For whatever reason, James Forrest divides opinion amongst the Celtic support.
He’s often accused of going missing in big games, or hiding when he or the Bhoys more generally are having a quiet time of it in the final third. If you ask me, though, the numbers don’t lie.
In the 19-20 season, Forrest had 27 goal involvements in 28 league games (via Transfermarkt). In the Europa League, the “big games” in Europe’s second competition? 4 in 7, including three assists. If anything, he’s improved under Neil Lennon: in the 18-19 season he contributed to 38 goals in 56 total games; he managed the same total in 47 games last season.
All of this points to an incredibly effective goal-scorer and assist provider for Celtic. When he plays well, so do Celtic, and statistically, he’s undoubtedly one of the last decade’s top contributors in the Scottish top-flight.
We could certainly use him now.
Before being ruled out with a serious ankle injury, Forrest scored twice and laid on one assist in 7 league games. While Tom Rogic has been a welcome return to match day squads, he’s inarguably less effective at creating chances than Forrest.
Our best attacking midfield three has Elyounoussi on the left, Christie through the middle and Forrest on the right. The trio weren’t able to combine regularly enough last season, with the shortened season and Moi’s injuries considered.
Forrest’s presence also solves a tactical problem as explored yesterday; without an out-and-out right-sided winger, the team’s midfield tends to to sit narrower, with the effect that less chances are created and the ball tends to move laterally in the final third.
His veteran experience seems to calm Frimpong, too. The Dutch right-back is undoubtedly a better player with Forrest ahead of him, with the diminutive Scotsman’s stamina and conditioning allowing Frimpong to venture into attacking positions without sacrificing too much defensive coverage on the right side of the pitch.
To my mind, Forrest should be held in the same esteem as Scott Brown and Callum McGregor.
He’s one of our most reliable performers and at the very least provides an effective out-ball when we’re set up with 4 at the back and 2 attacking wingers. He was vital to Brendan Rodger’s set up, which emphasised quick distribution to the flanks during counter-attacks.
Perhaps charisma is an issue. Forrest cuts a relatively uncontroversial figure outside of football, doesn’t give too much away when he’s on press duties, and despite his status as a one-club man – an incredibly rare trait in modern football – he doesn’t seem to garner the affection boasted by a number of his colleagues.
In any event, it’s clear we miss him, and should be looking to find decent competition for him when he’s out of the team.
Many have tried and failed. Derk Boerrigter, Mubarak Wakaso and a host of others can attest that keeping Forrest out of the team is no easy task.
The Dembele question
If a right winger is what Celtic are missing, then why aren’t we playing one? The continued refusal to give youngsters a chance in this Celtic side, specifically Karamoko Dembele, is a bit of a mystery. Certainly, Dembele needs to bulk up, but if it’s physicality (or lack thereof) that’s the issue, it’s not as if James Forrest is hardly Andre the Giant in comparison.
If Mikey Johnston can make a return any time soon, it would be interesting to experiment with him on the left and Elyounoussi on the right in the event of a long-term Forrest absence, but in any case, our current set-up needs two established wingers playing either side of a number 10. Christie, as explored yesterday, is no winger.
It makes basic tactical sense to play Dembele, and it would certainly do Celtic’s chances of extending the wonderkid’s contract, which expires at the end of the 20-21 season. To let a potential star walk for nothing would be a disaster for Celtic.
Forrest, at 29, has won 9 league titles with Celtic, as well as 5 Scottish Cups and 5 League Cups. It would be a genuine shock if he hadn’t had lucrative offers to play elsewhere during that time, yet he’s contracted until 2023. By then he’ll be in the Autumn of his career.
A rare breed of player in the modern era, Forrest has the stats to back up his continued presence in the side over the last decade. Sure, he’s had the odd duff game, the occasional frustrating run of form, but that’s inevitable with any player.
Some corners of the Celtic support clamour for Patrick Roberts every transfer window, and that makes sense; he was a fine player in the Green and White, who would benefit from an enduring spell at Celtic Park. However, his role would be as competition for James Forrest, and by no means gets ahead of him in a preferred XI.
Provided Celtic can make it to the hallowed 10IAR, Forrest will be one of a very select number who can boast to have been a regular at the club throughout. Regardless of whether we make it, James Forrest should be celebrated for his efforts.