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Moritz Jenz had a dream Celtic debut but is still a work in progress

Debuts rarely come better than scoring the crucial goal in the 84th minute — especially for a defender.

That happened last weekend as Moritz Jenz leapt to meet Filipe Jota’s cross and powered a header into the net. Celtic fans in the away end at Ross County were in raptures as he celebrated.

It was not a flawless first outing for the Lorient loanee.

He arguably should have done better defending the corner from which Ross County equalised just before the hour. He was also booked for a rash tackle outside his own box, conceding a dangerous free kick that required an excellent Joe Hart save to prevent the home side going ahead.

But the 23-year-old German made a positive overall impression, and certainly did enough to be added to Ange Postecoglou’s list of options for partnering Cameron Carter-Vickers in central defence. Carl Starfelt, after a strong second half of last season, remains in pole position for that job, but Stephen Welsh and Jenz are in contention too.

Jenz was born in Berlin and joined local football club Tennis Borussia as a child.

In 2015, as a lanky 16-year-old, he joined Fulham after being recommended by agent Barry Poynton, the former Manchester City head of recruitment.

Jenz was tried at right-back and centre-back by the London club before establishing himself in their youth teams as the latter. It was while part of the Fulham academy set-up that he met a player who influenced his arrival at Celtic this summer.

“Since last year, I’ve been in touch with Matt O’Riley who’s been my best mate since we were younger and played together at Fulham,” Jenz told Celtic’s website. “He told me a lot of great things. He texted me immediately after he signed (from MK Dons in January), telling me it would be nice to have me here.”

Jenz had been on a Celtic shortlist last summer, before Carter-Vickers arrived on loan from Tottenham Hotspur, and O’Riley told Celtic TV about how he encouraged the signing: “I was just trying to prod a few coaches here and there, making them aware of him. I knew Celtic were already interested in him. I had a couple of chats with a couple of staff members. They asked me what he was like as a person. Obviously, I knew him well and said he was a great guy.”

Jenz never made a first-team appearance for Fulham. Entering the final year of his contract in the summer of 2020, after they won Premier League promotion via the play-offs, they spoke to other clubs about potential loans, including in Italy’s Serie B, before a permanent move to Lausanne-Sport of the Swiss Super League was agreed.

Oliver Zesiger, a Swiss scout who worked with Lausanne-Sport that year, tells The Athletic: “From the English reserves (to first-team football), it’s always a bit of a gamble. Even coming from the Premier League, it’s always a big step to competitive football. But I was convinced, because he was physically good and technically decent.”

In Lausanne, Jenz was normally part of a back three, most frequently as the middle centre-back, but he played as the one on the right too. At Celtic, he is likely to be used as the left-sided centre-back in a four.

Zesiger does not feel that will be an issue for him: “He’s right-footed naturally but good with his left foot, which helps with variety in building up. That was something I noted when watching him on video.”

Zesiger also provides some insight into Jenz’s playing style: “Rock-solid in his defensive ability. He was also very helpful with his build-up and long balls — his almost two-footedness. He can make a diagonal or long ball onto the attacker’s head.

“He was a bit shy at first on the ball, but he got into the role of a primary build-up player.”

The data platform smarterscout, which gives players a rating from zero to 99 based on either how often they perform a given action compared to others in their position or how effective they are at it, provides further analysis.

Jenz did not contribute much in attack but was involved in building from the back (link-up play rating: 89 out of 99 — a valuation adjusted for Premier League standard) and kept possession efficiently (ball retention: 61 out of 99).

Although tidy enough, he does not appear to be a Kristoffer Ajer-style ball-playing centre-back, as highlighted by his low scores for progressive passing (15 out of 99) and carry and dribble volume (22 out of 99). Defensively, he is effective in the air (aerial duels quantity: 63 out of 99) and preventing the opposition from progressing the ball up the pitch (defending impact: 63 out of 99).

Jenz had an excellent year in Switzerland as Lausanne-Sport narrowly missed out on Europe and his metrics popped up on scouting databases around Europe, including Celtic’s.

However, after they spent £4.5million ($5.5m) on the more experienced Starfelt last summer, recruiting another costly centre-back was unlikely. Instead, Jenz moved on to Lorient in France’s Ligue 1 for £3.2million.

At Lorient, he was a regular in the starting XI until March, when poor form and goal-costing errors saw him dropped to the bench amid a relegation battle. He started only two of Lorient’s final 11 matches (including the last one, when they were already safe) and was then made available for loan.

