Unleashing Kenny McLean: Aberdeen Push Up Midfielder to Move Up the Table

McClean
No, YOU’RE great Kenny!

On December 17th, 2016 Aberdeen had just lost 2-1 to Ross County at Victoria Park. The Dons had a lackluster performance that saw them have a lower expected goals total than the Staggies. The lost saw them go to seven points behind Rangers for second place, albeit with a game in hand. Since that loss in the Highlands, Aberdeen has gone on a tremendous run, winning 10 matches and losing only 2. Even the matches they lost were against run-away champions elect Celtic and to Hamilton in a match they had a 2.17 to 0.34 xG advantage.

Aberdeen Team Stats

 

From the beginning of the season to December 17th, Aberdeen averaged an xG of 1.42 for, but a 2.25 xG per game after 12/17. They averaged 10.65 shots a game before 12/17 and 15.25 shots a game after 12/17.So what has caused Aberdeen’s great run to move into second place over Rangers and the rest of the league with some breathing room? Clearly something has changed at Aberdeen and after looking at individual numbers, it seems that Kenny McClean has been the catalyst to this run for the Dons. 

McLean Stats

When looking at McLean’s numbers between the two halves of Aberdeen’s season, it is clear that McLean’s influence was much greater after December when Aberdeen found their most recent form. While McLean scored 2 goals before December 17th compared to none since, in every other attacking stat we see Kenny McLean’s performance metrics improve.

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McLean’s Shots Before and After 12/17

The finishing fairy has been a bit hot and cold with McLean, as he scored 2 non-penalty goals before December 17th but had an expected goal total of 1 and xG per 90 minutes of 0.06. After the 17th, the midfielder has 4.4 xG and a 0.35 xG per 90. While he has not scored since November, if McLean can continue to put these xG numbers he will likely be among the goals again soon.

McLean Passes
McLean’s Key Passes Before and After 12/17

While Kenny McLean has not contributed goals to Aberdeen’s recent run, he certainly has been a playmaker for the Dons lately. McLean has contributed 2 assists to the Reds since December 17th, where he had 0 before that. When looking at the Expected Assists stat I discussed last month, before the 17 McLean had a rather meager 0.71 xA and 0.04 xA per 90 compared to a 2.02 xA and 0.16 xA per 90 after December 17th. With Key Passes, or passes that directly lead to a shot, McLean increased the number of key passes he made from 6 before 12/17 to 15 after. This is a jump from 0.35 to 1.20 Key Passes per 90 minutes. He also has had 6 Key Passes leading to Danger Zone shots after 12/17, compared to 4 from 12/17 and before. McLean has made his influence felt for Aberdeen and it seems that the Dons have benefitted from his growing influence on the pitch.

McLean Assisted Shots
McLean’s Key Passes Leading to Danger Zone Shots Before and After 12/17

So what has changed since that December 17th game against Ross County with McLean? It seems that Derek McInnes has been deploying McLean in a more advanced role. There was no doubt James Maddison was very talented and important to Aberdeen the first half of the season, but once he went back to Norwich City the opportunity opened up for McLean to take up the advanced position Maddison was deployed in. I asked Aberdeen supporter and early friend of the blog Scott Burness if he thought McLean was playing higher up and he said:

“McLean has indeed been playing a more advanced role. On Saturday (March 18th) v Hearts he was playing more advanced than a typical 10. Think that was simply a tactical move. Recently there’s been less need to chase games second half (other than Hamilton McLean 2and Motherwell) and as such Shinnie has been in midfield rather than left back. Normally when [Aberdeen] chase games, Shinnie drops to LB McLean fills his role in CM. That said, when chasing games [Aberdeen have] gone to 3 at the back allowing McLean to stay further forward. Maddison not coming back has been a blessing in disguise as that has allowed McLean to flourish.”

There has been controversy surrounding McLean not getting a call up to the latest Scotland squad, furthered only after Scotland’s uninspiring performance in their friendly versus Canada. The Dons midfielder can feel slightly aggrieved not receiving a Scotland cap after this improved form and helping to lead Aberdeen to this great run. However, not getting Scotland caps will not be a problem if McLean can continue this form. If Gordon Strachan is to remain as manager of Scotland, most are calling for him to start to look towards the future with the Scotland squads he will be calling up and McLean will be a part of the those squads in the future with this form.

