Neil Lennon faces a selection dilemma over Celtic signing Hatem Abd Elhamed

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CELTIC finalised a deal for Hapoel Be’er Sheva’s Hatem Abd Elhamed on Wednesay afternoon, with the defender becoming Neil Lennon’s fourth summer signing.

The 28-year-old has now joined up with his new team-mates and one would imagine that we won’t have to wait long until we see the Israeli in green and white. Where exactly he’ll slot into Lennon’s starting XI, however, remains to be seen.

With negotiations for the player taking place last week, much has been said and written about Celtic’s latest signing, with many reports suggesting that Abd Elhamed will most likely feature on the right side of the Celtic backline. Even when Celtic announced the transfer on the club’s Twitter account, they specifically welcomed Abd Elhamed as the club’s new right-back.

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It is a position that Lennon was always going to have to strengthen in the summer, following the departures of Mikael Lustig, Jeremy Toljan and Christian Gamboa. As it stands, Anthony Ralston is the only recognised right-sided defender on the books at Parkhead and while the 20-year-old is a promising talent, it seems unlikely that Lennon would expect the academy graduate to start regularly for Celtic this season.

Abd Elhamed has now been added to Celtic’s ranks and that, one would think, should be that. But there’s just one small issue: Abd Elhamed has rarely featured at right-back whatsoever.

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Over the last three seasons, Abd Elhamed racked up a total of 90 appearances for Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva. Of those 90, just eight of those came at right-back. The overwhelming  majority (83%) of the Israel internationalist’s games over the last three seasons have came in central defence.

Of course, this does not mean that Abd Elhamed will necessarily play centre-back at Celtic. There is every chance that Lennon has looked at the attributes that the Israeli has and reckons that Abd Elhamed could be successfully converted to play on the right of the defence. Yet the fact remains that at present, Abd Elhamed is relatively inexperienced in this role and at 28 years old may find it diffcult to re-train to fit the position.

Given the fact that Abd Elhamed has played almost exclusively at centre-back over the last three seasons, it stands to reason that the only fair method of comparing him to his new team-mates is to see how the Israeli’s stats measure up against other centre-backs at Celtic Park. Direct comparisons are admittedly difficult to make, given the fact that the players involved have been playing in different competitions, but by examing Abd Elhamed’s numbers from last season we can gain some insight into the type of player that the former Hapoel Be’er Sheva man is.

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The graphic above outlines the key statistics for a modern centre-half, comparing each of Celtic’s four central defenders’ stats for the 2018/19 season. And going by the numbers, it appears as though Abd Elhamed is very much a centre-back by trade.

Abd Elhamed averaged 7.79 defensive duels last season – more than any of Celtic’s other centre-backs achieved – and has a near identical success rate to Jozo Simunovic in this regard. Interestingly, Abd Elhamed attempted far fewer headers per 90 minutes last season than Lennon’s other central defenders, yet only Kristoffer Ajer had a higher success rate in the air last season.

The number of interceptions and clearances that Abd Elhamed averaged during the 2018/19 campaign place him in the top two of the respective categories amongst Celtic’s central defenders this season and while the Israeli’s passing statistics arem’t as good as Simunovic’s or Ajer’s, we can probably expect these figures to improve at Celtic Park.

Both Abd Elhamed and Christopher Jullien hit significantly fewer passes than Ajer or Simunovic – and do so less successfully – but there is perhaps a degree of mitigation required here. Jullien, for instance, spent last season playing for a Toulouse side that often found themselves under the cosh; in the majority of their Ligue 1 fixtures, the opposition enjoyed the majority of possession. And, of course, the French top flight is played at a higher standard than the Scottish Premiership.

The same cannot be said of the Israeli Premier League, however. The league is ranked seven places below the Scottish Premiership in the UEFA nation coefficient table and while Hapoel Be’er Sheva dominated possession in most of their league matches (averaging 56.2% possession), they weren’t quite as dominant on the ball as Celtic were last year (69.8%). The number of passes that Abd Elhamed attempts per game will surely increase at Celtic, but it’s also worth pointing out that the 28-year-old’s passing accuracy of 89.8% is not far behind the impressive figures that Simunovic and Ajer were posting during the 2018/19 campaign.

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Celtic’s assertion that Abd Elhamed will fill in at right-back looks all the more puzzling when the Israeli’s dribbling statistics are examined. Carrying the ball forward from defence is a crucial aspect of a modern full-back’s role, yet Celtic’s latest summer signing generally struggles in this regard. Of the four players that played regularly on either flank of Celtic’s defence last season, only 33-year-old Lustig attempted fewer dribbles than the Israeli. In fact, Kieran Tierney, Jonny Hayes and Jeremy Toljan attempted two or three times as many dribbles per 90 minutes on average.

Similarly, Abd Elhamed’s dribbling success rate leaves a lot to be desired. Only Toljan (44.4%) had a lower dribbling success rate last season than Abd Elhamed (57.1%), with the former Hapoel Be’er Sheva defender significantly trailing the others.

All in all, it looks as though Abd Elhamed has plenty to offer Celtic in defence – but just not where he is expected to play. Converting a centre-back to play out wide is rarely straightforward, especially for one approaching the peak years of his career. If Celtic’s latest signing has indeed been recruited to replace Mikael Lustig then significant improvement is required from Abd Elhamed, who will also have to fundamentally change his style of play to fit in on the right.

It isn’t impossible, but Lennon has undoubtedly made life difficult for himself by signing a player who will need to be coached into his new role, as opposed to one who is ready-made for it. Abd Elhamed may well go on to star for Celtic at right-back but any supporters expecting an immediate impact would do well to temper their expectations, at least in the short term.

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