Turnbull, Gauld and Gilmour : Finding Context Through Analytics
Updated: May 22
Incredibly, whilst we still have a season drawing to a close - it is just over two weeks until Scotland play The Netherlands on June 2nd. Much of the talk on social media has revolved around the unfortunate injuries to qualifying heroes; Ryan Jack and Kenny McLean, with the loss of their calming influence in midfield being felt most acutely.
Although we sincerely wish each player were fit enough to play, their absence gives rise to an immediately pertinent question; 'who will replace them?'
In the main, there are three names that continue to be mentioned amongst supporters. These are; Celtic's talisman, and perhaps their only player with pass-marks this year, David Turnbull; secondly, a player, and captain, who has reinvented himself abroad into one of the top-performing players in the 6th best league in Europe, Ryan Gauld; and lastly, the first Scottish teenager in over 10 years to start 4 Premier League games in a row, Billy Gilmour.
To tackle this, we thought we'd dip our toe into analytics here, something we've done fairly often, but only when we feel it helps us to understand the nuances of a particular situation or contribute something to whatever discourse is doing the rounds.
Both of these components are at play here, as many supporters talk about David Turnbull as if he is the same kind of player as Kenny McLean or Ryan Jack, respectively, and that 'midfield players' should be able to do the same thing. A 'like for like' replacement, if you will.
As we see here, this just simply isn't true. The assertion that 'players are not positions', is something that we've learned to be salient since our inception; however, this, alongside our belief in a Growth Mindset, means that we also hold that players can learn, grow and adapt - taking up new positions and roles as a result.
This approach to thinking about football is both flexible and dynamic. It is fluid, though with a firm commitment to roles and a deep understanding of said role being crucial to how a team plays.
If you're stuck here - think of Tierney's LCB role which he has grown into for both Arsenal and Scotland, reprising it with a firmer assurance each time. Similarly, see Scott McTominay growing into his RCB role; or Grant Hanley being the top accurate passer in the Championship he held aloft this season. Growth is often surprising, as are stats.
Why are conversations like this important?
Well - because players aren't positions, it means we can look for growth. Because we can look to accommodate talent, and ability, for the benefit of the team, this means that we aren't held to binary and reductive arguments such as 'Grant Hanley is a meatshield', or 'Robertson vs. Tierney: Round 14... FIGHT"; something we tackled head-on last year.
That said - how do we understand our midfield conundrum?
Let's start with the statistical information (per 90 minutes) concerning league appearances in Liga NOS, the Scottish Premiership and The Premier League, respectively.
- Retrieved from Squawka.com on 14th May, 2021
You'll note that each player has their own area(s) of strength straight away. It might be easy to see Turnbull's goal return (0.4 per/90) and think 'get him in there', which many a Celtic fan has said, but then you'd be missing the caveat that Gauld's is 0.3 and he is playing for a team battling relegation, not dominating the ball. In any case, as we will see, it's not a case of picking just one - we might take both, or all three, for different reasons.
First thing then, context is important, as it is to understanding Gilmour's high passing accuracy (he has only played 7 games in the PL this year).
Secondly, remember the players we are replacing here; McLean and Jack. Two players who keep the ball moving as part of a double pivot in the '6' position (most often alongside Callum McGregor). This is the chief reason we bossed the majority of the game in Belgrade. McGregor's 91.2% pass success was the highest on the pitch, with Mcginn (somewhat surprisingly! 90.9%) and Jack (83.3%) not far behind. Substitute McLean achieved a 100% success rate, albeit only playing 7 minutes.
Two players who have had exceptional seasons
As Scotland play three midfielders, with McGinn ahead of the double pivot, it is important to understand where each player might fit into the team. Additionally, it's worth mentioning that out of possession, the 'support striker', whether Christie or Fraser, has dropped back into midfield, tasked with closing down ahead of McGinn, who would then sit as part of the three. Christie, in particular, has a tremendous engine for closing opponents down. This is a key aspect to Scotland's ability in winning the ball back as Jack/McGregor/McLean are never far away, hunting as a pack, as their high level of recoveries (6.2 - 8.4) attest.
