There's nothing more exciting in European football right now than the race for second place…
While just about everyone sits down to enjoy this summer’s World Cup, Derek McInnes and his backroom staff will be scouring the British Isles for players to fill the numerous holes left in last season’s squad.
Kenny McLean is the most notable departure, following his transfer to Norwich, but a player that may prove even harder to replace is Ryan Christie. The on-loan Celtic talent returns to Glasgow next season and in his stead, McInnes doesn’t really have any readily available players to take his place.
We all know what kind of player Christie is. The Inverness-born talent has been dazzling the Scottish Premiership for the best part of five years now and has gone from a kid bubbling with potential, to a bonafide match-winner for McInnes’ side.
Whether he’s done enough to earn a spot in Brendan Rodgers’ side next season is another debate entirely, but for the time being let’s take a look back at what he achieved at Aberdeen in the 2017/18 season.
Despite finishing second in the league, Aberdeen only amassed 56 goals in 38 games. That tally had them finishing fourth in terms of goals scored and an incredible 21 goals behind the Rangers side they ultimately overcame over the course of the league campaign.
That in itself perhaps suggests that goals aren’t everything, but there’s no denying that McInnes’ side could have been far better when they went forward over the past season. Adam Rooney and Stevie May didn’t look anywhere near their best and, worryingly, when we look at the stats it’s clear that Christie was a pivotal part of the goals they did end up scoring.
Christie ended up scoring eight goals in all competitions for Aberdeen this season, which left him sitting fourth in Aberdeen’s goalscoring list – just three behind top goalscorer McLean. And as we can see from the graph above, his non-penalty goals and his expected goals per 90 were among the best in McInnes’ squad.
What the graph shows is that Christie was Aberdeen’s third most consistent goalscorer last campaign, behind Rooney and Gary Mackay-Steven. And an average xG below the likes of Niall McGinn and May – despite averaging more goals than them – suggests that he was a far more efficient goalscorer too. Essentially, with Christie’s xG and non-penalty goals per 90 both sitting at a similar rate of around 0.2 it suggests that when the Celtic talent was offered chances he tended to take them.
This should concern Aberdeen fans. Not only are they losing their top goalscorer for last season in McLean, but they’ll also be losing their fourth most consistent talisman too. And unless McInnes can quickly turn around the fortunes of Rooney and May then far too much pressure will be on the likes of Mackay-Steven and McGinn to make up for the goals lost by the departing talents.
If there is one caveat to Christie’s goalscoring it would be the fact that almost all of his four Premiership goals came in lesser games. Obviously, he couldn’t play against Celtic but in 786 league minutes against Kilmarnock, Hearts, Rangers and Hibernian the Aberdeen forward didn’t record a single goal or assist.
Sure, one could argue that he was perhaps a victim of Aberdeen’s overall dismal performances against the stronger teams this season – particularly Rangers – but in Christie, they certainly won’t be losing a player that tended to pop up with a goal in said crunch games.
Of course, scoring goals isn’t actually Christie’s primary role as a player. He may be good for a goal or two but the attacking midfielder has always been far better at setting up goals from either out wide or from the no.10 role since he burst on to the scene for Inverness. And throughout the last campaign at Aberdeen that was once again evident for all to see.
With 10 assists to his name for the season, Christie was comfortably Aberdeen’s most notable playmaker. Mackay-Steven was second with six, while May and McLean came third and fourth with five and four respectively. When we take the number of assists Aberdeen’s key forward players made per game and compare it to their key passes (passes that led to a shot) we get a graph like the one above.
To little surprise, Christie, GMS and McGinn lead the way in both metrics but as we can see the Celtic player is quite clearly leading in both aspects of creating chances for his team. And while it’s encouraging to see both of McInnes’ wingers for next season keeping up with the young talent there isn’t really anyone else within the squad that could step up and provide the kind of consistent playmaking that Christie will take with him back to Glasgow this summer.
McInnes may look to play May as a No.10 or perhaps try and encourage younger players like Lewis Ferguson or Frank Ross to make the step up, however, all three options require a considerable amount of optimistic thinking and are a risk. Two factors that Dons fans would rather not rely upon before the new season starts.
Indeed, for many of the Pittodrie faithful, McInnes still hasn’t gotten over the departure of Jonny Hayes last summer and in many ways, Christie’s own move to Glasgow will only compound an area of the pitch that Aberdeen are already struggling in. Chris Forrester, a left winger from Peterborough, may offer some cover on either flank but this Aberdeen side are still far, far too light in attacking areas and desperately need more firepower.
Despite his young age, Christie fought his way into McInnes’ first-team plans over the past 18 months and now leaves Aberdeen with a large hole in their team. Aberdeen will desperately miss one of their key goalscorers and playmakers next season.