Celtic exited the Champions League on Tuesday night after a 2-1 home defeat to Bayern Munich. The result was cancelled out, however, by an excellent team performance that showed the Scottish champions can compete with almost any team in Europe when at their best.
While the primary focus of the acclaim was, rightly, the collective, special praise must be given to one individual for his display. James Forrest excelled on the right-hand side, working hard and producing in the final third.
The 26-year-old started at right wing-back within a rough 3-6-1 setup, meaning he was entirely responsible for patrolling his flank. He dropped back to become part of a five-man defensive line without the ball, while in possession he looked to run at the opposition defence with a mixture of overlapping runs and inward drives.
“He plays that (wing-back) role very, very well. He’s one of the best wide players I’ve worked with, especially in protecting the ball when it comes to him in a tight space. But you see his ability when he comes inside, and just that creativity to lift it over and make the pass – it was a sensational pass at this level. He was outstanding in his performance.”
The pass Rodgers was referring to was the assist Forrest delivered for his team’s only goal of the game. On 74 minutes he received before pushing infield and, despite a severe shortage of space, picked out a through ball for Callum McGregor to run on to and finish.
That goal was the least Celtic deserved considering the way they had played. They controlled possession for prolonged spells, using the ball well and building out from the back. Then, when deep in Bayern territory, they created a number of good scoring chances.
Forrest’s moment of magic was integral to the balance of the system and quality of his team’s attacking play. All of this begs the question: Can he make the wing-back role his own?
FORREST THE UTILITY MAN
Against Bayern, Forrest was the best player on the pitch. Including his assist he made four key passes, while he also completed five dribbles. In both categories he was the most productive individual in the game, suggesting he could thrive at right wing-back if given more opportunities to play there.
However, Celtic don’t always need wing-backs. Rodgers has opted for a back three just five times this term; generally, he prefers to line his side up in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 shape. As a result of this, he tends to opt for natural full-backs and wingers.
Forrest falls into the latter category, having played mostly as an attacking midfielder or winger since breaking through the club’s youth system into the first team in 2009/10. He is now in his eighth full season at senior level, so any positional switch now is coming relatively late in his development.
An energetic operator, he has always had the dribbling skill and pace to trouble opposition defences. However, he has also evidenced the sort of work ethic and stamina that allow him to take up a slightly more withdrawn position when necessary.
Forrest’s versatility has enabled him to fill in a variety of roles, including striker, to help out his managers. This trait, along with Rodgers’ proclivity for tactical tinkering, make it difficult to predict where he will end up.
This weekend against St. Johnstone, he may end up on the right side of a front three. But there is a growing case to be made that both he and the team would be suited to a system utilising wing-backs.
CAN FORREST MAKE WING-BACK ROLE HIS OWN?
The 3-6-1 system Celtic used against Bayern was viewed initially as a means to ensure defensive compactness. By ensuring extra numbers in the centre, they would be harder for the German champions to break down. However, the new formation also offered important attacking possibilities.
It allowed them to play with two central midfielders, one of whom – usually Scott Brown – dropped deep to support build-up. They then had two other midfielders – McGregor and Scott Sinclair, then later Tom Rogic – scheming between the lines, while two wide players – Forrest and Kieran Tierney – patrolled the flanks.
This shape gave them plenty of options for central forward passes, which allowed them to break lines and connect attacking moves through the thirds. This was done without sacrificing the threats offered by having wide options, giving Celtic a multifaceted attack.
The system, or something similar, could also work well domestically. The notion that playing a back three is more conservative, and therefore wouldn’t be effective against deeper defensive blocks in the Scottish Premiership, is a simplistic one. In reality, it would allow them to dominate the centre and progress the ball.
Forrest, with his speed and energy, offers a good wide outlet down the right-hand side. Should opposition defences get sucked in, he can take advantage of the space allotted to him. Alternately, he could drag out an individual opponent to create dangerous one-v-one situations.
He would have competition for places in the position, but none suit it quite like he does. Mikael Lustig and Anthony Ralston are more defensive-minded full-backs, while Cristian Gamboa has struggled to play regularly since joining from West Bromwich Albion.
The path is clear for Forrest to nail down the right wing-back berth. He has the qualities necessary to best his rivals, cement his place and thrive in the role. Now it’s down to Celtic, and Rodgers, to adopt the appropriate tactic.