On Saturday Hearts overcame a stubborn Dunfermline side by a solitary goal to nil. In…
Alex McLeish has now named his squad for Scotland’s games early in September, where the national side will host World Cup semi-finalists Belgium in a friendly before kicking off the Nations League with a home fixture against Albania. Football fans across Scotland will be keen to see how Alex McLeish gets on in his first competitive fixture since he was re-appointed as the national team boss.
We’ll learn a lot about McLeish’s team in the coming weeks but one area of the pitch where the squad is looking a little light is towards the back. Injuries to Christophe Berra and Scott McKenna mean that McLeish is deprived of what would probably be his two preferred centre backs and this lack of options has opened up a space in the senior squad for John Souttar for the first time.
Souttar has been on the verge of a call-up for a while now and although injuries have played their part in McLeish’s decision, the 21-year-old will be desperate to make an impression so he can retain his place. There are very few guaranteed starters this early on in McLeish’s reign and there are positions up for grabs, particularly in central defence. Souttar deserves to be in that conversation as much as any other Scottish defender.
Last season, Souttar was a key part of the impressively-drilled Hearts defence that conceded 39 Premiership goals last season – only Celtic (25) and Aberdeen (37) conceded fewer goals, and they finished first and second respectively. Hearts finished in the top half in sixth place, but some way off the Europa League qualification spots. They had an average season, but the defence was the third best in the country and Souttar deserves credit for being part of that defence.
The graphic above highlights each Premiership team’s goals against (GA) and expected goals against (xGA). If the red dot is to the right of the blue dot, then it means the defence is overperforming and vice-versa. Some teams have an xGA two or three goals than their GA, but not Hearts. The discrepancy in the Tynecastle club’s case is a massive eleven goals; put simply, the Hearts defence were keeping out 11 chances over the course of the season that really should have resulted in goals.
Now, a lot of credit for this was down to the talents of Jon McLaughlin in goal. The keeper was arguably Hearts’ most important player last season but defending is particularly team-orientated aspect of football and credit should be shared amongst all those involved, including Souttar. He’s performed with an increased consistency for one of the best defences in the country, and as such has already proven that he has the ability to play at international level.
With Berra ruled out for most of the season with a ligament injury, Souttar is already tasked with taking on more responsibility at club level but there’s nothing to suggest the centre back can’t also take on international duties. When Souttar was first breaking through at Dundee United, his potential was there for all to see but the young defender struggled for consistency. Now, however, that is no longer the case.
The graph above charts Souttar’s progress across the key statistics for a defender, as well as passing statistics. These wouldn’t always be used in this form of analysis but as a ball-playing defender, it’s an aspect of Souttar’s game that is worth considering. The stats demonstrate the Hearts defender’s performances in the 2017/18 season, the current campaign and his performances for the Scotland under-21s during that time. And what we can see is consistency.
Souttar has started this season strongly and some areas of his game have noticeably improved, such as the success of his long passes and aerial duels. But, by and large, they’re much the same as during 2017/18. The same is true of his performances at under-21 level, although with a few interesting exceptions. Most stats undergo a slight decrease, but this is to be expected as the pace of international football, even at under-21 level, is significantly lower than the rough-and-tumble of the Premiership. Souttar doesn’t make as many tackles or interceptions, for example, but this is partly because there are fewer opportunities to do so.
Souttar has generally fared well when representing Scotland at youth level and this experience should serve him well in the senior squad. The 21-year-old deserves to be in the conversation then, but how does he compare to McLeish’s other options in defence?
Right now, Souttar is one of six players who McLeish is realistically going to consider playing in central defence. Obviously, with Berra and McKenna out injured, that figure drops to four but we’ve included their stats nonetheless to see how Souttar compares. Charlie Mulgrew and Jack Hendry are included in the squad, as is Kieran Tierney, who has some experience in the middle of defence as well. And, as we can see, Souttar more than holds his own when compared to his defensive rivals.
Tierney’s passing statistics when playing in central defence stand out in both the overall number of attempts and their level of success, but this outlier is to be expected. After all, most of the games Tierney has played here have been in matches where Celtic have dominated possession, thus giving him more opportunities to do more with the ball in possession. But out of all of these categories, Souttar is not dead last by any metric and actually leads the way in a few, such as in interceptions or long passing success.
This reveals the kind of player that Souttar is – an energetic centre back who is keen to chase down opponents yet is also comfortable playing out from the back. In the modern game where everyone needs to do a little bit of everything, Souttar’s playing style typifies this. He may not have the physical stature of Berra or the defensive instincts of McKenna, but operates effectively as an all-rounder. McLeish has given Souttar the chance to take the next big step of his career – and it looks as if he’s ready to take it.