Pre-January Transfer Window Squad Review Pt2: Midfield and Attack

Part 1 of this mid season squad review focussed on the performance of the Goalkeepers and Defenders so far this season and where, if anywhere, in the back line could do with freshening up.  The findings: to achieve expectations domestically there is no need to sign a new keeper or defender in January.  The backline of Gordon; Lustig, Sviatchenko, Simunovic, and Tierney has proven itself to be solid and reliable and there is enough strength in depth to suggest that there is no need to sign squad players.  To improve in Europe is a different matter, that requires money, or more to the point, the careful spending of whatever money is available to Brendan Rodgers.  Therefore, defensively at least, January should be a time for clearing the decks and challenging current squad players to step up before being upgraded in the summer.

But how does that compare with the midfield and attack?  Is there room for improvement in these departments?

Midfield

Over the course of the season to date 13 different players have graced the Celtic midfield, however, Stefan Johansen (now departed, of course), Kristoffer Ajer, Gary Mackay-Steven, Ryan Christie, and Liam Henderson have all featured in less than 6 games individually with only 14 appearances between them in total, the majority of which have come from the bench.

Despite the large number of players deployed in midfield there has, by and large, been a high level of consistency in team selection in this area of the park.  The central role alongside the near ever present Scott Brown have been shared by Stuart Armstrong (16 starts, 7 sub, 6 goals), Callum McGregor (13 starts, 7 sub, 2 goals) and Nir Bitton (12 starts, 9 sub 0 goals).  Tom Rogic has taken on the mantle of the #10 role amassing 9 goals and numerous assists in 20 starts and 5 subs so far this season.

I haven't always been his biggest fan but Broony has led by example this season.
I haven’t always been his biggest fan but Broony has led by example this season.

In the wide areas Scott Sinclair (19 starts, 3 sub, 10 goals), James Forrest (21 starts, 4 sub, 5 goals) and Patrick Roberts (13 starts, 10 sub, 4 goals) have shared the creative responsibilities, with Roberts mainly acting as cover for Sinclair and Forrest.

The midfield must go down as one of Brendan Rodgers biggest accomplishments so far as Celtic manager.  Too often last season’s midfield, largely comprising of the same players, was sluggish, sloppy in possession and devoid of attacking ideas.  This season has seen a complete turnaround.  The midfield seems comfortable with the ball, rarely taking more than two touches before passing, and always looking for a quick forward defence splitting pass.  And there are options left, right and centre, no longer is the Celtic midfield static and obvious.  It is creative, inventive and always on the move.

Rodgers has also worked his magic in developing a number of players including Scott Brown, a player I have described as a headless chicken on more occasions than I care to remember.  The Celtic skipper has been a revelation this season, leading the midfield by example and often acting as auxiliary defender when needed.  He even managed an incredible 93% pass completion rate through the Champions League Group Stage.  Stuart Armstrong is another whose game has come on leaps and bounds in recent months and he looks to be revelling in a central midfield role where he is encouraged to get into the box and make things happen; he’s beginning to show why I touted him as a top player after the Inter Milan games back in 2015…finally.

Stuart Armstrong: Just one of several players who have enjoyed a new lease of live under Brendan Rodgers
Stuart Armstrong: Just one of several players who have enjoyed a new lease of live under Brendan Rodgers

James Forrest has also reinvented himself under Rodgers’ tutelage putting in a number of dynamic performances on the wing, terrifying full backs and reminding us of the promise he showed when he first broke into the team; a completely different player from the one most of us would not have blinked an eye at had he left at the end of contract.

On the whole, the Celtic midfield is looking good.  There’s a balance of athleticism, skill, and determination that makes it easily the best midfield – and it should be – in the country.  However, as with the defence, it is when it comes to Europe that improvements need to be made.  A top, top class midfielder capable of dictating the game, winning the ball and starting attacks is needed if Celtic is to continue their recent improvements.

For long enough Nir Bitton looked like he could be that player but with Armstrong proving a better option in midfield it may be that the Israeli’s time as a first team regular has come to an end, relegated to that of a bit part player.  Ultimately he, and Callum McGregor – solid yet underwhelming – may be the ones to sacrifice to bring in the midfielder needed to drive Celtic further forward.

Beyond the regulars, it’s hard to see Christie, Henderson, Mackay-Steven or Allan ever imposing themselves on the first team.  All are talented players but need game time to prove they can handle the pressure of playing for Celtic.  As Henderson can attest to, a successful loan move does not guarantee first team football on your return, therefore sooner or later all four must give serious consideration to what they want to achieve from their careers.  If it is first team football, then Celtic may not be the place for them.  Having said that, if there is a manager capable of turning them into first teamers it is Brendan Rodgers.

Summing up the midfield, no need to sign anyone unless we are getting the real deal in terms of a quality all round midfielder and maybe another #10 to give Rogic a wee bit of competition – Ryan Christie may be that man, if he ever gets the afore mention chanced.

Honourable mention for Kris Commons, he’s been a great servant but that night in Molde soured things somewhat.  It’s likely he’ll leave in January having not kicked a ball thus far this season.  Kris, thanks for the memories.

Forwards

I had to check this a few times but we do have three first team forwards on our books at the moment; Dembele, Griffiths and….. the lesser spotted Nadir Ciftci.  It’s been so long since we last saw the Turk in a Celtic shirt that I’d almost forgot he was still part of the squad.  With Dembele (23 starts, 7 sub, 16 goals) and Griffiths (13 starts, 7 sub, 11 goals) in imperious form it is unlikely that we will see him anytime soon.

The Goalden Bhoys: Dembele and Griff just can't stop scoring for the Hoops.
The Goalden Bhoys: Dembele and Griff just can’t stop scoring for the Hoops.

Rodgers tends to favour a system with just the one out and out centre forward, usually Moussa Dembele, and therefore three forwards is probably a manageable number.  In Dembele Celtic have a star in the making; strong, quick, and deadly in front of goal.  With Griffiths you get hard work, a striker who likes to play on the last defender, and goals.  In Ciftci, we have a player who did quite well at Dundee United and has Pierre Van Hooijdonk as his agent.  Sorry, but other than that he’s not done much to merit a place in the Celtic squad, as borne out by his stats for this season – 2 sub appearances, both against Lincoln Red Imps, and no goals.

Like Ambrose and Boyata, Ciftci’s days in Paradise look to be numbered and although it may not be nice to say, there will be no shortage of drivers willing to personally escort Ciftci to a new employer.

Should Ciftci actually leave, it would be prudent to bring in a replacement given that the youth prospects are probably still a couple of years away from being ready for the first team on a regular basis.

The form of Dembele has also not gone unnoticed with most of Europe’s top clubs being linked with an interest in him, however, it seems unlikely that he will move so soon into his Celtic career.  Despite that, another striker – to replace Ciftci and work towards being a first teamer – is probably required this transfer window.

To recap, an all round midfielder or a ball winner, and a forward of promise are required this transfer window with offers to be entertained for several fringe midfielders and Nadir Ciftci.

I’m not expecting big things from Celtic in the transfer window, there’s really no need.  We have the strongest, best balanced squad we have had for a long time and there is no need to buy for buying’s sake.  The current squad is good enough to win everything domestically and has already exceeded expectations in Europe.  Unless we can sign a player ready for the first team who will not disrupt the current flow of the team, I’d expect to see far more outs than ins this January.

But what do I know.

Let me know what you think.  Thanks for reading.

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