Can free scoring Shankland be Scotland’s answer?

The inclusion of Lawrence Shankland in the Scotland squad has raised many eyebrows but with Oli McBurnie dropping out of the squad he is now the only recognised striker available to Steve Clarke. Whilst most acknowledge his recent phenomenal goal scoring record, it is heavily caveated with ‘but it is not at the highest level’. 

Whilst that is true, the same point was made fairly recently about Andy Robertson, Virgil Van Dijk and Moussa Dembele when they were known in Scotland as being exceptional talents but were somewhat overlooked elsewhere. Even Henrik Larsson’s ability still isn’t above derision despite what he managed to achieve away from Glasgow. So what are people missing, is Shankland a big fish in a small pond or is he playing at his level but just in good form?

Goals

After finishing the last two seasons as the divisions top scorer Shankland has already shown that he can score consistently and with only eight games played so far in the SPFL championship he has already scored twelve goals in open play.

A method we have used frequently at ModernFitba is to look at both a player’s Goals Above Average & Goals Above Replacement. Using this we can see how good/bad a player is compared to the statistical average goals scored by strikers in any given league.

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It’s fair to say that Shankland has been an above average striker at every level he has played at, with the exception of the 16/17 season which was made up of two difficult loan spells at St Mirren and Greenock Morton (the former seeing Shankland fail to score in 788 league mins).

So far this season for Championship leaders, Dundee United, Shankland is scoring 1.55 goals per 90 mins. It probably goes without saying that this is an unsustainable goal rate and his inability to score in their most recent game against game against Alloa may give us some clues as to why. 

Before we look at individual performances lets firstly look at how Dundee United play.

Context

For their most recent fixtures The Tangerines have lined up in a variant of 4-2-3-1 which in possession more closely resembles a 3-5-1-1. 

Playing a possession based style they build up with short passes from the back. Whilst both full-backs Watson and Smith are given the freedom to push up when the ball is further forward, in the initial build up it is Smith who stays back alongside Reynolds whilst Brown, the more confident ball playing center back, is given more space. Usually going wide to the touch line to receive the ball. 

As the side move through the middle third one of the deeper two central midfielders drops into the right of Reynolds. This allows the side to double up on either wing and in turn opens up the middle of the park for the other two central midfielders. 

Pawletts inclusion since returning from injury has been in an advanced number 10 role which is key to how the side break down the opposition in the final third. Unsurprisingly most of the attacks come from the wing with the full back and winger also working in combination with the number 10 to draw defenders out wide. 

During the build up Shankland stands right on the oppositions back line, directly between the central defenders. As the play develops into the wide areas he can be seen moving toward the opposite wing to the ball and into the blind spot of the defender. 

The opposite wide players come inside to occupy the opposition full back, this confusion generally results in Shankland being able to be picked out in space either from low balls across the box or from headers. 

Now, 6’1” isn’t short but Shankland isn’t exactly a towering striker either. Despite this, two thirds of his goals this season have come from headers. By way of comparison he only scored four headers in two seasons at Ayr. The way that the side set up has allowed Shankland to further capitalise on his well developed ability to find space.

Alloa

So what changed against Alloa?

Dundee United set up exactly how they normally do but it was clear that Peter Grant had set up his side specifically to frustrate the visiting side.

The plastic pitch and wet conditions at Recreation Park meant the ball moved quicker than United normally like to play it. Alloa played high up the park with their attackers playing narrowly to try to limit the passing lines available to the defenders. This meant that Dundee United’s build up play was more erratic than usual leading to sloppy mistakes. It also meant that for large stretches of the game Shankland was isolated.

When Dundee United did manage to build an attack the four Alloa defenders sat very narrow limiting the space for Shankland to move in. The centerbacks were also a lot more switched on to his movements as they used their body to keep him from moving behind them. When he did, they opened their body up and stayed touch tight and goalside of him. The narrow full backs covered the rest of the available space meaning that Shankland was having to go wider and wider. Eventually as all frustrated forwards do, he found himself in unfamiliar territory dropping deeper to try to make something happen but to no avail.

Build up play

Whilst he currently isn’t being asked to get involved on the ball in the build up at Dundee United there is nothing to suggest that he can’t come deeper and be more involved. For the most part he only drops to bring defenders out, usually taking one or two touches to knock the ball back before running over the shoulder of the advanced defender. 

In the few occasions he does have the ball further out he looks to try to put the ball into the channels for others to run on to and for the most part these are well weighted and into space. 

Overall there is a lot to like in his game but the questions over whether he can do it against better opposition on a regular basis are wholly justified. 

From watching him play it’s clear that his movement is what sets him apart from the rest but this, it has to be said, is aided by the quality of the opposition. Poor positioning, lapses in concentration, lack of pace, poor tracking and woeful goalkeeping are all things that are aiding Shankland’s numbers. Whilst scoring 80% of your shots on target is impressive it is also a red flag.

Conclusion

Whilst his record in the lower leagues in unparalleled, there are younger Scottish strikers who are playing at a higher level albeit not getting the minutes. Oli McBurnie for instance is a year younger than Shankland and did well enough in the English Championship to justify Sheffield United spending £20m on him. Oli Burke is two years younger and has already twice been the subject of eight figure transfer fees.

It does raise the question around where is the best place for young players to develop. Only 9 days separate Lawrence Shankland and Jason Cummings, if Cummings had stayed in the Scottish Championship instead of moving to Nottingham would he be being considered for the Scotland squad?