There are therefore 4 midfield positions up for grabs, not 3. That's the first thing.
Let's start with the most obvious replacement for Jack and McLean in light of the stats; Billy Gilmour.
This one pass led to a counter and goal which was narrowly disallowed.
The young Scot performed incredibly well against the best team in the world, Man City, especially in the second half, leading to calls from apparently every Scot with a social media account, for Steve Clarke to pick him immediately. We will hold our hands up here as one such guilty party.
Why is he special though?
Well - Frank Lampard described it as 'doing the simple things well'. So well, in fact, that Thomas Tuchel similarly lauded him. Even Roy Keane dubbed him 'world-class' after his debut; but what do the statistics reveal?
Stats miss the genius of the above gif. Sure, they register it as a forward pass, and a through ball, but they miss the context that he received it from a teammate at pace, surrounded by Cancelo(?), Foden and Rodri, with under half a second to think. They therefore miss the fact that this pass drew gasps from those watching, as much as it drew exasperation and surprise from the onlooking Ilkay Gundogan.
This calm assurance is why two managers have trusted him to start in huge games (Gilmour has started against Man. Utd, Man City, Liverpool and Arsenal over the last year and a half). It's why his teammates give him the ball that he demands from them, even in tight spaces. It's why his average touches is higher than both Gauld and Turnbull - he buzzes constantly, making himself available, keeping possession of the ball in front of the backline and moving the play through the lines.
Again, stats don't cover this.
He's also not merely a sideways passer, as his through balls attempted shows. This is particularly surprising when this registers as higher than both Turnbull and Gauld - the two players I have enjoyed watching most with regards to their through balls, this season. Gilmour starts moves in play from deep. He is looking to break lines constantly with his passing. His head is up.
Additionally, Gilmour registers joint highest alongside Gauld for interceptions per 90 (1.1). This is crucial as Jack's ability to break up play for Scotland was absolutely crucial to our recent successes, charting a team-high of 2 per 90.
All this said, in Gilmour, we have a player who is trusted and playing at the highest level, where there is no room for passengers. He is not breaking into the Chelsea team through mere sentiment. He is there on merit. In summary, he will keep possession better than anyone and often win it back (but not as much as Jack). Crucially, however, is the 'genius' element demonstrated by the above gifs. He will do special things which might not translate to goals and assists, yet, but are equally as important in his deeper position.
Speaking of a deeper position; let's now turn our focus towards Ryan Gauld.
It is no secret that we at A\M have a deep admiration for the Aberdonian. We've covered him extensively through two articles over the last two seasons, and champion his unique abilities are every opportunity. This means it really is remarkable that we were amazed by these statistics - particularly with regards to his defensive qualities.
Scottish football fans might still think of him as a diminutive no.10 and all the stereotypes that come with that (lovely technique but weak on the ball, great going forward but a bit of a luxury). This couldn't be farther from the truth as he leads the way, by a distance, across ball recoveries (5.5), interceptions (1.1), ground duels won (50.66%) and tackles made (1.6). He also takes on his man, and beats him, more often than Gilmour and Turnbull.
Add into this the goals, assists and league-high MOTM awards, for a team in the bottom three, and well... essentially, Ryan Gauld is playing out his skin.
This is like an attacking player for Hamilton or Killie registering similar stats to Ryan Kent or Ianis Hagi, consistently. The fact that he's competing with Turnbull in some areas, is really remarkable.
He does this mostly as part of a midfield three, but as Farense's playmaker, he is entrusted to find that killer pass more often than anyone else when they manage to win possession (both of which account for his lower pass success rate).
This creativity does also mean that he ranks alongside Turnbull as equal in terms of xA per/90. Again, something that is all the more stark given his team's position.
Portuguese media and fans never fail to recognise his talent
Where then could he play for Scotland?
Well, given his industry, attacking inclinations and risk-taking ability with the final ball, most likely as a competitor to John McGinn. That said, remember that Christie role? The fourth midfielder role? This is where I think Gauld would excel.
