Barrie McKay’s recent dip in form

written by – Rangers Report

One of Rangers’ brightest stars has seen a dip in form just as the crescendo of the season is reaching its pinnacle with an Old Firm showdown looming this weekend.

Barrie McKay has had a breakout season under the guidance of Mark Warburton & in just one season has become a real catalyst to Rangers level of play this season.

The statistics support the claim that he should very much be included in Player of the Year discussions.  His resume includes being second on the team in assists, first in secondary assists (the pass that sets up the primary assist), & tied for first when you combine primary & secondary assists.

He has had a direct impact on 30% of Rangers’ league goals this season with a goal, primary assist, or secondary assist.  Only Martyn Waghorn, James Tavernier, & Kenny Miller have had a bigger impact on Rangers’ goal scoring in 2015-16.

However, a curious trend has developed over the past couple of months.  Mark Warburton has removed McKay from six of the past seven matches that youngster has featured in.

Date of match 4/10/2016 4/5/2016 4/2/2016 3/18/2016 3/11/2016 3/5/2016 2/27/2016
Minutes 78 62 72 60 90 73 60

We all know that the Rangers manager likes to bring in a couple of subs at the hour mark – but it is a bit of a surprise to see that McKay has been the player taken off first in 43% of the past seven games.  Is this just a desire to get players like Billy King & Michael O’Halloran on the pitch…or has there been a dip in form from McKay?

Barrie McKay & Mark Warburton, courtesy of RFC

Interestingly, when you look at McKay’s final product in those matches – it has been on par to his season on the whole.  In those seven games, he has had a goal, two assists, & two secondary assists.  He has averaged 0.36 primary assists per 90 minutes, which is actually higher then his season average of 0.32 per 90.  If you combine the three stats, like they do in ice hockey, he has averaged 0.91 points per 90 minutes.  His season average is 0.88 points per 90.

So, where’s the problem?

I decided to peel back some of the layers of data that I have been tracking in previous months to see if there was any evidence of a dip in McKay’s play & it quickly became clear that there was a reason behind Warburton’s management of McKay’s minutes recently.

In McKay’s past seven matches he had a total of 1.97 Expected Assists (explained in this previous post), in the four games prior to that he had 1.71.

In the past seven games, McKay has had 14 key passes (passes that led to shots), in the four prior to that he had 18.

This became my entry point to dig deeper.

One of McKay’s attributes this season has been his ability to drive possession into the final third.  All season long, I have tracked Controlled Zone Entries (when a player dribbles the ball into the final third or makes a direct pass to a teammate in the final third) & McKay has again been a key figure in Rangers play.  He & James Tavernier have been the most prominent players at driving play into the attacking third all season long.

But again, the results have been trending in the wrong direction lately.  Below, you’ll find McKay’s controlled entries into the final third from his past eleven matches.

Barrie McKay Controlled Zone Entries

After a dominant performance against Alloa on February 13th, Barrie McKay’s impact on driving possession into the final third has been steadily declining to back-to-back weeks (against Falkirk & Raith Rovers) in which McKay only accounted for a combined ten Controlled Zone Entries.

Part of this comes down to struggles as a team.  Against Raith, Rangers only had 38 controlled entries into the final third & only 44 against Falkirk.  But even few days later, when Rangers had 85 Controlled Entries against Dumbarton, McKay was still limited to seven.

Why is this an issue?  In a 22-match study, linked to earlier, results on Controlled Zone Entries pointed to McKay being the most impactful on the team’s ability to create shots.  Rangers had generated 32 shots off of McKay’s controlled entries which equalled to a shot on 21% of the times McKay drove the ball into the final third.  Tavernier’s entries led to the same number of shots – but at a less regular rate (18%).

Recently, I have begun creating graphs that attempt to show the correlation between Controlled Zone Entries into the final third & making passes that lead to shots.  The vast majority of key passes & secondary passes (the pass to the player who makes the key pass) occur in Rangers’ final third, so it seems logical to look for that correlation.