This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.

Finding the Best Pass in the SPFL (Don’t Look at Rugby Park)

The image here is not one of those ink-blot pictures that psychiatrists show you. Rather, it is SPFL Passesshowing where the passer was located for every shot in the SPFL Premiership through February 25th. 2976 passes and 2976 shots (and each one of them mattered damn it, despite what some Times writer in England may think). I previously discussed what we could learn about individual players in the SPFL by their passing thanks to the data that Strata provided me. With that data we got Expected Assists and confirmed Scott Sinclair’s great season while learning how important Don Cowie and James Tavernier are to their clubs attack. Now we will see what we can glean from this same data on a macro level league wide looking at Key Passes, or every pass that has lead to a shot in the SPFL.

RangersReportPassingZones
Image by The Rangers Report @TheGersReport

Before heading into the secret world of the private sector, The Rangers Report did some great work looking where passes came from and why that mattered. The Report would track the starting location of each pass that lead to a shot for Rangers, also known as a Key Pass and then placed them into numerical zones on the pitch (based on the methods of Claude Moeller Henriksen). However, since the fine folks at Stratabet have provided me all of locations of passers for these 2,900+ shots, I don’t have to spend hours tediously tracking these locations. With this data and using the same zones Rangers Report came up with, I thought it would be interesting to see just what passing locations lead to the most success in the SPFL Premiership this year.

SPFL Pass_Score Data

Looking at the data, it becomes clear that the closer to the goal line and more central you are when you make your pass the higher the chance is that your teammate will score on their subsequent shot. We see passes from zone 22, or the 6 yard box, lead to goal 57% of the time. Zones 17 and 19 lead to goals over 23% of the time, with a left zone 17 pass RangersReportPassingZonesleading to a goal nearly 30% of the time. If you make a pass anywhere outside the box, your team is nearly 10% less likely to score than inside the box this season.

Of course, if exploring expected goals and goal conversion rates this year has taught us anything, it is that sometimes we can make a great pass and the striker will inexplicably miss. There has been numerous work discussing that shots in the “danger zone”, or shots in the 18 yard box between the goal posts, have the highest probability for going in. Those are the shots you want your team taking. Therefore, you would also want your team making the passes that would most lead to those shots.

To do this we can look of the percentage of key passes that result of danger zone shots over all of the key passes. Again we see passes being made in zones 22, 17 and 19 leading to the most danger zone shots. We also see passes from zone 15, outside the box but still within 18 yards of the goal line, leading to a high number of

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Krys Boyd loves long balls and hates laptops

danger zone shots. Regardless of finishing, making a pass within 18 yards of the goal is the best way to get a good shot for your team in the SPFL.

So most would agree that these numbers would suggest the death of “route one” football. If you want to be among the goals, your final key pass will need to be in and around the box more often than not. Since we have all of this passing data, we can see which teams are taking the most key passes from farther out(~30 yards or farther). The clubs who take the most passes outside the box would probably be on the bottom of the table right? Well, as we see Celtic with the most key passes from 18 yards out, but that is due to the fact that Celtic has the most shots by a wide margin in the league and thus has the most key passes in all of the various passing zones, not just from long distance.

SPFL Long Ball Table

So instead of total number of passes, the percentage of long balls compared to total key passes each team plays might be more telling of a playing style for a club. And indeed we see bottom half clubs Kilmarnock and Inverness CT playing the highest percentage of key passes as long balls. Bottom six clubs Dundee and Hamilton round out the top 4 of highest percentage of long balls for their key passes. It certainly seems those relying on the long ball is not a way to be successful in the SPFL.

Killie Key Passes
Kilmarnock Pass Map: This is a bad SPFL team

This data has lots of possibilities. You can narrow it down to the team level to see where teams are most passing to lead to goals and shots. You can compare multiple clubs styles. You can do all of this with individual players. A club with this data and the right interpretation can get a leg up on a club who does not in the SPFL.

Celtic Key Passes
Celtic Pass Map: This is a good SPFL team

This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.