His tenacity in the face of adversity cannot be underestimated. He has stuck it out to become one of the best players in a top league.
Something the stats don't show is his mental strength, which is enough that he is entrusted to lead the dressing room, as a foreigner. He leads by example across the board and simply put, needs to be in the team before he gets a huge move on a free transfer in the Summer and we're all kicking ourselves.
Steve Clarke, get on this. It's much less a hype train as just a very fast, increasingly reliable train, which happens to be easy on the eye.
Lastly, the equally incredible David Turnbull, who ranks top in goals, assists, chances created, long pass accuracy, crossing accuracy and shot accuracy. He also hits a mean free kick.
This is where the stats hold little surprise - David Turnbull is a brilliant, attacking player, and indisputably Celtic's best this season, in a team that also comprises National Team mainstay, Ryan Christie. Though they are very, very, different players - something we'll dwell on for a bit, and something Celtic fans don't always acknowledge.
If this sounds like I'm being defensive of Christie - that might be because he does a lot that goes unappreciated, and given the season Celtic have had, I understand the frustration - particularly when it seems his contract situation is less than settled. However, stats are revealing, particularly when considering our Scotland set-up, and trying to picture Turnbull in it is important. It may well be that we build the team around him and Gilmour for years to come - I think it will - but it won't be in two weeks' time - they need to learn to adapt.
In other words, we can't just 'fling him in'. We need to work him in. The last thing I want to see is David Turnbull getting a hard time because he's been expected to score worldies immediately. I sincerely hope this is the case, but with time, and growth.
In the current system, Turnbull would more than likely be a competitor for McGinn or Christie's place, similar to Gauld. This is my only reservation with Turnbull's inclusion, as the statistics show below - he is not that type of player... yet. Though players can grow, and perform different roles, we know this.
What a time to be a Scotland fan - these are all ours
Important to note is the defensive aspects required for the advanced roles in the Scotland team. Especially, recoveries, tackles made, interceptions and ground duels. I've included McGinn's Scotland role, and Christie's Celtic, to highlight the differences.
It seems somewhat unfair to compare any Scot to McGinn in the dark blue. He's almost like a cheat player, and long may it continue. But then - this is about Turnbull, so let's turn to what makes him special.
Whether from distance or in the box with a well-timed run, Turnbull's ability to find the net is nothing short of eye-catching. Consider then that even including these shots from range, 2/3 of them are on target. That's quite something. As is his ability to receive the ball between the lines and create an incredible 4 chances per game via a skilful array of passes - from his now-famous pitching wedge 'scoop', to his dead-ball delivery and crossing ability from deep. He has wonderful guile on the ball, and wields inimitable technique. These are all the things that the stats don't pick up on - but they're game-winning qualities.
Simply put, he's a lovely player to watch, and one that can make things happen from nothing.
This is very important - because it means that with thirty minutes to go, needing a goal, David Turnbull is probably your best chance of that.
Imagine him picking it up in between the lines and lining one up from range, or dinking it over the top for Robertson or Tierney to run on to. This is what he can do that Christie, or even McGinn, can't - but it does come with the caveat that you'll lose something defensively.
In conclusion, what do we at A\M think?
This is the good news.
We alluded earlier to the fact that you don't need to just take one. You don't even need to be limited to two. You can take three.
As we've hopefully demonstrated with the analysis here, these players offer very different options.
Gilmour is the most natural fit for a 'type vs type' replacement for Jack or McLean, but then Gauld offers a ball recovery and tenacity that Gilmour doesn't, which we also desperately need. Turnbull on the other hand, with his goals, assists and creativity, could be thought of as more of a forward to make this trilemma easier.
With McBurnie out, and Fraser lacking match fitness, it seems that Turnbull and Gauld's ability to create chances and hit the target is something not easily overlooked.
We'd take all three, but then, mercifully for you, we're not Steve Clarke.
Whatever you think - hopefully, you might now appreciate that replacing Jack and McLean is a bit more nuanced than simply playing your favourite player.