23 years old
v St Mirren (03/04/15)
Philosophy and football don’t tend to share a great deal of common ground (apart from an iconic Monty Python sketch of course), but my latest assignment left me pondering one of the sport’s biggest questions. How do you define a good performance? For an attacking player, I spend my time judging players on their individual talent, their on-field intelligence and how much they contribute to positive attacking passages of play for their side. Friday night’s match left me pondering the validity of this approach; James Forrest failed on all three of those counts, and yet it was his contribution which almost single-handedly gained Celtic their victory.
The Football Critic can never be accused of not having his ear to the ground, and I’d been hearing murmurings that Forrest had been turning in some improved performances of late. Celtic’s visit to St Mirren seemed like a perfect opportunity to investigate this mini-resurgence. At 19, Forrest was Scottish football’s hottest prospect, but the winger is now 23 years old and heading towards last chance saloon in his stuttering Celtic career. Injuries haven’t helped his development, but there has also been a perception that his game lacks variety and that he has a tendency to hide when the going gets tough.
His performance in the first 63 minutes of Friday’s game did very little to shake off either of those tags; it wasn’t that he did anything wrong, it was just that he didn’t actually do anything at all – something which, incidentally, my second wife said about me before the divorce. He had a reasonable amount of the ball, but most of the time his routine involved collecting a pass from Adam Matthews, taking a couple of touches and then passing it infield. Efficient recycling of possession can be a virtue in a big game against superior opposition, but when you’re playing for Celtic against the bottom team in the league it’s up to you to take some initiative and force the issue. On the rare occasions where he did have a run at Saints left-back Jeroen Tesselaar, the Dutch defender dispossessed him with relative ease.
Managers often tell their wingers to go out and get chalk on their boots, but Forrest takes that to extremes; if he pushed any wider he’d be sitting in the front row. You could argue that by adopting that position, Forrest stretches the opposing defence and creates openings for his teammates, but in doing so he also takes himself right out of the game. On more than one occasion in the first half, Kris Commons picked up the ball in a dangerous central area and looked to his right for a pass, but Forrest was nowhere to be found. The one exception to this came in the 34th minute, when the winger made a run inside and Commons cleverly fed him. Forrest’s weak shot from inside the box was palmed wide by Mark Ridgers, but it represented Celtic’s best chance of the game to that stage.
After half-time, it was more of the same from Forrest, and Celtic were becoming increasingly frustrated in their attempts to break down a resolute Saints side down. Their attacks were starting to resemble The Football Critic’s drunken attemps to woo the barmaid at closing time down his local, and were being rebuffed with similar disdain. When Ronny Deila started to ready his subs on the hour mark I was expecting to see Forrest climbing out of Tesselaar’s pocket to allow the introduction of a livewire player like Gary Mackay-Steven or Leigh Griffiths. Instead, Forrest would himself provide the spark which ensured Celtic moved three points closer to a fourth consecutive title.
With Celtic slowly building an attack down the right, Forrest made a rare foray into a central area.. This narrowed the St Mirren defence and created space down the right for Adam Matthews to burst into. As Matthews readied his cross, the St Mirren defence retreated towards their own goal, but Forrest checked his run and hovered on the edge of the area. Matthews delivered a well-placed cut-back which found Forrest unmarked, and the winger swept the ball home. It was a goal which his performance scarcely deserved, but it also showed a tantalising glimpse of the player that Forrest could be.
In the immediate aftermath of the goal, Stuart Armstrong (insert obligatory hair reference) was replaced by Nir Bitton and the subsequent reshuffle saw Forrest move out to the left wing. Deila would no doubt have been hoping that Forrest could impact the game more by cutting in onto his stronger foot, and just over ten minutes later he made his second telling impact of the match. Forrest picked up the ball out in a central area and played a neat one-two with Stefan Johansen before bursting into the box and firing a shot which was blocked by the arm of Viktor Genev. Forrest, perhaps remembering his League Cup final effort, took a step back and allowed Johansen to slot the penalty home to make it 2-0.
In the remaining 15 minutes we discovered that Gok Wan was right – it really is all about the confidence. Forrest was a player transformed, looking menacing every time he had possession. He drove at defenders, picked out clever passes and put crosses into dangerous areas, all of which left you wondering why he hadn’t done this earlier. That’s the source of eternal frustration with Forrest – he shows these little glimpses of ability here and there, but lacks the consistency needed to push on to the next level.
Having said all that, Forrest still managed to be a matchwinner for his side on Friday night, ensuring that Celtic took three points from a match which was becoming increasingly tricky. This is where the philosophical question arises – should we discount the mediocre performance because of his contribution to the goals, or should we forget about the goals and worry about his overall showing. After giving this much consideration over a malt whisky or ten, The Football Critic has decided that he falls into the latter camp. In the long-term, if you get the performances right then the goals and assists will come. On this basis, judging a team or a player on a single performance can lead to some dodgy conclusions. I wouldn’t like to be someone who made their livelihood out of doing that.
Of that I am certain.
The Football Critic