Tom Rogic deserves serious consideration for a Player of the Year nomination. Not Young Player of the Year, which he’s too old for at 23, but the full, senior award for the best player in the country. He won’t win, of course. That honour will go to club-mate Leigh Griffiths, but even getting a nomination would complete a truly transformational 12 months in the Australian’s career.
This time last year it was... Tom who? He didn’t play once for the champions. Injuries bracketed a loan spell back in his native Australia and put paid to his entire Parkhead season. Had you told Celtic fans prior to the onset of this campaign that he would never play for the club again, few would have argued vehemently, or even cared enough to argue at all.
There seemed little opportunity for him to turn his Celtic career around. The man who played in his preferred position, Stefan Johansen, was the reigning Player of the Year. The Norwegian was also the archetypal No.10 in Ronny Deila’s 4-2-3-1. In addition to doing the technical and creative things required, he also displayed great energy, dynamism and a willingness to harry opposing defences in the high pressing approach. Behind Johansen there was new signing Scott Allan, January addition Stuart Armstrong, and the ever-looming spectre of Kris Commons. Where on earth was Rogic going to fit?
While it looked like a curse for Rogic that his manager had assembled so many attacking central midfielders - you could also throw in Callum McGregor along with January additions Ryan Christie and Patrick Roberts - the unbalanced squad proved to be a blessing. Rogic’s first start this season came in a starting XI alongside three of the players supposedly ahead of him in the pecking order. Johansen sat deep alongside Nir Bitton (who, by the way, looks like he could be Rogic’s gangly, awkward older brother), while Commons featured on the right and Armstrong started on the left. It allowed Rogic to play, score and flourish in a 2-0 win.
With Johansen struggling for fitness, Rogic took up the role on a full time basis. He was excellent in a 6-0 victory over Dundee, a game that signalled Celtic finally hitting their stride after a rough beginning to the league season, before truly announcing himself with a man-of-the-match display in front of the TV cameras when the champions swept away St Johnstone in early December.
It took a while for some observers to wake up to his qualities. He’s not flashy, fast and doesn’t display a lot of power, all attributes that enable a player to stand out from the crowd. His unassuming style goes for both his football skills and general demeanour. The simple buzz cut hairstyle and aura of placidity make him seem like the kind of guy you’d be happy for your daughter to date.
While he may not be good at catching the eye, when he’s not ripping off last minute screamers that is, he’s certainly skilled at controlling a football. Rogic’s greatest ability is to take the ball in tight areas, hold on to it and find a team-mate with a short, accurate pass. Doesn’t sound like much? Well, consider where he plays on the park. He does this, continuously, around an opposing penalty area surrounded by defenders. Even the best of players can become overwhelmed by the pressure around them, often retreating back to get some air, survey the scene and then start again. Rogic takes it calmly and finds an avenue to keep the move going without stalling the attack. It sounds simple but it’s incredibly hard to do, and no-one does it with more consistency in Scottish football at this moment in time.
He’s able to do this, time and again, thanks to terrific technique, a sharp first touch and that broad frame which helps shield defenders. He also, in case you hadn’t noticed, has the ability to rocket one into the back of the net from distance. The Kilmarnock goal was no fluke. It’s not the first time he’s done it this season. Many of you should remember him firing a similar screamer out of nothing in the away draw at Tynecastle.
His weaknesses are his injuries, which looked set to derail this campaign before the winner at Rugby Park, and his lack of pace. The latter is maybe why Deila’s not quite embraced him as the team’s undoubted No.10 in the manner he should. Rogic’s slow running style hinders him from pressing opponents as effectively as the likes of Johansen, though his general caring about the end result should make him a better option than Commons, while Armstrong is struggling for confidence.
Celtic fans unsure of Rogic’s ability tend to cite his disappointing showings in Europe this season as evidence of their wariness. It’s certainly true that he wasn’t able to influence games in the manner he has domestically. The technique that enables him to stand out in Scotland is par for the course on the continent. It’s a generalisation but we all know there’s truth in it. Apart from his muscular strength, his physical qualities don’t conform to the classic British blood-and-thunder approach of his team-mates. Therefore, it’s easier for him to get lost in the crowd, something you could accuse him of in Scotland before this season.
But if you’re going to denigrate his abilities for displays in Europe then surely a little context is required. He’s been one of Celtic’s best five performers this season, arguably top three. That should tell you everything you need to know about the quality of his team-mates. It’s his first season playing regularly. Under normal circumstances, a player in this scenario would be the luxury within the side. If he doesn’t perform then there’s enough experienced talent around him to pick up the slack. He doesn’t have this. Also, if you’re going to dislike Rogic because he doesn’t play well on the continent then, based on this season, you can apply such logic to the whole Celtic team.
The next few weeks could be crucial in his career. Regardless of whether Deila stays or goes in the summer, you must expect a number of changes to the first team. Everyone is in a position where if they don’t end the season on a high, they could be the one either heading for the exit or finding someone signed in their position. Rogic is at greater threat than most because of his injury worries, but if he can stay healthy, with the wonder-strike at Kilmarnock providing him with some much needed momentum, he’s got the quality to convince the club he’s worthy of the new contract they’ve been discussing for so long, regardless of what the terms are.
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