'I'll have a G&McT, with a slice of meatball' : Scotland's midfield. Part 3 - John McGinn
Updated: Apr 14
There's a Milton Jones joke which goes, 'my wife... well, it's difficult to say what she does exactly... she sells seashells on the seashore.' Whilst my man-love is strong with John McGinn, we are not romantically entwined, we're in an entirely one-sided open relationship, which will most likely end if he ever reads this.
Remarkably, however, I am married, and in preparation for this piece, presuming that my wife would listen afterwards, I dazzled her with, 'Can we grab a minute alone? [puts down letter and turns to give me her full attention]... I want to articulate the finer points of John McGinn's game' (and believe me, I did brass-neck words to this effect). She showcased her forbearance by hanging around to listen but I found any further detail about the midfielder from Clydebank hard to come by. Why?
Well, she's not that into football, and the kids were painting the fridge with Nutoka (Aldi's version of Nutella), also, I'm sometimes on painkillers at the moment which makes it difficult to word-find. No, these weren't the reason, I found I was forcing words together to have a good time, as though they were strangers at the central-midfield-describing party I was hosting in my mouth.
I don't typically struggle when describing a footballer, even on drugs, which left only one option; John McGinn isn't a typical central midfielder. This is also why, in sending the draft to my collaborator for this piece (Glasgow-based artist, Will Knight), I was made aware of the more esoteric parts of the prose, as I'm a huge McGinn fan, and perhaps relied too much upon others' anal-retentive familiarity with his turn and touch, his graft and guile.
However, comfort was found in the excellent Tifo feature (below) which crowned him a 'statistical unicorn', at last providing some explanation for the self-inflicted, Brockville-in-February-esque, syntactic-quagmire in which I had found myself. He's unique, even to stats.
'John McGinn? It's difficult to say what he does exactly...'
Hopefully, you'll be similarly perplexed/intrigued to read on, as he might well be a unicorn, nobly emblazoned on the Royal Coat of Arms next to the Lion, but he's also a meatball - and it's the blend of these which make him our best player.
Whereas Tifo analysed his Villa role, one of the best interviews you can find on the 25-year-old as an internationalist, is carried out by a 9-year-old Scotland fan, Shea. It is hilarious and honest in equal measure. Alongside the terrifically blunt, 'how much do you think you're worth?' (McGinn quipped, 'a fiver') and, 'why is your nickname meatball?' (his Mum shaved his head as a teen, accentuating its spherical complexion), Shea asks, 'why haven't you scored for Scotland yet?' and McGinn gives an honest answer, which can be missed amidst the cutesy-context of the whole thing.
Children's questions are often missed but are wonderfully disarming (read the 'About' section for more on this), because their sincerity demands that you answer respectfully. Furthermore, when you listen to an adult explaining things to a child, it is most revealing about their own understanding and desires, because they need to communicate on a simpler level.
Kids see through the cliché. Media training doesn't prepare you for this. So John, why haven't you scored for Scotland?
I know, that's something that's been bugging me. I think... my first few games I was playing a bit deeper. So hopefully now, I can start getting goals for Scotland and it's something I've been working on.
- John McGinn, September 2019
McGinn's facial expression and his tone are serious and respectful towards Shea. He answers his question precisely and kindly, offering a reason why he hasn't scored, and saying what he's doing to change that. As someone who works alongside children every day, I couldn't help but notice McGinn referring to the past, and then the future.
If you'll allow me, this is something used in education to help children (and people generally) to focus on the moment and feel calm, you might have heard of mindfulness, well it's a component of that. It's sometimes called being a 'reflective learner' and, like all good theories, it does exactly what it says, reflects on what has happened, learns from it, and plans out what to do next. Now, I know you're here for the football, and we'll get to that, but I feel this interview, and the above answer, in particular, lends us significant insight if we're willing to pause and look at the progression from 'then' to 'now'.
