Eyebrows were raised at the beginning of the season, when Aberdeen knocked back multiple bids of around three million pounds from various English Championship clubs, for defender Scott McKenna. QPR and Nottingham Forest were among those keen to secure the services of the 23-year old central defender, as well as current Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership champions, Celtic. As well as turning down these bids, the club also rejected a transfer request made by the Scotland international, which cast doubt over McKenna’s involvement in the early season domestic and European cup competitions.
In spite of what the speculation at the time suggested, McKenna, despite what could be considered as an injury-hit season, has been integral to Aberdeen’s tactics this season, playing every minute of the 24 games he has started. There is concern, however, as a torn hamstring, which ended McKenna’s season in early March, has now become the latest injury for the young Scot to overcome, having already faced a spell on the sidelines at the beginning of the season. This injury in late August caused him to miss four league games as well as Scotland’s crucial Euro 2020 qualifiers against Belgium and Russia.
This scout report will provide a tactical analysis of Scott McKenna and highlight which areas of his game have led to him establishing himself as Aberdeen’s first-choice central defender. In addition, the scout report will examine parts of his game that McKenna needs to improve, in order to cement his place in the Scotland back four, and perhaps secure him the move he was after last summer.
At 6’2, McKenna provides a physical challenge for many of the league’s strikers, and it’s this physicality that has proved to be one of his main strengths over recent seasons. Analysis of the table above illustrates his ability to outmuscle opponents and regain possession, ranking him among the league’s best for percentage of defensive duels won. McKenna encounters on average, the same number of defensive duels per game (5) than the rest of the central defenders playing for the league’s top four teams.
The images above highlight McKenna getting tight to the Ross County centre forward, who has received the ball between the lines with his back to goal. In this situation, it is easy for centre-backs to get too tight to the player on the ball, which may allow the striker to roll the defender, or pin him and combine with a midfield player. However, in this situation, McKenna does excellently to not only prevent the striker from turning, but he also forces him centrally, which enables Aberdeen to get men around the ball. McKenna’s strength and patience is rewarded, and without fouling the striker, he is able to make a challenge and prod the ball into the Aberdeen central midfielder who carries the ball forward, allowing Aberdeen to attack.
McKenna’s ability in 1v1 duels is also highlighted here against Hamilton. In this image, McKenna recognises that once the striker receives the ball, he must force him back to prevent him from turning and gets tight, limiting the striker’s options. Similarly to the previous example, McKenna is patient, and doesn’t dive in to try and win the ball, instead, he forces the striker towards the sideline where he is able to make an excellent challenge and regain possession.
This image against Celtic is very similar to the one shown above against Hamilton, where McKenna once again finds himself defending high up the pitch, tasked with preventing the striker, in this case, Leigh Griffiths, from penetrating the space in behind the Aberdeen defence. The young defender manages again to use his physicality to challenge fairly from behind and regain possession, ending a potentially dangerous Celtic attack.
As well as his ability to dominate strikers when they have their back to goal, McKenna also possesses the ability to overpower forwards in the air.
As can be seen from the table above, McKenna ranks among the league’s best for percentage of aerial duels won, winning just under 68% of his aerial duels this season. Notably, his teammate and centre-back partner, Ash Taylor, has the best aerial duel success this season (75.63%), which highlights the pair’s aerial dominance in the league. Central defenders across this season’s top four teams attempt, on average, 6.6 aerial duels per game, while McKenna attempts 7.33 per game, highlighting his reliance on this part of his game.
This image above, against Ross County, shows McKenna challenging in the air from the opposition’s goal kick. Here, McKenna is able to leap higher than the Ross County forward and win the header. McKenna’s dominance here allows Aberdeen to gain possession, and with the Ross County defence pushed up from the goal-kick, presents an opportunity for them to counter-attack and take advantage of this disorganisation.
The second image, again, versus Ross County, sees McKenna attacking an aerial ball, however this time without challenge from the opposition frontmen. Instead of returning possession straight back to County, McKenna shows good decision making and instead opts to play a headed pass into the Aberdeen forward Sam Cosgrove, who can set the ball for the oncoming midfielder, who then passes wide to advance the Aberdeen attack. This example illustrates that McKenna’s aerial ability is not only effective when challenging with centre forwards, but is also something that he relies on to secure possession for his team, as seen above.
The image above against Celtic further enhances the point made previously, and once again illustrates McKenna’s ability to turn 50-50 aerial challenges into controlled possession. This time, under a challenge from Celtic frontman, Odsonne Edouard, McKenna is once again able to win the aerial battle, and divert the ball with his head into the feet of Cosgrove, who sets the ball to Craig Bryson, the Aberdeen central midfielder.
This next example is taken from the game against Hamilton and the image shows McKenna clearing a cross from the right-wing. This image highlights the Scot’s desire to challenge for the ball in the air in the box and his strong headed clearance allows the team to push up the pitch and reorganise. The bravery and aggression shown in this situation, exhibits the defender’s no-nonsense approach to defending aerial balls.
Playing through and over the press
The table above shows that compared to the rest of the league, McKenna’s passing accuracy (77.48%) is fairly average when considering players such as; Jozo Simunovic (91.48%) and Kristoffer Ajer (89.66%), of Celtic. However, it should be noted that across the season, Aberdeen’s ability to dominate possession is far less than that of Celtic. Also, McKenna’s passing accuracy (77.48%) is only slightly less than that of Aberdeen’s most accomplished passer of the ball this season, Michael Devlin (78.81%), indicating, that his performance is by no means poor.
