Grading centre backs will always be much more of a challenge than grading attackers. They…
One of the most intriguing transfer stories to pop up as we hurtle towards the end of the season has been that of Steven MacLean agreeing to join Hearts in June. On Monday St Johnstone confirmed that the out-of-contract striker would move to Edinburgh upon agreeing a two-year deal.
The response to the announcement was contrasting to say the least. St Johnstone fans bemoaned the departure of a club legend – one that Stuart Cosgrove has wrote about on this very site – but Hearts fans largely accepted the news with a notable shrug of the shoulders, if not an outright sigh at the club’s lack of ambition in the transfer market.
Of course, this is only April and a lot of business will surely be done at Tynecastle between now and August 1 but there is a legitimate question to be asked: Why exactly did Hearts sign MacLean?
During his time at McDiarmid Park, MacLean has proven himself to not only be a consistent scorer of goals but undoubtedly a big-game player that has the capacity to score the most important of goals too. Yet at 35 years of age he surely can’t be expected to lead the line for Hearts as he once did for the Saints, right?
MacLean has six goals to his name this season in all competition. Taking in to account five games against the bottom six before the end of the current campaign, we might see the senior striker add to that tally but it probably won’t match the 12 he picked up last season. And when we look at this season’s stats they don’t exactly scream out “goalscorer” by any stretch of the imagination.
When we compare MacLean with the Scottish Premiership’s forwards we find his average 0.21 goals per 90 minutes to be one of the worst in the division. And as we can see from the graph above, it even comes below that of current Heart’s forwards Kyle Lafferty (0.45) and Steven Naismith (0.22).
When we toggle the metrics to look at his conversation rate (i.e the amount of shots that go in), we find that MacLean looks far better compared to his domestic piers with 16.7% – which may not match Naismith’s 21.4% but intriguingly comes out far better than Lafferty’s 12.8%. MacLean may not be scoring as many goals as Hearts’ towering striker, but he’s still a more efficient goalscorer.
Yet despite his efficiency, it still stands to reason to suggest that MacLean – despite his records in the past – simply hasn’t shown himself as the kind of goalscorer that can add anything to what Hearts already have. Sure, he could be a useful backup striker throughout the season but then one has to wonder why Levein and his backroom staff couldn’t find a younger and more potent forward like Alex Schalk, Chris Kane or even former Hearts forward David Templeton.
Of course, we can’t talk about MacLean purely as a goalscorer. Throughout his time in the Scottish top division, the forward has always proven himself to be just as adept at creating goals for his colleagues as he has been at scoring them himself.
As we can see in the graph above – which shows MacLean’s goals and assists per 90 since joining St Johnstone – the forward’s form has often had notable highs and lows, but throughout it all his ability to score and assists in equal measures has remained consistent. Which may be exactly why Levein rates him so highly.
Hearts may have earned some credit for the manner in which they’ve built a solid, defensive unit out of the talents of Christophe Berra, Jon McLaughlin and John Souttar but there’s no denying that a lack of creativity up front has been sorely lacking throughout the season. And if Levein can bring in a forward that not only scores goals but also has a habit of creating them too then that should be looked upon quite favourably indeed.
When we take a look at MacLean’s build-up play compared to both Lafferty and Naismith as well as that of David Milinkovic (who has played out wide and up front throughout the season) we can see that the St Johnstone forward doesn’t compare poorly at all to his Tynecastle counterparts.
With 0.13 assists per 90 in the Premiership this season, MacLean may not be as potent a playmaker as Naismith (0.15) or Milinkovic (0.23) but he certainly offers a breath of fresh air compared to Lafferty, who has yet to provide a single assist in the league thus far.
Similarly, we can see from the key passes and through ball metrics that although MacLean may not be as creative as Hearts’ stand-alone attacking midfielders this season he certainly adds far more in terms of build-up play than the club’s sole goalscorer. Which, again, may be exactly why Levein wants him in the first place.
We should also take note of the contrasting fortunes of both Hearts and St Johnstone this season. Although Tommy Wright’s team will most likely finished just one or two positions below Hearts, theirs has been a season of torment in which the entire team has failed to function as it had done in the previous campaign.
Although it is important to not go as far as to make excuses for MacLean’s stuttering goalscoring and creative form this season, we should definitely note that he has led the line for a pretty abject team and could rediscover the form we saw in the 2016/17 season if Hearts can get their house in order this summer.
Ultimately, MacLean isn’t getting any younger and Hearts fans have every right to question the club’s strategy if younger players aren’t brought in this summer. But in isolation it’s clear where MacLean’s talents lie within the context of the Premiership and how that should translate quite well to Levein’s squad next season.