Who are the Best Forward Prospects in Scotland's Developmental League?*

 18-year old Matthew Henvey

18-year old Matthew Henvey

written by:  @TheGersReport

Last summer, I published a list of the top forward prospects in Scottish football.  What was unique about the list was that it was based on statistics compiled by young players before they had actually played first team football.  I combed through match reports of the Scottish U20 Development League league & put together a simple database of goals & minutes played.  From there I applied a process of using age-adjusted stats introduced by Rob Vollman, a hockey analytics writer for ESPN, in his book  Stat Shot:  The Ultimate Guide to Hockey Analytics.

Before continuing, I think it's best that you go back & read last year's blog post.  It's pretty good...& spoiler:  Oli Shaw was the top ranked forward on the list.  The same Oli Shaw who averaged 0.70 goals per 90 for Hibs.

The same guy who did this...

Let's recap (or provide the cheat sheet for those who didn't feel like clicking the link):

  • One of the promises of analytics is the use of statistics to identify potential talent. 
  • When looking at youth prospects, it is imperative to factor in a player's age when assessing their potential.  I'm far more impressed by the fact that a 16-year old John Robertson averaged 0.37 goals per 90 minutes for St Johnstone's U20 team then 20-year old Craig Wighton averaging 0.61 goals per 90.  That seems extreme but that four year gap is beyond significant when playing at the U20 level.  Shit, I'm way more intrigued by 18-year old Aidan Keena's (Hearts) 0.61 goals per 90 than Wighton's exact same goal rate.
  • Or as Vollman astutely put it:
Directly comparing the statistics of a 19-year old player to those of a 17-year old is a fool’s errand, as the older player has a very significant advantage in terms of his development as a player. And while it may be true that the 19-year old is a better player at the time, we’re trying to project a future NHL [or SPFL] career for each of these players, and a 17-year old has more growth left than the 19-year old, so that must be considered.
— Rob Vollman, Stat Shot: The Ultimate Guide to Hockey Analytics

Before we continue, it should be noted - getting stats on U20 matches is a real challenge.  Some clubs are very good about posting team sheets & reports from each match...some not so much.  In an attempt to be as thorough as possible, I reached out to clubs for data & some were able to help - while others...let me know the stats don't exist "but next season they will." 

Welcome to Scottish football in 2018.

Last year I was able to get data on 14 clubs...this year it's less.  I only have stats from eight clubs...so this list is clearly incomplete.  Sadly, I'm missing clubs like Hibs, Motherwell, & Kilmarnock - teams who have good prospects.  I just made the case for Oli Shaw & Motherwell's David Turnbull in a recent post - so it's a bummer to not have talent from those clubs on this list.  

So knowing this an incomplete list...I've slapped a big fat * on this post.  But we still have some learnin' to do so here goes...

First, let's look at the top 15 goals per 90 from those forwards I did get stats on.  The cut-off for minutes was a very liberal 400 minutes.

All ages that I refer to are for the beginning of last season (August 2017).

Screen Shot 2018-07-20 at 3.38.59 PM.png

We could stop there, but remember we're dealing with teenagers here.  There's something like 27 months of difference between Cedwyn Scott & Jack Aitchison.  Scott's goals per 90 of 1.079 is beyond impressive, but you could argue that 17-year old Aitchison's 0.82 goals per 90 is equally, or more, impressive given his age.

If only there was a way to statistically measure whose goals total is actually more appealing?

Time for some copy & pasting from last year's post:

We naturally may begin to adjust these statistics in our head based on a player’s age & fortunately, Vollman laid out a blueprint to actually create, as he put it, “an equal footing” when looking at goal scoring statistics of prospects.

For a detailed look of how I applied Vollman’s process to these statistics - please refer to last year's post.  For now – here’s a synopsis of the how I age-adjusted the results so we could get a better sense of who the best goal scoring forward prospects in Scotland are.

Again, this is just lifted from Rob Vollman…buy his book to find analytics ideas of your own to “borrow.”

  1. Selecting the Data (it’s limited to goals.  Period.  Shots & Expected Goals would be nice but we’re working with what we’ve got).
  2. Normalizing the Data (for some clubs I found data for 30 matches, for others I was lucky to get 10 games.  So the goals are prorated to a full season of 32 matches from the per 90 average)
  3. Accounting for Sample Size (explained further later – but three goals in 360 minutes looks sensational but that’s a really small sample size.  So some regression adjustments are made to account for that)
  4. Adjusting for Age (the older the player is…the less impressed I am by your goal scoring rate against a bunch of teenagers.  I applied Vollman’s Age Adjusting formula to create the our magic number).
mgc.gif

After all that, we have a new list that’s ranked on what we’ll call the –  Vollman Age Adjusted Goal Projection.  Below you’ll find the top 20 prospects based on their age-adjusted goals.  The new numbers in the chart include their prorated goals (that takes into account the sample size of their minutes played), their age at the beginning of the season (years & months), & the number we want to hone in on – the Vollman Age Adjusted Goal Projections.

