The Emergence of Sexy St. Johnstone Led by Matty Kennedy

written by: Matt Rhein/@thebackpassrule

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Over the past few seasons, St. Johnstone have developed a bit of a reputation. Fairly or not, most fans of other clubs in Scotland usually associate the Perth club with playing compact, organized football under Tommy Wright. Regardless of what you think of how they play though, Tommy Wright has lead the Saints to unprecedented success in his tenure. Top six finishes and even European qualification have become the norm, not to mention the club’s only major domestic silverware in the Scottish Cup in 2013/14.

Despite the consistent level of success at McDairmaid Park these past few seasons, a new narrative has developed around St. Johnstone this season. “Sexy St. Johnstone” has been the moniker given to the club this year. Though partly in jest due to their previously mentioned reputation, their new nickname is not without merit. Though they are 7th in the shots taken so far this season, they are 4th in the Scottish Premiership  in xG for with only Celtic, Rangers, and Hearts with a higher expected goal total in Scotland’s top flight. This means that St. Johnstone have been able to get off more dangerous shots in the league so far, which to this stat nerd is definitely sexy.

Good dribbling numbers, but your fancy stats can’t quantify a good celebration strut.

Good dribbling numbers, but your fancy stats can’t quantify a good celebration strut.

There were fears that when English midfielder Drey Wright damaged his ACL against Kilmarnock that the “sexy” in St. Johnstone could disappear. Indeed Wright has looked impressive in his shortened 2018 Premiership  season. However, there’s another St. Johnstone midfielder that can continue to put the “sexy” into St. Johnstone on the pitch.

Similar to Wright and the more high profile Tony Watt, Matty Kennedy signed for St. Johnstone on a free transfer this off-season. Kennedy has appeared in every league match for the Saints this season but one so far. Looking at his play on the pitch and his statistical output this season, it is easy to see why Tommy Wright has relied on the well-traveled Scottish midfielder. While he is only 24, Kennedy has already been at a few different clubs in Scotland and England. It seems Kennedy has finally found a spot to thrive in though in Perth.

Graph showing the dribbles successful per 90 & % of attempted passes leading to a shot for players in the SPFL playing at least 50% of their minutes in midfield. You can see Kennedy in the top left quadrant among the leaders in the these categories. Interactive version of graph  found here.

Graph showing the dribbles successful per 90 & % of attempted passes leading to a shot for players in the SPFL playing at least 50% of their minutes in midfield. You can see Kennedy in the top left quadrant among the leaders in the these categories. Interactive version of graph found here.

When trying to look at some of the better attacking midfielders with data from last year, we looked at the league average of percentage of passes attempted leading to a shot and dribbles successful per 90. Looking at those same stats for this season, we see that the league average percentage of attempted passes leading to a shot is 1.32% and the league average for successful dribbles per 90 is 1.46. There are eighteen players in the SPFL who have played at least half of their minutes at midfield and are above both of those averages.

If we want to further drill down on these players, we filter these eighteen players and see which have average at least a 0.22 expected goals per 90 minutes and 0.16 xA per 90 (numbers we found to be the “average” figures for the “average leagues” along similar talent levels as the Scottish Premiership). Only four players of the original eighteen remain. These players are Ryan Kent, Ryan Christie, Chris Burke, and Matty Kennedy.

To those not following the Saints closely, Kennedy’s inclusion in that list of four midfielders might be a surprise. However, the Saints midfielder deserves his spot in this group. He has scored 3 goals so far this season, good for 0.28 goals per 90 minutes played. Matty Kennedy also has impressive underlying statistics for the Saints in SPFL play, averaging 0.29 xG per 90 and 0.18 xA per 90 through November 25th. These are both above the “average” player in our database of leagues of similar stature to the Scottish Premiership , as mentioned before.

Those aren’t the only impressive metrics Kennedy has put forth this season. He has attempted 76 dribbles, the second most in the league. He completes 3.07 of those dribbles per 90 minutes, the sixth most in the league.  2.34% of the passes he attempts result in a shot for St. Johnstone, the eleventh highest in the SPFL. These metrics continue to justify just how important Matty Kennedy has been to the St. Johnstone attack.

As we see in the images above showing the locations of where Matty Kennedy has made passes and where he has touched the ball on the pitch, he clearly makes his hay on the left side of the pitch. His ability to dribble and pass draws defenders to his part of the pitch, opening the middle and half spaces more for the likes of Tony Watt. Though he has only one goal so far this season, Watt’s presence in the middle of the park and his ability to hold the ball with his strength has allowed him to set up Kennedy with dangerous chances, such as the lone goal seen below against Livingston. With an attacking threat like Kennedy, Watt has created chances for his teammates almost as well as he has taken them for himself, averaging 0.25 xA per 90 and notching 4 assists in league play so far.

Before the beginning of the season, I discussed how budgetary restrictions for St. Johnstone dictated that taking a risk on signing someone like Tony Watt on a free was a risk worth taking. In addition to Watt, St. Johnstone added the likes of Drey Wright and Matty Kennedy on frees with much less fan fare. With Kennedy and, until his untimely injury, Wright succeeding and Tony Watt all-around contributions to the St. Johnstone attack, these signing seem to be great business for St. Johnstone. The Saints will miss Wright for the rest of the season, but if Matty Kennedy can continue this form for St. Johnstone, perhaps “sexy” St. Johnstone is here to stay.