Celtic maintained their unbeaten record last weekend with a 1-0 win away to Ross County. The result took them six points clear of Aberdeen atop the Scottish Premiership, but the performance was substantially lacking in spark until the introduction of Leigh Griffiths from the substitutes’ bench.
Arriving on 69 minutes, the Scottish striker would score the winning goal nine minutes later. His finish was typically spectacular – a beautifully curled, looping effort from a free kick that, at first glance, didn’t appear particularly dangerous.
Griffiths won the game for Celtic, which only fuels the debate over who should lead their line. As a team who predominantly play with one striker, Brendan Rodgers must constantly choose between the 27-year-old and his younger team-mate Moussa Dembélé. It is a choice the manager must again make on Wednesday night, when the Scottish champions travel to France to face Paris Saint-Germain in Champions League action.
In the eyes of many, the match represents their toughest test of the campaign. Having lost 5-0 at home to the lustrous footwork of Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Kylian Mbappé and co, it is reasonable to expect an equally difficult encounter in Paris.
Celtic must play to the best of their individual and collective abilities in order to get anything from the game, and any chances that do come about simply must be taken. That places a great deal of pressure on the chosen frontman, so who is best equipped to lead the line?
DEMBÉLÉ V GRIFFITHS
Griffiths was, without question, Celtic’s most important attacking player prior to the arrival of Dembélé. He had not only scored consistently since joining the club in January 2014 but had done so at an increasingly frequent rate.
During his first six months, he found the net in Scottish Premiership action 0.54 times per game. In his first full campaign, he improved slightly, scoring at a rate of 0.58 goals per game. Then, in 2015/16, he was truly prolific, hitting an outstanding 0.91 per game.
However, since peaking he had regressed to his previous form – last season he scored 0.5 times per league appearance; this term so far he has scored 0.45 per league appearance.
The most obvious reason for this downturn is the mere presence of Dembélé, who starred during his maiden campaign in Scottish football and, frankly, was always expected to. The French under-21 international played almost precisely 600 more minutes than Griffiths in the league last season, scoring five more goals.
However, a subtler but equally influential arrival was that of Rodgers as manager.
The Celtic boss has generally eschewed playing with a front two. Last term he opted for a strike partnership on just six occasions in all competitions and while he has already matched that tally this season, it is not his preference. Alongside this simple systemic change, the former Liverpool manager has also asked his chosen striker to drop deep and connect attacks as well as finish them.
With those tactical proclivities, it was always going to be difficult for Griffiths and Dembélé to co-exist within the same team. One would have to take on a less important role, and, in general, it is the former who appears to have done so.
WHO SHOULD START AGAINST PSG?
After his match-winner last weekend, Griffiths was praised by Rodgers for his ability to “get a goal out of nothing.” However, Celtic will need more than individual ingenuity to score against PSG.
In the unfortunate 2-1 defeat at home to Bayern Munich that sealed Celtic’s group stage exit from the Champions League, Dembélé led the line on his own and caused serious issues for the German visitors. He constantly peeled off the front line and looked to get into the channel between the centre-backs and the full-backs, from where he could run at defenders.
The Frenchman has the pace and power to perform this particular tactical aspect well. He is a direct and aggressive outlet who is just as comfortable driving forward and committing opposition players as he is holding the ball up and laying it off to team-mates.
Paris Saint-Germain are highly likely to start with a back four featuring two attack-minded full-backs, meaning space in the aforementioned channels could open up for Dembélé to operate in. While he may not be as astute a dribbler as Griffiths, his intelligence and aggression in these areas could, therefore, mean he gets the nod.
It’s also worth noting that the 21-year-old’s statistics are slightly better than those of his positional rival. On average he has scored a goal once every 107 minutes played this season, while Griffiths has scored one every 147 minutes.
On top of that, Dembélé has been directly involved in a goal – scoring or assisting – every 71 minutes; Griffiths’ goal involvement currently stands at one every 78 minutes.
The idea of starting them together is one Rodgers may consider, but only fleetingly. Doing so would mean seriously re-structuring his chosen shape, whether it be the 3-4-2-1 or the 4-2-3-1 that he selected for the win over Ross County. It would also potentially lead to a lack of balance that, as highlighted painfully highlighted in their first meeting with PSG, could prove costly.
Celtic are extremely lucky to have two strikers of real quality to choose between, but the choice ahead of Wednesday night’s Champions League night is clear. Dembélé, for his presence and greater goal threat, should start.