Today we’re following on from my data analysis piece last week on centre-backs in the Scottish Premiership. We’re going to continue by analysing the data and statistics for centre-midfielders in the Scottish Premiership. All players in this analysis have played a minimum of 600 minutes in either defensive midfield or centre midfield in the 2019/20 season.
Before we delve into the data, we need to discuss the roles in a team’s tactics that central midfielders may be tasked with. This can include build-up, disruption of opposition attacks, progression of the ball through the thirds, and penetration of the opposition defensive line. Players may not score highly in all areas depending on their role in the team’s tactics. Along with this, we may see players that score higher in defensive stats than attacking and vice versa.
As we are using per 90 statistics, it should be mentioned that the higher number of minutes played, the more accurate per 90 stats are. Let’s get into it.
Contribution to build-up play
A central midfielder is becoming a more integral part of a team’s build-up play, which places a higher emphasis on a midfielder being able to complete a high number of passes, but more importantly, with a high completion percentage. Below is s scatter graph showing SPL players who make the highest number of passes and what percentage of passes they complete.
Due to Celtic and Rangers having a higher percentage of possession than other teams in the SPL, it’s no surprise to see players from both clubs score highly.
Ryan Jack, of Rangers, completes 79.56 passes per 90 with an accuracy of 90.96%, from the 1710 minutes he has played this season.
Rangers team-mate Steven Davis completes 73.10 passes per 90 at an accuracy of 85%. Davis has played 1912 minutes.
Celtic midfielder Callum Mcgregor has the highest pass accuracy with 92.4%, he also completes 69.97 passes per 90 from 2795 minutes this season.
Glen Kamara (66.69 passes per 90, 90.23% accuracy from 1506 minutes) and Scott Brown (61.83 passes with a pass completion percentage of 88.95% and 2687 minutes) both complete a good number of passes and have a high pass completion percentage.
Olivier Ntcham (53.65 pp90 and 84.27% from 1493 minutes) is another one to note from the big two.
Below the high possession Rangers and Celtic teams are players from other clubs. Teenager Andrew Irving impresses from bottom-of-the-league Hearts with 50.19 passes per 90, 80.67% accuracy from 1336 minutes. Lewis Spence (39.60 pp90 and 88.95% accuracy from 884 minutes) and Irishman Alan Power (48.75 pp90 with an accuracy of 85.27% from 2607 minutes) are also worthy of a mention.
Progression of the ball
As mentioned earlier, one aspect a central midfielder’s role is the progression of the ball up the pitch and into the final third. Firstly, we will analyse the data for progressive passes per 90 and progressive runs per 90.
From the above scatter graph, we can see there is a clear tactical element to Rangers style of play that encourages their midfielders to run with the ball as Jack (2.68 progressive runs per 90 and 11.65 progressive passes per90) Kamara (2.93 progressive runs per 90 and 9.26 progressive passes per 90) and Joe Aribo (2.92 progressive runs per 90 and 5.24 progressive passes per 90).
Following on from the Rangers trio, Celtic midfielder Tom Rogic is the only other player to make more than two progressive runs per 90 with 2.11 as well as 4.64 progressive passes per 90. Andrew Irving impresses again, the teenager is only joined by Davis with more than 12 progressive passes per 90. Irving (12.73 progressive passes and 1.28 progressive runs per 90). Davis (12.43 progressive passes and 1.32 progressive runs per 90).
Other players to note are Hibernian’s Scott Allan, and Celtic duo Ntcham and Mcgregor, who all make between 1-2 progressive runs per 90 and 6-10 progressive passes per 90.
Secondly, we will study the statistics for final third passes per 90 and smart passes per 90. A smart pass, as per Wyscout, is “a creative or penetrative pass that attempts to break the opposition’s defensive line to gain a significant advantage in attack“. Comparing these two statistics combines progression with the penetration that centre-midfielders may also be tasked with in their team’s tactics.
Scott Allan is the clear stand-out here with 3.04 smart passes per 90 and 6.78 final third passes per 90. Australian Tom Rogic chases him home with 2.39 smart passes and 4.5 final third passes per 90. Steven Davis makes the most final third passes with 14.26 final third passes along with 1.5 smart passes per 90. Looking past the usual suspects from Celtic and Rangers, Andrew Irving impresses again making 11.32 final third passes per 90 and 1.5 smart passes per 90. Liam Polworth is a player we have yet to mention – the 25-year-old posts a solid 7.06 final third passes and 1.44 smart passes per 90.
