On Sunday Aberdeen welcome Celtic to Pittodrie ahead of a match that Derek McInnes’ side may have a fantastic chance of winning.
Neil Lennon’s stuttering champions may have looked slightly better in the second half of a 3-1 drubbing of AC Milan but, in truth, the Glasgow giants are by no means at their best. An opportunity to beat Celtic and go level on points with them in the Scottish Premiership has undoubtedly presented itself.
Yet what’s perhaps most intriguing about this fixture is that the eventual outcome may hang on whether or not one of Celtic’s key players is fit and ready to return to action. And it just so happens that this very player could have so easily been Aberdeen’s secret weapon for the forthcoming clash, had he made a different decision just a few years ago.
I’m of course talking about Ryan Christie. You already knew that because the big, bold title above this article says so, along with the fancy picture of the player in question. In 2018, following two seasons on loan at the Pittodrie club, Christie had to make a decision: he could either agree to join McInnes’ Aberdeen side or return to Celtic and battle it out for a spot in Brendan Rodgers team of invincibles.
As you also know, the young player chose to return to Celtic and has since gone on to become an integral part of the team. But what if Christie had decided to remain at Aberdeen?
To answer that, we first have to remember what Christie did at Aberdeen and how valuable he was to McInnes’ side. In his first campaign (2016/17) Christie was used sparingly as a central, attacking player in a team that had long since figured out how to win games and who to rely on.
Up front McInnes relied on Adam Rooney as his primary goalscorer, with Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn on either wing. In central midfield Kenny McLean, Graeme Shinnie and Ryan Jack had nailed-on positions, which ultimately meant Christie finished the season with just 15 appearances and 705 minutes of game time. However, despite a lack of opportunities, the young kid from Inverness still bagged seven goals and three assists - a clear sign of what was to come.
The following campaign was where Christie really showed what he could do. Following an exodus of key players - particularly McGinn and Hayes - Christie found far more game time on either wing and finished the season with eight goals and 15 assists as he confirmed himself as a solid, secondary goalscorer and the club’s main source of assists.
Yet as soon as Christie had nailed down his position at the heart of McInnes’ team he was driving back down the A90 towards the east end of Glasgow. But how different would things have been for Aberdeen if he had decided to stay?
For a start, he would have offered some stability in an undeniable challenging transition period for Aberdeen. Scott McKenna was beginning his first full season with the first team, Kenny McLean had made his move to Norwich and Adam Rooney followed suit with an unexpected transfer to Salford.
To Aberdeen’s credit, they did seem to solve most of these problems with some smart signings. Sam Cosgrove, who had joined the club at the start of the year, slotted directly into Rooney’s role and a young Lewis Ferguson from Hamilton wasted little time making Aberdeen’s midfield his own. Yet that didn’t solve everything.
Although Cosgrove was a notable upgrade on Rooney and ended up scoring 21 goals in all competitions, the club’s reliance on the young striker as their single source of goals unquestionably held them back. Where Christie had picked up eight goals and 15 assists from wide positions the previous season, Gary Mackay-Steven and McGinn (having returned from a trip to South Korea) managed just 15 goals and 13 assists between them. Meanwhile at Celtic, Christie bagged 11 goals and nine assists on his own.
In fact, Christie’s goalscoring form in that season stood at an impressive 0.51 goals per game for Celtic. When you take Cosgrove’s penalties out of the equation, Christie’s average was actually better than Cosgrove’s 0.46 non-penalty goals per game and far better than McGinn (0.22) and Mackay-Steven’s (0.2).
While Aberdeen actually finished the 2018/19 season having scored one more goal than the previous campaign, Cosgrove’s unexpected form painted over some notable cracks in McInnes’ line-up. Particularly in the wide areas that Christie would have surely continued to thrive in had he stayed at Aberdeen.
This issue came to the fore last season when Mackay-Steven left the club, forcing McInnes to really scramble for options on either wing to replace a wide player that was, in truth, never more than a poor replacement for the one that had left the previous summer.
Fortunately for the Pittodrie side Cosgrove once again came to the rescue with 23 goals in 37 games but the second highest goalscorer was McGinn with just seven goals in 40 games. And while Aberdeen stood just one point behind Motherwell when the season was called, their goals per game had dropped from 1.5 to 1.33 per match.
Since Christe left the club Aberdeen have signed (or resigned) no less than six wide players in just two and a half seasons. This summer alone saw McInnes’ bring in Marley Watkins (admittedly now used as more of a forward) and Hayes, which only underlines the fact that either flank remain a concern for the Aberdeen manager.
Looking back over previous seasons with the power of hindsight is often unfair and almost always pedantic work. Yet, it seems fair to suggest that had Christie remained at Aberdeen in the summer of 2018 then McInnes and his backroom staff wouldn’t have had to spend so much time and money looking for reliable players on either wing.
And the transition period, which saw the club drop out of the top three in both seasons, reach just one cup final and fail to get beyond the third qualifying round of the Europa League, may have gone far smoother or even allowed the club to reach new heights.