Identifying the Game Changing Playmakers in the Scottish Premiership


written by: @TheGersReport

Before this month, there had been roughly 18,360 minutes of league play this season in the Scottish Premiership. In that time there has been 442 non-penalty goals scored…which translates to 2.17 goals scored per 90 minutes of football. That’s by both teams. There have been 50 goals scored via penalties, which equates to 0.25 goals per 90.

Goals are hard to come by in this league & teams are/should be looking for ways to generate high percentage chances. I label these high percentage shots as Scoring Chances.

Scoring Chances is a term that I borrowed from ice hockey & has been a stat that I’ve anchored a lot of my work in over the past couple of seasons.  There are other names for these kinds of shots, but I have classified Scoring Chances as kicked shots that come from the heart of the penalty area & kicked/headed shots from within the six-yard box.

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Teams’ ability to create these kinds of shots, while also limiting them defensively has a real impact on a team’s chances of winning.

Here are some numbers that support the claim above (only unblocked shots are included):

  • Scoring Chances only account for 22% of all the unblocked shots this season, yet they account for 50% of the non-penalty goals.

  • The Conversion Rate on Scoring Chances is 29%, the rate on non-Scoring Chances is 8%. 

  • When looking at Shooting Percentages (the rate of shots on target that are goals), the Sh% on Scoring Chances is 50%, on non-Scoring Chances it is 19%.

It should also be noted that the Conversion Rate on all unblocked Scoring Chances last year was 30% & the Shooting Percentage was 49%.  For non-Scoring Chances the Conversion Rate was 8%.  All of these rates are basically identical to the results this season.  So…it’s a trend.

The purpose of this post is to highlight which playmakers are the best at setting teammates up for these high percentage shots by looking at the Scoring Chance Key Pass leaders - both in open play & from set pieces. 

First, let’s look at the players who average the most Scoring Chance Key Passes per 90, regardless of how they are created.

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Just a reminder, these are the players who are giving their teammates the best chance to score goals & in turn, the best chance to win matches.  The Conversion Rate on these shots is nearly 4x the rate for other shots & if the player taking the shot gets it on target…it’s a 50/50 chance of beating the keeper.

  • Yes, James Tavernier clearly should have been a finalist for Player of the Year & it has nothing to do with the fact he’s the chosen penalty taker on his team. 

  • People who read my shit….know the numbers always love Elliot Frear.  His contract is up this summer & teams looking for an impact winger really should consider the 28-year old...even if it’s just as an impact sub.

  • Back in November, when Connor McLennan had only played 72 minutes of first team minutes, I included McLennan in a post looking at youngsters who should be getting more playing time.  He’s a player that the numbers have been picking out as a top talent since the 2016-17 season when as a 17-year old he he had the third highest age adjusted goal production for players with more than 1,000 minutes of developmental football.  I don’t think people realize just how impactful he has been this season for Aberdeen & it looks like he may be the next young (only 19) star player who gets linked to bigger & better things than Aberdeen Football Club.

  • Speaking of…David Turnbull has been a sensation this year & is deservedly getting the praise.  So much of the narrative is around his (unsustainable) goal scoring record…but when you peel back the layers of his shot creation data we see that his impact goes beyond goals.  This is something I highlighted last month when looking at Relative Shot Creating Passing stats & also is why I pimped Turnbull to be a regular first teamer last summer based on a very small sample size in which the numbers suggested he had the potential to be one of the more impactful midfielders in the league.

  • Too bad Borna Barišić appears to have have burned some bridges at Ibrox…I’m not too sure Rangers should give up on him so soon.

It feels like it’s time to parse out how these Scoring Chance Key Passes are created.  Later in the post, we are going to see who the real set piece specialists have been this season, but first let’s find out which players averaged the most Scoring Chance Key Passes per 90 from open play.

Spoiler:  a certain 19-year old is near the top of the list….again.

Connor McLennan

Connor McLennan

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It is difficult to overstate how important these players have been to their teams’ attack given the fact they are generating these chances in the run of play.  Of all the Scoring Chances that were set-up via a pass, 86% of them came from open play.  There were over 600 Scoring Chance Key Passes from open play this season & 173 players had at least one.  But only twelve players had more than ten. 

The point I’m trying to make is that there aren’t that many players who were consistently creating high percentage chances for teammates from open play.  Which, again, really highlights the value of the players listed above.

courtesy of SNS

courtesy of SNS

There has been an echo chamber of narrative as it pertains to Eros Grezda this season.  The 24-year old has been branded a failed signing for Steven Gerrard &  there has been literally no dialogue to dispute this perceived fact. 

But this is the second straight post I’ve done looking at impactful playmakers in which the numbers have shown us that just maybe…the eye-test wasn’t catching everything Grezda brought to a match in his scant minutes this season. 