Screen Shot 2018-07-20 at 3.52.10 PM.png

For the complete list:  go here.

You can see some of the older players from the original top 15 dropped a few places:  players like 20-year old Kevin Nisbett & a pair of 19-year olds:  Craig Wighton & Bruce Anderson are the most noticeable.  Meanwhile, four players who didn't crack the original top 10 all make it once you adjust the stats for age.

Sixteen-year old John Robertson was compared to Leigh Griffiths & Jason Cummings by St. Johnstone manager Tommy Wright when the youngster made his Scottish Premiership debut last season.  While his goals per 90 isn't mind-blowing at 0.37, it's hard to overlook the fact that he is the youngest player on our list of forwards.  The potential is clearly there & Wright seems to have plans to keep bringing the youngster into the first team next season.

His rise has so far been meteoric and I feel he has the ability to keep going in an upward direction. To play for the first team in the Premiership at the age of 16 is some going. He is one of the youngest players to play in the Premiership and he has only just started. Next season will be a really big one for him and I’m sure more goals will come.
— Tommy Wright (The Courier, May 2018)

Rangers youngster Andy Dallas shows up for the second year in a row (last year he ranked fourth). The 18-year old finished the season out on loan with Stenhousemuir in League One where he averaged 0.54 goals per 90 in 500 minutes of football.  That goal rate equates to a Goals Above Average rate of +0.184 - a number that may not mean much to you but it actually is similar to Faissal El Bakhtaoui's rate in League One back in 2014-15 & Lee Erwin's rate back in 2013-14.  Both forwards ended up in the Premiership soon after.  Again, the catch is that El Bakhtaoui was four years older than Dallas was this season, while Erwin was two years older.  

 Zak Rudden

Zak Rudden

Dallas' name hasn't been mentioned publicly at all this summer since Steven Gerrard's arrival as Zak Rudden cut in line & got playing time in the friendly v Bury.  Rudden is a year younger, but Dallas has statistically shown more promise as a goal scoring prospect (Rudden ranked 15th last season).  It is unknown the length of Dallas' contract with Rangers, but it appears his best bet is to go out on loan again next season to see if he can build upon his impressive loan stint last season.

Logan Chalmers is another returnee to these rankings as he ranked fifth as a 16-year old last year.  Then his goals per 90 was 0.52, while this season it dipped to 0.36.  Now entering his 18-year old season, it appears that 2018-19 will be a critical season for Chalmers.  He's been seeing time as a substitute for the first team this pre-season & it will be interesting to see if that continues once the Championship season starts for Dundee United.  If not, it seems as if he'd be overdue for a loan stint down to a League One club.

Look at St. Johnstone!  They have two youngsters who vaulted into the top ten once the numbers were adjusted for age.  Like Robertson, Shaun Struthers' goals per 90 rate of 0.33 doesn't necessarily impress until you realize he was only 17-years old while he was scoring those goals.  Despite losing Steven MacLean this summer to Hearts, I think you kinda have to like what St. Johnstone has up front this season.  The starter will be 29-year old David McMillan (who I profiled last week), but Tommy Wright would also be wise to see what Struthers or Robertson could do in controlled minutes this season.  Given St. Johnstone will likely find themselves somewhere between 7th & 10th in the league table, what would they have to lose with giving youngsters a chance to develop at this level?

 Neil McLaughlin, courtesy of PTFC

Neil McLaughlin, courtesy of PTFC

It feels like I'm burying the lead here, doesn't it.  For the past two years, Neil McLaughlin has ranked as among the very best forward prospects in Scottish football.  Last year he averaged 0.77 goals per 90 as a 17-year old & then this past season was scoring goals for fun in the Developmental League averaging a whopping 1.10 goals per 90 in nearly 1,500 minutes played.  

His reward?  Being released this summer......by a club relegated to the Scottish Championship.  

giphy.gif

Now, part of the decision to let McLaughlin go may stem from his struggles out on loan with Stirling Albion in League Two last season.  In over 1,400 minutes he only averaged 0.24 goals per 90 & his Goals Above Average rate for that level was -0.07. 

Part of his lack of goal scoring may have come down to the fact that Stirling often played him out on the wing.  Regardless, the talent is clearly there & Motherwell must have recognized that because they promptly signed McLaughlin this summer & loaned him back out to Stirling Albion for this upcoming season. 

His Motherwell contract expires at the end of this upcoming season, so they clearly are doing some asset management here.  If he thrives in League Two, Motherwell would likely look to continue investing in McLaughlin's talents.  

 Cedwyn Scott, courtesy of DFC

Cedwyn Scott, courtesy of DFC

Ummmm....will Dundee be sneakily good next season? 

They appear to be clearing space in their front line for one of their youngsters to get a real opportunity at first team minutes this season.  The aforementioned Faissal El Bakhtaoui has gone out on loan, along with the departures AJ Leitch-Smith & Simon Murray which leaves a spot up front in support of Sofien Moussa. 

