Using stats to find the Best Midfield Prospects in Scotland
written by: @TheGersReport
Earlier this week I published my annual list of the top forward prospects in Scottish football & it helped showcase the upside of relatively unknown players like Joel Macbeath & Lewis McCann.
Before we take a look at the top midfield prospects, a few reminders:
This year I was able to create a database of goal rates from each club that participated in the main reserve league last season. There are 129 forwards & midfielders included in this project (players had to be 22-years old & younger to be included along with a minimum minutes played was 300 minutes).
Age Adjusted goal rates are used because the objective is to find players with the biggest upside. A 16/17 year old who scores at a high rate is more likely to have a higher upside than a 19/20 year old scoring at the same rate against the same competition. The 19/20 has the benefit of being more physically developed than his peer who may be 3-4 years younger.
Using goals to flag midfield prospects is obviously very narrow in scope & less then ideal. When looking for attacking midfielders, it would be more useful to include other underlying stats like Expected Assists, Secondary Shot Assists, Scoring Chance Key Passes, xG Chain, etc. to identify players who are having a real impact on their team’s attack. But for this project all we have is goals. While it is limiting, using the Age Adjusted goal approach over the past two years has singled out midfield prospects like David Turnbull, Connor McLennan, Lewis Ferguson, Callumn Morrison & Jake Hastie before they ever saw a second of first team football. So…I’m ok with this process, even if it’s far from ideal.
Below you’ll find the top 25 midfielders & wingers from the SPFL’s Reserve League based on their Age Adjusted Goal Projection. You’ll also see their non-penalty goals & minutes played (as explained in the previous post – this is only from the data I could find, which was inconsistent from team to team), along with their goals per 90, where they ranked in that stat, their prorated goals that have been adjusted to age-based regression, their age at the beginning of the 2018/19 season (in years & months), their Age Adjusted Goal Projection & then their rank for that stat.
Before we look at some of the newer names on this list, let’s address the elephant in the room. Why the hell are big names like the aforementioned Turnbull, McLennan, Morrison & Hastie so low on this list?
Keep in mind the idea that Age Adjusted goals give more weight to goals scored by the 16-17 year olds than the older players. Players are basically dinged for being 18-20 years old because they have that advantage of being further along in their development. Readers of this blog already know that the numbers love David Turnbull & that in that same blog post I predicted that Connor McLennan is likely the next youngster to get high profile transfer interest from bigger clubs.
A 17-year old Glenn Middleton was fifth overall in the rankings last summer & flashed some real moments of brilliance in his nearly 900 minutes of first team football in 2018-19. While playing reserve team football, Middleton averaged 1.64 goals per 90 minutes.
That’s right…he averaged nearly two goals for every 90 minutes he played.
So it’s extremely clear that Middleton has nothing else to gain from playing against his peers in a reserve/developmental league level. That’s probably why Rangers have shipped him out on a season long loan to Doncaster Rovers in England’s League One. A similar move to England was successful for Greg Docherty & it looks like Rangers will be sending Ross McCrorie out on a similar deal.
The club’s approach of loaning top prospects out to clubs in England’s lower leagues seems to be a smart one. Beyond playing better competition, it also exposes these players to a much bigger market place than Scotland’s lower leagues. I wonder if a player like Andy Dallas (who has been among the top forward prospects each of the three years I’ve done this project) would be best served with a similar loan to a team in England.
Dundee United’s Scott Banks was second on the list for goals per 90 even before the numbers were adjusted for age. What makes that even more impressive was the fact he turned 17 very early on in the season. Banks joined Clyde on loan in League Two & became one of the keys to their successful promotion to League One, earning the Man of the Match in the victory in Clyde’s decisive play-off victory over Annan Athletic.
Banks has also impressed in Dundee United’s first preseason match of the season & given Robbie Neilson’s track record of giving young players first team minutes…you wonder if Banks, who turns 18 in September, may be in line for regular playing time this season as Dundee United look to finally earn promotion back to the Premiership.
Footage of Scott Banks scoring for Clyde last season.
Stuart McKinstry is among the youngest players on this list & also may be on the verge of completing a transfer down south to Leeds United. Still only 16, the Motherwell midfielder has been linked to a move to the English Championship club for months & it looks like the deal may finally be on the verge of being finalized. McKinstry only featured in 380 minutes for the reserve team but was able to score two goals in this very small sample size, suggesting that despite being 16-years old, he could hold his own at that level. Clearly the scouts for Leeds United feel the same way.
