Eyebrows were raised in October last year, when Scotland national team manager, Steve Clarke, called up a Ladbrokes Scottish Championship striker to lead the line in the Euro 2020 qualifying matches against Russia and San Marino. However, Lawrence Shankland justified Clarke’s tactics with a first international goal in his first start for his country against San Marino. In addition, the 24-year old’s prolific goal-scoring form this season has played a vital part in Dundee United’s promotion to the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership.
This scout report will provide a tactical analysis of Lawrence Shankland and highlight which parts of his game will be key to his success, as he looks to establish himself as one of the league’s best strikers and cement his place in the Scotland squad.
Shankland’s scoring record this season has been exceptional, with analysis showing that the forward notched an incredible 0.9 goals per 90 mins in the league, which across the top two leagues in Scotland, is the third-best scoring rate. He sits behind Celtic’s Odsonne Edouard with 0.91 goals per 90 mins and stalwart Jermaine Defoe, with the Rangers striker bagging an impressive 1.1 goals per 90 mins. Shankland has netted 24 league goals this season, which is the most of any striker in either the Championship or Premiership, with Edouard trailing him on 22 goals so far this campaign.
What is most interesting about Shankland’s scoring record in the league this season, is that he has scored almost nine goals more than his 15.3 expected goals, a reason for which is his ability to produce goals from seemingly difficult situations in and around the box.
The image above, against Inverness, is an excellent example of Shankland’s ability to finish under pressure. Here, the ball is crossed in from the right and Shankland, closely monitored by two Inverness defenders, is able to control the ball with his back to goal, where his quick feet and trickery allow him fake to go left and quickly shift the ball onto his stronger right foot. This movement leaves both Inverness defenders on the floor and Shankland fires a right-footed shot into the bottom left from the edge of the box.
This next image above, against Hibs, is very similar to the goal shown previous, with Shankland again receiving an aerial ball from the right flank. This time, tightly marked by the Hibs centre-back, the Scot excellently brings the ball down on his chest to set up a strike from the centre of the ‘D’ on the edge of the penalty box, which is again struck low into the keeper’s right-hand corner.
This goal against Partick Thistle came as a result of a ball in behind the defence which left Shankland 2v1 against the Partick Thistle central defenders. From here, Shankland’s ability on the ball allows him to drive into the centre of the penalty box, where he manages to create space to finish low past the helpless Partick Thistle keeper.
Movement in behind
As well as his fantastic finishing ability, Shankland also demonstrates excellent movement towards and away from the ball, which makes him very unpredictable and difficult to mark.
In the image above, the ball is on the left side of midfield, where the Dundee United wide player is driving inside the pitch. Shankland is positioned in front of the Partick Thistle left-side central defender and recognises that if he drops towards the ball, he limits the space for the player in possession. Also, if Shankland receives the ball in a deeper position, the Partick Thistle central midfielders will collapse and pressure him from the front. Shankland recognises this and instead makes a blind-side run in behind the right-hand centre back. This movement causes a problem for the left centre-back, as if he tracks Shankland’s run, he opens up space for a through ball to the United right-winger, and if he stays, Shankland is through on goal. Unfortunately, there is a lack of quality on the pass through from the United midfielder, but this highlights Shankland’s clever movement in behind the defence.
The image above is another example of Shankland’s desire to run in behind defences. Here, against Hibs, he manages to peel off the left centre-back, which gives the player on the ball two options, and the Hibs defender two problems. Should the defender block through ball, Shankland can receive a pass to his feet and drive into the box, however, as the defender is attempting to block this passing lane, it opens up space for a through ball to Shankland. From here, the Scotland striker is able to shrug off pressure from the Hibs left-back and finish calmly past the helpless Hibs goalkeeper.
This image against Partick Thistle further highlights Shankland’s ability in recognising triggers to penetrate space and is similar to the image seen above, against Hibs. The Dundee United central midfielder has time and space and is about to receive pressure from the Partick Thistle right centre-back. This then creates space for Shankland to exploit and he does so by making a well-timed, penetrating run into the box where he creates an excellent chance to score, however, he is denied by a great save.
Dropping between the lines
Another feature of Shankland’s game, as highlighted in the heatmap above, is his ability to drop between the lines of the opposition’s defence and midfield to link with the Dundee United midfield players. This once again enables him to create problems for defenders, who are faced with the dilemma of whether to step out and press him, to prevent him from turning and shooting, or whether to stay and protect the space in behind the defence.
