In October 2016, with St Mirren on a downward spiral and looking like they had…
It’s been a summer of mixed fortunes for Hibs. On the one hand, they’ve secured a permanent deal for star striker Florian Kamberi and John McGinn is still at the club – for now. Conversely, Jamie Maclaren’s return has a hit a stumbling block and they lost midfield maestro Dylan McGeouch.
It’s the departure of McGeouch that might be the most telling when the new season kicks off. To say the midfielder was a key cog in Neil Lennon’s Hibs side would be hugely underplaying how vital his role was. He now looks set to sign for Jack Ross’ Sunderland and in all honesty, it’s a move that involves a significant element of risk for the Scotland international.
First thing’s first, let’s just state for the record that Sunderland are a big club. On paper, it’s a big move for McGeouch as he’s joining a club that have spent a fair amount of time in the Premier League. However, it’s hardly a secret that there have been numerous issues at the Black Cats in recent years. The past two seasons they’ve suffered successive relegations and now find themselves in League One.
We’ve seen plenty of big clubs struggle when they drop from the Premier League to League One in quick succession. Simply put, there’s absolutely no guarantee that McGeouch is joining a club that will romp the division; although they may be expected to. This may be coming across as very pessimistic, but it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a degree of risk in McGeouch choosing to move to Sunderland.
We’ll come back to why Sunderland might be the wrong destination for McGeouch, but for the time being let’s focus on what his qualities are. Snapping up the now former Hibs midfielder looks like a smashing bit of business by Ross. This is someone who was arguably Hibs best player last campaign and without a doubt one of the best midfielders in all of Scotland. He didn’t look out of place when playing against the likes of Scott Brown or Stuart Armstrong of Celtic.
McGeouch’s primary quality is that he’s a superb passer of the ball. He’s a midfield metronome that is integral to the success of any team. It’s certainly not the most glamorous role and you might not be as dynamic or gain the plaudits like a box-to-box midfielder, but it’s a vital role nonetheless. This is exactly what happened at Hibs. McGinn, who was also tremendous, would be more universally recognised as the midfield star. Whereas, the understated McGeouch was just as, if not more, important.
The Scotland international is the metronome that Sunderland seem to desperately need. Looking at the numbers it’s evident that the Black Cats had a distinct lack of quality passers in their side last campaign. None of their central midfielders made the top 30 in any passing metric in the Championship in 2017/18. This strongly suggests they’re calling out for someone who can put their foot on the ball and who dictates play. There’s no doubt McGeouch can help combat that problem and his arrival is a shrewd bit of business from their new manager.
A brief look at his passing stats emphasises that point. McGeouch played more passes than any of his teammates last season (1,591). What’s even more impressive is his average rate of 50.05 passes per 90 minutes. Again this was higher than McGinn (43.44) and Scott Allan (40.80). When it came to overall passes the 25-year-old was in the top ten in the whole division. That’s no mean feat when you consider how much possession Celtic enjoy in the Premiership.
The other two areas we focus on in the graph above perhaps shed more light on the kind of player McGeouch is. He played fewer through passes (44) than both McGinn (64) and Allan (59), however, they make up three of the top four in the league in this metric. When it comes to passes in the final third only McGinn (436) played more than McGeouch (294) for Hibs last season. That said, McGeouch isn’t the kind of player who will play lots of through balls or that killer attacking pass. He is more likely to be the pass before the assist (secondary shot assist) or even the pass before that (establishing pass).
As previously stated, he’s the metronome that will keep the team ticking along and set attacking moves in motion. Furthermore, he will act as a link between defence and attack. Bottom line, he can get his foot on the ball and dictate how a team plays. Something Sunderland seem to have been sorely missing in the past couple of seasons.
It’s not that he’s too good for Sunderland, the real issue is that McGeouch is too good for the third tier of English football. If this was a Sunderland in the Premier League then we wouldn’t be having this discussion. McGeouch would be taking a noticeable step up and playing in one of the most competitive leagues in the world and testing himself against quality players week in, week out. Conversely, he is leaving a midfield which rivalled Celtic’s as the best in the Scottish Premiership last season to join an English League One side.
We’ve seen numerous managers try and fail to turn round the fortunes of the club. However, they now have a manager with no experience in England who is going to be tasked with building and gelling a new squad. We here at TheTwoPointOne appreciate Jack Ross as much as anyone else. What he did at St Mirren was nothing short of miraculous. Collectively we, and many Scottish football fans would’ve liked to see have seen him stay on in Paisley and give the Premiership a good go.
Conversely, Ross is still relatively inexperienced as a coach. Sure, Sunderland may be a club in crisis and in League One, but this is a gigantic step up for him. There’s nothing to say the transition will be seamless and we’ve seen plenty of promising Scottish coaches chewed up and spat out at an alarming rate after deciding to ply their trade in England. This is another factor that adds to the risk for McGeouch. He’s going into the third tier of English football, with a club who have suffered successive relegations under a manager who’s unproven at this level.
Sunderland are a big club and might eventually bounce back, but it’s hard to believe that no English Championship clubs were interested in McGeouch. Similarly, there were murmurs Steven Gerrard wanted to bring him to Ibrox. Whether there’s truth in that is a different matter entirely, that said it would have meant European football and playing in front of huge crowds every week.
Comparing McGeouch to McGinn is actually a pretty useful way of looking at it. McGinn has been linked to bigger clubs down south and most recently a move to Celtic. Of course, the two players in question are completely different in terms of their styles of play. Although, how is it McGinn is being touted for moves to these big clubs but McGeouch looks to set to end up in England’s third tier?
After all, he shone in what was his breakout season at Hibs. His sparkling form saw him rewarded with a call-up to Alex McLeish’s Scotland squad and he hasn’t looked out of place any time he’s donned a dark blue jersey. And that is where one of the main issues lies: will this affect his international opportunities?
The overriding worry here is that McGeouch isn’t testing himself. He’s going from playing against the likes of Brown, Armstrong and McGregor to League One. Whereas the aforementioned Armstrong will be playing in the Premier League and McGinn could potentially end up playing Champions League football at Celtic, McGeouch will be battling in the third tier to try and help turn around the fortunes of the Black Cats.
This is problematic given the options McLeish has in centre-midfield for Scotland. Tom Cairney, Kevin McDonald and Scott McTominay are another three in that position that will be playing in the Premier League next season. You have to think that gives them an edge over McGeouch when it comes to selection. Perhaps playing for Scotland isn’t the be all and end all for the midfielder and the 25-year-old instead simply wants to improve and work under Ross. And that would be fair enough. The issue is that you can’t help but feel he could and should be playing at a higher level. He worked very hard to be noticed at Hibs and get that Scotland call up, so it would be frustrating if, after all that hard work, he became the forgotten man.
On the contrary, perhaps we’re over-egging McGeouch. On paper, Hibs to Sunderland is certainly a step up. Moreover, he’s had a couple of good seasons but it was only really last campaign where he made a significant impact. It could be argued that we’re making too much of a player who had one excellent season for Hibs in the Premiership. The bottom line is, this looks like a very good move for Sunderland and Ross. Whether it’s a good move for the player remains to be seen.