Using stats to find the Best Forward Prospects in Scotland

courtesy of Ian MacNicol (Getty)

courtesy of Ian MacNicol (Getty)

written by: @TheGersReport

It’s summer which can mean only one thing….the annual publishing of my lists of the best prospects in Scottish football.

Obviously....

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The concept is this…I go back & collect goal data from the developmental league….errrr reserve league (more on that later) & adjust the totals based on age.  This is the third year that I’ve done this & so far the data has done an excellent job of flagging talent before they ever get first team minutes.

In 2017, the data brought up the likes of a 16-year old Connor McLennan, a group of 17-year olds that included David Turnbull, Lewis Ferguson, Oli Shaw, Mikey Johnston & Callumn Morrison.

The stats also suggested that 18-year old Jake Hastie, 16-year old James Scott, & 19-year old Kevin Nisbett had bright futures.

Last year, the list included a 17-year old Glenn Middleton along with a bunch of other prospects who saw some success out on loan like Rory Currie, Bruce Anderson, Aidan Keena, Cedwyn Scott, & Zak Rudden.  I pushed for many of these players to get more minutes with their own club in this blog post from November.

So you can see that this data driven approach has flagged some players that are becoming household names & a few that may very soon join them.

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This truly is my favorite part of the year!  Combing through reserve league match reports, discovering which Gen Z teenagers may end up being the next future stars of Scottish football. 

What’s unique about his year’s report is that I was able to create the largest database yet & for the first time have data for all 18 teams that played in the main reserve league. 

Of course the transition from developmental football to a reserve league was a bit of mishap for the SPFL…but let’s save that for the second half of this post.

I first got the idea to use age-adjusted stats from reading the work of Rob Vollman, a hockey analytics writer for ESPN, in his book Stat Shot: The Ultimate Guide to Hockey Analytics.

Directly comparing the statistics of a 19-year old player to those of a 17-year old is a fool’s errand, as the older player has a very significant advantage in terms of his development as a player. And while it may be true that the 19-year old is a better player at the time, we’re trying to project a future NHL [or SPFL] career for each of these players, and a 17-year old has more growth left than the 19-year old, so that must be considered.
— ROB VOLLMAN, STAT SHOT: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO HOCKEY ANALYTICS

The two forwards who averaged the highest goals per 90 were Hibernian’s Jamie Gullan & Ross County’s Joel Macbeath…both averaged over a goal per 90 minutes of reserve team football.  These are scintillating numbers.

Now…take into account that Gullan is two years older than Macbeath.  Both probably have very bright futures….but who has the higher ceiling?  I’d argue that a 17-year old scoring at basically the same rate as a 19-year old should have the scouts flocking to the highlands en masse. 

Like Vollman suggested, directly comparing the results of a 19-year old to a 17-year old is misleading & is why he came up with a process to adjust stats based on age. 

Jamie Gullan, courtesy of HFC

Jamie Gullan, courtesy of HFC

Before I present those age adjusted stats, let’s look at the 25 forwards who had the best goals per 90 minutes in the reserve league last season.  The cut-off for minutes was a very liberal 300 minutes & only non-penalty goals are included.

All ages that I refer to are for the beginning of last season (August 2018).

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Jamie Gullan led the way averaging 1.14 goals per 90 while another 19-year old’s goal rate was equally impressive given that he averaged 0.992 goals per 90 in over 1,500 minutes.  This is the third year in a row that Andy Dallas makes the list of top forward prospects (he was 4th on the age-adjusted list back in 2017). 

But remember that Gallan & Dallas both have 2+ years of physical development over some of the others on this list & neither will make the top two once we adjust the numbers for age.

Before we do the big reveal….let me copy & paste how I adjust the results based on a player’s age:

We naturally may begin to adjust these statistics in our head based on a player’s age & fortunately, Vollman laid out a blueprint to actually create, as he put it, “an equal footing” when looking at goal scoring statistics of prospects.

For a detailed look of how I applied Vollman’s process to these statistics - please refer to the 2017 post.  For now – here’s a synopsis of the how I age-adjusted the results so we could get a better sense of who the best goal scoring forward prospects in Scotland are.

Again, this is just lifted from Rob Vollman…buy his book to find analytics ideas of your own to “borrow.”

  1. Selecting the Data (it’s limited to goals. Period. Shots & Expected Goals would be nice but we’re working with what we’ve got).

  2. Normalizing the Data (for some clubs I found data for 20+ matches, for others I was lucky to get 10 games. So the goals are prorated to a full season of 32 matches from the per 90 average).  I chose 32 to stay consistent with the data from previous season.

