Griffiths has trained today and is on the ‘plane for Rosenborg away in the crucial Champions League Qualifier, second leg, in Trondheim. He played no part in the 5-0 Dafabet Cup match away to Sunderland at the weekend. Is he 100% fit, or a lesser percentage? Can he start? Or be used as an impact substitute?
I am not a fan of playing players that are less than fully fit. I don’t recall many examples where this pays off. If you have a patched up central defender of great experience I can perhaps understand that through sheer presence and displaying communication / organisation attributes, a positive difference can be made.
But for a striker, relying on occasional explosive movements and rapid decision-making, being subject to tackles and bumps, I would not take the risk if there is any doubt whether the injury could stand up to such a high pressure game. What if he goes off after 20 minutes? It looks desperate and provides the opposition a huge psychological lift as they know you know what is happening next is your least preferred Plan B.
If Griffiths doesn’t make it, and assuming Aitchison is considered not ready and Ciftci miles outside the first team picture (I have rarely seen a player with such lack of basic footballing technique), then we are back to a “make do” scenario. If Griffiths does make it, and with Rodgers publically stating having three top strikers would be a problem, we may have to dust this article down at various points over the season!
It’s No Problem – Move On
Last season there were occasions when both Dembele and Griffiths were unavailable, and Celtic reorganised around having no focal number 9 or striker. What can we learn from those experiences?
Celtic started with no recognised striker on six occasions. There were a further two matches where Celtic played a portion of the game with no striker due to Griffiths being subbed off.
All were league games. 7 wins out of 8 with an aggregate of 27-5 for, in goals. Sinclair scored 8. Bang Sinclair up top, case closed. Easy, right?
But Dembele came on as a substitute in two of the matches. He came on when Celtic were 1-2 down to St Johnstone, and scored a hat-trick in the 31 minutes he was on the pitch – Celtic scored 4 goals in total with him on. And against Kilmarnock, Dembele came on for the final 18 minutes, setting up a goal to make the game safe at 3-1.
Against Hearts at home in January, Celtic were 3-0 up when Aitchison came on for the final 8 minutes. He gained an assist being brought down for a penalty, leading to the 4th goal.
On 12th May away to Aberdeen, Celtic raced into a 3-0 league and the score was 3-1 when Griffiths went off after 71 minutes. No further goals were scored. During the 5-0 rout of Partick Thistle on 18th May, Griffiths went off (infamously) on 63 minutes, after which Celtic went from 3-0 to 5-0.
Therefore, there were only 3 matches where there was no striker on the pitch during the 90 minutes. In terms of overall goal return with and without a striker on the pitch in League games only:
It’s a small sample, but with a striker Celtic average 2.83 goals per league game, and 2.55 without – 10% less. We even conceded slightly more goals without a striker (0.68 per 90 minutes versus 0.65).
Yeh, but Sinclair?
The first game of the season without Dembele or Griffiths being available was the 29th January home match against Hearts. Sinclair started as the central striker. Not a lot happened for 29 minutes, and Sinclair struggled to get into the game. Roberts moved into the centre, Forrest to the right and Sinclair back to his “normal” inside left forward position. Almost immediately McGregor scored, and Celtic ran out 4-0 winners. Sinclair and Roberts both managed 1 goal each, Sinclair adding a further penalty.
In the other games noted above, Roberts was the nominated central striker albeit in a withdrawn role. He never played the classic number 9 role with his backside up against the centre half. Also, rotation of position was encouraged depending on McGregor, Forrest, Sinclair and Roberts playing with fluidity. But Forrest generally held the right wing, and Sinclair generally held the inside left position.
There were variations of course. Against Hearts away when the title was secured, Celtic set up 3-5-2 with Roberts and Sinclair the highest attackers. Sinclair primarily worked from the inside left, however. On that day Roberts set up both of Sinclair’s early goals. Overall, in the absence of a striker, Roberts assisted 5 goals, 4 to Sinclair.
So, you can see the problem here? Sinclair continues to be effective so long as you don’t move him too far from his inside left forward position. Roberts was highly effective as a deep lying forward, linking the lay as well as scoring himself on 3 occasions when there was no striker, adding to his 5 assists. The number 7 sized gap in the current Celtic squad is thrown into much sharper relief.
So, what if no Griffiths?
Given Roberts isn’t coming to the rescue, the choices are not appealing. Firstly, don’t move Sinclair from where he is effective – inside left forward. Hayes is too diminutive and showed no natural inclination in that position. Rogic needs a fraction of a second to get on the half turn then he can be lethal. He finds that time well in the half position between midfield and attack. The classic 10. He couldn’t find it pressed up against the back four. It leaves Forrest, who has some aptitude and played there a few times in the youth team. He is the best fix, but it is a terribly situation if forced into choosing the least bad option.
If they worse happened and Griffiths cannot start, I’d go with a diamond. The strongest and most experienced back 4 available with Brown anchoring. Armstrong and McGregor either side of him with Rogic as 10. Then Sinclair in his usual position with Forrest right sided attacker. When defending, Sinclair and Forrest funnel back to form a midfield 5 and Rogic sits on Konradson. We need 5 in midfield out of possession as Rosenborg’s strongest area was the Konradson, Midtsjo and Jensen triumvirate in the centre. In attack, Forrest to make striker runs and Sinclair to do his usual.
Celtic managed to continue to win well with no striker last season. They scored less goals and conceded slightly more doing so, always against SPFL opposition.
Roberts was the most effective substitute striker. Sinclair is best utilised in his “normal” role wider left but inside from the touchline. No other options have been tried for any meaningful minutes e.g. Forrest, Rogic, McGregor, Armstrong. The “no striker” scenario did not occur in European football last season. European opposition, even in qualifiers, are, arguably, stronger than SPFL opposition.
Forrest is the best bet for me due to his more robust and direct style, and his ability to run centre backs in the channels (see his League Cup Final goal versus Aberdeen).
The “no striker” scenario shouldn’t even be a thing. Hopefully, it will not come to that. We shouldn’t be talking about “hope” given the riches secured from last season, both monetary and goodwill, to back the manager.