Scotland fans must find themselves experiencing a sense of deja vu. No, not because Alex…
Scott Brown’s rather sudden announcement on Monday to confirm that he would be retiring from international football (again) forced Scottish football in to an unexpected chorus of debates over what then happens next.
Much has been made of the Celtic captain’s stewardship of the national team during his 55 caps, with our very own Niall Murray suggesting that Kieran Tierney ought to take the armband and lead under new manager Alex McLeish.
Yet when the discussion of who could or should physically replace Brown in this Scotland side comes up everyone seems to be pretty unanymous in assuming that Hibernian midfielder, John McGinn, is the ready-made replacement and should be fast-tracked in to the team post-haste.
But what if McGinn isn’t anything like Brown and doesn’t actually have any intentions – or ability – to play the game quite like his perceived predecessor?
Before we decide whether or not McGinn is the fitting replacement for Brown’s position in the Scotland team, we must first decipher what exactly that role entails and what responsibilities the Hibs midfielder would have to take on if he were to step in.
Although the Celtic skipper was once an attacking midfielder with the ability to dribble and score goals with somewhat ease, Brown’s game has for some time revolved around being the pivot to Celtic’s (and Scotland’s) midfield. He tends to make more passes than anyone on the pitch, they almost always find their designated target and the vast majority of them are short passes towards either wing. And when he doesn’t have the ball, Brown often does a superb job of breaking up opposing counter attacks and intercepting the ball.
Indeed, comparisons between the two players in question are often related to McGinn as he is now and Brown during the earlier parts of his career. Which, as any Hibs, Celtic or Scotland fan would tell you, is very different from the 32-year-old midfielder in his current form. And when we look at the stats that tends to suggest as much as well.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between McGinn and Brown is the simple fact that McGinn tends to get much further forward for Hibs than Brown does for Celtic and in a number of ways it’s quite easy to suggest that they play rather contrasting roles for their respective clubs.
For example, when we look at the types of attacking passes that both players play on average in each Scottish Premiership game we can see that McGinn makes 1.9 through passes per game to Brown’s 0.7, while the Hibs midfielder’s 4.51 passes in to the opposing box (on average per game) also completely dwarfs Brown’s 1.72.
Similarly, McGinn not only sets up attacking chances far more often than his Celtic counterpart but, crucially, also tends to take part in attacking plays in the final third far more often than Brown.
The 23-year-old is currently hitting 2.11 shots on target per Premiership game right now – Brown currently sits on 0.59 – and also makes 3.11 dribbles compared to Brown’s 1.45 per game. And, naturally, McGinn tends to receive the ball in the opposing box 1.19 times a match compared to Brown’s 0.73.
Intriguingly, both players have an almost identical amount of passes in to the final third per game (Brown sits on 11.86 while McGinn is on 12.11) but aside from that, it should be quite clear that the Hibs midfielder is far more accustomed to running with the ball in to the final third and either shooting or creating chances for teammates as a traditional box-to-box midfielder, while Brown undoubtedly plays further back and tends to let his passing do the talking.
Naturally, if McGinn is more attack-minded for Hibs then it suggests that he also isn’t nearly as useful in defense as the man he is apparently destined to replace for Scotland. And again the stats suggest just as much.
Brown’s underlying talent is his ability to keep a hold of the ball and guard it against opposing midfielders hoping to dispossess him in the middle of the park. As the deepest midfielder and the only real cover in front of the defensive line, Celtic wouldn’t be nearly as good as they are if Brown routinely lost the ball.
Indeed, when we look at the way the Celtic captain keeps possession for his team it again contrasts quite starkly with McGinn’s own style of play. As we can see in the graph above, Brown makes almost twice as many passes as his Hibs counterpart per game and is far more accurate with them too – with 92% finding their intended targets compared to McGinn’s rather average 77%.
Similarly, Brown only loses the ball in his own half 1.59 times per 90 minutes for Celtic in the Premiership, while McGinn tends to lose it 3.14 times. Although the latter’s stats aren’t exactly terrible for your typical midfielder it does show that he either doesn’t have the ability or intent to protect possession quite like Brown. And would probably struggle to do so if asked to play a deep-lying role for Scotland.
The more pragmatic, defensive aspect of playing as a central midfielder is also somewhere in which Brown clearly outshines his younger counterpart. While both midfielders tend to make a similar amount of tackles per league game, Brown’s success rate is 48% compared to McGinn’s 35%. While his interceptions per game are far higher than McGinn’s, at 5.8 to 3.9.
Although none of this is intended to suggest that McGinn is any less a player than Brown was at his age or that the Hibs midfielder couldn’t perhaps be taught how to play Brown’s role for Scotland, it should underline how different these two players actually are at this moment in time.
Brown’s contributions for Scotland over the years have been immense and in many ways the manner in which he has shown leadership and mental qualities are simply impossible to quantify in numbers. And, ultimately, would be yet another hurdle for McGinn to leap over if tasked with filling the Brown-shaped hole in the Scottish midfield.
Whether McLeish can find a new captain and suitable replacement in midfield is yet to be seen, but let’s stop pretending McGinn is and should be either of those things. The young, Hibs midfielder is a unique talent in his own right and asking him to replace Brown at this point in his career doesn’t seem like an ideal solution.