It has the potential to be one of the most significant and fundamental changes to Celtic’s starting line-up this decade; is Callum McGregor the player who will be remembered for relegating Scott Brown from his pivotal role in the first team to a squad player?
While McGregor has been seen as the jack of (almost) all positions so far in his Celtic career, the mastery of one has alluded him. Until now. He has been a revelation in the deepest central midfield role in Brown’s injury absence and has within two months emerged as an almost accidental solution to what seemed like the extremely difficult task of replacing the club captain.
Looking only at domestic and Europa League group stage games where Brown and McGregor have played at least one hour as the deepest midfielder in the Celtic team, we have reached the point where the two have spent almost an equal amount of time on the pitch:
So what can the numbers and graphics tells us about how McGregor and Brown have filled this role over these 11 games each?
As seen by the numbers above, Celtic have been far more successful this season in the games where McGregor played as the deep midfielder but, while not insignificant, this will be heavily influenced by the team’s general form and its efficiency in front of goal, something both players have very limited influence on.
When it comes to their own offensive contribution there is a clear difference between Brown and McGregor. Even from such a deep role, McGregor averages almost a shot per game, with Brown only attempting a shot less than every third game. McGregor also has one goal and five assists over these 11 starts, while Brown has none in either category. Assists can be notoriously unreliable as a stat – being so dependent on the finishing skill of another player – but McGregor has also created far more chances than Brown. He has 1.5 key passes – passes that creates a goalscoring opportunity – per every 90 minutes played, while Brown has had one such pass only every fifth game.
Callum McGregor is passing the ball more than Scott Brown. To be precise, he has attempted 10 passes more per every 90 minutes played in the deep midfield role (79.9 to 69.9 – a 13.5% difference). Seen as a percentage of the team’s total in these games, McGregor passes’ constituted 12.3% with Brown’s attempts making up 10.2% of the overall passing number.
There is also another worthwhile difference: the location from where the passes were attempted. When it comes to the rate of passes taken down both sides (i.e. not in the middle third of the pitch) McGregor’s is at 55% to Brown’s 46%, while 53% of McGregor’s passes were taken in the opposition’s half compared to 44% of Brown’s (excluding corners).
This passes the eye test, i.e. the impression you get from watching the games: McGregor not only seem to be more involved in Celtic’s passing play, he is also bringing more movement and flexibility to the role, getting more involved across larger areas of the pitch on a more regular basis.
What about the direction of passes? McGregor go forward (see diagram below for definition) slightly more than Brown – 19% of all passes compared to 17.6% (McGregor’s pass completion is also almost 6% better than Brown on these passes).
Does length matter? Excluding corners (which are included in map below), McGregor attempted 29 passes of more than 40 metres when playing in this deep position, compared to Brown’s 10. More interestingly is from and where to he aims these passes. While half of Brown’s long balls are almost straight diagonals from one side to another with little forward movement, there is a striking difference in McGregor’s passing map. You can clearly see how he’s been trying to move play quickly down the left hand side when in possession of the ball around the centre circle, typified by his glorious ball to Kiernan Tierney that led to Celtic’s third goal away to Dundee.
McGregor have made 8 of these long balls from inside the centre circle (what our American friends would probably liken to a quarterback’s passing pocket). Brown has not made a single one from the same area.
That McGregor have a better range of passing than Brown and is likely to move the ball quicker is pretty much beyond dispute. But what about his defensive qualities off the ball? Brown’s aggressiveness, tenancy and intensity have been integral to so many of Celtic’s best moments over this decade. Will Celtic’s offensive gain with McGregor be lost defensively without Brown?
Brown has put in more tackles, but not by much: 4.8 per every 90 minutes played compared to McGregor’s 4.0. Brown’s excellence in such duels is seen in his successful tackle rate of 73.2%, over 15% better than McGregor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is also involved in 1.1 more air duels than McGregor per game, although McGregor has actually won 12% more of his aerial challenges.
Pass interception is another interesting defensive metric and while the two players are very close, McGregor is actually edging ahead of Brown, making 5.1 interceptions per 90, compared to Brown’s 5.0. As with the passing stats we see that McGregor do a higher percentage of these actions further up the field: he has 10% more tackles and 6% more pass interceptions in the opposition’s half than Brown.
In the end, analysing the numbers and action maps of both players back ups up the impression that McGregor has brought an improvement to the deep-lying midfield role; a significant stronger offensive contribution, more involved and flexible when it comes to passing patterns while still also making a very solid defensive contribution. Of course, Scott Brown’s influence on Celtic go far beyond what happens on the pitch, and the captain will undoubtedly still be an integral part of any success this season. That does not change the fact that Callum McGregor should for now be the undisputed first choice ahead of him.