Besides appearing a very humble, warm and respectful guy, the type you'd want your kids to be around, I'm interested in what happened to make McGinn say he could start 'getting goals' for Scotland now, and could he back it up? There's a real determined, driven quality there, and it seems that between him and the coaching staff, something was unpicked. He believed those goals were coming.
If I learned anything in my work-life as a sometime researcher, it's that the process, or methodology, is as important, and often more rewarding, than the results or numbers of any study or paper.
If we're studying McGinn's numbers alone, then I advise you to watch Tifo again. However, if we're interested in the process by which he arrived at those numbers then we need only look at the resulting qualification campaign to see the answer. A few days after his interview with Shea, against Russia, McGinn scored within 11 minutes. He then scored a hat-trick against San Marino, converted the decisive goal in Cyprus and grabbed two m0re against Kazahkstan. 7 in 6 games.
That's the wide-angle lens, but zoom in to each goal and you'll see the changes, the process, which I think reveal two things; firstly, that we can trust Steve Clarke, and secondly, related to the first - in those games, John McGinn played more like a false nine than anything else for Scotland.
Word association time: 'Scotland'... 'False nine'...
You might have said something else, but we'll stick to the PG version for Shea's benefit. If you said 'Czech Republic' or 'Levein', you win my respect and adulation, mingled with pity, for I know that you too suffered through our only foray into this tactical adventure. This is no criticism of Levein, it's not the place for that, I think that he was at least daring enough to try something new to complement our strengths in midfield. The difference between then and now, however, is that we didn't possess a player of McGinn's ilk, who seems tailor-made for the role, and that is what we'll look at it here.
'Right lads, none of you are John McGinn, but I've got a great idea...'
Tifo presented that McGinn has impressive stats in the following areas; high XG, successful dribbles, touches in the box and shots per game. My observations of the goals McGinn has scored for Scotland expose a few more categories which prove pivotal in understanding his position and these are; firstly, the source of that pivot, his erm, arse, his touch, spinning away using said arse, timing his run, playing off the shoulder of the (usually right-sided) centre-half and finally, striking the ball purely.
I can promise I won't mention Dalglish in every article, but I can't guarantee that our best-ever player won't make it into at least 60% of them. Kenny Dalglish had the best arse in football, that much is certain. In fact, although both he and McGinn share a 7 upon their backs, I'd give their rear ends each a big 10.
It's the strength of their core and lower-half that is impressive. When the ball is played into John McGinn, you don't expect him to do anything else but control it, in a very similar manner to Dalglish. To illustrate this, regarding his performance in the '81 European Cup Final, after 6 weeks out injured, the excellent Off the Ball's Joe Molloy summed up Kenny's performance;
'The occasional moments of real quality was when, say Thommo [Phil Thompson], would ping a ball up to Kenny Dalglish, who's got two Real Madrid defenders around him, and you're conditioned to expect that ball to not quite stick, or be tackled... it would go into Kenny at midriff height, and he would somehow use that arse to bang the defender away and kill the ball dead on his thigh and then, in his second touch, play it back brilliantly... it was like an exhibition in hold-up play, to go with all [his] magic.'
- Off the Ball, May 2018
Whilst not (yet) taking place in the European Cup final, McGinn's hold-up play is very similar. Ask any Hibee or Aston Villa fan how often his low-centre-of gravity, and strength combined, enable him to simply roll away from defenders or buy a free-kick, and you'll be met with looks of incredulity saying 'how can I count that? That is his game.'
And it is, except it's not his whole game, because on receiving the ball and killing it dead with his back to goal in the middle of the pitch, he often spins away without a foul, towards goal and this is where he is very dangerous. Having taken a defender out of the play, he is now dribbling, and what was it the stats said about that? He normally succeeds. Why? Let's have a gander.
McGinn typically carries the ball with the outside of his left foot. Now, much has been made over the years of why left-footed players often seem more elegant or 'cultured' in their approach, and it's unarguable that certain Argentines have contributed to that narrative, but forgetting other nations, let's consider the best dribblers Scotland have produced.