  3. Accounting for Sample Size (explained further here – but three goals in 360 minutes looks sensational but that’s a really small sample size. So some regression adjustments are made to account for that)

  4. Adjusting for Age (the older the player is…the less impressed I am by your goal scoring rate against a bunch of teenagers. I applied Vollman’s Age Adjusting formula to create the our magic number).

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After all that, we have a new list that’s ranked on what we’ll call the –  Vollman Age Adjusted Goal Projection (& yes, this is the third straight year that I have used the same GIF above…& it works every time).

Below you’ll find the top 25 prospects based on their age-adjusted goals.  The new numbers in the chart include their prorated goals (that takes into account the sample size of their minutes played), their age at the beginning of the season (years & months), & the number we want to hone in on – the Vollman Age Adjusted Goal Projections.

For the complete list: go here.

You can see that 17-year old Rangers forward Dapo Mepude joined Macbeath at the head of the table while some other youngsters like Lewis McCann, Kyle Doherty, James Scott, James Wallace, Logan Chalmers & Kieran Shanks vaulted up the rankings once we took into account their ages. While some of the olds (Rory Currie, Callum Hendry, Dennon Lewis, & Dylan Mackin) stumbled down the list given they are still playing reserve league football in their twenties.

Before we take a look at some of the younger players on this list, let’s talk about the forwards who are beginning to age out of reserve football.

Rory Currie, courtesy of Euan Kennedy

Rory Currie, courtesy of Euan Kennedy

I strongly believe that lower league clubs should be combing through the list above for those 18-20 year olds who have no clear path to first team minutes with their clubs & look to snatch them up on loans.

Take Rory Currie from Hearts.  Two years ago he was the third highest ranked forward based on age adjusted goals as an 18-year old.  In the past three seasons, he has played over 2,000 developmental/reserve league football & has averaged 0.78 goals per 90.  He’s clearly too good for that level of football, but not deemed good enough to compete for first team minutes with Hearts. 

Last season, Currie went out on loan to East Fife in League One.  He averaged 0.68 goals per 90 minutes which translates to a Goals Above Average rate for that level of +0.33 (which is among the very elite rates for League One over the past five seasons).  His goal rate for East Fife was comparable to Lawrence Shankland’s rate when he played for Dunfermline as a teenager.

Aidan Keena (who ranked 5th last year as an 18-year old) also went on loan to a League One side & scored at a similarly elite rate.  His Goals Above Average in League One was +0.27 - proving that, like Currie, he is probably too good for League One.  Hearts actually picked up on that & sent him out on a second loan spell…this time to Dunfermline in the Championship.  He average 0.47 goals per 90, which represents a Goals Above Average rate of +0.14.  While that rate isn’t at an elite level, it shows he’s more than capable of scoring goals in the Championship.  Other forwards who had a similar scoring rate in the Championship include Anthony Stokes & Martin Boyle in 2015-16, along with Stephen Dobbie in 2017-18.

Managers from the Championship & League One should be calling up clubs…looking to bring in the likes of Andy Dallas, Jamie Gullan, Bruce Anderson & the other 18-20 year olds on the list above in for loan spells.  Keeping them in reserve team football, without a chance for first team minutes, will only stifle their development.

So, the top rated forward prospect is Joel MacBeath who turned eighteen a few months ago. Heard of him? Me, neither.

His numbers are based on a pretty small sample size, however two years ago Oli Shaw was the top prospect based on a similarly small sample size. He’s gone on to average 0.57 goals per 90 in the two seasons with Hibs since then.

It’s really difficult to overlook the potential of a 17-year old averaging over a goal per 90 minutes like Macbeath & given that he has played with the national team at the youth level, the upside is clearly there.

The video below is courtesy of Motherwell FC…start at 24 seconds to see two MacBeath goals.

Rangers forward Dapo Mebude turns 18 this summer & was included as part of the first team squad who travelled to Portugal for training last week. As a 17-year old, he averaged 0.72 goals per 90 in nearly 1,000 minutes which was the tenth best among the forwards tracked. When you adjusted for his age, he was second only to Macbeath.

With Rangers leaving the SPFL reserve set-up to play youth teams across Europe, you wonder which path Mepude will take for his development…playing with the developmental team or out on loan in the lower leagues? Given the elite potential that Mebude has, it would be interesting to learn what the club’s three-year plan for him is (he’s signed through 2021).

The video below is again courtesy of Motherwell Football Club, start at 1:37.

The third 17-year old in the top four is Dunfermline’s Lewis McCann. At 6’2”, McCann is a forward whose progress will go hand-in-hand with his physical development over the next couple of years. Given the fact that Dunfermline signed Kevin Nisbet this summer, a 2017 & 2018 alumnus of this list who scored 23 non-penalty goals for Raith Rovers last season, it seems like the club may be best suited loaning McCann out to a League One team this season. Taking into account his size, it would be an opportune experience for his development to play at a level where he will be challenged physically by more seasoned defenders.

