As manager of Celtic, Brendan Rodgers has a number of tactical dilemmas to deal with. The latest to emerge is the battle between James Forrest and Patrick Roberts, two wingers who both prefer to operate on the right-hand side.
Roberts returned to the club earlier this year as a fan favourite. He had impressed during his first spell in Glasgow, scoring at a rate of just under one in three over 18 months on loan from Manchester City.
He went back down south in the summer only to re-join the Scottish champions for another temporary spell on August 28.
Forrest, meanwhile, has spent most of his life with Celtic. He joined the club as an 11-year-old and, having graduated from their youth academy to the first team in 2009/10, has now made over 250 appearances in domestic and continental competition.
While Forrest lacks the star power of his wing rival Roberts, he has been a more consistent influence this term, with the Englishman suffering due to injury.
Now, with both fit, available and raring to play, Rodgers has a headache as to which one of the two should start.
FORREST MAKES HIS CASE
This season Rodgers has generally tended to settle on one of two rough formations: the 4-3-3 or the 3-4-2-1.
Forrest has enhanced his chances of selection simply by proving he has the quality on the ball and tactical versatility to play effectively in both systems.
Against Bayern Munich he put in an exceptional individual display at right wing-back, justifying why his manager put him there in the first place with a performance full of energy and skill.
He even managed to pick out the pass for Callum McGregor to run onto and score Celtic’s only goal in a game they could easily have won on another night.
Last weekend, Forrest showed he can also be a productive force when stationed in a more advanced right wing role, finishing nicely to open the scoring for his team in the Scottish League Cup final against Motherwell.
Those important strikes are his most noticeable, but the Scotsman has been more consistent than ever before in front of goal this season. He already has eight to his name from 27 outings in all competitions – his all-time best for a single season is nine, which he hit in 2011/12.
Many would have assumed that Roberts was a guaranteed starter for Celtic, but his recent injury, along with Rodgers’ increasingly clear tactical preferences, have reduced him to substitute appearances of late. Forrest appears to be winning the battle for a starting berth, and admits to being driven on by his team-mate’s return.
“Patrick came back to the club at a time when I was feeling good about my own game. It is more competition for places and it drives people on,” he told The Scotsman. “It is also good for Celtic, with the amount of games we have to play, to have that competition within the squad.
“If you ask everyone, they want to play – that is everyone’s attitude because we all want to make sure we are available for every game. You always need to be at it in training and to be working hard to give you your best chance to play in the games.
“Last season was definitely a special season. It was one of my best for Celtic and more enjoyable. I think I have kicked on and I am doing even better this season. We are not even halfway through this season and I just want to keep improving. The more big games I play it will help because it means I will only get better.”
CAN ROBERTS GET BACK INTO THE SIDE?
One advantage that Forrest has over Roberts is that he is a natural right-footer who has the energy to patrol his flank for an entire game. The Englishman doesn’t have the same level of fitness or pace. However, he is a more precise dribbler and is more resistant to pressure.
If Rodgers wants someone on the right wing who will hold their position, stretch the opposition and beat their full-back for pace, Forrest is perhaps the better choice.
However, if he wants someone to drift infield, receive between the lines and combine with team-mates more centrally in attacking situations, Roberts should get the nod.
The on-loan star’s greater technique and flair are shown statistically when the two players are compared.
Roberts has been directly involved – scoring or assisting – in four goals during 667 minutes of competitive action this season. Thus, he averages one goal involvement per 167 minutes of play.
Forrest has been directly involved in 11 goals this season, averaging one goal involvement per 207 minutes of play.
There is evidently a slight numerical advantage for the Englishman at this stage but, given his lack of game time and subsequently small sample size, it’s difficult to utilise that as the sole reason he should get into Celtic’s starting XI.
If Rodgers continues to use the systems he has used so far this term, Roberts could struggle to regain a regular place in the side now that he’s returned from injury.
While a shame, it is no disservice to him as a player – Forrest has simply been too good to omit.