It's no secret that Aberdeen struggled in front of goal last season. Adam Rooney wasn't as…
There’s a subtle aspect of Derek McInnes’ coaching that tends to bring out the best in attacking players at Pittodrie. Sure, the Aberdeen manager can be accused of setting his side up to play rather blunt, route-one football at times but his entire tactics board revolves around one thing: keeping things tight at the back so the attacking players can play with the freedom they need to thrive.
Once upon a time it was on show for all Dons supporters to see in the dazzling and darting runs of Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes. Then, last season, we saw Ryan Christie light up the northern city with no less than eight goals and 15 assists over the course of the campaign. And this time around it seems as though Gary Mackay-Steven will be the one, notable attacking player that thrives under McInnes’ tutelage.
Although this current season is still in its infancy, there’s no doubt that GMS has been one of Aberdeen’s most impressive stars and in many cases the former Dundee United and Celtic player has helped quell a number of fears around Pittodrie in the post-season break.
With Christie, Kenny McLean and Adam Rooney all departing this summer, Aberdeen looked notably weak in attack. Yet, since the first competitive kick off of the new season, Mackay-Steven has seemingly took it upon himself to almost single-handedly drive his team forward despite some notable holes in the squad.
When we look at some key metrics we can see that GMS’ stats have increased almost across the board between last season and this current campaign. Primarily playing as a classic winger, the 27-year old has been tasked with running the line and getting crosses in to the box as often as possible. And whether that’s against English Premier League opponents in Burnley or a struggling Dundee side, the Aberdeen winger has continued to prove his worth.
Last season GMS averaged 3.75 crosses in to the opposing box every 90 minutes across all competitions, however this season that average has jumped up to 5.45. Similarly, the winger’s passes in to the opposing box have jumped up from 2.53 per 90 minutes to 3.05, his shot assists have almost doubled from 0.98 to 1.96, and his average through balls in the same time frame have gone from 0.25 to 0.44 per 90 minutes.
Perhaps the only relevant metrics that haven’t dramatically improved are GMS’ attempted dribbles per match, which have gone up slightly from 8.28 to 8.5 per 90 minutes, while his attempted shots per 90 minutes have similarly increased marginally from 1.12 to 1.74. Yet what’s important to note here is that over at least six attacking metrics we’re seeing one of Aberdeen’s most important, attacking players look far busier in the opposing half compared to last season.
This is perhaps most notable in the player’s average xG (expected goals) figure per match. Last season GMS bagged nine goals but that was stretched over a period of 42 games. However, this season, the Aberdeen forward already has four goals from five games and as such we’ve seen his xG per match shoot up from 0.15 to 0.44. Essentially, this player is looking far more likely to score goals in any given match this season.
Players tends to suggest that luck can strike at any moment, but in truth an increase in shooting or passing accuracy often comes down to the player in question hitting peak fitness in both their physical and mental preparation for games. And in GMS’ case that certainly seems to be what we’re seeing right now.
After a steady pre-season with Aberdeen, the 27-year-old winger’s accuracy across the board has shot up compared to his stats from last season. And in many cases probably explains why we’ve seen him hit the ground running since the club’s opening-day clash with Burnley.
For example, while the percentage of GMS’ dribbles and crosses that came off have roughly stayed the same, we’ve seen the player’s accuracy for passes in to the opposing box jump up from 37.5% to 43%, while his through ball accuracy has jumped massively from 16% to 50%.
So not only is Mackay-Steven attempting more shots, through balls and crosses, but he’s also managing to either keep his accuracy in doing so either at the same, impressive level we saw last season or add to it entirely. Finally, the hot-and-cold winger looks like he’s settled at a club and now he’s ready to take on everyone and anyone that gets in his way.
GMS has been hugely impressive this season and if he can keep it going for the remainder of the campaign then he’ll undoubtedly be one of the most important attacking players not only at Aberdeen but across the whole Scottish Premiership too.