There isn’t much info out there on St. Mirren’s 17-year old Kyle Doherty (he doesn’t turn eighteen until October)…but it should be noted that he was the second youngest player among the top 25 forward prospects based on age adjusted goals. Doherty only played 330 minutes, but was able to score two goals in that brief spell.

courtesy of DUFC

courtesy of DUFC

This is the third straight year that Dundee United’s Logan Chalmers has made the list. Over these past three seasons, I have tracked over 3,000 minutes of developmental/reserve league football & Chalmers has averaged a steady 0.43 goals per 90 minutes. Robbie Neilson handed him his first start back in May & the product of the Scottish Football Association’s JD Performance School system is clearly on the manager’s radar for potential involvement with the first team moving forward.

Kilmarnock’s Innes Cameron is one last forward I want to discuss here. The 18-year old spent the season on loan with Stranraer in League One (while also featuring with Killie’s reserve team). In just over 2,000 minutes he averaged 0.44 goals per 90 which is equal to a Goals Above Average rate of +0.09. While playing for the reserves, he averaged 0.71 goals per 90 & ranked 8th after adjusting for age. He may not be ready to truly compete for first team minutes for Killie, it’s clear that there’s a goal scorer here & a loan out to a Championship side would be the logical next step.

Video below courtesy of Stranraer FC.

Some notes…

  • I would love to hang this tweet in the office of every manager in Scottish football:

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  • It’s easier said than done given the reactionary job security most managers have…but there is so much more upside when young players are given the chance to get consistent minutes. Just look at what happened when Steve Robinson said, “Fuck it, David Turnbull & Jack Hastie are going be in my starting lineup.” This also coincided with the club’s state of limbo in the league table, Motherwell wasn’t going to make the top six & wasn’t going to get relegated…so Robinson had nothing to lose. Given the club’s track record of developing young players, it’s time for 19-year old James Scott to get his run in the first team.

  • I will release the top midfield prospects later this week.

  • The reserve league was a stupid move by the SPFL. It catered too much to the needs of managers to keep fringe first-teamer’s fit, rather than promote the long term benefits of developing young players. The former Performance Director for the SFA, Mark Wotte, addressed this in his 2014 blog in relation to the SFA’s 20:20 project.

Debate is always healthy and while one or two clubs had contemplated reverting back to a reserve league, perhaps on the advice of first-team managers, I believe the decision to show ongoing support for the Under-20s format will be vindicated.

While I can understand the temptation to have a reserve league, history shows that often it can become a resting home for older players who are no longer part of the first-team plans, or worse still be used to increase first-team squad numbers and look beyond our own young players by importing more experienced players.
— Mark Wotte, March 2014

Wotte went onto mention the impact that U20 football & strategic loans had on the likes of Andrew Robertson & John McGinn.

Multiple clubs like Rangers, Hibs, & St. Johnstone, have withdrawn from the reserve league set-up for 2019-20. In Hibernian’s statement, they suggested a reserve league set-up was not the best for the development for their young players citing, “concerns over the lack of competition and poor standard of facilities.” Rangers decided to return to their format of arranging for matches with U20 teams from clubs across Europe, while St. Johnstone called for colt teams to compete in the lower leagues of Scotland.

Wotte’s school of thought was that there should be a U20 Developmental League. He wrote, “I cannot stress enough the importance of the Under-20 League format to our Best v Best philosophy during the final step before first-team football.” This goes against the push for colt teams joining League One or Two. At some point, a young footballer needs to compete ‘against men’ but it really should be when that player is ready. That’s why there is a loan system. This post has highlighted the multiple occasions in which a young player went on loan & thrived.

However, taking entire squads of colt teams down to the lower leagues seems counter productive. If Scotland truly wants to cultivate a new generation of technically advanced players, umm…playing against the part-timers at Stenhousemuir or Stirling Albion isn’t the answer. The style of football in the lower leagues is very physical & methodically direct. There really isn’t much room for tactical/technical football. Let’s just say, these colt teams would learn an awful lot of bad habits playing week in, week out in the Scottish lower leagues.

  • A few months ago I looked at what had become of the forwards of that Class of 2017. It highlighted the fact that there was a group of young players experiencing a great deal of success…it just usually wasn’t with the clubs that owner their rights.

  • For the original post that ranked forwards based on age adjusted goals, go here. Last year, I published the follow-up. The Class of 2017 midfielders is here, while last year’s version is here.

  • This was written under the influence of Motörhead, Social Distortion, the Willowz, & Moonlandingz.