Using Age-Adjusted stats to identify the best midfield prospects in Scotland

Glenn Middleton, courtesy of SNS

Glenn Middleton, courtesy of SNS

written by @TheGersReport

Last summer I introduced applying age-adjusted stats to the league formerly known as the Scottish Developmental League.  Interestingly, the players who were at the top of the charts for young forwards & then for midfielders/wingers both saw first team minutes for their clubs last season. 

Oli Shaw was the top rated forward prospect last summer& made a very easy transition to first team football in his 2017-18 cameo. 

The top rated midfielder/winger was Hearts Euan Henderson.  Last season, Henderson was part of a cadre of teenagers who got very controlled exposure to life in the Scottish Premiership.  He didn't necessarily have the YouTube moments that Shaw did, but he did contribute.  He had  among the highest Secondary Shot Assists per 90 averages on the team last season in very limited minutes.

I mention Henderson here in the intro because he shows up near the very top of this summer's rankings as well & it appears that he has the skill-set to be an impact player moving forward.  Now, there's a big disclaimer that needs to accompany this post (well, actually two).  The first is that...while I was able to collect data on 14 clubs last summer - this year it's only eight.  I mentioned all that with a little more detail in the post earlier this week that ranked the top forward prospects.

The other disclaimer is that goal scoring isn’t exactly the first stat that I would look for when evaluating midfield prospects.  For forwards….it makes sense.  Identifying which young attacking players are finding the back of the net at a rate that suggests that they are prime candidates to be productive first team goal scorers.

For midfielders, I’d be more interested in data that shows Expected Assists, Secondary Shot Assists, Scoring Chance Key Passes, through balls, tackle completion ratio, etc.

But, given that the only data available for this level of football is goals – we have to do some evaluation in isolation.  The isolated results of scoring goals at this level is all we have to work off of statistically. 

If anything, this should be an entry point to identifying players that are showing elite potential playing against their peers in the U20 age group.  

Euan Henderson, courtesy of HMFC

Euan Henderson, courtesy of HMFC

Take Euan Henderson.  He was #1 last season & then ranked 2nd this season.  In the past two seasons combined, he has averaged 0.89 goals per 90 as a 16/17 year old playing mostly as a wide player.  This is a clear cut indicator of a potentially elite player in Scottish football.  He's scoring at a higher rate than the best forwards at this level & at a younger age than most of his a position not relied upon for scoring goals.

Remember, (well - if you read the last post) age adjusted stats compensates for the fact that it's way more impressive for a 16 or 17-year old to be scoring goals in the developmental league than his peers who are 19 or 20 years old.  The developmental gap is much more noticeable when dealing with teenagers than with professionals already fully developed & playing in their 20s.  It just is.  Any parent reading this knows their 12-year old kid will get stomped on by a 14 or 15-year old in any sport they play.  It's the kids with real potential who can keep up with those older kids on the playing field who should catch the attention of scouts looking 6-8 years down the line.

Below you’ll find the top 25 midfielders & wingers from the Scottish Development League based on their Vollman Age Adjusted Goal Projection (go read the last post already).  You’ll also see their non-penalty goals & minutes played (as explained in the previous post – this is only from the data I could find, which was inconsistent from team to team), along with their goals per 90, where they ranked in that stat, their prorated goals that have been adjusted to age-based regression, their age at the beginning of the 2017/18 season (in years & months), their Vollman Age Adjusted Goal Projection & then their rank for that stat.

For an a more detailed description of what these numbers mean & how they are determined, check out last year's introductory post.

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For the complete list of both forwards & midfielder/wingers, go here.

  • Two 16-year olds make up the top three along with Henderson. Ethan Ross is the younger, less known brother of Seb Ross (who also made the list for the second straight year). What flags him as a potentially elite talent at this level is that he already had the 4th highest goals per 90 rate on the list BEFORE you adjusted for age. Like Dundee's John Smith (an actual person) the sample size is small but their output should have scouts flocking to the "reserve league" matches into the north-east of Scotland next season.

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  • Hearts are so stacked with young talent right now. I put a pretty bright spotlight on Aidan Keena in the forward prospects post, while Anthony McDonald & Callumn Morrison are among FOUR of the Hearts midfield/winger prospects in the top SIX from this study. Four of the top six!

  • Callumn Morrison is outgrowing playing "reserve league" football as evidenced by his 0.73 goals per 90 as a 18-year old in the developmental league. He also went out on loan to Stirling Albion in League Two & then Brechin City in the Championship. With Stirling Albion he averaged 0.52 goals per 90 minutes (a rate that suggests he was too good for League Two) & then 0.14 goals per 90 playing for a historically bad Brechin City team (a minus 70 goals differential & zero wins is epically bad). So far this summer, the news with Hearts is that the kids are outperforming the veterans & Morrison's name is one that keeps coming up. He'll be 19 this season which means it's time for a real run with the first team & given Craig Levein's commitment to youth - it won't be a surprise if he's a regular in 2018-19.

  • Glenn Middleton made a lot of headlines with his 12 minute performance against some team from Macedonia last week & I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that he popped up in the top five here. He has among the smallest sample sizes on the list, so I'm less likely to endorse his future success than the players who got closer to 1,000 minutes of action in the developmental league. But, the eyeball test caught our attention last week & the stats do as well, to an extent. I'd be surprised if he gets an extended run of first team minutes with Rangers, so it will be interesting to see if he gets loaned out to a Championship club instead. The talent is he just needs first team minutes.

  • Celtic's Mikey Johnston is one of the more well known names on this list & it's interesting that he dropped from being in the top 3% of midfielders in 2016-17 to the top 35% this past season. Part of that is the fact that age adjusted stats punish you for getting older (getting old sucks) but also it's the fact that his actual goal rate went from 0.81 goals per 90 to 0.43. Both rates are pretty damn good & an indicator of real potential given his position, so it's still very safe to say that Johnston is a top prospect in Scottish football. Brandon Rodgers claims that he is a "special talent" - so it will be very interesting to see if there is a path into the first team for teenagers at Celtic or if they are destined to be loaned out.

Some notes...

  • I tried to keep this brief because I don't normally factor in goals when using stats to evaluate midfielders & it's a little weird for me to do so here. Again, this can flag potentially elite talent in Scotland's youth ranks but simultaneously is likely to overlook some real talent who may be better than any player on this list. So, you know...grain of salt.

  • I am genuinely intrigued by the prospects of Euan Henderson, who as a winger scores for fun at this level. His contract expires this summer & there really should be a parade of scouts attending his matches this season. (Correction: his contract expires in the summer of 2020...still think scouts should be attending as many of Hearts reserve team matches as possible).

  • This was written under the influence of Shame & Blondie.