Top of your list, or at least near the top, should be Davie Cooper. Close to him, you'd maybe have John Collins, James McFadden or even Neil McCann, forever remembered for having Neville on toast at Wembley '99. Now quite rightly, you'd also have the right-footed Jinky Johnstone tying with Coop, and of course Pat Nevin and Shaun Maloney in the conversation too.
I'm not saying I agree with the narrative, what I am saying is that McGinn is very difficult for defenders to tackle when he has it so close to him but so far away from you.
Think about it, if he is running at you, a right-footed centre-half, you want to be using your strong foot to tackle as you are back-tracking. He is keeping it on his left-side, so far, so good; his left, your right. Now, if he doesn't notice you all right-sided before skipping past you on your left, completely wrong-footing you, he bursts at pace past you on your right, angling for a shot. You now find his body (and that arse) between you and the ball. You can't get the ball without over-extending or committing, and that tackle needs to be perfect or you concede a foul closer to your goal than the one where he spun away from your teammate. All you can do is shepherd him out wide, where inevitably he'll play the ball to an advanced team-mate, Ryan Fraser or the like.
Your next challenge occurs as he makes like a train for the centre-forward position, meaning you now have him, as well as the centre-forward - who remarkably often moves out of the way for the advancing McGinn - to mark in the box. The resulting play would happen quickly, as in the Russia goal, and you don't have time to set yourself, the cross comes in, is half-cleared; he whacks in the rebound, or; he makes a run across you to the near post and taps in the low cross, as with the Cyprus goal. This is the meat(ball) and potatoes of McGinn's game: getting in the centre forward position after build-up play which he may or may not have contributed to.
Here's a question for you, followed by a statistic (just one). How many times did any of the above scenarios; using his arse, converting a rebound or running across the defender result in a goal for Scotland since adopting this position? I'll give you a wee break with the highlights that you can scroll past in case you actually want to try and remember... it is lockdown after all.
Six. Six out of seven, and I've included all seven as his bum was again instrumental in the other.
Russia - rebound as the most advanced player in the box, alongside McBurnie.
San Marino 1. - running across the defender and guiding it in the corner as the most advanced player.
San Marino 2. - rebound on 6 yard-box as the most-central attacking player.
San Marino 3. - rolling away from the defender and sweeping the ball into the net, following a corner, as the most advanced player.
Cyprus - running across the defender and putting it in the corner from the penalty spot as the most advanced player.
Kazahkstan 1. - direct free-kick after sticking his arse into a defender as the most advanced player and laying it off perfectly to Naismith, who was fouled on the edge of the 18-yard-box.
Kazahkstan 2. - running across the defender and putting it in the corner as the most advanced player.
For those without a calculator, that's 3 running across the defender to the near-post, 2 rebounds and 2 goals as a result of using his arse.
As we cover this fundamental 'meatball' part of his game (and I dearly mean that as a compliment), astute observers among you might correctly assert that it can't be a false 9 if we're playing Naismith, McBurnie or Shankland as an actual 9, which of course assumes that they are, in fact, playing as an 'actual 9'.
This, like most things in football, depends upon your definition. Tell me what you think a 'playmaker' is and we might have very different starting blocks, but remember it's the process we're looking at here, it's a conversation.
If you are talking about the origins of the position, be it Messi or Fabregas, I'm not. If you are talking about who was furthest forward in the central position most often, then that'd be McGinn each time, as incredible as that sounds for a midfielder.
I remember noticing this during the games, but you can watch the highlights and see him just hanging on the shoulder of the centre-half, not interested in the build-up. All of a sudden then, you have a midfielder playing as a 9 more often than the 'actual 9' who typically drifts wide or runs the channels, meaning, in my book anyway, you have a 'false 9', or maybe it's a 'not quite 9'. (Can we patent that for him?) It's fitting really that he wears more than his Villa 7 in the Scotland 8.