The fact that Karamoko Dembele made his debut for Celtic’s developmental team as a 13-year old brought international attention to the diminutive winger. The fact that he is only 5′ 3″, seems to have implanted an impression that he is still younger than he really is….which still is a very young 16 years old. The winger averaged 0.43 goals per 90 in his 600+ minutes of reserve team football. The fact he is so young, that vaulted him up the rankings once that goal rate was adjusted for age. It’s clear that he can compete at this level, but you wonder what the next steps will be in his development & to what extent, will a lack of a growth spurt work against him in the eyes of future managers?
The video below is courtesy of Celtic FC
Euan Henderson has made this list before, in fact he was the highest rated midfielder in 2017 & ranked second last season. This year he “dropped” to sixth, but still scored with regularity in the reserves (0.64 goals per 90). The 18-year old also spent last season on loan with Montrose & averaged 0.24 goals per 90 (while adding five assists). Those are pretty respectable numbers for a winger, especially one who has no idea what it was like to alive in the 1990s.
Over the past three seasons Henderson has played over 2,300 minutes of reserve/developmental team football & in that time averaged 0.82 goals per 90. The kids is too good for this level (especially considering he is predominantly a wide midfielder). He just turned 19 & you have to wonder what is the plan for Henderson at Hearts this season. It seems like the club needs to decide how & where he will get the most first team minutes because he has maxed out what he can gain from the reserve league.
Josh McPake’s output is among the most impressive on this list, largely because he played among the most minutes (over 1,400) & still maintained a strong scoring record, averaging 0.50 goals per 90 as a 17-year old. The winger is reportedly being heavily scouted by the likes of Liverpool & AS Roma.
Another player, even younger, who played over 1,400 minutes & who scored at a respectable rate was Celtic’s Armstrong Oko-Flex. His goal rate of 0.38 per 90 isn’t jaw dropping good…until you factor in the fact that he was only 16-years old last season. That fact flipped his 23rd highest goal rate for midfielders up to the 8th best once that was adjusted for his young age. Liam Burt, who was released by Rangers this summer, scored at a similar rate (0.34) but did it as a 19-year old. Again, Burt had the advantage of being more physically developed & has more playing experience then a peer three years younger than him. Burt has played his way out of Rangers plans, while Oko-Flex may end up being one of the next great prospects in Scottish football.
Another top prospect who got over 1,400 minutes of reserve team football was Aberdeen’s Ethan Ross, whose 0.37 goals per 90 as a 17-year old ranked 13th overall after adjusting for age. Last season, he was the top rated midfielder as a 16-year old. The central midfielder turns 18 in August & has yet to leave Aberdeen system for playing time (he’s been with the Dons since he was ten). He has aspirations of first team league football by the end of the 2019-20 season, which makes you wonder if a short-term loan in the fall would be the logical next step in his development? Ross is a real intriguing prospect given that he is one of the few central midfielders at the top of the list of prospects & could add a real threat to Aberdeen’s attack when he is ready for first team football.
Just play the kids! The Scottish Premiership does not have a reputation for producing highly sought after talent. Big leagues do not put a high priority on scouting in Scotland because the track record simply isn’t there. I wonder if that could change, if more managers were willing to let young players (17, 18, 19 years old) do their developing on the pitch as first team players. One trend I’m seeing by doing this work over the past three years, is that some players simply outgrow the reserve/developmental team set-up. Players like Euan Henderson, Andy Dallas, Bruce Anderson, Rory Currie & James Scott keep showing up in these rankings but not in their first teams. Look at the market interest that Motherwell generated last season by playing two 19-year old midfielders in the first team. I’m not saying each of the players listed above would generate the same interest from clubs like Turnbull & Hastie did…but they sure would generate more transfer buzz than the likes of Steve May, Kyle Lafferty, Steven MacLean or Connor Sammon.
I really like Rangers approach of bypassing the Scottish lower leagues & loaning out players to English clubs. It’s not the best route for all of their prospects, but it does help create a market for the players’ services if the club decides that they won’t be part of their plans moving forward. A player like Greg Docherty, who is still under contract until 2022, could probably garner a nice little transfer fee after his success with Shrewsbury last season. Given the fact that Rangers paid £600,000 for him, part of his development needs to be finding ways to keep any potential transfer fee close to that number or more. If Glenn Middleton isn’t in the team’s long term plans & if he can go down to England & succeed…someone will swoop in & pay for him to play their team. There are 48 clubs in the English Championship & League One combined…it’s smart for Rangers to keep sending talent down south to basically audition for potential suitors.
There were two players from St. Mirren that I was unable to find out their birthdates, Lewis Jamieson & Jay Henderson. Jamieson averaged 0.46 goals per 90, while Henderson averaged 0.19. That’s before adjusting for age.
This was written under the influence of The Beatin’s, the Warlocks, & GoGoGo Airheart.