On December 17th, 2016 Aberdeen had just lost 2-1 to Ross County at Victoria Park. The Dons had a lackluster performance that saw them have a lower expected goals total than the Staggies. The lost saw them go to seven points behind Rangers for second place, albeit with a game in hand. Since that loss in the Highlands, Aberdeen has gone on a tremendous run, winning 10 matches and losing only 2. Even the matches they lost were against run-away champions elect Celtic and to Hamilton in a match they had a 2.17 to 0.34 xG advantage.
From the beginning of the season to December 17th, Aberdeen averaged an xG of 1.42 for, but a 2.25 xG per game after 12/17. They averaged 10.65 shots a game before 12/17 and 15.25 shots a game after 12/17.So what has caused Aberdeen’s great run to move into second place over Rangers and the rest of the league with some breathing room? Clearly something has changed at Aberdeen and after looking at individual numbers, it seems that Kenny McClean has been the catalyst to this run for the Dons.
When looking at McLean’s numbers between the two halves of Aberdeen’s season, it is clear that McLean’s influence was much greater after December when Aberdeen found their most recent form. While McLean scored 2 goals before December 17th compared to none since, in every other attacking stat we see Kenny McLean’s performance metrics improve.
The finishing fairy has been a bit hot and cold with McLean, as he scored 2 non-penalty goals before December 17th but had an expected goal total of 1 and xG per 90 minutes of 0.06. After the 17th, the midfielder has 4.4 xG and a 0.35 xG per 90. While he has not scored since November, if McLean can continue to put these xG numbers he will likely be among the goals again soon.
While Kenny McLean has not contributed goals to Aberdeen’s recent run, he certainly has been a playmaker for the Dons lately. McLean has contributed 2 assists to the Reds since December 17th, where he had 0 before that. When looking at the Expected Assists stat I discussed last month, before the 17 McLean had a rather meager 0.71 xA and 0.04 xA per 90 compared to a 2.02 xA and 0.16 xA per 90 after December 17th. With Key Passes, or passes that directly lead to a shot, McLean increased the number of key passes he made from 6 before 12/17 to 15 after. This is a jump from 0.35 to 1.20 Key Passes per 90 minutes. He also has had 6 Key Passes leading to Danger Zone shots after 12/17, compared to 4 from 12/17 and before. McLean has made his influence felt for Aberdeen and it seems that the Dons have benefitted from his growing influence on the pitch.
So what has changed since that December 17th game against Ross County with McLean? It seems that Derek McInnes has been deploying McLean in a more advanced role. There was no doubt James Maddison was very talented and important to Aberdeen the first half of the season, but once he went back to Norwich City the opportunity opened up for McLean to take up the advanced position Maddison was deployed in. I asked Aberdeen supporter and early friend of the blog Scott Burness if he thought McLean was playing higher up and he said:
“McLean has indeed been playing a more advanced role. On Saturday (March 18th) v Hearts he was playing more advanced than a typical 10. Think that was simply a tactical move. Recently there’s been less need to chase games second half (other than Hamilton and Motherwell) and as such Shinnie has been in midfield rather than left back. Normally when [Aberdeen] chase games, Shinnie drops to LB McLean fills his role in CM. That said, when chasing games [Aberdeen have] gone to 3 at the back allowing McLean to stay further forward. Maddison not coming back has been a blessing in disguise as that has allowed McLean to flourish.”
There has been controversy surrounding McLean not getting a call up to the latest Scotland squad, furthered only after Scotland’s uninspiring performance in their friendly versus Canada. The Dons midfielder can feel slightly aggrieved not receiving a Scotland cap after this improved form and helping to lead Aberdeen to this great run. However, not getting Scotland caps will not be a problem if McLean can continue this form. If Gordon Strachan is to remain as manager of Scotland, most are calling for him to start to look towards the future with the Scotland squads he will be calling up and McLean will be a part of the those squads in the future with this form.
This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.