When assessing his incredible stats since his arrival at Celtic Park in July 2021, it seems bizarre to suggest that Carl Starfelt is a player who may find his place in the starting line-up in jeopardy in the coming weeks.
In normal times, it would be.
But under Ange Postecoglou – a man constantly looking to improve on and evolve his playing options – this is just the way of it at Celtic right now.
Starfelt, like Captain Callum McGregor, like top goalscorer Kyogo Furuhashi, and like every other member of Celtic’s first team squad, knows that under this manager things are different.
Every single appearance in a Celtic shirt must now be earned. Nothing can be taken for granted.
Even for a centre-half who’s tasted defeat just twice over 90mins in sixty-four domestic games played here in Scotland.
The Hips Don’t Lie
Since the re-start of the Scottish Premiership following the World Cup break, Celtic have played eighteen games.
Carl Starfelt has started every one of them.
Up until Saturday the only one he didn’t complete was a Scottish Cup tie against Morton where he made way for young centre half Bosun Lawal in the 86th minute.
All the more surprising then that he didn’t emerge from the dressing rooms at Tynecastle on Saturday as his team-mates looked to complete the job against Hearts and take their place in the last four of this season’s Scottish Cup.
Instead we seen Yuki Kobayashi – a player making just his third appearance for the club – line up alongside Cameron Carter-Vickers, with the young Japanese defender going on to show just why Ange Postecoglou was so keen to bring him to the club.
Speaking after the game the manager explained,
“He felt a niggle in his hip flexor during the warm up.
“He then felt it early on in the game, but we got it through to half-time and we could see he wasn’t moving well in the first-half. You could see he wasn’t his normal self so we made the change.
“I don’t think it’s anything significant but it was good to get Yuki some game time, you can see his quality for a young man and I thought he did well when he came on.”
With another crucial league game coming up with the visit of Hibs on Saturday, what will this mean for Celtic’s centre-half pairing on the day?
Whether forced upon him by injury or not, will Ange now take this opportunity to give Kobayashi an extended run in the team?
Enter Stage Left
With the initial introduction of Moritz Jenz in the summer, and the subsequent signing of Kobayashi in January, it’s clear that Ange has been actively seeking a naturally left sided centre-half.
Speaking at the time of Kobayashi’s signing he said,
“Yuki is someone that we’ve been following for a while and it was a great opportunity to bring him in. He’s a left-sided centre-back, and they’re hard to find.”
He was clearly pleased to finally get his man, but despite that Kobayashi has been restricted to just 210 minutes in a Celtic shirt, such is the form of Swedish international Starfelt.
Regardless how keen he is to have a natural left footed player alongside the colossal Cameron Carter-Vickers, the manager has rightly been reluctant to break up a partnership who have yet to lose a Scottish Premiership game when paired together.
A record now extending to a phenomenal 46 games.
It is undeniable how pivotal this pairing have been to the success of Celtic so far under Ange Postecoglou.
The manager was glowing in his praise of Starfelt and his impressive partnership with Carter-Vickers when speaking recently of their contribution.
“He’s (Starfelt) been a cornerstone of our team since pretty much the day he arrived last year, he was one of the first ones we signed.
I guess he’s a bit understated in the way he plays the game. He rarely gets beaten, he is always in the right areas and contributes both to our attack and our defence, and it’s a credit to him, and Cam.”
“They have a good understanding, they complement each other really well.
It’s not easy to defend in our team. We’re constantly pushing the line, but we want to be aggressive. It means a lot of one-on-one defending, one defending.
You need to embrace that as a defender and be willing to put yourself on the line. They are both very, very brave in their position – as they need to be – and it is a credit to both of them.”
On that basis it’s all the more disappointing that the manager wasn’t able to pair them together for any of Celtic’s six Champions League Group Stage games this season due to a combination of injuries to each player.
Had he been able to do so then surely we’d have been frantically booking flights to Istanbul for the final of this year’s competition!
Yuki’s Window of Opportunity
Such is the world of football, some players often only get a chance to shine when a team-mate finds himself unavailable through injury or suspension.
Whilst Ange doesn’t seem hugely concerned about the hip injury that Starfelt has picked up, this may just give Kobayashi the small window of opportunity that he’s been patiently waiting for since his arrival.
At just 22 years of age and with a big reputation in Japan, the young stopper is eager to impress.
His performance in the second 45minutes against Hearts showed us a player who looks ready to take that chance.
Strong, confident and composed on the ball, Kobayashi looked extremely comfortable in the hot-bed atmosphere of Tynecastle, and it bodes well for his future at the club.
Taking all other matters out of the equation the fact that he’s naturally left sided gives him a huge advantage in his ambition to break up Starfelt’s partnership with Cameron Carter-Vickers.
Celtic’s defenders enjoy substantially more possession than their counterparts at most other clubs and the ability to play fast, incisive passes into the midfield and beyond is a key component of our current system.
It’s perhaps all the more admirable then that Carl Starfelt has been performing so well within the system when it could be argued that he’s effectively playing out of position.
As a natural right footer he’d likely be far more comfortable taking up Carter-Vickers side of the park – but that’s one of very few positions at Celtic Park which isn’t currently up for debate.
Battling It Out
With just ten league games remaining and the potential of two more Scottish Cup ties, time is against Kobayashi making a notable impact in what’s left of this season.
However, speaking after the win at Tynecastle Ange has stated that he can be a “strong contributor” between the end of the season and beyond.
What that contribution entails is now very much up to the manager, his coaching staff, and the two players themselves.
Regardless how this plays out, Carl Starfelt isn’t a player who’s going to give up his place without a fight.
From a fan’s perspective we can just consider ourselves lucky we have two such talented operators vying for that crucial position as Celtic chase down the treble dream.
Let the battle continue!
Tune in to the latest episode of The Celtic Exchange Weekly as we discuss Starfelt’s Stunning Stats, Celtic’s Latest Scouting Appointment, Signing Homegrown talents & Much More!
Available wherever you get your podcasts, by clicking the player below, or here at The Celtic Exchange website.