Grading centre backs will always be much more of a challenge than grading attackers. They…
Friday’s 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica wasn’t exactly the perfect start to Alex McLeish’s return to Mount Florida, and against the backdrop of a half-empty stadium on a dour, Friday night in Glasgow there wasn’t much else to take the sting off a disappointing result.
This is Scotland and therefore everything is always terrible, yet if there was one, sparkling diamond in the Hampden rough it was the silhouette of Oli McBurnie. A young, promising striker that did his very best over the course of 77 minutes to show why he and his manager may have grand ambitions of building a Scotland team around his talents.
While most fans lamented the familiar faces of Charlie Mulgrew or Allan McGregor, this lanky, bearded young man offered a genuine alternative to yesteryear with real talent and an endearing habit of having his socks wrapped around his shin guards.
The pre-match chatter ahead of Friday’s clash revolved around the idea that McBurnie would be tested as a plan B to the first-choice goalscoring habits of Leigh Griffiths. And for just over an hour that’s exactly what the Swansea City talent did. Whether he was heading high balls down to midfielders, taking shots in or around the box or simply dribbling through a sea of red shirts, the 21-year-old looked like a target man and then some.
When we look at McBurnie’s stats compared to the other strikers McLeish has called up and those represented in the previous campaigns, we can see a notable contrast between the status quo of Scotland’s front line and what this exciting, young goalscorer can add to it.
At first glance, it’s clear that McBurnie’s strength lies in his ability to head the ball. When compared to Scotland’s other strikers – Jason Cummings, Chris Martin, Steven Fletcher, Steven Naismith and Griffiths – he comes out joint-top alongside Fletcher when it comes to headed goals per 90. And tops the list when it comes to the average percentage of aerial duels won over the course of each game.
This naturally translates quite well to just how potent McBurnie is in front of goal. Not only does the on-loan Barnsley striker average a higher percentage of shots on target than any other Scotland striker in question, but he also has the highest conversion rate of 50%. With Griffiths, the perceived Scotland talisman, only averaging 36.25% this season. Oh, and he’s also scoring goals at a quicker rate than any other Scotland striker this season with an average 0.81 goals per 90 minutes.
Although McBurnie may have missed one or two golden chances on Friday night, he has proven himself as a target man who can not only outleap or outmuscle most defenders but can also score as well as any striker Scotland can call upon. And McLeish is probably well aware of that.
Yet there’s much more to McBurnie than just the cliched, outdated concept of a towering target man that is limited to one or two simple roles in the game. As well as all the talents listed above, McBurnie is also excellent at turning on the ball and dribbling at defenders with the same potency and accuracy of an attacking midfielder or winger.
When we take a look at each player’s average amount of dribbles per game we’d perhaps naively expect McBurnie to have similar numbers to Martin or Fletcher, yet the Championship talent is averaging almost three times as many. And isn’t too far off the likes of Naismith and Griffiths.
As we can see in the graph above, the Celtic striker and his on-loan Hearts counterpart dribble with the ball more than any other Scotland forward but McBurnie isn’t too far behind them. And even beats Cummings in this metric – a remarkable stat when you consider how much of his game is based outside of the opponent’s box.
What’s perhaps even more impressive is that when we then take the accuracy of these dribbles – i.e the average % success of each dribble – McBurnie actually comes out on top. So not only is Scotland’s latest target man a keen dribbler of the ball but this season he often skips past opponents at a better rate than the likes of Naismith, Griffiths and Cummings.
There’s a good chance that McLeish may hope to play both Griffiths and McBurnie alongside one another in future, competitive games but for the time being this fledgling international is already showing that he’s not only an ideal alternative to Griffiths if Scotland are looking for more physicality in the box but is also quite complete in his offensive attributes.
We got a sneak peek of that in glimpses on Friday night. Let’s hope we get a whole lot more of it in the future.