It looks fairly certain that Olivier Ntcham will become Celtic’s third signing of the summer. The 21 year old French midfielder underwent a medical in Glasgow on Saturday ahead of a permanent transfer from Manchester City. This article will look at Ntcham’s position and his recent history, before touching upon how he plays in each of the four phases of the game.
Position and recent history
“Although I’m capable of playing deeper, in a ball winning role, I prefer being higher up the pitch creating chances. In a 4-3-3, I’m comfortable going from box to box, but it’s the role of the playmaker, the number 10, that suits me most. In any case, that’s where I prefer playing.” (France Football, 2016)
Over the past two years at Genoa, Ntcham has been playing in a 3-4-3 system. Usually this has been on the right hand side of the two central midfielders, but they have occasionally played him on either wing too.
Frankly, Genoa have not had a great season. Limping into a sixteenth placed finish, just four points above the relegation zone, the Ligurians sacked manager Ivan Juric in February, only to reappoint him in April after replacement Andrea Mandorlini could only take four points from six games in charge.
Last season, Ntcham only really got a run in the team from March to April where he started six games in a row.
However, central midfield was a position riddled with inconsistency in this side, with not a single player managing over 75% of available minutes in the middle:
There are some legitimate criticisms of Ntcham, but it must be placed into context of the above. The Genoa side he was playing in were poor, he didn’t really have a run of games to build up a relationship with his team mates, and these seasons were his first experiences of senior football.
When his team are in possession, Ntcham is probably most similar to Tom Rogic at Celtic. He will roam all across the opposition half looking for possession, and when he receives it, he turns and passes to his favoured choice.
Although he is comfortable on the ball, he is occasionally guilty of taking one touch too many, and has been caught out a few times by an opponent pressuring his blind side. This caused some problems in the early days at Genoa. Playing on a defensive team, Ntcham would sometimes lose possession near the Genoa penalty box, from which the opposition could create chances.
However, this does look to have been coached out of him. Besides, playing in a high possession team like Celtic, whose centre backs are often perched near the halfway line, it is unlikely that he will be receiving the ball near the Celtic goal.
Nevertheless, he is still fairly strong on the ball, and his time at Genoa looks to have made him more streetwise. You’re more likely to see Ntcham play a safe pass backwards if under pressure than turn and risk being dispossessed. However, when he does have space to turn, he has a formidable passing range. He’s able to play through the lines comfortably, whether spraying it out to the wings, or playing a through ball in behind the defenders.
Ntcham is also a player who likes to shoot from range. Going through all of his shots since the turn of the year, just one was inside the penalty box. The vast majority were either blocked, off target, or with nowhere near enough power to trouble the goalkeeper. However, from these nineteen shots, he did score two fantastic goals. Here’s one of them:
Ntcham is very capable at breaking with pace. Another similarity to Rogic is that he’s very difficult to get the ball off once he starts carrying it. As this clip shows, his first thought on winning the ball back for his team is to get forward:
Perhaps his decision making with the final ball could be better, but if teams leave space in between the lines, Ntcham will eat it up. This will be particularly suitable in a Celtic team with the likes of Armstrong, Sinclair and Dembele all creating space ahead for him.
Ntcham is a player who is athletically competent. He is quick and he is strong. This means that upon losing possession, he is able to quickly get back and apply pressure on the ball carrier.
However, there are two caveats to the above. First of all, the pace at which he gets back and the intensity of pressure he applies means that sometimes he ends up barging into the ball carrier and giving away a foul:
Secondly, he is perhaps guilty of not showing as much desire to get back when things are going tough. For example, consider the below in a match vs. Atalanta, where his Genoa side were 2-0 down after half an hour. They would go on to lose the game 5-0.
On the plus side, both of these things can be worked with. The raw athletic ability is there to be able to effectively cover in the defensive transition; the actual act of pressuring the player/winning the ball back can be fine-tuned over time.
Looking at Ntcham over the past 12 months, you see him playing in two totally different systems. Genoa routinely cede possession throughout the 90 minutes, and so spend most of their time in their own half defending. On the other hand, the French under 21 side see much more of the ball and look to dominate play. This obviously means that Ntcham has had to adapt to the two different styles.
Fortunately for Celtic fans, their team play more like France under 21s than Genoa. For Genoa, upon losing the ball, the tendency would be to track back as quickly as possible. For the national team, Ntcham is instructed to play slightly differently. He’ll tend to stick tight to his opposition marker, even higher up the pitch. He’s stronger and faster than most players, so this means he has a good chance of winning an interception in these cases. If not, he’s not averse to the odd tactical foul in order to keep the opponent high up the park:
Should Celtic complete the signing of Ntcham, they will be buying a player with plenty of raw talent. There is still some clumsiness to his play, and his decision making could arguably improve. However, this is a very promising player. Keeping players like Koziello, Sanson and Cyprien (all hugely impressive in Ligue 1 last season) out of the French under 21 side is no mean feat, and to have nearly 40 appearances in Serie A at his age is similarly rare.
Brendan Rodgers has previous for moulding young talent. You can be reasonably certain that Ntcham will be his next success.