Callum McGregor has, arguably, been Celtic’s most impressive performer thus far in a campaign where his team’s fortunes have been decidedly mixed. The Scotland midfielder tends to be overlooked when plaudits are being handed out due to the unselfish nature of his displays and his willingness to sacrifice himself for the team.
His ability to function well in a variety of positions has been a boon for manager Brendan Rodgers, who has utilised him in attacking roles out wide and through the middle, as well as deploying the 25-year-old at left-back.
McGregor’s latest duty has seen him used in a holding role in the absence of injured club captain Scott Brown and, if anything, the team has looked more fluid and effective due to the quality and pace of his distribution from deeper positions.
His tactical knowledge and technical ability had Rodgers purring as he prepared for today’s visit of league leaders Hearts, with the Irishman joking that his spatial awareness and facility for dictating the tempo and direction of attacks could see him drafted by the New England Patriots.
“How many positions does he play? He’s just got the inbuilt brain for football,” Rodgers claimed. “I said to him that, if Tom Brady got injured in the NFL, I’d probably get a call for him to go and play quarter-back.
“His view of the game is up there with the very best and that’s because he knows the game tactically. Look at our first goal [against Dundee]. We always talk to the players about the speed of the pass and his first touch when he gets the ball off James Forrest, you see how quickly he raps it through to Tom Rogic.
“That gives Tom time to get his shot off. It all comes from the speed of the pass and his ability not to be safe with it and play forward. He’s got so much courage to take the ball. Whatever area of the pitch I put him in, and whatever I tell him what we want from the game tactically, he does it. He’s played in that holding role and he’s been outstanding.”
Even so, and perhaps surprisingly for a coach who espouses attacking football, Rodgers has been more impressed by the fact his side have conceded only two goals in their last six domestic matches.
“It was the defensive bit that makes me know we’re getting back on track,” he said. “The compactness of the team, people reading passes and pressing the game. Once I see that I know we’re going to be in close contact when we have the ball and that lets us gain confidence.
“I always say that if we press well, we’ll pass well and it’s no coincidence we did that against St Johnstone, Hibs, Hearts second half in particular and then Dundee. That’s where your flow comes from.”
The feelgood factor which has returned to Parkhead in recent weeks took a dunt yesterday with the news that Eboue Kouassi, the first choice to deputise for Brown in that position, and Australia winger Daniel Arzani, have both been ruled out for the remainder of the campaign due to suffering anterior cruciate ligament damage in the wins over Hearts (Kouassi) and Dundee (Arzani, whose debut from the bench lasted only 23 minutes).
On a more positive note, the champions have scored 18 goals in their last four league and cup ties against top-tier opposition, with those goals being shared by seven different players.
“The manager likes the goals being spread out like that,” said Scotland winger James Forrest, who claimed six of them.
“We can’t expect just to rely on Odsonne Edouard or Leigh Griffiths to score all the time. We scored five at Dundee and it could’ve been more. It’s important, though, that we keep believing in ourselves.
“Odsonne’s our top scorer but everyone wants to get goals and make a contribution. I don’t think anyone is thinking too much about having the top scorer as long as they’re playing their part and right now everyone seems to be scoring.
“Last season was the most goals I’ve ever scored. I’ll continue to take it game by game but, the way we’re playing at the moment and the number of opportunities we’re creating, then hopefully I’ll continue to score more.”