This time last year James Forrest had the world at his feet. He had broken into the first team in 2011 and earned his place as a regular in Neil Lennon’s starting eleven in emphatic fashion. He was named one of FIFA’s Players to Watch for 2012 as well as featuring in IBWM’s “The 100”. Perhaps expectations were a tad too high for the young Scot, as injury and inconsistency have stunted his progress and development towards becoming a true top class player since that time. However, at the unripe age of 21 he remains one of the top young prospects in British and European football. Celtic need him to shed that title and instead, become one of the top players around in his position.
Modern day football is in an age where the traditional winger is becoming somewhat obsolete. With the resurrection of the full back as an attacking asset, and top European teams sacrificing width in midfield for creative attacking flair, there are few proper wingers around nowadays. Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Aaron Lennon spring to mind, but you’d need to dig a little deeper to come up with a few more names.
In a team stacked with natural central midfielders, Celtic need the pace, skill, and ability to get crosses in that Forrest provides. Without him in the team the Scottish champions possess little natural width in midfield. Lennon has obviously taken note of this in recent weeks, playing Izaguirre and Matthews in advanced positions and going with three at the back. While this has worked well at times, it looks to be second best to the 4-4-2 shape that Celtic used en route to their title win last season. Indeed, Neil Lennon stated following Celtic’s 4-0 win over Ross County a few weeks ago that “We’re able to go to our more natural formation when James is part of the side.”
While Lennon has masterminded some surreal Celtic performances in Europe this season, they still lack the fine domestic form which saw them claw back from an eighteen point deficit this time last year. Undoubtedly the physical and mental exhaustion associated with the Champions League has been a large contributing factor to their wavering form. However, it is little coincidence that Celtic’s twenty one game unbeaten streak in the SPL last year coincided with Forrest being in the form of his life. But even with the young sensation having battled injury on and off for the last nine months, he remains an invaluable resource when it comes to turning a game, or making the difference. His coming off the bench away to Spartak Moscow where he scored the second goal and provided the width and speed to make Celtic’s numerical advantage count is a prime illustration of this.
Not only does James Forrest provide the spark that is crucial to Celtic’s attacking options, he also has the ability to ignite those around him and spur on his teammates. In recent times Celtic have looked lethargic and uninspired; most notably in losses to Hibs and Inverness and even in victories against Arbroath and Motherwell. Forrest’s inclusion in the side brings energy to Celtic’s performances that few other players are capable of bringing.
His traditional role on the wing is a breath of fresh air. Forrest is the gem in a Celtic side full of young, promising, up and coming players. Celtic can deal with the loss of Wanyama, Kayal, or Hooper, but Forrest adds another element to the team. It’s an element that will be difficult to replace in a time where top wingers are hard to come by. So for the sake of Celtic, Celtic fans, Scottish football, and the rest of Europe, let us hope that James Forrest can return to full fitness and resume his journey on the road to becoming a world class footballer.