Scottish Premiership Review: A Title Fight, Tactical Variety In Mid-Table And A Relegation Battle Already
Eight matches into the Scottish SPFL Premiership season and there's an unfamiliar feel to the top of the table. Celtic, treble winners in each of the last two seasons, are third. Despite being primed for a title challenge after the arrival of Steven Gerrard as manager Rangers are way off the pace in sixth. Grinning smugly from the other end of the M8 motorway are top two Hibs and Hearts. At the bottom end of the table Motherwell, finalists in both cup competitions last season, are struggling in tenth. Below them St Mirren and Dundee FC have already blinked and joined the sack race. A genuine title fight brewing, the lines in the relegation battle drawn and the sweet relief of club football to dull the pain of Scotland's international break. Welcome to StatsBomb's review of the Scottish season so far.
Craig Levein, multi-tasking as Director of Football and manager at Hearts, has been prime box office for his knowingly provocative press conference comments. He's also been quietly putting together a formidable playing side. They've won six of their first eight matches. How have they done it? They were never higher than fifth last season. They lost goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin to Sunderland in the summer. They lost captain Christophe Berra to injury in early August. And yet they're up there in first. Their active defense certainly helps.
Hearts are something of a heavyweight boxer. They work the body with midfield aggressive actions by Peter Haring and Olly Lee. Steven Naismith buzzes around in your peripheral vision. They hit you a lot; taking both the second most shots and generating the second most expected goals per match in the league. Uche Ikpeazu and Steven MacLean rock your center backs relentlessly. Finally, either Haring or one of their young center back partnership of John Souttar and Jimmy Dunne delivers the incisive knock out blow from an expertly delivered set piece. A shot map of their set piece shots shows just how relentlessly focused they are at putting the ball on somebody's head right in front of goal.
Hearts have the second highest xG from set pieces in the league. Just look at that central delivery from corners. They know how to keep their guard up in similar situations at the other end, conceding the lowest xG from set pieces in the division. However, there are some underlying reasons to suspect that they will not stay at the top. They are outperforming xG at both ends of the pitch. The average xG of the open play shots they take is the second lowest in the league. They concede at least two and a half more shots per match than the three teams sitting below them. They actually allow the second highest average xG per open play shot conceded. They've only conceded six goals but the StatsBomb xG model indicates they should have let in ten. Finally, this week they lost Souttar and Ikpeazu to injury for six months. An admirable start but that's a dizzying list of reasons why the Edinburgh club might not be quite ready for a shot at the title.
A few miles east and just two points below their Edinburgh rivals are Hibs. Neil Lennon is another manager that's often ready with a wry quip to satisfy the narrative hungry Scottish game. Fortunately he's also pretty good at the on field side of things. Hibs have won their last four matches. They haven't conceded in the last three. This is all despite losing last season's first choice midfield; John McGinn to Aston Villa, Dylan McGeouch to Sunderland and Scott Allan to Celtic. Lennon has adapted, and his side are playing some excellent, brave football. Their goalkeeper takes the second shortest passes and they make the second most passes per match in the league but they move up the pitch quickly.
Their wingers, led by Martin Boyle, are heavily involved in creating chances. If that doesn't work their midfielders are poised to win the ball back rapidly. Emerson Hyndman is making almost five pressure regains every match. They're not just winning the ball back to pass it about. They take the third most shots in the league. Tellingly, they top the table for 'high press' shots - ones shortly after they've regained possession. In addition they are second for 'clear shots' - ones with only the goalkeeper between shooter and goal.
Although they do concede the third highest average xG per open play shot they are good at limiting chances. The centre back combination of ball player Efe Ambrose and young, aggressive Ryan Porteous has helped them concede the second fewest shots and third lowest xG per game.
