Since joining Celtic in 2017, Olivier Ntcham has been an integral part of the Glasgow giants. He has generally had a very prominent role in the Celts winning the premiership since he’s been there.
In the 2019/20 season, he played 23/33 league games for Celtic. Missing a few through injury in the last period.
As modern midfielders go these days, you are either the mould of a Fabinho of Liverpool or like a pressing box to box of Ramsey. Ntcham is a hybrid of both. At Celtic, he has played various roles and done reasonably well in all of them. Whether it’s playing in a two in a 4-2-3-1 under Rodgers or the attacking midfield role in 3-5-2 / 3-4-1-2 under current manager Neil Lennon, Ntcham has shown his qualities and has been a progressive midfielder throughout the season.
What Rodgers realised was that Ntcham had creative potential but when it comes to his final ball in the attacking third, he lacked a bit of finesse. This is why he played in a deeper role with Scott brown while Callum McGregor was given the job as a number 10 to supply Edouard.
Neil Lennon nonetheless, actualised that Ntcham had flair and physicality and can dash ahead in midfield with his pace which makes him a very important attacking outlet in his team.
But that didn’t mean that Ntcham had the free role of an attacking midfielder. Often in game, Ntcham switches position with McGregor and drops in deep. His varied range of passing is second to none in the league which lets him dictate play in midfield. He performs the false attacking midfielder role very subtly in that aspect as he starts in the number 10 role but then gradually drops back during the course of the game and creates space for others through his movement and technical ability.
As you can see, he has the most touches during a match with about 53.65 average passes per90 with a pass accuracy of 84%. This is the best in the league with the second being his Celtic teammate Ryan Christie with 42.63 passes per game and Ryan Kent and Ianis Hagi with 42.63 and 42.09 respectively.
So what’s the reason behind this,
When in possession, Ntcham is heavily involved in the build-up play of his team, he will frequently drop behind and take the ball from the centre backs and ping passes ahead.
These days in central midfield, having a solely defensive-minded midfielder doesn’t fetch you a lot of points. Sideways passing just to keep possession is a thing of the past. Most managers encourage their midfielders to keep attacking even when they are 3-0 up. And Ntcham is such a midfielder who will keep going.
The Bhoys were 4-0 up in this league game against St Johnstone and Ntcham was brought on at the 71st minute. He immediately scored a goal by dashing forward on the counter and set one up for Leigh Griffiths when they were 6 up. There’s like three Johnstone midfielders ahead of him and he still managed a pass into the path of Griffiths.
His numbers in this area are fantastic. Ntcham averages 9.1 average progressive passes per 90 which are second in the league, only 0.06 behind Danny Swanson of St Johnstone. In total, Ntcham has attempted 280 progressive passes out of which 239 were accurate. That is 85.4% which is excellent.
You don’t see many dynamic midfielders these days, someone who can push up and down the pitch and put in the effort. They are not just pivotal to the attack of the team but also contribute to the defensive side of things.
In the above scenario, Ntcham dribbled out of a tight space and charged ahead and made a killer pass to Edouard who scored a sumptuous goal. He attempts 3.13 dribbles per game with a success rate of 53.85% which are good numbers for a central midfielder.
His two footedness is a footballer’s dream. Ntcham has the ability to spray passes and score goals with both feet quite exceptionally.
As you can see, he made a 40 yard diagonal pass after spotting Forrest’s run with his left foot. This also highlights the former Genoa man’s vision.
An instance where during the break-in play, Ntcham scored an excellent goal on the counter with his left foot against St Johnstone.
He also doesn’t shy away from a physical battle as well. Below you could see how he brushed off Hibernian defender Stevenson in a one on one.
The range of his passing is Xhaka-esque. The Frenchman’s skill to make 50 yard passes with ease is a sight to behold. If you make a run, chances are that Ntcham’s pass is going to land on your feet. He averages almost three long balls per game.
Here, he made a long pass from deep midfield that caught up to Edouard’s run upfield.
Also, he made another pass like that against Ligue 1 side Rennes in the Europa league to switch the play.
This is one of several instances where Ntcham’s situational awareness has been spot on. When in possession, he will first look to find a runner or his other option is to alter the play especially when there’s opposition strain on his side.
When it comes to movement, Ntcham has evolved himself to find space and scuttle into channels to make decoy runs.