He has only played 654 minutes of league football this season, but in that time averages the second most Secondary Shot Assists in the league (Olivier Ntcham averages the most) & now Grezda shows up again.  His numbers aren’t jaw dropping & nowhere near the levels of the top players on this list & it is a small sample size  — but sometimes you can find some real gems in small sample sizes. 

Just maybe, Rangers should look to give Grezda another look…if anything it may increase his market value…which has to be at a real low right now.  Keep in mind, he’s under contract until 2022.  Why sell now when there are some indicators that his value could increase if given more time?

Tangent over…back to the leaderboard of Scoring Chance Key Passes from Open Play.  Of the players who were listed above, you’ll notice that most of them play out wide as an attacker or as a full back.  The only three central midfielders all play for Celtic, while there are also a few strikers.  I’ve felt for a long time that the teams that can find the creative playmakers from a central midfield position can have a real advantage in attack. 

As you scroll down the table, the next best non-Celtic central midfielders are St. Mirren’s 23-year old Cammy Smith  (23rd), 19-year old David Turnbull (31st), & 24-year old Aaron Tshibola. 

For the record, Ovie Ejaria & Ryan Jack are the highest ranked central midfielders for Rangers.  Ejaria ranked 73rd & Jack ranks 76th.  On a positive note, Steven Davis would rank first in Scoring Chance Key Passes from open play per 90 if he had enough minutes. 

Olly Lee, courtesy of The Edinburgh Reporter

Olly Lee, courtesy of The Edinburgh Reporter

Let’s talk set pieces. Of the 300 shots directly set-up by a corner kick, only 23% of them have created those high percentage shots I have branded Scoring Chances. Of the 157 Key Passes that were from free kicks, 18% set-up Scoring Chances.

So while many analysts frown upon set-piece specialists…some of the players listed below provide a unique trait to clubs that can literally help them win matches.

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There are basically two sets of players here - the first is the pure set-piece specialists who basically rely on set pieces for their playmaking. Olly Lee, James Keatings, & Gaël Bigirimana fall into this group. While Lee averages 0.42 Scoring Chance Key Passes per 90 via set pieces, he only averages 0.04 from open play; Keatings & Bigirimana both have ZERO Scoring Chance Key Passes from open play.

Then you get the players who are setting up high percentage chances from open play & from set pieces - the likes of James Tavernier, Ryan Christie, Elliot Frear & to a lesser extent Chris Burke, David Turnbull & Connor McLennan fall into this group.

While it’s clearly easier to fit these players into the lineup, there probably needs to be a way to get someone like Olly Lee onto the pitch as well. Compare his Scoring Chance Key Pass rate to the others on this leaderboard & you can just how unique of a threat his set-piece delivery is. Additionally, there is plenty of evidence that Lee actually does get involved in other areas of the build-up play that leads to shots. Lee has been among the best in the league when it comes to Secondary Shot Assists & Establishing Passes (the third shot assist). Some of that may still come from set-pieces, which is even more validation that his value added from set pieces justifies his place in the line-up.

Before we wrap up here, I thought I’d share a visual that highlights which players are being relied upon to create shots from set-pieces…along with the rate of those Key Passes via set-pieces set up Scoring Chances.

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The players above the line represent those who do a better than average job of setting up Scoring Chances in relation to how much they take set-pieces. 

Players like Lee, Mallan, Burke, Tavernier, & Turnbull are heavily relied upon to be set-piece takers & they set up Scoring Chances a high percentage of times.  Nial McGinn & to a lesser extent, Liam Craig, Borna Barisic, & Callum McGregor set-up a decent amount of shots from their set-pieces…but they tend to be lower percentage shots.

Meanwhile, you can see that players like Bigirimana, Ryan Christie, & Andy Halliday probably should be given more opportunities to take set-pieces.  The sample sizes for James Keatings, Steve Lawson, Connor McLennan, James Forrest, & Elliot Frear are pretty small…..but it may be time for them to take the ball away from some of their teammates so they can see what they can do on set-pieces.

Some notes…

  • Stats are courtesy of data provided by Ortec Sports.

  • Stats don’t include matches from May.

  • Looking at the data, the most effective players who regularly take corners are Chris Burke (43% of Key Passes from corners are Scoring Chances), David Turnbull (31%), Olly Lee (29%), James Tavernier (29%), & Stevie Mallan (27%).  The least effective are Borna Barišić (15%), Callum McGregor (15%), & Niall McGinn (20%).

  • Meanwhile, there is evidence that the following players should be taking more corners for their teams:  Elliott Frear, Graeme Shinnie, Connor McLennan, & Steve Lawson.

  • Scoring Chance Key Passes come at a much lower rate directly via free kicks.  This is probably due to fact that some of the most dangerous chances come via knock downs from a target in the box.  But…it should be noted that Olly Lee & James Keatings led the way for Scoring Chance Key Passes that came directly from free kicks.

  • This was written under the influence of Walter Martin & Royal Trux.