When Patrick Roberts re-joined Celtic at the end of the summer transfer window, it was a move heralded as a coup for the Scottish club. After a fantastic 18 months at the club in his initial loan spell, it appeared that if the Manchester City youngster could not work his way into Pep Guardiola’s elite side that he would be sent elsewhere to continue his development. However, fan power, the player’s relationship with the club and Celtic’s desire to bring him back to Glasgow won out.
Since then though, it hasn’t exactly been the blockbuster return that people anticipated. Far from ripping up the Scottish scene, the 20-year-old has scored just once in 10 appearances and while he’s been trusted to do a job in the big matches, he’s failed to hit the heights that he set for himself last season. In fact, against the elite opposition in the form of Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, when the heat is really on, he’s been a luxury that Celtic can ill afford at that level.
Whether Brendan Rodgers was planning to play him against Bayern again this Tuesday we’ll never know, but a hamstring injury sustained against Kilmarnock has ruled him out, with the Celtic boss telling reporters it’ll be weeks before he returns. While it’s undoubtedly a blow not to have a player of his ability available, it does present an opportunity for another Hoops player; James Forrest.
Is it the Scotland international’s time to show that he can provide a better team-focused performance in the UEFA Champions League, in contrast to the individual brilliance of Roberts?
For the avoidance of doubt, there is absolutely no question that Partick Roberts will play an important role for Celtic this season. His ability to cut through tight defences and spark into life around the opposition penalty box is a something that the Hoops don’t have elsewhere in the team. There’s the pace of Scott Sinclair and the vision of Tom Rogic, but Roberts has a dribbling ability beyond both and a final product that resulted in him leading the assist charts at the club last season.
There’s every chance he does that again this term, even after a slow start. His performance at Ibrox against Rangers showed what he can do to the better teams in Scotland when the pressure is on.
However, in Europe against the elite giants his style has not lent itself well to how Celtic need to play. While an effective out ball, he hasn’t coped well carrying the ball into the opposition half, often shut down and showing poor decision making not to release the ball to teammates quicker.
You can see his thinking as it plays out in real time, passing a square ball just isn’t in his nature, he’s a player who thrives on taking on defenders. For all his talent, he hasn’t shown the focus or awareness needed to allow the Hoops to build play into the opposition half.
James Forrest has always threatened to be a reliable Celtic mainstay but difficult personal years under Ronny Deila and his inability to ever take his goal or assist tally into doubles figures in any given season meant that by the time Brendan Rodgers arrived at the club, he was a frustrating character to Celtic supporters.
It’s easy to forget though that the 26-year-old kept Patrick Roberts out of the Celtic side for large chunks of last season. It wasn’t really until the last couple of months that the Man City loanee cemented himself as one of the first names on the teamsheet. A return of eight goals and 12 assists under Rodgers was far beyond anything he had managed previously and his growth has been one of the most obvious examples of Rodgers bringing a player’s game to the next level.
His workrate has improved and his defensive game has come on so much that Rodgers showed now hesitance in starting him as a right wing-back away to Aberdeen last week in a crucial top of the table clash. It’s primarily these attributes that make him a more effective choice than Roberts in matches they are not expected to dominate possession in.
In attack too he’s come on massively in areas that aren’t purely about taking on players or using his pace to burn opposition defenders. His decision making is far better now than it’s ever been and he’s mostly managed to shake that frustrating tendency of playing himself into unrecoverable positions, moving the ball on to teammates quicker.
It’s now up to him to show he can improve Celtic’s right flank in Tuesday’s match against Bayern Munich and perhaps prove that despite all the hype surrounding Patrick Roberts and the Englishman’s immense ability, Forrest is the right man to utilise when the big matches come calling.