In the above images, Shankland has dropped into space between the lines and has managed to receive the ball facing the goal. From here he is immediately pressed by three players, with pressure coming from a central defender who has stepped out, and from midfielders either side of him. The second image shows that Shankland can play through the pressure into the striker and makes a penetrating run into the left side of the box, where he receives the ball back and can play a cutback across the face of the goal.
We can see this movement again in this example against Hibs. Shankland has dropped, this time bringing a centre-back with him into the Dundee United half. From this position, Shankland is able to pass out the right side of midfield, and United can attack down this side. This movement from Shankland has now unbalanced the Hibs defence, and seconds later, the striker finds himself at the edge of the box, where he exploits this disorganisation and finishes from outside the box.
This is another example of Shankland’s movement towards the ball, and this phase of play against Partick Thistle, like the one shown above, also ends in a goal for the young Scot. As can be seen from the image, Shankland has again dropped between the lines and skilfully plays a first time pass around the corner to the Dundee United left-winger. It should be pointed out that as Shankland’s movement towards the ball has not been tracked, he has space ahead of him to run into, as the pass out wide has caused one defender to press the winger and the other to cover the space behind him. The second image highlights the space Shankland has created, as two central defenders have been dragged towards the ball carrier leaving the Partick Thistle left-back exposed in the centre of the box, with two players to pick up. Shankland receives the cut-back and his excellent control allows him to set himself up for a left-footed shot, which he strikes powerfully into the bottom left corner.
Shankland’s link-up play has not only allowed him to create goals for himself, but as seen from the chart below, his total of three second-assists indicate that he plays a crucial role in the teams’ final third play.
As has been discussed, Shankland possesses an excellent understanding of when to run in behind defences and when to drop between the lines. However, in addition to this, he also shows excellent awareness of space in the box, which, in turn, allows him to get shots at goal in tight spaces.
In this example against Inverness, the ball is in a crossing position, and Shankland recognises that a run into the six-yard box may not be the best option considering the position of the Inverness central defender, who is well placed to intercept any low cross across the face. Instead, Shankland moves off his marker and can create space to shoot. The effort narrowly misses the target, but this example demonstrates the Scot’s ability to create shooting space in and around the box.
The images above against Greenock Morton are another example of Shankland’s awareness in the box. The Dundee United central midfielder is in possession on the edge of the box, drawing pressure from two Morton defenders. As can be seen from the first image, Shankland vacates the box and moves to the ‘D’ where he is unmarked. The midfielder in possession is able to turn and deliver a cross into the box where the Dundee United forward manages to knock the ball down for Shankland whose shot goes narrowly over the crossbar. Again, Shankland anticipates that there will be little space to create a chance in a crowded box, so moves to an area with more space, to create a shooting opportunity and is almost rewarded.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Shankland’s game is the number of headed goals he has notched this season. As can be seen from the charts below, Shankland has scored the most headed goals of any striker in the top two leagues in Scotland with 8. This is even more impressive considering his modest six-foot frame, which when compared to Aberdeen frontman Sam Cosgrove (6’4) and Celtic’s Odsonne Edouard (6’2), who have netted six headed goals between them, further highlights Shankland’s brilliance in the air.
The image below against Morton, once again highlights that Shankland’s clever movement in the box is the key to his aerial success. This is understandable considering that his aerial duel success of 32.86% sits just above the Premiership and Championship average of 30%. The image shows Shankland having peeled off to the back post, finishing with his head. What is stark here, is the lack of players around him, a situation he managed to achieve with an excellently timed run around the back of the Morton defence.
His aerial threat is further evidenced through the chart below, which breaks down the situations that Shankland scores most from. It is shown that Shankland has netted over four goals more than an expected 3.88 from crosses and perhaps even more impressively, he has a cross-conversion rate of just under 50% (47.1%).
Despite Shankland’s strengths, there are still areas of his game he can improve upon that would make him a more rounded centre forward. One area of development for Shankland would be his ability to keep possession in the final third, in particular, when he’s dribbling with the ball. Shankland has a dribbling success rate of 40%, which falls below the Premiership average of 44%. With this in mind, the forward also attempts more dribbles per game than the league average, suggesting it is a requirement of his role. These areas for improvement are supported by the images below which display the Scottish Premiership strikers’ offensive duels success as well Shankland’s possession losses this season.
It is clear from his goal-scoring record over previous seasons that Shankland is an exceptionally dangerous forward, who will no doubt be relishing the chance to excel in the country’s top league. However, what has become even more apparent, is that the young striker possesses excellent movement, anticipation and finishing skills, that if applied consistently in the 2020/21 Scottish Premiership season, could see him flourish into the nation’s first-choice centre forward for many years to come.