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He has been one of the greatest success stories of Brendan Rodgers’ time at Celtic so far. When the Northern Irishman pitched up in Glasgow in the summer of 2016, Callum McGregor was considered a fringe player. Celtic fans could see his potential, but found themselves frustrated at the midfielder’s lack of consistency. All that changed under Rodgers.
McGregor had impressed in Rodgers’ first season at Celtic, but it was last season when he really became a key figure. Some had the 25-year-old down as the Hoops’ player of the season as they claimed a second successive Treble and made the group stages of the Champions League, eventually falling into the Europa League knockout rounds.
Now, expectations are higher than ever for McGregor to deliver. The Scotland international earned a reputation for himself as a big game player last season, scoring in cup finals and Champions League clashes. “I’ll probably be sitting at a pub quiz in a few years and that one will come up,” he said ahead of another big game against Rosenborg this week. “I’ll be nudging my mates to let them know I have the answer! It’s great but how do you top it?
“I think you’ve just got to do it again. I put pressure on myself. You have to try and emulate it as much as possible. Play well, help the team. The big games bring the best out of me. When you look at the games last year, and the big moments, I played well. Maybe it’s just a bit of experience for me now, a bit more confidence. You start to realise you can do it. You can see how big confidence is in football. You back yourself in the big games and it just rolls on from there. It’s a snowball effect.”
However, the situation has changed somewhat for McGregor at Celtic. With Moussa Dembélé still at the club, despite continued speculation linking him with a move to Marseille or the Premier League, and Odsonne Edouard signed on a permanent deal from Paris Saint-Germain for £9million this summer, it seems likely that Rodgers will use the pair as a front two more often this season.
So what would this mean for McGregor’s role in the team? At present, it’s not much of an issue with both Dembélé and Leigh Griffiths struggling with injury, meaning Eduoard is playing as a lone striker in Champions League qualification. But when Rodgers has a fully fit squad to choose from, how will his team look and where will McGregor fit in?
Generally speaking, McGregor vies with Tom Rogic for the same place in the Celtic lineup behind the central striker. Last season, when Rodgers would favour a lone forward, he could play both McGregor and Rogic in the same team to great effect, with Rogic boasting an expected goals and assists value of 9.42 last season and McGregor boasting 9.02 by the same yardstick.
But the permanent addition of Edouard could change this dynamic. There are signs of an understanding between the two French strikers and Rodgers might feel he can’t leave out one over the other. To fit in both he might sacrifice wingers, or he could sacrifice a central attacking midfielder, asking Forrest and Sinclair to drift inside to compensate.
By nature, McGregor is an extremely versatile player. He might be at his best in a central attacking midfield role, but he can play all across the forward line, deep in midfield or even at left-back, where he was used as a makeshift option last season. The 25-year-old is one of the most intelligent players Rodgers has at his disposal and this makes him invaluable to the Hoops.
It’s possible that he could play on the left wing, with Scott Sinclair struggling to find his best form last season. He could also provide competition for James Forrest on the right side following the return of Patrick Roberts to parent club Manchester City at the end of last season. He could even play in a midfield three alongside Scott Brown and Olivier Ntcham.
McGregor won’t find game time hard to come by this season given his versatility and exploits last season, but it might be difficult for him to nail down one position in the team. That is his curse and his blessing. Celtic have a serious talent on their hands, but his brilliance is in how he plays the game so simplistically and that makes him valuable in a number of different positions.
The frontline of Dembélé, Edouard and Griffiths is likely to dictate Celtic’s shape and style this season. It’s somewhat unprecedented, at least in the modern age, for a Scottish club to boast such an array of attacking talent all at once and so Rodgers might have to mould his team around them. McGregor will have no trouble in doing that.