Dundee may go with the now 20-year old Craig Wighton who played just over 400 minutes of first team football last season.  Wighton has consistently scored at the U20 level (0.61 goals per 90 over the past two seasons combined) but his age has dropped him a bit in my rankings.  He ranked in the top 40% of forwards based on age adjusted goals last season, but he dipped down to the top 60% this year when he ranked 14th.  It's not really his fault, he's been scoring goals in the Developmental League, it's just the fact that younger players rank ahead of him once you adjust the stats based on age.

The problem is that Wighton has struggled to score whenever he's gotten first team minutes.  Below you'll see his year-by-year Goals Above Average at the different levels he has played - from his time at Dundee along with loan spells in League One with Brechin & the Championship with Raith Rovers. (For more on Goals Above Average & why I use it - read this post from last summer).

Screen Shot 2018-07-20 at 8.05.55 PM.png

Whenever Wighton has played first team football he has been a below average goal scorer (outside of his time in League One).  Of course, he has been a teenager the whole time as well - so it's tough to judge him too harshly.  The one thing I'd say, is that he struggled to generate shots last season when playing in the first team.  He only managed three shots in his 424 minutes for a 0.85 shot per 90 average.

Interestingly, it was 17-year old Matthew Henvey who shined brighter in his brief stint in the first team for Dundee scoring a goal & getting three shots off in only 40 minutes.  Couple that with the fact he finished third in age adjusted goals in the Developmental League & Neil McCann may just might want to give Henvey another shot at first team minutes.  Of course, Cedwyn Scott (who now is 20-years old) may have something to say about that as well.  Scott averaged 1.08 goals per 90 which is a sign he has out grown that level of football & needs to be playing first team football somewhere.

All three youngsters see their contracts expire this summer, so Neil McCann is going to have to give them each a fair shot to impress him so the club can make an educated decision about what to do with the talent on their books.  

Screen Shot 2018-07-20 at 3.52.10 PM.png
  • Everyone seems to know how good Jack Aitchison is going to be, it just doesn't seem clear how he's going to get consistent time in Celtic's starting eleven anytime soon.  He has been linked to St. Mirren, Dundee United, & Plymouth Argyle for a loan move & you can assume that Celtic is patiently awaiting the best situation for Aitchison's development.  
  • Last season, Rory Currie ranked third in the rankings as an 18-year old but time is running out on the former Rangers youth player.  He appears to be fully recovered from a season-ending knee injury, but as he enters the 20-year old season - he needs playing time in the first team.  
  • Hearts continue it's recent trend of having a steady flow of talent coming out of their youth system.  While Currie dropped down the rankings a new name emerged.  Eighteen year old Aidan Keena averaged 0.61 goals per 90 & ranked fifth in age adjusted goals.  The Irishman, discovered by Jon Daly,  also spent half the season out on loan with Queen's Park in League Two where he averaged 0.61 goals per 90 (see a trend?).  His Goals Above Average for that level was +0.30 (which is just similar to the likes of Simon Murray in 2014-15 & Nathan Austin 2015-16).  Keena's scoring rate was among the highest League Two has seen in the past five seasons & I think it's safe to say more & more Scottish football fans will become familiar with Keena over the next couple of seasons.
  • It's a very safe bet that Keena will see first team minutes next season.  Craig Levein has built quite the reputation since taking over last season for giving teens a place in his lineup.  Interestingly, he divulged a bit of his approach while discussing Keena last season. 
Aidan was playing for St Pat’s reserves and the initial contact came last year through our coach, Jon Daly. We paid a little bit of money for him, about €10,000, but it seems to have been money well spent. With all younger players, they’re not what I’d consider to be an asset until they get into the first team and prove themselves.
— Craig Levein, March 2018 (Westmeath Examinar)
  • To his credit, Levein seems to get it.  It's hard to showcase an asset without actually...you know...showcasing the asset.  Take Andy Dallas...he's not going to play for Rangers this season in the first team...yet the 18-year old may be one of the better goal scoring prospects in Scotland...but the reality is that Rangers will likely never cash in that asset if he's stuck playing out on loan in the lower leagues of Scottish football.  
 Aidan Keena

Aidan Keena

Some notes...

  • This is fun - using stats to flag young players who might become stars.  I'll publish similar age adjusted stats for midfielders & wingers later this week.  
  • The clubs I reached out to were very responsive (for the most part) & I'd like to thank Partick Thistle's George Francis in particular for digging up some archived team sheets to help push this project forward.  
  • These kind of basic stats (minutes played, goals scored) should be found with little efforts (even at the developmental level) in Scottish football.  Hopefully, this kind of work makes that happen.
  • Most of the stats came from the clubs official websites (& sadly a lot of clubs don't allocate resources to report info from U20 matches).  I'd like to recognize the work of the Rangers Youth blog which has dedicated endless hours to covering the team's youth teams for ten years.  If it weren't for them there would be no stats from Rangers included in these studies.
  • This was written under the influence of Blonde Redhead, the Flamin' Groovies, Rod Stewart & the Moonlandingz