Moussa Dembele’s scintillating form has given his manager a selection headache
MOUSSA Dembele is officially The Man at Celtic Park. An Old Firm hat-trick stored a hefty amount of credit in the bank, and he’s only gone and added to it with two goals in last night’s thunderous encounter with Manchester City.
It’s been a rapid turnaround for a player who took a couple of months to settle into the Celtic side. When those early games weren’t passing him by, he’d be hurrying the few opportunities that came his way, looking too eager to impress. Four goals from 10 matches was an encouraging return, and enough to dissuade any fears he wouldn’t improve with age and experience, but not enough to knock Leigh Griffiths off his perch as Celtic’s talisman. Then Griffiths limped off against Aberdeen, Dembele headed Celtic in front against Rangers, and the whole dynamic changed.
Now Griffiths is fit and raring to go. So what does Brendan Rodgers do? Can he keep the peace while continuing to dominate at home and battle in Europe? As things stand, here are the viable options he could use...
1) Leave Griffiths on the bench
The simple solution. Dembele is playing too well to drop, so Griffiths will have to wait. That’s just tough. It’s the way it’s always worked in football. It’s not fair to lose your job due to injury, but it happens everywhere. Griffiths lifted his game when Ronny Deila wouldn’t play him during the Norwegian’s first season and the striker responded brilliantly. He’ll have to do so again.
However, It wouldn’t be the best use of Celtic’s resources to have one of their best players, and the best overall player in the country last year, sitting on the bench, even if the guy taking his place proves to be a better option. When Griffiths had to bide his time under Deila, he hadn’t achieved anything at Celtic to that point. After scoring the lion’s share of the club’s goals over the past 18 months, he’ll be more resentful of a period on the sidelines if his contribution is suddenly forgotten within the space of a few weeks.
Thankfully for Rodgers, he doesn’t have to elevate Griffiths above Dembele as the club’s main striker in order to keep him happy.
2) Play them up front together in a 3-5-2
Rodgers is similarly plagued by a selection problem at the back. The way he waxed lyrical about Jozo Simunovic’s talents would suggest he’s a fan of the player, though Kolo Toure is currently undroppable and Erik Sviatchenko was the club’s best centre back last season. So why not play all three with Mikael Lustig providing cover? It would also be the best way to use new signing Cristian Gamboa. The Costa Rican comes advertised as a dangerous attacking weapon who is weak defensively, and sounds more like a wing-back than a full-back.
The issue with the 3-5-2 is what to do with Scott Sinclair. He could play left wing-back, but that would mean moving Kieran Tierney to centre back or dropping him out of the side, and that won’t happen. Tierney and Sinclair are two of Celtic’s most important players right now and they work excellently in tandem down the left wing. Tierney pushes up high, allowing Sinclair to attack the centre. Breaking up this dynamic would be foolish.
3) Play them up front together in a 4-4-2
The favourite formation of the British football dinosaur has made a big comeback in the last few years, thanks to the rise of the energetic, box-to-box, all-action centre midfielder. Two such players at the heart of a team can cover the slack from an opponent having three players in the same area, and Celtic have a ready made pair in Scott Brown and Callum McGregor. Such a strategy would allow a Dembele-Griffiths strikeforce and accommodate the left-sided Tierney-Sinclair combination.
The downside is that a 4-4-2 would marginalise Nir Bitton (not the end of the world) and Tom Rogic (absolutely no danger), both of whom don’t have the stamina or quickness to play a relentless pressing game in the centre. While it’s Rodgers’ prerogative to help the club reach its full potential in Europe, the board would certainly appreciate it if he can help carry on the previous model that saw the likes of Virgil van Dijk and Victor Wanyama sold for massive profits. Rogic and Bitton, because of their age and technical abilities, are two of the team’s biggest assets. Therefore, it would be unwise to have them out of the team. Besides, it would be crazy to leave out Rogic with the way he is playing.
4) Play Griffiths on the right wing
As great a player as Patrick Roberts is, he is contracted to another club and will likely return there at the end of the season. To keep their own player happy, they could sacrifice playing time from someone who won’t be as beneficial to Celtic in the long term.
Rodgers tried this experiment at the beginning of the season, in the Lincoln Red Imps away leg, and it didn’t go so well. Although, Dembele was still finding his feet, and Rodgers was still trying to get his message across to a team that looked like it was still in Ronny Deila-mode, so it may be worth giving it another try.
Griffiths’ ability to shoot from distance would make him a constant danger cutting in from the right, so he’ll be similar to Roberts in that regard, with Forrest providing a different option off the bench or in rotation.
5) Do all of the above
Rodgers has already demonstrated his willingness to change formation, both within a match and from game to game. He played 5-4-1 in Barcelona, 4-4-2 against Hearts, 3-5-2 against Lincoln Red Imps, and largely went with 4-2-3-1 the rest of the time. The latter will be his go-to formation for the bigger games, where Griffiths could find himself out of the side at the expense of Dembele. Similarly, the Frenchman could be rested for league and cup games, especially those were Celtic are heavy favourites. The rest of the time he could move the pieces about, making sure to keep Griffiths in the fold and keeping two of his five best players happy with life at the club. Even if he’s not playing his strongest, most balanced XI at all times, they’ll still feel confident of strolling to the league title.