Why was the transition from Swiss football, where he shone, to Ligue 1 so difficult for him?

“His mobility might have been an issue,” Zesiger says. “In a league like France’s, which has lots of quick players, he did have a problem. He struggled on the turn and lacked the quick change of direction he needed to defend against quick forwards.

“He’s not the quickest. He was not tailor-made for the French league.

“He’s better where he’s playing against strong centre-forwards. After one or two mistakes, he may have lost confidence. He also only spoke basic French, and Lorient is a whole different culture — that can be an emotional struggle to adapt to.”

This summer, after already spending £6million to make Carter-Vickers’ loan permanent, Celtic still wanted a fourth centre-back, with Christopher Jullien not part of Postecoglou’s plans. They had monitored Jenz’s situation over the past year and once it became clear he was on the market, a loan with an option to buy was arranged.

Analysing Jenz’s time at Lorient, he was often played in a back three — most frequently as the man on the left.

Stylistically, his smarterscout pizza chart from last season reveals a bread-and-butter centre-back whose strengths lie in being proactive (defending intensity: 67 out of 99 — again, adjusted for Premier League standard) and stopping the opposition from advancing the ball up the pitch (defending impact: 43 out of 99).

First, the good stuff.

The below grab, from a 4-2 loss away to Nantes in January, is an illustration of how his proactive defending can be a useful asset.

Nantes attempt to push across the halfway line and Jenz spots an opportunity to snuff the budding attack out despite being several yards away.

He wins the ball using this front-foot approach.

He can also be effective when playing more cautiously — standing his ground to stop the opposition in their tracks.

The below grab from a 2-1 defeat at Nice in April is an example of how he restrains himself rather than diving in.

Instead, he makes himself big, so when the ball gets flicked on he is there to intercept and begin a counter-attack.

Such composure can be outweighed by his aggression, however, which can lead to rash decision-making.

Jenz tended to foul a lot in France, and his overeagerness was exposed by quick bursts of pace — Zesiger’s observation about Ligue 1’s quick, technical forwards giving him trouble was telling.

This incident early in the 1-1 draw with Troyes in the final game of the season sees Jenz face up to his man and try to get a foot in…

…only for the forward to nutmeg him and try to sprint away, leading Jenz to foul him.

This was a relatively regular occurrence last season as the pace of games in Ligue 1 proved a stumbling block to his development.

What about on the ball? Does Zesiger believe Jenz can improve Celtic’s ability to play out from the back?

“In the Swiss League, there are teams who press very high — almost Bundesliga-style — such as St Gallen and Young Boys,” Zesiger says. “He doesn’t usually let himself get under pressure. He positions himself well to receive the ball and overlook the whole pitch in front of him.

“Once he is under pressure, though, due to average mobility he can be a bit error-prone. But he positions himself in a way so he doesn’t get under pressure a lot. He’s just a solid player.”

Video confirms the impressions from Zesiger and smarterscout of Jenz being tidy enough at recycling possession and repositioning to provide team-mates with passing options, but someone who perhaps doesn’t excel at progressive passing.

In the below sequence of grabs, from that same April game in Nice, Jenz shows both his assets in possession and his areas for improvement.

That positional awareness Zesiger mentions is illustrated by how quickly he shifts across to offer a safe passing option for his under-pressure team-mate. He then has three potential passes (the dotted arrows) he could execute if he gets his head up, but he is also aware that he is being pressed by Nice’s Andy Delort.

To Jenz’s credit, he tries to make the progressive vertical pass, but he takes a touch first and his pass is then underhit, allowing Delort time to intercept.

As fans might have noticed during his debut in Dingwall, Jenz is unafraid to try similarly risky passes.

Not many came off for him on the day but that ambition is what Postecoglou wants from his centre-backs: try, despite the risk.

Though Jenz was shortlisted before the manager first arrived in Glasgow from Japan’s Yokohama F Marinos last June, he does fit some aspects of the archetypal Postecoglou centre-back, albeit with other areas in need of attention.

That aggression and proactiveness are what Postecoglou wants from his defenders, in the hope his coaching on other parts of their game may reduce mistakes.

Likewise, Jenz might not be a natural ball-playing defender but his bravery as a passer at least gives Postecoglou something to work with.

It might be helpful to think of Jenz as a work in progress.

He is not a Champions League-ready centre-back who dramatically improves the starting XI but he could be a decent player who Postecoglou sculpts into a good one.

(Top photo: Craig Williamson/SNS Group via Getty Images)

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