Anyway, let's scrap that for a second and instead ask what you look for in a forward? If it's stats you're after, then a high XG, touches in the box and shots per game would suffice I'd think, with a high number of successful dribbles a welcome bonus. Now add-in wonderful hold-up play with your back to goal, the knack of rolling a defender, playing on the shoulder and timing runs perfectly, all of which culminate in actual goals due to an ability to strike the ball sweetly. That sounds like a pretty good forward to me.
A Super-quick-drawn Super John McGinn: Villa's 7, Scotland's 8, not-quite-9, Arse a 10
There are other ways McGinn scores goals of course. That he was robbed of the Puskás Award for his volley against Sheffield Wednesday offended the Yeboah-generation of 30-40 somethings whose chief criterion of 'best goals ever' comprises a) volleys from outside the box, and b) volleys from outside the box that hit the underside of the crossbar and bounce into the roof of the net.
Or what of his POTM performance in the Championship Play-Off Final, which had the watching Chris Wilder purring over 'the best midfielder in the league'. His goal that day wasn't a classic, but it was classic McGinn - furthest forward, using his arse, very meatball-like, scoring the most important goal when his team needed him.
Then for the purists, there was everything that makes him 'Super' in a nutshell - closing down a seemingly lost cause against Charlton in a preseason friendly, winning it back out wide, skinning another player, taking it around the keeper at an acute angle and curling it into the roof of the net past two despairing defenders. It was like when you're playing down the park with your mate who is just better than everyone and scores a big mazy every now and again just because he can. Before the days of YouTube, this would've been like a legendary 'best goal I've seen live' moment, a part of the 'I was there' folklore, growing more arms and legs in each telling, so much so that all of a sudden it sprouts a horn and becomes a mythical beast, strolling about with a life of its own.
Those who knew of his unicorn-like talents prior to this season punched the air, alongside my daughter and I, when on the opening day of the season, he broke through the Spurs' defence, to sit Danny Rose down, before calmly stroking the ball into the corner (differential FPL points please, thanks).
Or against Arsenal, where, again as the furthest forward, he ran across the defenders and flicked the ball into the corner. McGinn and big games go hand-in-hand. We'd seen it before when Hibs drew 2-2 away at Celtic and he scored two screamers from 25-yards, or when he pinched the ball off Daniel Candeias in Ibrox's centre-circle and did what he does, unleashing a fizzer into the corner from a similar distance after dribbling at a back-pedalling defence.
However, it's really Steve Clarke who we need to thank for entrusting McGinn with this bizarre role, this not-quite-9 role, as he isn't just doing very good midfielder things, he's also doing striker things better than a striker.
Having considered the process, I think we can take a stab at unpicking his answer to Shea's question ourselves; then he was playing the role of a traditional midfielder, now he is often our most advanced player. In this new position, whatever it is, he is fast becoming our talisman, our unicorn; consistent in the very good and frequently capable of the sublime.
So, rewind to the start, how did we get on in describing what John McGinn does? If the 'meatball' part is the hold-up play, runs across the defender, tap-ins, rebounds and arse-spinners; and the 'unicorn' bit is the worldies, the volleys and the mazies; then however you want to describe it, and it's almost certainly not as some abhorrent meatball/unicorn hybrid... at the sharp, tasty, not-quite-9 end of our attack is John McGinn.
I'm now picturing him in full-kit spearing a meatball kebab with his unicorn's horn...
Will, can you draw that for me so I can explain his position to my wife? Cheers.
Postscript It is no secret that our most densely-populated position is central midfield, and in choosing Gilmour, McTominay and McGinn, I know I'll open the door for criticism regarding the ever-excellent Calum McGregor and ever-improving Ryan Jack, who for half of the season, before his injury and Rangers' implosion, was arguably the best midfielder in Scotland. Then there's John Fleck, who has been outstanding in his first season in the Premier League in a quality Sheffield United side. That is to say, I know this selection will take some justification over how they all fit together, and that's something we'll explore next week.
For now, I'll have a G & McT please, with a slice of meatball... and unicorn, thanks.