This image above, against Ross County, shows McKenna in possession on the left side of the pitch. The positions of the Ross County central midfielder and right midfielder, prevent McKenna from playing out to left-back Andrew Considine, as well as making the pass into central midfielder, Dean Campbell, difficult to make, as the young midfielder’s body position would prevent him from turning quick enough to evade pressure. With this in mind, McKenna threads a pacy, penetrative pass through the Ross County midfield, into the feet of striker Curtis Main, who can set the ball to Andrew Considine, who plays in behind the County defence for Sam Cosgrove. This example highlights McKenna’s ability to play line-breaking passes through the opposition press into advanced players.
This second image, against Ross County, indicates that McKenna also possesses the ability to play over opposition pressure. Here, he is able to play over the entire Ross County press and find Sam Cosgrove, who knocks the ball down to fellow striker Curtis Main, who can attack centrally.
Another example of this is provided here, against Hamilton. McKenna is pressured by the Hamilton forward, but quickly managers to shift the ball onto his favoured left foot, allowing him to play a lofted pass in behind the Hamilton right-back, for the Aberdeen left-winger to run onto and cross into the box. This reinforces McKenna’s ability to play over, as well as through the opposition’s press.
This final example, that will be used to highlight McKenna’s passing ability, is taken from the home game against Kilmarnock. This image specifically highlights McKenna’s long passing ability, and shows him play a driven pass into the centre forward Curtis Main. Interestingly, McKenna opts not to play the ‘safer’ pass to the Aberdeen left-back, and instead plays the riskier pass into the feet of the striker. This decision highlights both McKenna’s desire to take risks when playing from the back, as well as his confidence in his ability to play this type of pass.
These tables highlight McKenna’s desire to play forward. The first table highlights that McKenna attempts a similar number of forward passes compared to many of the leagues’ top defenders, while the second table highlights a similar theme in terms of progressive passes p90. While his accuracy is considerably lower than those defenders at the top of each metric, it’s encouraging that this forward, progressive passing style is part of his game, and at 23-years old, he has more than enough time to perfect this aspect of his play.
Areas for improvement
Despite McKenna’s various strengths that have been discussed above, some parts of his game require improvement if he is to cement his place in the national team’s back four, one of which is his ability to defend on the right side of the box.
McKenna is a left-footed player, who is clearly uncomfortable defending on his unnatural right side. This images above against Ross County, shows McKenna in a 1v1 duel on the edge of the right side of the box. Unlike the examples shown when he is defending on the left side, McKenna fails to stop the striker from turning, instead allowing him to carry the ball into the box. The second image shows that despite allowing the player into the box, McKenna was able to recover and get goal-side, however, he was unable to get tight to the striker, possibly due to the fear of fouling the player. This allowed the striker the space and time to play a pass back to his teammate on the edge of the box, who was able to get a shot at goal.
The images above against Celtic, show McKenna defending in the same position as that shown against Ross County. Here, the player on the ball, Leigh Griffiths, manages to get past McKenna into the right side of the box, with the defender failing to prevent Griffiths from turning. The second image shows Griffiths having created enough space to cross the ball to Odsonne Edouard, who is free in the centre of the box. This move eventually leads to a goal for Celtic and again highlights McKenna’s frailty when defending on his right side.
Another area of McKenna’s game that requires improvement is his composure in possession of the ball. This may shed some light on his lower passing accuracy % compared to the league’s top central defenders.
In this first image against Ross County, the ball has been played in behind the Aberdeen defence and McKenna has managed to get to the ball before the striker. He has options to play his way out of this situation, one of which is to play a right-footed pass back to goalkeeper Joe Lewis. Another option could have been a pass to left-back Andrew Considine, who could play backwards to Joe Lewis, or inside to the other central defender, Ash Taylor. However, McKenna instead opts to attempt a clearance, which he diverts out for a Ross County throw-in in the Aberdeen half.
The second image against Ross County, shows McKenna having again recovered a forward pass to the Ross County strikers. His lack of composure in possession sees him rush a pass back to the goalkeeper, which is intercepted by one of the Ross County strikers, who, fortunately for McKenna, is unable to finish. As well as a lack of composure, these images highlight a reluctance to use his right foot to play his way out of trouble, which results in McKenna conceding possession cheaply and allowing the opposition another opportunity to put pressure on the Aberdeen defence.
Further evidence of a lack of composure is shown above in the image against Kilmarnock. The image shows McKenna choosing to attack an aerial pass and head the ball back to the opposition, despite having better options available. McKenna has the option of controlling the ball and rebuilding possession, using the numerical advantage Aberdeen have on the right side of the pitch. McKenna could use the central midfielders in this instance, to move the ball out wide to the right-back Shay Logan, which could potentially start the attack. Alternatively, he could allow the ball to go through to the goalkeeper and build possession again from there.
Despite a season disrupted by injuries, McKenna has performed fairly solidly this season for Aberdeen and played a key role in their journey to a somewhat underwhelming fourth-place finish in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
His defensive ability, as well as his prowess in the air, allow him to establish a real presence on the pitch, and in addition, he possesses good passing ability that enables him to play through and over the opposition press. At just 23-years old, there are obviously still areas of his game, such as his composure and decision making in possession, that if improved, will no doubt enable him to build on his already excellent reputation as one of Scotland’s most promising central defenders.