The evolution of James Forrest

The evolution of James Forrest

By James Cairney

After coasting through their first Champions League qualifier, Celtic have begun the new campaign in formidable fashion. Brendan Rodgers’ side travelled to Armenia last week to play Alashkert and left as comfortable 3-0 winners, then won by the same scoreline at Celtic Park to seal their passage into the next round. Rosenborg await in what should be a tricky-but-winnable game for Rodgers’ men.

 

Celtic fans will probably be pleased with their summer so far. Whether it be the signing of Odsonne Edouard, John McGinn’s protracted transfer or the sale of Stuart Armstrong, the club look to have had a sensible window. In pre-season, Celtic won six of their seven fixtures and look like they’ll hit the ground running in the Premiership. And now they’ve negotiated their first European qualifier without having to get out of second gear.

 

Not too much has changed with the playing squad, with only a few arrivals and departures in Glasgow’s East End. But, if the two fixtures against Alashkert are anything to go by, then Premiership sides are still likely to face a different Celtic team this season. The personnel may be broadly the same, but it looks as though Rodgers has changed the team’s shape.

 

Celtic usually lined up in an asymmetrical 4-2-3-1 last season, with the left side a little further up the pitch than the right. The left winger role was often occupied with Scott Sinclair or Edouard, who would operate as more of an inside forward than a traditional winger. Tierney’s pace and fitness allowed him to operate as a wing-back, but this was not the case with Mikael Lustig on the opposite side. The Swedish international has lost any speed he once possessed and at 31-years-old, age is creeping up on him. Physically, he simply couldn’t perform like Tierney.

 

 

Right-back has been an issue at Celtic for a couple of seasons now and it’s a position that Rodgers is often accused of neglecting. However, the Celtic boss believes he has found a solution. He tried it last year, with some success, and is now ready to do so on a regular basis.

 

By switching his lineup to a 3-5-2, Rodgers now has a formation that better suits his squad and gives Celtic an extra layer of security at the back. Fair enough, Alashkert weren’t the most testing of opponents but it’s a system that looks to be getting the best out of the players within it. Most positions are filled by the usual suspects, but with one quirk: James Forrest at right wing-back.

 

It’s a role that Forrest has been getting used to over the last year or so and, going forward, it looks like it’ll be his regular position in the team. Rodgers first tried him out as a wing back towards the end of the 2016/17 season and liked what he saw. Forrest didn’t have the physical presence or tackling ability of Lustig, but he had a terrific work rate and was fast enough to cause pretty much any player problems. With a right-sided centre-back providing cover, Forrest was able to show his man down the line repeatedly, safe in the knowledge that as long as he didn’t commit to challenges, the opposition player wouldn’t be able to sprint past him.

 

 

The numbers bear this out. As we can see, Forrest wins a minority of defensive duels when playing as a wing-back – around 1 in 8 – but he attempts very few too. Slide tackles are virtually unheard of and he doesn’t even make too many interceptions. What Forrest can do, and has done whenever asked, is run players down the line and constantly close them down.

 

Rodgers realised this and in last season’s Champions League deployed his new tactic against Bayern Munich to great effect. Bayern went on to win the game 2-1, but Forrest had performed admirably. His direct opponent, David Alaba, had had a poor game. Time and time again, he struggled to get past Forrest. The Scotland international denied him at every opportunity and looked dangerous going forward too. Celtic lost, but the tactic worked.

 

It appears Rodgers is now ready to commit to a formation change. With Patrick Roberts returning to Manchester City and Sinclair dropping down the pecking order at Parkhead, Rodgers no longer needs traditional wingers in his starting eleven. Any time Forrest has been asked to play as a wing-back, for club or country, he’s generally performed well and can hold his head up high.

 

 

This comes at a strange time for Forrest. After all, last year he was one of Celtic’s most effective attackers and scored more goals last season than he did in the previous three combined. Around a third of the goals Forrest has ever scored at Celtic – where he’s spent his entire career – came during the 2017/18 season. He clearly has plenty to offer in attack but with Sinclair struggling to hold down a spot in the starting eleven, a 3-5-2 appears to be the best option for accommodating Rodgers’ preferred players.

 

Forrest’s development under Rodgers has been fascinating and so far at least, the 27-year-old has only gone from strength to strength under his guidance. When Forrest first burst on the scene as a nimble, lightning-quick winger few would have predicted that his future would lie in a primarily defensive role. But Rodgers has analysed Forrest’s attributes and clearly believes that he has what it takes to fulfil the role. So far, Rodgers’ coaching of Forrest has been demonstrably insightful and it looks like by developing Forrest into a wing-back, Rodgers has solved his right-back dilemma after all.

 

Against Alashkert, Celtic were reduced to ten men after eleven minutes following Jozo Simunovic’s dismissal for a reckless challenge. Rodgers changed his formation to a 4-2-3-1 with the right wing spot unoccupied. Forrest was asked to play right-back, yet still contributed with the odd marauding run forward to help out the attack. He was effectively doing the job of two players. And how did he get on? He scored.

 

Obviously, Celtic’s opposition on Wednesday night weren’t of the highest calibre and in truth, it was a routine win. Composed performances against limited opposition should be expected. Rodgers appears to have settled on a 3-5-2 formation that relies on the transformation of James Forrest. He’s shown against top opposition in the biggest games that he’s capable of making the role his own – and it’s where we should expect to see more of him in the coming season.

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