Back to the west and there have been dark clouds hanging over Celtic Park. Grumbles about player recruitment persist from both fans and the manager. Rival fans are joking about fancy lighting bought for Champions League nights, a competition they failed to qualify for. There are rumors of a dressing room split after last minute transfer window maneuvers. That all sets the scene for a start in which the teams has only scored seven goals in their first seven matches. Third place for a club which were invincible and scored 106 goals in the 2016/17 season? It doesn't look good. But, despite the doom and gloom, things might not actually be all that bad. Celtic have the highest xG per match. They concede the lowest xG per match. They have the highest xG from set pieces per match. They take the most shots per match. They concede the fewest shots per match. They allow the lowest average xG per open play shot conceded. They've been slow out of the blocks but those are the underlying numbers of champions in waiting.
There have been problems. Early season criticism was aimed at defensive errors especially from Jack Hendry. Odsonne Edouard was viewed as not managing to shoot enough. The key issue is that Celtic have struggled to make high quality chances. Sure, teams sit deep against them but that's been the case before. The Hoops miss the central combination play of Moussa Dembele and Stuart Armstrong. There has been a real lack of quick ball progression out of defense. Scott Brown is now thirty-three but still demands the ball like a young pup. He is needlessly slowing progress into dangerous zones. Kristoffer Ajer hasn't made the line breaking runs into midfield that seemed to be his standard operating procedure. Mikael Lustig has been deployed as a third center back. His sole function there appears to be to exchange sideways pass after sideways pass with Dedryck Boyata.
Consider the difference in Celtic's most recent match with Brown rested and Lustig played as a right back. There are still issues. An imbalanced squad heavy on wingers. Wastefulness from James Forrest (don't be fooled by that four goal haul in one match). Firefighting is often needed behind Lustig. However, if Celtic can continue to play this way they should be at the top of the table soon.
Tactical Variety In Mid-Table
Steve Clarke's Kilmarnock are conceding the second lowest xG per game despite allowing the sixth most shots. Their well drilled structure leads to their matches having the lowest xG overall in the league. Dull? Tactically intriguing? Your mileage may vary. What is certain is that the combination of their center backs heading away crosses, midfielder Alan Power pouncing on second balls and Greg Stewart dribbling to ease pressure has been effective in keeping the Ayrshire club high up the table. It would help though if they encouraged Eamonn Brophy to ease up on his four and half shots per 90 and be a little more selective with his shooting.
In fifth place is the season's surprise package. Livingston are little changed despite the departure of manager David Hopkin post promotion and the hiring and firing of veteran striker Kenny Miller as player manager. Playing at the Tony Macaroni Arena, sponsored by a local Italian restaurant, they aggressively attack all over the plastic pitch. A flood of pressure smothers the opposition. It's hard not to think of their sponsor's Macaroni Cheese Lasagne smothering arteries with a mix of four cheeses and two types of pasta. On field, the goal is to funnel the opposition into directing high balls into the box. Livingston's defenders eat them up like they were dough ball starters. The West Lothian club are profiling like a mid table side, creating the seventh highest and conceding the fifth lowest xG per match. They could be due a bit of a dip though as they have outperformed xG defensively quite significantly.
Exciting times over at Ibrox with Rangers creating the second highest xG per game. They do this by carving out really good chances. They make the most 'clear shots' and have the highest xG per open play shot in the league. Often they overload the right side with James Tavernier, Daniel Candeias, Scott Arfield and Alfredo Morelos linking up well. On the left, young loanee Ryan Kent has stepped in for inured Jamie Murphy to great effect. When Steven Gerrard has altered this 4-3-3 set up to introduce Kyle Lafferty as an aerial weapon they have struggled. This was the case against Motherwell, Livingston and Celtic. Apart from having courage in his convictions, what is needed for Gerrard to get Rangers up the table? Smart squad management given Europa League commitments and some work on set pieces given they concede the second highest xG from them per match in the league.
