It is just shy of six months since Albian Ajeti put pen to paper on a four-year deal at Celtic Park after a protracted transfer saga in the summer that eventually ended the Swiss international’s brief but a dismal spell in East London at Premier League side West Ham United. 172 days on, it is fair to say that Celtic fans are still waiting to see the best of their five-million-pound signing in the green-and-white and many already seem to be writing him off as a failure in a transfer window that promised much but has delivered little. His second half performance at Kilmarnock will have many rethinking their stance but where has it gone wrong for Ajeti so far, and can he still ultimately find success at Celtic despite the rocky start? Let’s analyze…
It is important to stress that while Albian Ajeti may have been an unknown quantity to many Celtic fans before this transfer was made, he is not an unproven talent. You don’t earn a move to the Premier League for an 8-million-pound fee if that was the case. He has pedigree. He made the move to West Ham after three seasons in the Swiss Super League that saw him scored 10 in 29 for a St. Gallen side that only scored 43 goals that season and finished seventh before his spell at Basel (14/25 in 17/18 and 17/32 in 18/19 to win the top scorer award). Stats aren’t everything in football but Ajeti is a proven goalscorer in a similar league and at a similar club (usually competing in Europe/for the title) as he is now.
I was convinced when he signed back in August and I remain just as convinced now that Ajeti will score goals for Celtic. It started off promisingly, he scored five in his first six games but hasn’t found the net since. His assists against Lille and Motherwell in October and November respectively are his only real contributions of note since that five-goal burst at the start of his career in the hoops. So, where do the problems lie?
I think it is very telling that Odsonne Edouard (9) and Mohamed Elyounoussi (7) are the only players with more goals than Ajeti in the league this season. Leigh Griffiths has scored the same number of goals as Ajeti in just twelve league games… but has played more minutes already. I am of the opinion that Griffiths deserves to be ahead in the pecking order having scored more goals across all competitions and generally looking more of a threat than Ajeti has but it brings me back to the issue I raised about Ajeti’s time at West Ham and the lack of game time being given.
This shouldn’t have been an issue at Celtic but given the way the season has went, it isn’t overly surprising. The manager is under pressure and there is no time to be patient, although the ship has long since sailed on salvaging anything from the season itself. Ajeti has suffered as a result. He has been given chances: 90 minutes against Ross County, 70 minutes against Aberdeen and Motherwell but there is no consistency to his playing time. In his last five games before his start at Kilmarnock, he had played a combined total of 89 minutes with 29 minutes vs. St. Mirren on Saturday being the most total minutes on the pitch in any one game.
It is no secret that Celtic aren’t playing well this season, they’re laboured and slow more often than not and their creativity and goal-scoring is in stark contrast to last season. At this same stage in 19/20, Celtic had scored 77 goals in the Scottish Premiership but have only scored 51 goals after Matchday 26 in 20/21. This lack of creativity and goals brings me to my next and final point.
The team, generally, isn’t playing to Ajeti’s strengths. He is a penalty box striker. The goals scored in Switzerland were almost always inside the box. A poacher with a killer instinct. The comparison to Gary Hooper was brought up when he signed and it is true. Hooper is similar to Ajeti, he holds the ball up well and is in the positions to score inside the box. The difference between then and now is that Celtic don’t get the ball in the box enough in the 19/20 season. Even if you compare the 5-1 win over Hamilton on opening day until now, you can see the difference. Edouard (x2) and Jeremie Frimpong both scored goals from close-range after passes into the box that were, crucially, accurate. It is the type of chance that has decreased in regularity as the season has progressed and chances that Ajeti thrives on and would score.
Ajeti is not entirely blameless. His fitness was an issue with Neil Lennon for a period and generally off the ball he can look lazy. This isn’t something that was uncommon with Hooper but he came to life in the box. This, in my opinion, is highlighted more often because of the predicament the club finds themselves in but when the team is so laboured, it is up to Ajeti to involve himself more. The 2-2 draw with Lille was one of the better team performances of the season and in that game Ajeti worked hard off the ball and created a goal for Elyounoussi. He needs to do this more often with the club performing as it is.
If we could go back to the 19/20 season and put Ajeti in a squad that was playing better and creating more, he would score goals. He is the type of striker that becomes mostly ineffective in a team playing as it is now. In that case, you could say it is right that he is left out in favour of Griffiths, but there are times he deserves more of an opportunity, such as in the comfortable wins over Ross County, Dundee Utd and Hamilton were he was afforded less than twenty minutes as a substitute despite the three points being safe.
In summary, hope is definitely not lost for Ajeti. This season has been a write-off and it seems likely to be the case with Ajeti too. If he works harder and is given more minutes consistently then he may begin to show his worth this season but it seems like we may have to wait until next season to see him at his best with the likely departure of Edouard meaning that Celtic will have more reliance on him than before. Perhaps then, in a side that fans will hope to be playing better football, he will be able to deliver what he is most definitely capable of.