By Brian P. Dunleavy
Last season, Celtic winger Scott Sinclair won Scotland’s Player of the Year award.
The oft-traveled Englishman, who was signed from Aston Villa for a reported £3.7 million transfer fee, scored 25 goals in all competitions for the Hoops, saving some of his best performances for the biggest matches. He started his Celtic career by scoring a goal against Hearts at Tynecastle, just hours after signing and only minutes after entering the match as a substitute. And, he scored a hat trick against the Edinburgh side in April in the match that officially clinched the Premiership title for Celtic.
In short, 2016-17 was a banner year for Sinclair. But 2017-18? So far, not so much. The numbers are still there—he has 11 goals in 22 matches across all competitions, thus far—but his presence on the pitch isn’t quite the same. He disappears for long stretches (sometimes entire matches), as evidenced by his performance (or lack thereof) last week against Bayern Munich, and often when he is on that ball, his play doesn’t seem to be as direct as it was a season ago.
So what gives?
Sinclair continues to say all the right things, about how much he enjoys Glasgow and how he has grown enamored of Celtic’s club culture and the club’s supporters—and clearly the feeling is mutual, what with the Green Brigade’s take on “The Logical Song” in honor of Sinclair becoming a matchday staple. He also seems like a genuinely nice fellow, with a lovely family; he has often said his hero or inspiration is his older brother, who has found success himself in athletic competition, despite having cerebral palsy. And, media reports abound of his outreach to Celtic supporters the world over, either in person or on social media, during his off hours.
Indeed, the problem is certainly not “attitude.” In fact, with due respect to Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers, who admittedly has won more matches than we have, it may be down to tactics. Teams in Scotland likely haven’t improved their personnel in any significant way over the past year, but they have scouting departments and managers and coaches with tactical acumen as well (some, anyway). They have all had more than a year to scout Sinclair and develop a plan to stop him. And in Europe, well, PSG and Bayern Munich have made a lot of opposing players look less than stellar in recent years.
If it’s tactics, that’s the good news. Rodgers, we think the evidence presented to date overwhelmingly shows (a new British record of 63 consecutive matches unbeaten, for starters), has the wherewithal to make changes to ensure Sinclair’s talents continue to be optimally employed.
However, if it’s not tactics… Consider the case of Kris Commons, who had his best season at Parkhead in 2013-14, when he scored 32 goals in 48 appearances and won Player of the Year honors. He had just turned 30. The next season, he scored just 16 goals in 46 matches (admittedly, he was used differently by then-manager Ronny Deila), and in 2015-16, he was down to just nine goals in 33. Last season, Rodgers’ first in charge, he was out of the team altogether.
Sinclair will be 29 in March. And at Swansea, one of his 12 stops in English football, he had a similar performance trajectory, starting out fast before ending with a whimper, though the Swans’ promotion from the Championship to the Premier League probably contributed to that. He is under contract at Celtic until the end of the 2019-20 season.
Which means if his act is getting old (literally or figuratively), Rodgers and the Hoops may have a problem on their hands.