and has chipped in with a couple of goals so that’s brilliant for everyone. Even when he came in at the start he played well from the word go.
“We have competition for places in the middle of the park and he has come in and done well. There’s no language barrier as he speaks English really well. He is a quiet lad but he's good with all the boys and speaks away fine. The fact his English is so good means he has settled in.”
Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers was equally impressed with what he had seen, and came out publicly to praise his summer signing.
“I think he’s developing very, very well, as I would expect,” Rodgers said. “He’s a highly gifted player, the first goal is wonderful technique after great play by Callum McGregor and Scott Sinclair and it’s a brilliant finish.
“He’s got really good technique, good pace, good awareness and it’s just about him getting used to the number of games. Now he’s getting that consistency and adapting to everything since he’s moved to here and you see his quality last night was very good. He’s developing very well.”
WHAT NEXT FOR NTCHAM?
In 821 minutes of Scottish Premiership action, Ntcham has had a direct hand in four goals, meaning he has had 0.44 goal involvements per 90 minutes on average.
While Ntcham’s numbers aren’t quite as strong as his creative competitors, he isn’t far off. And, given how little time he’s spent in Rodgers’ squad, the speed with which he has adjusted is remarkable.
He has proven his quality, and with his strength and technique he has also shown himself to be a truly unique midfield option for the Scottish champions.
In games against deep defensive opponents, his power and desire to break beyond the opposition’s midfield line to offer a penetrative forward pass is key. And his ability to find the target from range is another offensive weapon that his side cannot ignore.
Ntcham has started just nine of Celtic’s 17 Scottish Premiership games during his debut campaign so far, but his influence is growing. Over the coming months, he can reasonably expect to assert himself as a regular in Rodgers’ starting line-up.