The best & worst playmaking midfielders in the SPFL this season

written by – Rangers Report   photo courtesy of – PA

The stats used in this post come from a database of nearly 100 statistical categories that I’m collecting this season for the SPFL.   Access to updated stats will only be made available to people who contribute a one-time fee of £15.  If you are interested, read more here.

Using statistics to identify the best playmaking midfielders & wingers in the Scottish Premiership can be tricky because the leaderboards are dominated by players from a select few (or one) team(s).

For example, take a look at the following tables for xG Chain per 90 that I posted on Twitter a few weeks ago.

Among the top 17 players, eight play for Celtic & four play for Rangers.  When Celtic has generated 21.41 more Expected Goals then the league average – they are going to dominate any leader board that involves chances created.  Rangers has created 6.644 more xG then the league average (& that’s the second most – ‘the divide is real’) so they will again feature heavily when looking at shot creation stats.

That’s why you can learn a whole lot more by using relative stats when looking at shot creation passing data.  When using relative passing stats, you are comparing a player to the output of his teammates in a similar position.

It provides context.

Hamilton Academical have generated 178 shots this season, that’s 201 less shots then Celtic.  So is it fair to compare the Key Passes created by players like Ali Crawford & Greg Docherty to the likes of Scott Armstrong or Scott Sinclair?

courtesy of Kenny Ramsay (The Sun, Glasgow)

Ali Crawford averages 1.84 Key Passes per 90 minutes (passes that set up shots).  That leads the way for Hamilton, but would be eighth among midfielders & wingers on Celtic.

If a goal of data based player recruitment is to find “diamonds in the rough”, you can see why relative passing stats could help.

Ali Crawford’s Relative Key Passes per 90 is +1.03 (he averages that many more Key Passes per 90 minutes than the rest of his teammates who play as similar role).  That rate would be second best on Celtic with only Stuart Armstrong having a higher Relative Key Pass rate (+1.37).

I could list more examples, but I think (hope) you get the point.  That fact that Ali Crawford can average nearly two Key Passes a match is really impressive given the fact his team struggles to generate high numbers of shots (8.9 per match compared to Celtic’s 18.95 shots per game).  Conversely, given that Stuart Armstrong creates 1.37 more Key Passes per 90 then his teammates is also a jaw dropper.

So, the goal of this post is to highlight the best playmaking midfielders & wingers in the Scottish Premiership as a means of showing how data can be used as a recruitment tool.  Given this a Rangers blog, it will be through the lens of finding players that could help make the team better. Also, I’ll share the ‘worst’ playmaking midfielders…largely for entertainment purposes & for conversation starters.

Note:  I used 500 minutes as the minimum for each leaderboard.

courtesy of Michael Schofield (The Sun, Glasgow)

Relative Key Passes per 90 leaders

  1. Scott Allan, Dundee  +2.24
  2. Stuart Armstrong, Celtic  +1.37
  3. Chris Cadden, Motherwell +1.10
  4. Chris Burke, Kilmarnock  +1.06
  5. Blair Spittal, Partick  +1.05
  6. John McGinn, Hibs  +1.05
  7. Ali Crawford, Hamilton  +1.03
  8. Daniel Candeias, Rangers  +0.98
  9. James Forrest, Celtic  +0.90
  10. Michael Gardyne, Ross County  +0.83
  11. Jamie Walker, Hearts  +0.66
  12. Gael Bigirimana, Motherwell  +0.46
  13. Jordan Jones, Kilmarnock  +0.46
  14. Don Cowie, Hearts  +0.41

Scott Allan has been stuck on Dundee’s substitute bench ever since he left a match v Rangers via an injury.  That was back in September.  Ever since he’s made his return to fitness he’s been utilized as a sub.  His exclusion from the starting eleven has been shocking.  An example of the impact he has on a team like Dundee, who really struggle to generate offense, was highlighted this past weekend in a draw with Motherwell.

Chris Cadden (21), Blair Spittal (22), John McGinn (23), Ali Crawford (26), Jamie Walker (24), Gael Bigirimana (24), & Jordan Jones (23) are all players with the best years of their career ahead of them & maybe should be on any shortlist that a club like Rangers put together when scouting potential transfer targets.  Spittal is a former Rangers youth player, while Bigirimana technically has already played for the team.  Let’s see if their names keep coming up moving forward in the post.

