Grading centre backs will always be much more of a challenge than grading attackers. They…
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Derek McInnes. All summer the Aberdeen manager has spent every waking moment chasing down his elusive striker. And just as it finally looked as though the Dons would nail down their No.9 for the coming season in Jason Wilson, their defensive rock was whisked away from them. Football is a cruel mistress and Scott McKenna has a hamstring injury that will rule him out for six weeks.
That may not seem like a huge amount of time in the grand scheme of things (I suppose nothing does, when you really think about it…) but over the course of the next month and a half Aberdeen are set to face Hibs and Celtic on the road as well as tricky Scottish Premiership ties against Kilmarnock, Motherwell and St Johnstone. And a dip in form will almost certainly leave them with an uphill struggle for the remainder of the season.
So just how much of a miss will McKenna be for Aberdeen and does McInnes’ plucky squad have enough about them to replace one of Scottish football’s most promising, young players?
Although the sturdy, Aberdeen defender possesses a number of talents, there’s no doubt that McKenna’s most obvious contribution to McInnes’ side is his aerial prowess. He’s tall, as wide as a wardrobe, and above all tends to win his headers when an opposing player swings a cross into the box.
As such, this is where Aberdeen are sure to miss him the most. The graph shown above is a breakdown of the club’s available central defenders and how they fair in the number of aerial duels they attempt every 90 minutes and the percentage of those aerial duels that they win. And as we can see it’s pretty obvious were the problems lie.
Although this graph is limited to game time from this season, it already shows that players like Dominic Ball, Andy Considine and Tommie Hoban not only struggle to get on the end of as many aerial duels as McKenna, but their win ratio isn’t anywhere near the Aberdeen central defender’s.
Some good news for Aberdeen fans is that while McKenna may be sidelined, it does seem as though (relatively) new signing Mikey Devlin has taken to the Pittodrie backline like a duck to water and is actually averaging more aerial duels per 90 minutes and is also winning more of them than his injured counterpart.
So, while Ball & Co. may not be able to step in and offer the physical or aerial presence that McKenna clearly brings, McInnes and Aberdeen fans can take some solace in the fact that their other young, promising central defender is actually doing marginally better than the players that played alongside McKenna last season and the boy wonder himself.
With Devlin, McInnes may be able to maintain a relatively ideal aerial presence in the Aberdeen box but there are other aspects of defending from the middle of the back line that need to be addressed in McKenna’s absence.
It’s hard to distinguish the individual, defensive metrics of Hoban, Considine and Ball as central defenders since all three have largely played elsewhere on the pitch this season, but you can nonetheless check them in the graph above. As you can see, Hoban pips McKenna in interceptions and tackles, while Considine and Ball seem to similarly average more tackles than the towering defender.
What, perhaps, offers the most intrigue to Aberdeen fans is the passing stats of the players in question. While McKenna is undoubtedly a rock in defensive terms, he’s also quite a blunt tool when it comes to passing the ball out from defence and that’s something that McInnes could exploit while his first-choice defender is on the mend.
McKenna’s passing accuracy stands at a lowly 53% when we narrow the passing metrics specifically down to forward passes on the pitch. And as we can see in the graph above, that’s worse than any of McInnes’ available central defenders aside from Hoban.
Again, Devlin seems to be thriving beyond McKenna here with an accuracy of 71%, while Ball and Considine seem to be much better at finding their man when they look up the field. Sure, both of the aforementioned players have largely played as full backs, but there’s little doubt that either player is more comfortable passing the ball than McKenna.
As such, this may allow McInnes to draft one of these players in alongside Devlin in McKenna’s absence and – for the first time in quite a while – try and play the ball out from the Aberdeen defence. It may not completely compensate for the defensive fortitude McKenna brings, but it could provide a platform for the likes of Gary Mackay-Steven, Lewis Ferguson or indeed Wilson to more effectively break down opposition teams.