Could Celtic and Rangers be Doing Better to Develop Younger Players?

A few weeks ago, there was a tweet going around comparing what Huddesfield and the SPFL Premiership champion will receive in prize money this season. For the honor of heading back to the EFL Championship, Huddersfield will have to console themselves with a parachute payment many times larger than what Celtic will receive for the eighth Premiership title in a row that one more point will give them. Like many, my first initial reaction to this was disgust. It certainly seems like Scottish clubs are playing on a tilted pitch with this gigantic gap in financial resources compared to English clubs. However, no fans of the game in Scotland should be surprised by this huge delta in money between the two countries. This has been the reality for years and will continue to be the reality, bar any radical unforeseen change occurring. Scottish football cannot rely on wealth to compete with other clubs in Europe, so what should they do?

If Scottish clubs want to try to even this playing field even in the slightest way, they need to metaphorically zig when English clubs zag. Finding inefficiencies, experimenting with radical ideas, and looking to innovate in any way when it comes to football are ways that football clubs in Scotland can fight back. You may be expecting this is where a stump speech highlighting the benefits of football clubs in Scotland using analytics, but the bad news is that things such as expected goals, progressive ball carries per 90, and other stats we have talked about here are common place in the bigger leagues in Europe. Of course, this web site advocates Scottish clubs employing these statistical methods of analysis but it is probably too late to beat EPL clubs to the xG punch.

It is certainly not a new idea, but trying to give young homegrown talent an opportunity to develop and play first team minutes is one such opportunity for Scottish clubs to benefit. Where a "big" club might need to play "experienced" players in their high stakes matches, clubs in Scotland have more of an opportunity to let younger players get first team minutes. This can aide in their development and gives them opportunities to play in high pressure matches against first team players. The minutes available to young players could even be a selling point to a potential transfer target, whether they be a permanent signing or loan. There are now a few examples, such as Virgil Van Dijk, Andy Robertson, and Moussa Dembele, of players that thrived in Scotland and now are performing on the biggest stages of Europe.

The percentage of total minutes played by age for the SPFL Premiership in 2018-19.

The percentage of total minutes played by age for the SPFL Premiership in 2018-19.

So are young players getting a chance to play first team in the Premiership? Yes, actually! 30.54% of all available minutes in the Premiership have been given to players 22 or younger as of writing this. That is a pretty good chunk for young players getting experience that can help them develop. It is also important to make sure that these young players are getting proper coaching to help them develop in addition to a chance to play first team competition, but that is the subject of another blog for another time.

The percentage of total minutes played by age for Celtic in league play 2018-19.

The percentage of total minutes played by age for Celtic in league play 2018-19.

In Scotland, Celtic and Rangers easily have the largest budget of clubs in the Premiership. Despite this, these budgets sadly are minuscule in size compared to an EPL relegation candidate. Presuming they will be two of the teams that represent Scotland in European competition the most in the immediate future, the onus is on the two Glasgow giants to try and develop younger players that can eventually get near the level of their bigger European opponents. So when we drill down to look at if Celtic and Rangers are giving younger players a chance, are they making the grade?

The percentage of total minutes played by age for Rangers in league play 2018-19.

The percentage of total minutes played by age for Rangers in league play 2018-19.

For the most part, again the answer is yes! As we see in the graphs above, the age buckets that are receiving the largest percentage of possible minutes are age 21 for Celtic and 22 for Rangers respectively. While at the thousand foot level young players are getting an opportunity at Celtic and Rangers, there were some noticeable opportunities where a younger player at both Parkhead and Ibrox had similar or better numbers than an older player, but received less playing time. Let us explore those a little bit.

Pass Sonar and heatmap for Timothy Weah. Created by Seth Dobson.

Pass Sonar and heatmap for Timothy Weah. Created by Seth Dobson.

Pass Sonar and heatmap for Jonny Hayes. Created by Seth Dobson.

Pass Sonar and heatmap for Jonny Hayes. Created by Seth Dobson.

We can start at Celtic Park, where the first example is one close to my heart. As an American, I have a vested interest in the development of Timothy Weah. While only on loan to Celtic, Weah has certainly caught the attention of many in his short time in Scotland thus far. However, since arriving in the January window the American has only featured in 354 minutes. More recently, Jonny Hayes has been preferred in league matches against Aberdeen and Livingston where Celtic was held scoreless.

Graph comparing Timothy Weah and Jonny Hayes compared to the rest of the league in various stats related to attacking midfielders.

Graph comparing Timothy Weah and Jonny Hayes compared to the rest of the league in various stats related to attacking midfielders.

Using a graph that Jason of this here website brought to my attention that shows where a player ranks in the league for a stat, we see how Timothy Weah and Jonny Hayes compare. In nearly every category, Weah ranks above Hayes. In particular, we should look at the lines for xG per 90, xG per shot, shots, and touches in the box. With Celtic struggling to score against Aberdeen, Livi, and last weekend against Kilmarnock, leaving a player that averages 0.64 xG per 90, 3.5 shots per 90, and 0.18 xG per shot on the bench was certainly a puzzling decision by Neil Lennon. Compare this to 31 year old Jonny Hayes’ 0.13 xG per 90, 0.8 shots per 90 and 0.15 xG per attempt in these same metrics, it becomes even more confusing how the Irishman started over the young American. Again it is important to note that Weah is on loan at Celtic, so we cannot quite make the “it is better for the development of Scottish football” argument we did in the beginning of the article. However in the practical goal to, you know, score more goals, it seems clear that Weah should be starting over Hayes.

