Patrick Roberts looks to be on the verge of rejoining Celtic on a season-long loan from Manchester City. Craig Fowler looks at what this would mean for Celtic if the beloved player returned.
Here’s something so obvious it’s utterly vapid: signing Patrick Roberts will make Celtic better. Bet you’re glad you clicked now.
The real question is ‘how much better will Roberts make Celtic?’ Or, pertinently, ‘will he push them to the next level in the Champions League?’
It will certainly be interesting. Celtic might never have reached the group stages last season if it wasn’t for Roberts. His bit of skill and creativity in the away leg in Astana set up the crucial away goal for Leigh Griffiths. The visitors had rode their luck at times in that game and, seeing as they sneaked through to thanks to a last-minute penalty in the second leg at Parkhead, it’s easy to imagine an alternative reality where the gutsy draws against Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach never happened.
From there his campaign derailed somewhat. Injured in the home game against Astana, Roberts played second fiddle to James Forrest for the opening half of the campaign, including most of the Champions League matches. He did get a start against parent club Manchester City and showed exactly what he could bring to the table with an excellent weaving run and goal in a commendable 1-1 draw at the Etihad.
Since that time Celtic have improved immeasurably. Roberts has to a certain extent as well. Capable of brilliance in the latter half of the 2015/16 campaign following his signing, it wouldn’t be until the last three months of last season that he formed into a real menacing terror. Where as Moussa Dembele, Scott Sinclair and Kieran Tierney were the protagonists as the Brendan Rodgers express starting gaining momentum, Roberts was something of an afterthought. By the time journey was completed, though, Roberts was a figure at the forefront of any opposition manager’s mind just as much as his team-mates.
It might take a few games to get him up to speed as he’ll be behind the rest of the squad in terms of match-sharpness, but if they can get him playing to the same level we saw before the summer break, then Celtic are very different animal on the continent.
As for Scottish football, it probably now means they’ll win the title by 36 as opposed to 32 points.
Celtic now have four top class wingers in the Scottish Premiership, which, if they’re looking to win consecutive trebles and want to play European football past Christmas, is exactly what they should have.
James Forrest will still get his playing time. In this writer’s opinion, he’s not in the same class as Roberts, neither in terms of future potential or ability right now. What Forrest has, though, is an old school winger’s mentality and a lot of pace to burn. While Roberts likes to attack inside, Forrest is happy getting chalk on his boots. With Scott Sinclair attacking the centre of the park from the other wing, having Forrest out there gives Celtic a balance to the team.
As Roberts eventually proved to Rodgers last term, a better player can trump better balance. However, there will be some opponents where Forrest is the preferred option, for his pace in behind as much as anything.
Not that Roberts needn’t start in such circumstances. He’d be a fine back-up for Sinclair on the other flank if the reigning Player of the Year suffered an injury or, inexplicably, had a massive drop in form.
Up front, though not a perfect solution himself, Roberts seems a better option through the centre than Forest.
Rodgers insisted he didn’t want another out-and-out forward at the club, due to the lack of playing time available when both Leigh Griffiths and Moussa Dembele are fit. Regardless of whether you agree with such reasoning, the Celtic boss will see this signing as a perfect solution to his problem. He’s got another player he can plug into the No.9 role in emergency circumstances without adding to his squad just for the sake of it.
Some Celtic fans have bemoaned the fact its just a loan deal, which seems a little like taking a kid to Disneyland and them complaining they don’t live there.
You can see to a certain extent where they’re coming from. If - and it’s a pretty big if because reports suggest City were unwilling to accept anything other than a loan - there was a possibility that Roberts could have been signed on a permanent deal, then of course they’d want that. It seems like such a slam dunk that he’s going to be a great player that, regardless of the transfer fee, Celtic should have pulled out the stops to make it happen, because they’d get their money back in the long-run.
Not only is that an idyllic view of how the future, especially the future in football, will pan out, it also misses the point that this loan itself should help Celtic in their bid to sign the player eventually.
If they didn’t agree to a loan he would have went elsewhere. If he goes elsewhere there’s a chance he falls in love with that club the way he’s fallen in love with Celtic. He might go to Nice and decide he wants to live in the French Rivera for his early 20s, or sign for Southampton and realise playing at Old Trafford, Anfield or Wembley every other week is preferable to Dingwall and New Douglas Park (no offence).
Another year at the club and his bond grows stronger. If he doesn’t tear it up to the extent that Manchester City are dying for him back or the top European clubs form an orderly queue, then Celtic will be in prime position to take advantage if Pep Guardiola decides he’s not seen enough improvement from the attacker to demand a spot in the first-team and decides to let him go.
If you thought Celtic fans were happy on Friday. Imagine how they would be if that ever happened.