Often during the game, he will alter his role from centre mid to wide left to create overload and to draw opposition players out of position.
This was quite evident when Celtic played Hearts back in December in the league.
As shown, Ntcham is drifting towards the vertical channel between the opposition fullback and centre back. He received the ball from Greg Taylor into space and then cut inside and scored the goal.
He did a similar thing against Clyde when he shifted across on the wide left and then curled one into the net.
Not just that, few times during the game, he will also get in a wide right position to cross the ball. He did that against Motherwell in the league and put a good cross in but Griffiths scuffed the finish.
This also suggests how he has flourished as an attacking prospect at Celtic. His time in the Serie A was not so much as him going forward. Instead, he was stuck at the back on a defensive role for large parts of the game which didn’t aid his attacking instincts at all. The amount of possession and the style of play that Celtic and the French U21 national team play really suit Ntcham in that regard.
As discussed earlier, he may be the deepest lying player in the build-up play. But
during an attack, the Celtic midfielder has been the furthest man forward several times. His pace and enthusiasm to join the attack are worth noticing and he links up well with Edouard.
Against Kilmarnock, the pair linked up during a deadly counter and Ntcham took a shot and just missed the goal by a bit.
Even in the Glasgow derby, Ntcham made a gallant run ahead from midfield and played a quick one-two with Edouard and managed a shot on target.
His decision making during counter attacks really shows how polished his thinking is in that phase of the game. Just look at how many accurate passes he has made during a break in play as opposed to only the six inaccurate.
The False Full Back Position
In simple terms, a false fullback is typically a centre back, a midfielder or a winger that drops in the position vacated by the fullback who is stationed higher up the pitch for attack.
Ntcham has been able enough to relocate himself in that fullback position and act as the lynchpin between defence and attack.
This first started under Rodgers. When former player Kieran Tierney was at the club, he was instigated to play in an offensive manner which resulted in Ntcham playing in that relinquished zone. Incidentally, Ntcham scored the only goal of the match and won the game for his team.
This season as well he did a similar job at the Broadwood Stadium against Clyde. When Mbombo was striding forward for attack, Ntcham would cover that vacated space.
As much as he likes to join the Celts’ attack, Ntcham doesn’t really forget his defensive chores. When the opposition is in the final third of their attack, Ntcham sniffs danger and briskly falls back in a deeper position to make the recovery.
He has made about 45 recoveries in the final third this season without conceding a single goal.
Celtic always have most of the possession so accordingly, Ntcham and co constantly play a higher line. That means during an opposition transition, the French U21 international has to quickly make interceptions to stop their attack. He has made about 7 interceptions out of his total 18 in the final third.
Because of his positioning and attacking runs, he creates some good chances for himself to score. However, he doesn’t always take those chances and hence he hasn’t scored as many goals this season as he should.
Below are a couple of instances where he missed from close angles.
Although pressing from the front is a good trait, It is best executed when done in a coordinated manner. Just one player trying to hunt down the ball from the opposition doesn’t help as most likely you’d just be over-exerting yourself for nothing.
In the league last September, in a match against Celtic, at one point Hibernian had all their passing lanes cut off by the Celts’ 4-3-3 set up. However, in a bid to press the Hibernian defender Adam Jackson, Ntcham left his marker and let Stevie Mallan run into the centre from right wing and assist Hibernian’s goal. Had he stayed in his position, it would have forced Hibernian to go long or Ntcham would have intercepted any grounded pass they attempted.
If he could work on some of those areas of his game, he could look to be a very attractive prospect to the top leagues in Europe.
To conclude this tactical analysis. It is quite obvious how much Ntcham is enjoying his time at Celtic Park. He has certainly improved as a footballer there. Playing under two attack-minded managers who share the same footballing philosophy as he has helped his cause.
I suppose he hasn’t been really tested much especially off the ball as Celtic enjoy the majority of the possession and it is different than defending in two banks of four with your backs against the wall in a Genoa team.
He publicly stated though before the start of the campaign last year, that he wants a bigger challenge. Maybe even he feels the same about himself.
All the more, he is looking very promising at Celtic at the moment. Even if he may not be starting every game, that has more to do with the squad depth that the Scottish champions have rather than a lingering question over Ntcham’s quality. Celtic don’t exactly have anyone who plays the role of a false attacking midfielder as well as he does.