“Guess who’s back?” he exclaimed in a promotional video to announce his loan signing from Manchester City. Indeed, there had been a guessing game in recent weeks, but not over whether Roberts would sign, but when.
This had been a long-mooted move, with speculation swirling ever since his return to City at the end of the 2016/17 campaign. In fact, Brendan Rodgers could be forgiven for planning his season around the assumption that Roberts would return to Celtic, whether it be permanently or on loan. There was a certain inevitability about it.
It’s a move that suits all parties. While Roberts impressed throughout his initial 18-month loan in Glasgow, it was only in the final few months that he truly found his grove. Had he carried that form across the whole campaign, he would have been Celtic’s player of the season. Now, he has the opportunity to build on that, fast-tracking his development.
For Celtic, they have another top calibre attacking option to help them make an impression in the Champions League group stages. Roberts, as he showed against his parent club Manchester City in last season’s group stages, is good enough to compete at the top level of European football. Meanwhile, City can hedge their bets on a player who wouldn’t have featured much this season.
The only person who appears to lose out of Roberts’ return is Jonny Hayes, the Irish international who arrived from Aberdeen as something of a replacement for the England Under-20 winger. It’s hard to envisage how Hayes will possibly keep Roberts out of the team, especially after the clamour to get him back to Glasgow.
Hayes might stand a chance of playing in the same team as Roberts, but only if the 20-year-old is used as a central striker. And that could be the underplayed significance of his return to the Scottish champions. Primarily, he will be used as a winger, as is his trade, but he will also solve a problem that dogged Celtic in the early part of this season.
Injuries to Moussa Dembélé and Leigh Griffiths left Rodgers in a difficult situation this summer. With crucial Champions League qualifiers to negotiate, the Northern Irishman was left without a recognisable centre forward for the third round qualifiers against Rosenborg. It was an issue that dominated the news agenda.
Tom Rogic was stuck up front for the first leg, but it became clear rather quickly that the Australian wasn’t suited to such a role. James Forrest was preferred in the position for the second leg, but he too was a square peg in a round hole. It wasn’t until Griffiths hobbled off the bench with 20 minutes left to play in Norway that Celtic found the all-important breakthrough to progress.
Many highlighted the need for a third-choice striker at Celtic, and with good reason. But this is where Roberts could have an understated impact. This was a role he played, when required, last season. He was the alternative in the event of both Dembélé and Griffiths being injured, showing himself to be much better suited to the position than either Rogic or Forrest.
In fact, it could be an option Rodgers chooses to deploy even when Dembélé and Griffiths are fit. Celtic will have to be compact against Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, particularly away from home, if they are to stand any chance of claiming a result and so Roberts could be useful as a ‘false nine’ of sorts.
Too often last season Dembélé and Griffiths found themselves isolated as the focal point of attack, with the gap between the midfield and the frontline too great to be bridged by any one player. Roberts could be that bridge, helping out in the centre of midfield before running the channels as the central attacker. It might not be Rodgers’ Plan A, but it could work as a Plan B or C.
It’s that versatility that will only add to Celtic’s Swiss Army knife of a team. They cannot be pigeon holed in any one classification because Rodgers has ensured that they have a solution for most problems.
Dembélé, for instance, is a physical forward who largely plays as a frontman. Griffiths, on the other hand, is more adept at running the channels, playing on the break. The re-signing of Roberts will add to that adaptability.