Scott Allan?  Well, if fans think his decision to join Celtic was easy…don’t overlook the fact that Alan Stubbs basically admitted to preventing Allan from signing with his top choice team.

Now…for the clickbait…the worst midfielders in the Scottish Premiership when it comes to Relative Key Passes per 90.

  • Ryan Jack, Rangers  -1.00
  • Prince Buaben, Hearts  -0.99
  • Scott Brown, Celtic  -0.96
  • Marvin Bartley, Hibs  -0.93
  • Olivier Ntcham, Celtic  -0.79

Now, “worst midfielders” is a team used very loosely here.  Jack, Buaben & Bartley are called upon by their clubs to be defensive midfielders, first.  Ryan Jack was not signed to be a playmaker, he was signed to sit in front of the defense & ….well, clean shit up.  Brown & Ntcham will likely show up later in my next post in a good way…so hit pause on any troll bait.

As Colin Trainor pointed out four years ago – you can’t look at Key Passes in isolation as a means of evaluating a players abilities as a playmaker.  The next logical step is to look at Expected Assists.

courtesy of John Kirkby

Relative Expected Assists per 90 leaders

  1. Scott Allan, Dundee  +0.38
  2. Chris Cadden, Motherwell  +0.35
  3. Stuart Armstrong, Celtic  +0.30
  4. Daniel Candeias, Rangers  +0.28
  5. Ali Crawford, Hamilton  +0.20
  6. Elliot Frear, Motherwell  +0.18
  7. Blair Spittal, Partick  +0.17
  8. Chris Burke, Kilmarnock  +0.15
  9. Liam Craig, St. Johnstone  +0.13
  10. John McGinn, Hibs  +0.12
  11. Dom Thomas, Kilmarnock  +0.11
  12. Ryan Christie, Aberdeen  +0.11
  13. Brandon Barker, Hibs  +0.10
  14. Greg Tansey, Aberdeen  +0.10
  15. Scott Sinclair, Celtic  +0.10

More proof of Scott Allan’s elite output this season & what most people already knew, Chris Cadden may be a very, special player.  Also, any tactical decisions made by Graeme Murty that doesn’t feature Daniel Candeias in a prominent role is…well, quite flawed.

Brandon Barker is under contract with Manchester City until the summer of 2020, but the 21-year old is proving that if he wants to make the move to Scotland permanent that he will walk in & be a star at this level.

The midfielders/wingers with the lowest Relative Expected Assists?

  • Olivier Ntcham, Celtic  -0.19
  • Scott Brown, Celtic  -0.17
  • Ryan Jack, Rangers  -0.16
  • Marvin Bartley, Hibs  -0.16
  • Alan Power, Kimarnock  -0.16

Power is the new name here & like the others, the data suggests that he is on the list because of the role he is asked to play.  Like the Celtic duo, Power is very much involved in the build-up prior to the key pass in passing networks, rather being relied upon to make that final pass before a shot is created.

There is one more critical playmaking stat to consider.

Relative Scoring Chance Key Passes per 90

These are the Key Passes that set up the best kind of shots…shots that historically have a higher success rate then your typical shot.  These aren’t just any shot…these are Scoring Chances.

Scoring Chances are kicked shots from the heart of the box & kicked or headed shots from within the six yard box.  The players who are consistently setting up teammates with these kinds of chances are the kinds of playmakers that change games.

  1. Scott Allan, Dundee  +0.90
  2. Stuart Armstrong, Celtic  +0.84
  3. Ali Crawford, Hamilton  +0.68
  4. Daniel Candeias, Rangers  +0.57
  5. Elliot Frear, Motherwell  +0.50
  6. Chris Cadden, Motherwell  +0.43
  7. Dom Thomas, Kilmarnock  +0.36
  8. Scott Sinclair, Celtic  +0.36
  9. Ryan Christie, Aberdeen  +0.34
  10. Blair Spittal, Partick  +0.33
  11. Brandon Barker, Hibs  +0.32
  12. Stefan Scougall, St Johnstone  +0.28
  13. Connor Randall, Hearts  +0.27
  14. Michael O’Halloran, St Johnstone  +0.25
  15. Greg Tansey, Aberdeen  +0.23
  16. Jordan Jones, Kilmarnock  +0.22
  17. Liam Craig, St Johnstone  +0.22
  18. Greg Docherty, Hamilton  +0.21
  19. Josh Windass, Rangers  +0.21
  20. Gary Mackay-Steven, Aberdeen  +0.20

