A hat-trick from James Forrest fired Celtic past Partick Thistle and into the sixth round of the Scottish Cup.
His first came after just three minutes, finishing from inside the penalty area, then just seven minutes later Olivier Ntcham’s pass helped the winger to find the top corner for his second.
Not long into the second half he sealed his treble and reestablished the home side’s two-goal lead. The 26-year-old now has 16 goals in all competitions.
It’s obvious the Scotland international enjoys this competition, just two minutes into their fourth-round tie against Brechin, Scott Sinclair skipped down the left wing and before meeting the by-line managed to cut a ball back to Forrest, who was standing directly in front of goal. He then casually flicked his foot and watched the ball deflect into the net.
To suggest the 26-year old is enjoying an impressive campaign under Brendan Rodgers this season would be a huge understatement. Not only does his current tally in February already outweigh his best-ever record in a single season (nine goals), but it also accounts for over 25 percent of the goals he has scored for the club since his first-team debut in 2010.
For so long Forrest has been Celtic’s proverbial coulda woulda shoulda player, a young man with unquestionable physical and technical ability but seemingly incapable of composing himself for long enough to be considered either on or off form. At Parkhead the managers change, squads come and go and even the nature of Scottish football shifts on its tectonic plates. Yet Forrest remained a bit-part winger that had a peculiar manner of sprinting at full speed with his arms waving at either side.
Then came Rodgers. As we’ve seen with Callum McGregor, Leigh Griffiths and Scott Brown, among others, the former Liverpool manager didn’t show up in Glasgow with the intent of buying his way back to public approval. Instead he took the players before him and made them better. Forrest is just one of the many examples.
Where McGregor was moved to his preferred No.10 position and Brown was reinvented as Celtic’s midfield metronome, Rodgers simplified Forrest’s game to that of a very basic right winger. His task, as condescending as it may sound, was to simply skip past the full-back and swing in crosses.
Under Rodgers’ failed predecessor, Ronny Deila, Forrest had often found himself sitting on the bench and when tasked with game time he tended to be shifted to the left wing, where he was forced to cut inside and play as an attacking midfielder. That didn’t work at all and after 52 games under the Norwegian manager Forrest had just six goals and six assists.
The talent that Forrest possesses comes from instinctive reactions to moments in games. He can dart past two or three players when they’re standing between him and the byline and he can pick out a cross when he has a target to aim for. But ask Forrest to cut inside from the left and pick a through ball for half a dozen options and he loses his magic. Which is why Rodgers shifted him back to the right wing.
In his first season under the Celtic coach, Forrest played just eight games from 46 on the left flank and duly notched up eight goals and 13 assists – just one of which didn’t come from playing on the right. In contrast with the left-footed dribbler Patrick Roberts, Forrest offered a more direct line to goal when Celtic needed to spread the play and take full advantage of the pitch.
This season, with the long-term injury to Roberts, Forrest has played an even more crucial role in Celtic’s attack. Where he would cross the ball in for other goal-scorers last season, the winger now finds himself on the end of crosses and through balls and sits just behind Sinclair in the club’s goalscoring charts.
The on-loan talent from Manchester City was also Celtic’s top assist provider last season. In his absence the responsibility for pulling the strings has shifted towards the central playmakers in McGregor, Stuart Armstrong and Olivier Ntcham, as well as Sinclair – who currently leads this season’s charts – on the left wing.
Forrest, who’ll happily run the length of the right flank for 90 minutes, has clearly benefited from simply offering an out-ball to the more creative players in his team.
With 19 goals and 21 assists since Rodgers took over, Forrest’s goals and assists ratio stands at an impressive 0.45 per game. That’s almost double what he was managing under Deila and more than he managed under Neil Lennon, when he first broke in to the Celtic team. Quite simply, Forrest is playing the best football of his career.
The player that never really had a nailed-down role at Celtic has now become the most consistent and easily defined talent in Rodgers’ arsenal. While McGregor and Armstrong may float through games, Moussa Dembélé and Griffiths may lack a clinical touch and even Sinclair might look off the boil, you always seem to know what you’ll get from Forrest. And that can be hugely valuable to any team.