Whatever the reason, Mikael just didn’t seem to connect with the support in those first six months and was, in some quarters, being written off as another failure in the great Moneyball experiment.
All of which makes his progress over the past twelve months absolutely remarkable. Like many of the team, the Champions’ League allowed Lustig to show the Celtic fans just how valuable an asset he was. As the European campaign wore on fewer and fewer fans raised an eyebrow when Mikael’s name appeared on the team sheet. This was due to a very simple fact – he showed himself to be a calm, disciplined and talented performer every time he participated in the greatest club competition in the world.
I guess we shouldn’t really have been surprised that Lustig would take to European football quite so well – after all he is a regular in the Swedish National Team and, despite a disappointing Euro 2012 tournament when he was harshly adjudged to have gifted Shevchenko the winning goal in a vital match against Ukraine, he brought all this experience to the games against Barcelona in particular.
Actually if we take another look at that goal against the Ukraine it’s fairly clear that Ibrahimovi? was the real culprit as he was marking Shevchenko. However, this didn’t stop Lustig becoming the focus of a internet campaign with hundreds of Swedish fans kindly showing the defender how to hold onto a post.
Those days seem a long time ago now and Lustig has firmly established himself as an essential part of Neil Lennon’s Celtic. With our particular style of play demanding energy and determination on both flanks the Swedish defender has made himself one of the first names on the team sheet.
He’s strong in the tackle, he’s got some pace and can switch quickly from defence to attack. He’s tall and it’s clear that Neil is looking to do a MON and ensure there is some decent height in his European teams. He provides an effective link from the back to the forwards due to his willingness to get beyond the midfield.
And he’s got a bit of ability about him as well. Lustig isn’t the road runner type who will just bolt down the wing and then not know what to do when he gets into attacking positions. He plays with his head up and is constantly looking to make the right pass at the right time.
One key area that still requires improvement is the full back’s stamina levels. Maybe it’s just my imagination but he seems to struggle to finish a game. Now I’m not suggesting he has a dose of the Rogne’s but one of the challenges he faces this year will be to consistently finish matches as strong as he starts them. Perhaps Euro 2012 took its toll and with a decent break this summer we’ll see a fitter player in the months ahead.
It’s not all that surprising to discover that Lustig was originally a striker. “When I was young I was a striker,” said Lustig recently. “Henrik was one of the biggest stars in Sweden but I wouldn’t say he was my idol because I looked at Juventus at that time and Del Piero was my hero.
“I did score a lot of goals. That’s where I saw my future, but I had some tough years and knew I wouldn’t make it in that position. I was 14 or 15 and started playing with the seniors and moved to right-back. I’d been scoring a lot of goals in every game but when we moved as kids to a big field it was more difficult for me. Everyone was growing and getting, bigger stronger and quicker than I was so I shifted from striker to midfield and then right-back.”
Given that Henrik wasn’t his idol it’s obvious that Lustig wouldn’t know a class striker when he sees one but we’ll put that to one side.
This move from an attack minded player to a defensive one is an increasingly common shift with Ashley Cole, Zambrotta and Daniel Alves all having made the same journey from the front to the back of the park. It reflects the demands modern football places upon the full back and it says much about Lustig that he has flourished in this role. Players of this type are highly prized in European football and we are very lucky to have two in Lustig and Matthew’s.
And it’s hardly surprising that others have noticed this level of ability. Rumours of a move to Spain have been doing the rounds with Real Madrid and Seville having seriously considered him six months ago. Talk of a move to Russia was also mooted but Lustig certainly gives the impression that he’s happy to be part of our club.
“I have two more years here then we’ll see what happens,” said the defender, “I’m happy, though, and I like Celtic as a club and Glasgow as a city. Celtic are bigger than I thought they’d be when I signed. You see how much it means to the people when you come here.
“I came from a small club in Scandinavia in comparison, where things didn’t always work out the way you want as a player. But here we have people for everything at Celtic. It’s a really big club.”
As we all know it’s the wife that calls the shots when it comes to where to live and it was pleasing to see the new Mrs Lustig tweet about how she was looking forward to getting back “home to Glasgow” recently. What is it about Scandinavian players that they seem to adapt and flourish in the Glasgow atmosphere?
Yes, Mikael Lustig has come a long way in the past eighteen months. From Pirates of Penzance reject to the captain’s armband in our recent friendly is quite a journey. Mind you I’m not convinced that the Hitler youth haircut is a genuine improvement.
Perhaps the key lesson we can learn from the Swede’s time in a Celtic jersey is that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge a player’s worth before he has had a fair crack of the whip. A lesson those already pointing fingers at Amido Balde would do well to learn.