AS Celtic’s match against Hibernian got underway at Parkhead on Wednesday night, Brendan Rodgers was feeling a degree of apprehension about the tactical and personnel changes he had made to his side.
How would Tomoki Iwata fare in the defensive midfielder position on his first start of the season? Would Mikey Johnston make the sort of impact he was looking for out wide? Would Oh Hyeon-gyu justify being selected up front ahead of leading scorer Kyogo Furuhashi?
But Rodgers had no concerns, none whatsoever, about moving his captain Callum McGregor forward into a more advanced role alongside Matt O’Riley in what was effectively a 4-1-4-1 formation.
Sure enough, the Scotland internationalist, who normally occupies a slightly deeper role in front of the defence, produced a typically assured personal showing as Celtic romped to an emphatic 4-1 triumph that maintained their eight point lead over Rangers at the top of the cinch Premiership table.
“I’ve played him in virtually every position bar goalkeeper and centre half in my two spells,” he said yesterday as he looked back on the win over one of the on-form teams in the country. “He’s just tactically brilliant in the game.
“Putting him up one, you can see what he can do. He can get forward, he’s clever, he can link the game and he can get shots off. He’s got big quality to score goals. In my first time here, he was very, very good at that.
“I really enjoy watching him. He takes me back to my first time here. He’s such a special player for this team in so many ways, and for the club as a whole. From a psychological perspective, to have the desire, the mentality and the hunger to continually want to succeed is phenomenal really.
“I thought him and Matty were excellent against Hibs. Matt is so graceful around the pitch and played with big quality the other night. Tomo just stabilises it in there, to win the ball and play it simple.”
Rodgers has deployed David Turnbull, Paulo Bernardo and Odin Thiago Holm in the centre of the park in the absence of the injured Reo Hatate with varying degrees of success during the past month.
It looked very much as if he had, after some unconvincing performances and disappointing results domestically and in Europe, finally found the correct formula in midweek.
The availability of Iwata, who had been struggling with a minor ailment, again should enable the Glasgow club, who take on Kilmarnock on their artificial pitch at Rugby Park in the league on Sunday, to put their indifferent run of form firmly behind them.
Rodgers revealed that he had been keen to involve the Japanese internationalist for some time in the wake of an impressive display and important victory which silenced rumblings of discontent in the stands.
“It would have happened before but he [Iwata] wasn’t available,” he said. “Whatever the game needs, that’s something we will look at. He’s shown up very well in training and in the games where he’s come in, he’s done well. Against a good side like Hibs, you can see it’s something that can function well.”
Rodgers is certainly confident that McGregor will continue to flourish higher up the pitch next to O’Riley, who moved alongside Furuhashi in the scoring charts with his eighth goal of the season on Wednesday night, in the weeks ahead.
The former Swansea City, Liverpool and Leicester City has worked with some of football’s greatest players during his managerial career, with Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho and Jamie Vardy. But he had no qualms about describing his skipper as “an ideal footballer”.
“Cal’s so, so clever,” he said. “You really only ever have to tell him anything once. You’re not having to repeat anything with him.
“He’s an absolutely incredible player and captain of the team. Whether he plays as a No 8, an inverted full back, a controller, wherever, he plays the game to the highest level.
“He’s a brilliant example for the other players. If you talk about an ideal footballer, having mental strength and the ability to interpret different systems, being competitive, having quality and being physically brave, he’s all of that. He’s the ideal footballer you would want in your team.”
Asked where McGregor himself prefers to play, Rodgers said: “Every player has a favourite position. It will be somewhere in the midfield, I would think.
“In his younger years, he was that No 10 or No 8, really getting forward, running and scoring goals. In the last few years, he’s played in more of a controlling position so he can see the game and the game can then run through him.
“He progresses the ball quickly - that’s the key for Callum. The ball comes through the pitch quickly, and when you want to play fast football that really helps.”
The Northern Irishman feels his skipper was heavily influenced by his predecessor Scott Brown during the many years that he spent playing and training alongside the legendary midfielder.
“He reminds me very much of the captain we had when I was first here,” he said. “Just that relentless mentality. Every game he’s up for it. He’s a real inspirational voice for his team-mates. He’s always there, you can rely on him, and every game is like his last game. He’s a brilliant performer.”