Sky Sports were probably a little disappointed that they didn’t have a camera in position. With Celtic’s Scottish Premiership opener already as good as won, Leigh Griffiths fired home a diving header, sliding over the goalline and into the net as he did it. He celebrated by staying there, net in mouth, eyes wide open. It was the sign of a striker in irrepressible form.
Indeed, Griffiths made Saturday’s match against Hearts his own. Not only did he bag a brace, Celtic’s entire attacking play revolved around the 26-year-old. He lead the line in every way possible – dropping deep to create space for others, running the channels in behind the opposition defence and most importantly, providing a cutting edge inside the box.
This came on the back of a similarly impressive 30 minuted display against Rosenborg during the week, when the not-yet-fully-fit Griffiths was introduced off the bench, helping Celtic make it through to the next round of Champions League qualification. Without his contribution, the Hoops may well have fallen at the second hurdle.
It’s not so long ago that some were questioning whether Griffiths still had a future at Celtic. Moussa Dembélé was very much Brendan Rodgers’ first-choice striker last season, with the Frenchman attracted admiring glances for a number of Premier League clubs. It was even rumoured that Chelsea had a £30million offer for the 20-year-old rejected in January.
Dembélé is widely considered the best player in the Scottish game at the moment, with few expecting him to stay north of the border for long. Indeed, he is reportedly a Marseille and West Ham transfer target. So it’s possible he might be gone by the close of the summer transfer window.
There would be no reason for Celtic to panic if that came to pass, though. Dembélé might be a technically better player with a brighter future, destined for the top of the European game, but there’s a case to be made that Griffiths is in fact better suited to the Hoops’ style of play under Rodgers.
Griffiths is a more dynamic forward. His movement is often under-appreciated, but with the former Wolves and Hibernian striker leading the line the Hoops are more interchangeable, fluid team in the final third. Dembélé might be more of an individual threat, particularly against top calibre players as he proved in last season’s Champions League, but Griffiths gets the best from the rest of Celtic’s attacking line.
“You see what he brings to the table – he’s such a goal threat,” team-mate Scott Sinclair explained last week. “It can be him shooting from outside the box or making runs in behind, he’s such a good striker. Most importantly we know we can score goals.”
That is most certainly true. For all that Griffiths is a facilitator of others, he takes care of his own numbers too. He already has two goals in three appearances this season on the back of a campaign that saw him net 20 times in 43 outings. Consider that many of those outings were from the bench and that ratio looks all the more impressive.
In fact, Griffiths’ scoring rate of 0.47 goals per game last season isn’t too far off Dembélé’s rate of 0.65 goals per game, and the former had to make to do with a lot of appearances from the bench. The Scotland international is, by almost every measure, comparable in quality and, more significantly, influence.
Some claim Griffiths doesn’t have the same impact at the very highest level – for instance, in the Champions League group stage, where Celtic hope to be by the end of the month. That is also illustrated by his fairly dismal international scoring record, with only two goals to his name in 13 appearances for Scotland.
However, in the context of the Scottish game, Griffiths is built for Rodgers’ Celtic side. He is the perfect forward for them, regardless of whether Dembélé is a technically better player.
The Hoops boast a number of exhilarating attackers, like Sinclair, Callum McGregor, Tom Rogic and it’s Griffiths, not Dembélé, who gets the best from all of them all at once.
This gives Rodgers something of a dilemma when Dembélé eventually returns from injury (assuming he doesn’t make the switch to the Premier League before the end of the month). Does he stick with the Frenchman as his first choice, like he did for much of last season? Or does he rotate him with Griffiths? Is there any way he can play the two of them together in their optimum positions?
Rodgers probably won’t lose too much sleep over this. It’s a selection headache that demonstrates just how far ahead Celtic are of the rest in Scotland. But when it comes time to pick Griffiths over Dembélé, or vice versa, the choice might not be such a straightforward one.