I extended this list because if I was truly using stats as a recruitment tool, this would be my first stop when looking for playmakers & you can see that in the Scottish Premiership – the two best playmaking midfielders are clearly Scott Allan & Stuart Armstrong. They have topped each of the previous categories & their results come from the opposite ends of the ‘context spectrum’.  Celtic have had 109 Scoring Chances this season, the next best team?  Rangers with 75.  That’s a pretty significant difference (34…if you’re counting).  So the fact that Armstrong is averaging such a higher rate of Scoring Chance Key Passes in relation to the rest of the Celtic midfielders & wingers is even that more impressive.  For Allan, he plays for a Dundee side that only average 2.55 Scoring Chances per match.  When Allan is on the pitch, he single-handedly contributes to an average of 1.85 per 90 (either with a Scoring Chance shot or Key Pass).  You can clearly see why he can’t crack the starting eleven for a team flirting with relegation?  I like Neil McCann, but that ongoing decision deserves some real scrutiny.

Hey, it’s Elliot Frear again!  That’s weird…who’s Elliot Frear??

Connor Randall is on loan from Liverpool & his talents are starting to come to the surface for a team that has created the fewest Scoring Chances this season (70 less then Celtic!).

The fact that St Johnstone has three players in the top 20 makes me wonder if there is something that they are doing systematically to generate those Scoring Chances?  All three players tend to play in wider roles.  For Rangers supporters, the question becomes whether Michael O’Halloran is having that impact because of his own doing or due to the fact that there’s something about Tommy Wright’s tactical system that helps create these opportunities?

Most of the players on this list influence the matches from the flanks – but the top three are each central midfielders.  From a Rangers point of view, this is what has been missing from the team this season.  A true playmaker – dictating play from a central role.  The highest Relative Scoring Chance Key Passes per 90 for a player in that role is Jason Holt with..(wait for it)…..-0.01.  He averages slightly less then the average for Rangers midfielders & wingers.

Awkward timing for the bottom five in RelScChKP per 90 (how’s that for an abbreviation)?

courtesy of Keith Campbell (The Sun, Glasgow)
  • Oliver Ntcham, Celtic  -0.57
  • Graham Dorrans, Rangers  -0.47
  • Scott Brown, Celtic  -0.41
  • Glen Kamara, Dundee -0.37
  • Alan Power, Kilmarnock  -0.37
  • Ryan Jack, Rangers  -0.33
  • Graeme Shinnie, Aberdeen -0.33

The non-Rangers players at the bottom of the list all are in the positive in other Relative Shot Creation Passing rates (that will be the topic of the next post) – so they are clearly impacting the build-up play in different ways.  Ryan Jack’s role has already been discussed & few would dispute he has made the team better because of his play in that role

Graham Dorrans, on the other hand, was expected to be the playmaker influencing the attack from a central role.  Prior to his injury, he was scoring goals at a good rate (0.33 non-penalty goals per 90), but that was largely driven by a Conversion Rate that was three times higher than his Expected Conversion Rate.  Beyond that unsustainable goal rate, he was in the negative for each of the Shot Creation Passing categories for Rangers.

I guess the team didn’t learn that investing in midfielders in their 30s is not the solution.

One last note:

From earlier in the post:

Chris Cadden (21), Blair Spittal (22), John McGinn (23), Ali Crawford (26), Jamie Walker (24), Gael Bigirimana (24), & Jordan Jones (23) are all players with the best years of their career ahead of them & should be on any shortlist that a club like Rangers put together when scouting potential transfer targets.  Spittal is a former Rangers youth player, while Bigirimana technically has already played for the team.  

The only two players who didn’t show up on the other lists were Walker & Bigirimana.  Both will likely feature in the next post I have planned – so don’t scratch them off that scouting list just yet.   Players that may need to be included?

I’d hit pause on Frear.  He’s 27 years old, so still in the prime years of his career – but his shelf life in the peak years is short.  Dom Thomas (21) has already made it perfectly clear that he’s too good for Rangers.  But, any scouting list of Scottish Premiership playmakers should include 21-year old Greg Docherty.  While Crawford is the main playmaker for Hamilton, Docherty’s youth is what adds a level of intrigue for any team looking to upgrade their midfield.

In the next post, I’ll look at the Relative Shot Creation Passing statistics that identify midfielders & wingers who are the best at connecting play in the passing network prior to the Key Pass – the players who are consistently setting up teammates in space to make that crucial, final pass.

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