Mikey Johnston is Ready to Take the Next Step in his Celtic Career

By Matt Rhein: @thebackpassrule

In addition to the data in his insightful articles on trying to find the best young prospects in Scotland, Jason always includes this tweet from Micah Blake McCurdy, who writes about analytics in hockey.

Each time this tweet pops up, it seems more and more applicable to Scottish football to me. Jason highlighted some of the players whose numbers showcased the success they had last season, suggesting that if you give these promising young players a chance they can reward you.

Last season, Mikey Johnston got his first taste of extended first team football for Celtic and most would agree the 20 year old Celtic academy product was impressive in his 718 minutes in league play last season. Johnston had James Forrest and Scott Sinclair, as well as high profile loanees for Timothy Weah and Oliver Burke seemingly ahead of him on the winger depth chart last season. While James Forrest put forth a player of the year worthy season, we saw Sinclair continue to regress as he grows older and Weah and Burke arguably not live up to the hype that surrounded them, while Johnston put forth impressive performances that have some believing he can have a long and prosperous career at Celtic. While hindsight is 20/20, it certainly seems that Celtic would have been better off giving their own academy product in Johnston more minutes ahead of players that were only six month loans last season.

With those loan players now gone from the club, there should be little to prevent Celtic from giving Mikey Johnston more minutes this year. While Forrest and Sinclair are still at Celtic, the number of matches the Bhoys will play both in Scotland and Europe means there are ample opportunities to allow Johnston to continue his development. Furthermore, we know Sinclair has steadily regressed each year with Celtic. James Forrest is also reaching the age where wingers start to see their performances decline. The opportunity is there to get a younger player more experience, but does Johnston deserve those minutes?

Graph showing where Mikey Johnston and Scott Sinclair compared to their peers in the SPFL Premiership in key performance indicators for their position.

Graph showing where Mikey Johnston and Scott Sinclair compared to their peers in the SPFL Premiership in key performance indicators for their position.

Looking at Mikey Johnston’s stats and form from last season, the answer seems to be yes. We see above that Johnston has very comparable metrics to Scott Sinclair in numerous statistics important for attacking midfielders. Johnston was just as much of a goal threat as Sinclair last year, averaging 0.47 xG per 90 minutes. This was the highest among all wingers who appeared in at least 700 minutes of league play last season and second highest among all players 21 years old or younger in the league (only behind teammate Odsonne Edouard). Johnston also averaged 2.51 shots per 90 minutes of play. When Mikey Johnston was on the pitch for Celtic last season, he was a goal threat.

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These impressive underlying numbers led to Johnston scoring five league goals, or 0.63 goals per 90 minutes. This is the second highest goals per 90 of any Celtic player last season, again only behind Edouard. Johnston was a goal threat for the Bhoys last season due to his ability to get shots in dangerous positions. Half of his shots last season came from the danger zone, or the area of box in between the goal posts where it is more likely that a shot will be scored. He averaged 0.19 xG per shot taken, which means there was a 1 in 5 chance his shots would be scored last season. This was the 6th highest average in all of the SPFL Premiership last year.

In the video above from Celtic’s victory over Dundee last December, we see two examples of how Johnston was able to be such a threat on goal. He was able to time his run’s perfectly into dangerous areas, receive the ball and get off a shot in a dangerous position. Johnston was a constant option for teammates in the box when he was on the pitch, averaging 7.14 touches in the box per 90 minutes played. This was the highest of any winger in the Premiership last season. Johnston was constantly active and dangerous in the box last season and it made him dangerous on the Celtic attack.

As Mikey Johnston continues to gain first team experience and get more playing time, we would hope to see his playmaking abilities improve and the corresponding metrics for those abilities rise. Last season, Johnston averaged an xA per 90 of 0.11, a stat which helps quantify his ability to create chances for his teammates, which isn’t anything to write home about. If these numbers don’t see an uptick in the future, opposing defenses could lock in on him and start to send extra defenders his way to try and prevent Johnston from getting as many touches in the box. He will need to do better finding teammates in and setting them up for chances in these situations as he gets more experience to become a more well-rounded player.

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However, we do see these playmaking metrics are already at a similar level to Sinclair last season. As Mr. McCurdy reminds us in the tweet on top of the page, at his age Sinclair likely will see similar if not worse numbers as his career continues. Mikey Johnston is of the age where he still can improve his playmaking abilities. Giving him more important first team minutes can help in this growth in Johnston’s playmaking skills and he can become an even better player overall.

In Celtic’s first competitive match this season, Mikey Johnston already put a claim to more playing time this season, scoring the equalizing goal for the Hoops against FK Sarajevo in Celtic’s 3-1 win in Champions League Qualifying. The goal was a lightning bolt from distance rather than a result of his ability to get into a dangerous position in the box, but his performance in Bosnia was already a good indicator the young Scot is ready to contribute to Celtic this season. Unfortunately, it seems he will be missing the second leg against Sarajevo through injury, but once he is healthy Mikey Johnston can transform from a young promising player academy player to an important contributor for the Celtic first team.