Disruption of the opposition
Claude Makélélé redefined the role of a central midfield during his time at Chelsea, particularly the defensive side of the role. Midfielders are constantly deployed in the role, commonly known as the Makélélé role: a player tasked with breaking up the opposition’s attacks and protecting the back four.
To analyse a player’s ability to do this we’re going to look at the data for defensive duels won as a percentage and interceptions per 90, possession adjusted, which gives us a more accurate representation of defensive statistics as it takes possession values into consideration.
Ryan Jack impresses once again being one of only two players to win over 70% of their defensive duels, Jack wins 70.75% as well as making 7.96 interceptions per 90 (PAdj). Veteran Steven Davis also scores well. The 35-year-old wins 70.63% of his defensive duels and makes 9.46 interceptions per 90 (PAdj). Alex Gogić of Hamilton is one of the league’s highest defensive performers winning 64.83% of his defensive duels and making 10.13 interceptions per 90 (PAdj). Another player in his 30s that shows his experience is Scott Brown. The Celtic captain makes 9.98 interceptions per 90 (PAdj) and wins 63.24% of his defensive duels.
Other players to note are Robbie Crawford who wins the highest percentage of defensive duels (72.31%). Crawford however only makes 4.41 interceptions. Liam Donnelly makes the highest number of interceptions with 10.36 and wins 57.30% of his defensive duels. Irving posts reasonable stats with 7.24 interceptions per 90 (PAdj) and the teenager wins 52.58% of his defensive duels. The stats suggest that previously highlighted Scott Allan is tasked with being more attacking than defensive for Hibernian.
From the above scatter graphs, I have highlighted three players that are of interest. These being Ryan Jack, Callum Mcgregor, and Andrew Irving. We have looked to highlight players that are no older than 28, as it is considered that a footballer’s peak is 27-29. We will look at each player in more detail.
Ryan Jack (Rangers, 1715 minutes played) – The Rangers midfielder has struggled with persistent injuries in the 19/20 season, missing a total of nine matches. When fit, Jack is a key component of Steven Gerrard’s all-action midfield. He completes the most passes per 90, most progressive passes per 90, and scores highly in progressive runs per 90 and final third passes, as well as posting good defensive data. Ryan Jack is an all-action midfielder, though maybe not as talented as his manager Steven Gerrard once was. He is still massively important to Rangers’ challenge for the title.
Callum Mcgregor (Celtic, 2795 minutes played) – An ever-present figure for Celtic this season, Mcgregor is a key component of Celtic’s build-up play with more passes per 90 than any of his team-mates (69.97) and an outstanding pass accuracy of 92.4%. Mcgregor also has the most progressive passes per 90 out of the Celtic midfielders (10.11), and the third-most final third passes per 90 in the entire league with 11.91. Once again, Mcgregor has solid defensive data also with 6.06 interceptions per 90 (PAdj) and 6.31 successful defensive duels per 90.
Andrew Irving (Hearts, 1336 minutes played) – At just 19-years-old, Hearts appear to have a talent within their ranks. Irving has strong stats in all areas of his game. When considering that Hearts are rock bottom of the Scottish Premiership, the fact that Andrew Irving has good underlying stats for both creativity and defence is impressive. Irving has played most regularly as a defensive midfielder this season. He is successful in 5.28 defensive duels per 90 along with 2.64 interceptions per 90 (PAdj). His passing and creativity stats are closely matched to that of Jack and Mcgregor.
If Hearts were to be relegated this season, I believe Irving would attract attention from Premiership teams looking for a talented up and coming midfielder. Whilst he might not get a move to Celtic or Rangers just yet, if Irving continues to work hard on his game and continue to impress, the bigger teams may come looking for a replacement for their ageing stars.
From this data analysis, we discovered that the Scottish Premiership has several midfielders that have strong underlying stats. Whilst the likes of Scott Brown and Steven Davis both scored highly in several areas, we decided to leave them out from the final shortlist as both players are both in their 30s and are in the twilight of their careers.
Ryan Jack and Callum Mcgregor were the two stand-out players who are playing at a high level. We also highlighted Andrew Irving who, given time to develop his game, could become a great player in the future.