Callum McGregor isn't a Jack of All Trades, He is a Master of Them


Written by: Matt Rhein/@thebackpassrule

Early in his Celtic career, Callum McGregor was seen by many supporters as a squad player who could fill in the Celtic XI in numerous different positions. To borrow a term from baseball, he was seen as a utility player or someone that no matter where he was put on the pitch would do a competent but not spectacular job.  There were not many that expected him (though there were some original true believers) to progress much further than that in his career, but his versatility could certainly be useful for Celtic.

Fast forward to this season and Callum McGregor is now one of the first names on the Celtic team sheet. Both Brendan Rodgers and Neil Lennon have relied on “Calmac” to anchor the Celtic midfield. So why has the 25 year old Scottish midfielder gone from utility man to star man?

When he first broke through the Bhoys squad, McGregor’s versatility meant he could go wherever he was needed. Perhaps being exposed to so many different positions when he started in first team football allowed him to become a well rounded skilled player. While he may have been good at different aspects of the game from the beginning, Callum McGregor has since become great at them.

Pass sonar and heat map for Callum McGregor created by  Seth Dobson .

Pass sonar and heat map for Callum McGregor created by Seth Dobson.

This past summer, Celtic’s midfield seemed to be in flux with Stuart Armstrong heading south to Southampton, Scott Brown growing another year older, and Celtic missing out on John McGinn reportedly over haggling over a few hundred thousands quid. Yet, the pieces to make the Celtic midfield successful this season were already at the club.

Ryan Christie showed he could be the attacking midfielder Celtic needed to replace Stuart Armstrong (which *ahem* some people had the foresight to predict ) and Callum McGregor became the steady central midfielder to anchor the middle of the pitch.

We have previously mentioned McGregor’s ability to play anywhere and much of that has to do with Calmac’s passing ability. As we see in the pass sonar above, the Scot has attempted a similar number of passes in every direction and covers nearly every blade of grass in between the two penalty boxes on the pitch. Notching 10 assists so far this season in the Premiership, McGregor has been vital in setting up his Celtic teammates with scoring chances. He has an xA of 8.79 and 0.20 xA per 90 minutes in open play, which is 10th in the league so far. He averages 1.74 key passes per 90 in open play, 2nd highest in the premiership. This season, Callum McGregor has clearly been responsible for creating plenty of chances for his teammates.

Pass Score (Completed Passes - xPasses Completed) per 100 passes attempted & xA per 90 (Open Play) for SPFL Premiership Midfielders. Interactive version can be found  here .

Pass Score (Completed Passes - xPasses Completed) per 100 passes attempted & xA per 90 (Open Play) for SPFL Premiership Midfielders. Interactive version can be found here.

Not only has Callum McGregor created scoring chances consistently throughout the season, he has been an important cog in the Celtic build up. We recently introduced the idea of xPassing here on Modern Fitba. The quick explanation of the stat is it measures how many passes we would expect a player to complete based on where they were when passing and the location where they passed to.

This season, McGregor has completed 91.38% of his attempted passes. Based on xPassing we would have expected him to complete 85.69% of these passes. This is good for an additional 264 completed passes than we would expect. For every 100 passes Callum McGregor attempts, he completes 5.59 more than we would expect. This is the second highest total of anyone in the Premiership. McGregor’s elite passing ability has allowed him to keep possession for Celtic, as well as create chances for his teammates.

Most watching Callum McGregor play in Scotland would be able to determine his passing ability by watching him. What makes him even more dangerous is his ability to score.

Though McGregor has only scored 3 goals in league action this season, his underlying numbers suggest he is a goal threat that opponents should worry about. McGregor is averaging 1.54 attempts per 90 minutes and 0.21 xG per 90 suggesting that perhaps he has been unlucky not to score more this season. The Celtic midfielder has shown he can score goals, last season he netted 7 in league play and averaging 0.19 xG per 90.

Most would remember Kieran Tierney having to be subbed out of the 2016 Scottish Cup Final after taking an elbow to the jaw and then dramatically returning for the trophy presentation. Perhaps most would not remember that it was Callum McGregor that took his place at left back for the Celtic side that won dramatically at Hampden, where he and the rest of the Celtic back line did not allow another goal since McGregor entered the match.

McGregor not only thrives on the offensive end of the pitch, but also can do what needs to be done in the midfield when Celtic’s opponents have the ball. He is 12th in the Premiership in defensive duel win % at 63.33%. He averages 1.60 possession regains in the opposition half which is 17th in the league. McGregor does not shirk away from his defensive responsibilities in midfield and can win the ball back for Celtic when required.

As Celtic celebrate their eighth consecutive league title, the contributions to the club’s success has been vital. Named the Celtic Player of the Year and nominated for the PFA Scotland Player fo the Year, his contributions have been apparent to both fans and his colleagues. His ability to excel in different areas of the game have taken Callum McGregor from utility man to player of the year and Celtic have utilized his versatility to win two trophies this season and going for a third in a few weeks.