Aberdeen finished the last two seasons in second. This time they look very much like a mid-table team. They take the fifth most shots and allow the sixth fewest shots. They create the sixth most and concede the fourth lowest xG per match. How are they achieving all this mediocrity? Well they lost two of their central creative outlets, Ryan Christie and Kenny McLean, in the summer. Now they get it wide and swing crosses in. Not the smartest route to goal. Stevie May is yet to score and Sam Cosgrove is only getting low value headed opportunities. At the other end they tend to man mark in midfield and then manfully block from the edge of the box. Aberdeen are marginally overperforming xG conceded but are within a position or two of where they deserve to be.
An even more blocking orientated team are St Johnstone. They allow the most opposition passes per match. They concede the most shots per match in the league. A massive 21.63. However, they allow the second lowest xG per open play shot. They have managed to block just under a third of all the shots they've faced.
Defending like this can backfire. They've conceded eleven goals in their matches against Rangers and Celtic. Up next are critical matches against struggling Motherwell and St Mirren. Fail to win those and they will be drawn into the relegation battle.
In ninth place are Hamilton Academical. They have failed to score in half of their matches. In fact they attempt the fewest shots in the league. They also have the lowest xG per attempt from a corner. No shock that they have the second lowest xG per match. It doesn't get much better at the other end. Once the defense is breached they have conceded eleven goals from the twenty seven open play shots that have landed on target. This from an xG of just 3.69. Whether they've been a bit unfortunate or not in this regard remains to be seen but either way, it doesn't help results.
Motherwell haven't won a match since September 1st. Three of their next four matches are against St Johnstone, Dundee and St Mirren. This is a key period for the Steelmen to show their mettle and turn their season around. Given that they make the eighth highest and concede the sixth least xG per match they might be considered unlucky to be in tenth. They are an aggressive team. Their keeper kicks it the second longest in the league on average. They employ the second highest press. They allow the second fewest passes per defensive action and allow the joint lowest opposition pass completion.
However, they do allow the fourth most shots per match. A lot of the open play shots they are conceding are from the zone Cedric Kipre defended before his August move to Wigan Athletic. An upturn in goalkeeper Scott Carson's form and a replacement for Kipre might be vital building blocks for Motherwell's resurgence.
St Mirren's new manager Oran Kearney has his work cut out. Poor recruitment has left the side looking ill equipped throughout. One loanee, Nicolai Brock-Madsen, has been sent back to his parent club this week after the striker managed just one shot in over four hours on the pitch. He's not been the only failure in this area. The side have created only fifty shots from open play and have the lowest xG per game in the league. No surprise that they've scored the fewest goals. They're also passive defensively. They allow the highest opposition pass completion, give up good shooting opportunities and struggle to save the resulting shots. Of the thirty seven unblocked shots that have landed on target from open play against them fourteen have gone in.
In dead last with one win and seven losses are Dundee FC. After persistent rumors they sacked Neil McCann this week and replaced him with Jim McIntyre. Under McCann, they liked to pass it around but were a bit unsure of themselves when they entered the final third. They made the sixth most passes per game but took the fourth fewest shots. Those shots had the lowest average xG in the league. Fifty three of the seventy five open play shots they've attempted were blocked or off target. They've made the third fewest aggressive actions per match and concede great swathes of territory out of possession. This has led to them conceding the second most shots in the league. Worse still the open play shots that they faced (shown below) had the highest average xG in the division.
All this stacked on top of each other computes quite simply as the third lowest xG for and the highest xG against in the SPFL Premiership. Major improvements are needed if they are to have any chance of survival.
So, after eight weeks no team is winless and no team is undefeated. The table does have an unfamiliar feel. However, Celtic's underlying numbers make it look like they should win the league. Hearts, Hibs, Kilmarnock and Rangers will contest the European spots and be a real threat in the Scottish Cup. Motherwell should rise clear of the dogfight and join Livingston, Aberdeen and St Johnstone in mid-table. It's going to be a real scrap for survival between Hamilton, St Mirren and Dundee.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association