Here’s Barrie McKay’s Controlled Zone Entries from the previous eleven matches compared to the percentage of shots that his primary or secondary pass led to:

Barrie McKay- CZE & Shot Creation

  • It should be noted that the annotations in each coordinate is based on Barrie McKay’s average performances & not the team as a whole.  For example, if a player like Dominic Ball or Andy Halliday had nine controlled entries into the final third & his passes accounted for 25% of the team’s shots….well, that would be very, very good.  But, Barrie McKay’s results this season have elevated what we should expect from him – so he is evaluated at a different level.
  • The Driving possession & shot creation match against Alloa was simply sensational.  He had 17 CZE & his passes accounted for 56% of Rangers’ 25 shots in that game.  He was the best player on the pitch.
  • Those games in the Driving possession but not shot creation coordinate also represent strong outings.  For example, in the game against Queen of the South – McKay had 13 controlled entries but his passes only led to 14% of Rangers 14 shots in that game.  However, that was a bit of a sloppy performancethat saw Rangers only generate a shot on 11% of their Controlled Zone Entries (normally Rangers get a shot on about 20% of their CZE).  McKay was driving possession into the final third but play was breaking down once he got the ball into the attacking third.  That probably was not his fault.
  • The Connecting play in the final third  results are also positive.  In those two matches, McKay wasn’t necessarily driving play into the final third…but he was making the passes in the attacking third that led to shots at a very high rate.
  • Notice that only one of the games from the past seven fall into the aforementioned categories.  The March 11th match against Morton also represents the only game in the past seven that Mark Warburton has kept McKay on the pitch for the full 90 minutes.  Coincidence?
  • The other six games all fall in the Little to no impact coordinates (the April 10th game against Peterhead is ‘buried’ by the Dumbarton game because the numbers are identical)…so the last three games from April represent McKay’s worst performances when it comes to controlled entries into the final third & making the passes that lead to shots.  He simply was not having the impact on the game that we have come accustomed to.
Barrie McKay, courtesy of SNS

Barrie McKay is a young footballer seeing regular first team football for the longest stretch of his career.  He has been among the most impactful players for a team that has dominated the Scottish Championship all season long.  His impressive season has deservedly led to him getting back in Scotland’s Under 21 picture & the whispers are out there that he may soon be considered for a call-up to Gordon Strachan’s squad if he can continue his strong play.  When we ultimately look back at his 2015-16 season, it will be seen truly has a breakout campaign for a player poised to have a fine career – both for club & country.

However, Rangers management have consistently emphasized the need to improve – even after promotion had become a foregone conclusion.  That may be why McKay has been singled out to be removed from the match in six of the last seven games.  He has had some success in those matches, but his overall performance levels have not matched his previous levels of output.

Has he it a wall?  Is this a case of a young professional succumbing to playing the most competitive football of his career?  McKay has already played nearly 700 more first team minutes in league play than his previous high three seasons ago & nearly 900 more minutes then he played last season on loan with Raith Rovers.

Maybe his dip in play over the last 500 minutes of play is simply a case of a player looking to find his second gear in the longest season of his career.

Barrie McKay's First Team Minutes

Either way, the league is won & Barrie McKay is poised to play a key role in Rangers return to the Premiership.  If his development continues to trend in the right direction,  it will not be a surprise to see the youngster vying for his first cap for Scotland.  And to be perfectly candid, that would be such a huge symbolic moment for all of us who remember his goal from that first game back in 2012, when Carlos Bocanegra led a makeshift squad out onto the pitch at Balmoor Stadium.

But on Sunday, Rangers will be playing in a monumental Old Firm showdown with Celtic.  It will be the team’s toughest test & will be a real measuring stick for every Rangers player who plans to be part of the squad next season.  Hopefully, Barrie McKay can bounce back from his recent dip in form to find the magic that he can create when he is playing at his best.  He’s more then capable of doing so…but he will have to perform much, much better than he has in recent weeks.

You can follow Rangers Report on Twitter @TheGersReport

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