While being a fan favorite in his first tenure with Celtic, Emilo Izzaguire re-signing with Celtic this summer was a bit of a puzzling move. Around the same time, 21 year old wing back Calvin Miller was sent on loan to Dundee and in January he was then sent on loan to Ayr United. Sadly for Celtic fans, Kieran Tierney has missed a sizable chunk of the season. This means that Celtic have had to rely on Izzaguire more than they likely hoped this season.

That is 32 year old Emilo Izzaguire who was previously at a Saudi Arabian club before returning to Celtic. Meanwhile, a young player with potential in Miller is “learning” under Neil McCann and playing in the Championship. No slight to Ayr, but there was an opportunity to get Miller against the top competition that Scotland has to offer. Instead, those minutes went to Izzaguire who certainly is not in Celtic’s future plans. And when we compare the output that Izzaguire has had this season to what Miller did in his half a season with Dundee.

Defensive air duels win % and defensive ground duel win % for SPFL Premiership fullbacks who have played at least 900 minutes.

Defensive air duels win % and defensive ground duel win % for SPFL Premiership fullbacks who have played at least 900 minutes.

When it comes to defending, Miller in his time at Dundee had won a higher percentage of both the defensive ground and air duels than Izzaguire did this season. In fact, Izzaguire placed below the average Premiership full back this season in both categories. Being a full back at Celtic requires more than being able to win duels, but in a season where there have been numerous questions about the Celtic defense in which Emilio Izzaguire received nearly a thousand minutes of league playing time that could have went to a 21 year old Celtic youth academy graduate. Furthermore, that youth academy prospect had better defensive statistics that could have benefitted Celtic.

Not only did Miller have better defensive metrics than Izzaguire, he also was comparable attacking metrics as well. Miller had 0.13 xA per 90 minutes with Dundee, compared to Izzaguire’s 0.15 per 90 for Celtic. Miller averaged more progressive ball carries (dribbling with the ball at least five meters) per 90 minutes, 6.7 to 4.0. He made a similar number of key passes per 90 minutes at 1.1 to Izzaguire’s 1.4. If 21 year old Calvin Miller could perform better than 32 year old Emilo Izzaguire in defense and similarly in attack, why would Celtic loan one out and sign the other from the footballing wilderness?

Celtic were not the only club in Glasgow that loaned a young player out to only then sign an older player that plays in the same position that was previously at the club. Rangers loaned 21 year old Ryan Hardie to Livingston last January. In August, 31 year old Kyle Lafferty returned to Ibrox after Rangers bought him from Hearts. As Jason discussed in his latest article, Lafferty has had a decent goal scoring rate in his return to Rangers. The only problem is that Rangers loanee Ryan Hardie has scored more overall and per 90 minutes in league play (6 goals, 0.51 goals per 90 for Hardie; 5 and 0.48 per 90 for Lafferty). Of course we know goal scoring is not the final word on a striker’s performance, so do the young striker Hardie’s underlying metrics compare with the veteran Lafferty’s?

Graph comparing Ryan Hardie and Kyle Lafferty compared to the rest of the league in various stats related to strikers.

Graph comparing Ryan Hardie and Kyle Lafferty compared to the rest of the league in various stats related to strikers.

This season at Livingston, Ryan Hardie’s underlying metrics have indeed been comparable to Lafferty’s at Rangers. Lafferty is averaging 0.59 xG per 90 while Hardie averages 0.49. Lafferty also averages more shots per 90 at 3.8, compared to Hardie’s 2.89 but that may be due to Rangers getting more chances than Livi. Hardie actually averages a slightly higher xG per shot than Lafferty at 0.17 to 0.15. He also sets up his teammates more, averaging 0.07 xA to Lafferty’s 0.06.

Shot map for Ryan Hardie through 33 matches.

Shot map for Ryan Hardie through 33 matches.

Lafferty has put out decent stats in his return to Ibrox. Yet, considering that Rangers needed to pay a fee to secure Lafferty’s services this season, his age, lack of resale value, and likely regression as he gets older, as well as the fact that Hardie has put forth very comparable numbers in his time at Livi this season and it seems like the money Rangers spent to bring Lafferty back from Edinburgh could have been better spent elsewhere. Hardie got plenty of first team experience in his time the past 18 months at the Tony Macaroni Stadium, but he could have gotten nearly the same amount of first team action at Rangers in Lafferty’s place. Instead, Rangers spent money giving an aging striker a two year deal for output that someone on their books already could have produced.

While statistical analysis for first team football has developed over the past five years, statistical key performance indicators for youth players still remains a bit of a mystery, or at least publicly. Clubs may have proprietary models that are better at predicting success for younger players, but that type of thing has yet to be perfected in the public football analytics space. While we cannot yet predict which young players will be the future superstars with stats, we can try and get promising prospects first team minutes.

As stated in the beginning of this article, in Scotland overall and specifically with Celtic and Rangers, this season has been good for getting younger players into the first XI in the SPFL Premiership. Therefore, the examples I highlighted above may seem like nitpicking. However, each of these examples directly effected the bottom line financially for Celtic and Rangers. If both clubs can trust younger players putting out promising metrics, they can help develop more talented players in the Premiership and save some money at the same time.