Celtic reasserted the gap between themselves and fierce rivals Rangers with a 1-0 home win in the first Old Firm derby of the 2018/19 season. Having dominated the domestic game in recent years, the result itself was no great shock. However, it did go some way towards offering much-needed perspective after a tough transfer window for the Scottish champions.
Going into the clash with Rangers, the general consensus was that Celtic were in decline. Their biggest signing of the summer was, essentially, a re-signing, with Odsonne Edouard joining on a permanent basis after a successful season on loan with the club, while their elimination from the Champions League before the group stages was a major setback. In addition, the conclusion to the transfer window saw a distracting transfer saga revolving around star striker Moussa Dembele resolved by the player’s departure for Lyon.
Dembele’s sale was a difficult one for many supporters to stomach. The Frenchman had found the net with consistency during his two full campaigns with the club, scoring key goals in derbies and Champions League matches. He was, and is, synonymous with the invincible 2016/17 season and the double treble of consecutive Scottish Premierships, Scottish Cups, and Scottish League Cups. Allowing him to leave without identification and signature of an immediate successor was, on paper, a backwards step.
But football is never so simple. And, while Dembele’s move to Lyon compounded a difficult summer for Celtic, there is a real possibility that the transfer will be viewed as a positive with the benefit of hindsight.
In Dembele’s absence, Celtic are likely to go with Edouard up front. The 20-year-old, who joined from Paris Saint-Germain, offers a wonderful combination of mesmeric dribbling, a sophisticated touch, mobility, good link-up play and imagination in and around the final third. His curled winning goal against Rangers last season showed an exceptional standard of finishing, and his all-round attacking qualities suit the team’s style under Brendan Rodgers.
Edouard started in the recent win over Steven Gerrard’s Rangers, but he wasn’t fully fit. Consequently, he was substituted after the hour mark, with Leigh Griffiths coming on to replace him. Griffiths hasn’t been as crucial a player since Rodgers took over and relied more on Dembele and Edouard, but the Scotsman remains a potent attacking option – his record since joining the club in January 2014 is over one goal every two games.
Even without Dembele, Celtic have two quality strikers to choose from. It’s also worth noting that Rodgers generally opts for one-striker systems, whether it be the 4-2-3-1 he recently deployed against Rangers or the slightly more radical 3-6-1 he utilised at home to Bayern Munich – among others – last season. So, in short, Celtic still have two good players competing for one role, and that’s not taking into account the fact that others, such as Scott Sinclair and James Forrest, can fill in if and when absolutely necessary.
In terms of personnel and Rodgers’ tactical preferences, the impact of Dembele’s departure doesn’t necessarily harm the team too much in the short term. Throw in the fact that Edouard, who is two years younger, has more upside and is seen by some as the greater prospect of the two, and the move certainly shouldn’t negatively impact the team in the long term either.
Then there is the fee involved. Dembele joined the club at the expiration of his contract with Fulham in the summer of 2016. Celtic reportedly paid around £500,000 in compensation to seal his signature. Two years later, after one season marred by injuries in which he scored nine times in 25 league outings, the same player left for around £20 million, or roughly 40 times what was originally paid to sign him.
For further context, before Dembele Celtic’s largest sale was that of Victor Wanyama to Southampton for around £12.5 million. Only two other players – Virgil van Dijk and Fraser Forster – have ever left the club for more than £10 million. Not only was the fee received in Dembele’s sale to Lyon a huge return on the club’s initial ‘investment’, but it was a massive statement of intent as to what teams must be prepared to pay should they wish to steal away their best individuals in the future.
On his day, Dembele was Celtic’s best player. But, when all is said and done, he was just one player. By allowing one player to leave, Celtic have recouped a good amount of the Champions League money they missed out on and set a new benchmark for player sales. Simultaneously, they haven’t wrecked their attacking options or ruined their manager’s tactical plans. They can rotate strikers between domestic and continental games, the gap between them and Rangers remains, and they are still favourites for the Scottish Premiership title. The transfer market doesn’t always make sense, but on this occasion it did.
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