Scottish football is currently blessed with an array of talented centre midfielders, both at domestic and international level. Neither Kenny McLean or Graeme Shinnie can get a sniff at Gordon Strachan’s side.
Yet, both are firm favourites at Terrace Towers. The question is whether they can break into the top three with both Celtic and Aberdeen dominating the upper echelons. Once we move down the list it invariably gets harder to separate players.
Such is the standard of midfield players there are a couple of surprise omissions and a few who can feel pleased with their season of work, however, it was simply the case of good, but not good enough. A stop-start season left Ryan Christie on the outside looking in, while Emerson Hyndman was very close to making it due to some fine early performances at Ibrox. Kilmarnock’s Gary Dicker and Partick Thistle’s Abdul Osman have had solid seasons but we’re afraid solid just doesn’t cut it.
Finally, a confession. There were some hastily rearranged selections after one player shot to prominence in recent weeks.
Without further ado, we’ve collated who we feel are the best 12 centre midfielders plying their trade in Scotland. If you want to recall last season’s elite dozen, you can find that here.
Note: this is a selection of the 12 best overall and not just their form this season.
• Click here to listen to the episode of The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast where the top 12 was debated.
12. Adam Barton (Partick Thistle)
*Insert joke about there being another Barton on this list*
Now we have that out the way, Adam Barton is perhaps the most surprising inclusion in the list. This is not a slight on his ability, after all, he is a very slick football player. The surprise is due to the fact he was a relative unknown coming into the season. Few within Scottish football will have known much about the Englishman. His previous clubs include Coventry City, Preston North End and Portsmouth, playing the majority of his career in the third and fourth tier of English football.
However, the lanky midfielder was rated highly in England with Phil Brown referring to him as the team’s “orchestra leader” while at Preston – a period when he was linked with Liverpool and held talks with Stoke City. But injuries hampered any developments. Yet, he has forged a career in the professional game and excelled at Firhill, coming a long way from being released from Blackburn for not being able to run. It turned out he had a broken back.
Players possessing a laid-back style are not taken too fondly in British football but Barton has had no such problems in Maryhill, winning the club’s player of the year award. He has shone in two positions. With Alan Archibald switching between 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1 systems, Barton has been useful in both. Playing in the centre of a back three, he’s provided reassurance to both Liam Lindsay and Danny Devine, who have both improved as the season has progressed. His aerial presence and panache in possession allowed him to both repel aerial assaults and start attacks from deep.
But more recently he has been impressing in the centre of midfield. While it’s not his strong point, he can mix it in the midfield battle but prefers to read the game and break opposition attacks through interceptions, while his ability in the air is useful protection against direct play. But he is at his best and most beneficial to Thistle when orchestrating play, moving the ball side to side and allowing Thistle to build-up play and give the team a midfield foothold alongside the more combative Abdual Osman and dynamic Ryan Edwards.
One of the signings of the season.
11. John McGinn (Hibernian)
John has dropped six places from last year for one very good reason. He’s not had a strong season. His nomination for Player of the Year was a perfect example of rewarding reputation rather than actual input, as he’s definitely not been the best player at Hibs in the 2016/17 Ladbrokes Championship. He may not have even been the best midfielder on his own side (Marvin Bartley).
Hopefully for Hibs and Scotland’s sake, this is a by-product of the highly talented midfielder becoming bored of his role as the big fish in a small pond. Rather than showing his skills at the Cheaper Insurance Direct Stadium or the Tony Macaroni Arena, he wishes to be pushing himself to the limit against the best of the top flight. Ask any ex-professional and they’ll tell you, playing either with or against better players will push you to become one yourself.
It would certainly explain why McGinn, though average in the second tier, has continued to shine when faced with top flight opposition, namely Hearts. After putting in a commendable defensive job to throw Hearts’ patient passing game off its stride in the first game at Tynecastle, he then dominated his foes in the cup replay at Easter Road.
McGinn was magnificent that night, showing all the attributes at his disposal: passing range, vision, running ability (both with and without the football), tenacious tackling and a seemingly never ending source of energy. It’s easy to see why he’s a Scotland player and why every BBC pundit thinks he’s had a cracking season even when he’s not.
10. Anthony Andreu (Dundee United)
Andreu’s absence from the Championship Player of the Year nominees has to be one of the biggest injustices of the Scottish football season. He’s pretty much carried the Dundee United attack for most of the season, only being helped sporadically by the likes of Scott Fraser, Simon Murray and Thomas Mikkelsen. Finishing a distant second/third may feel underwhelming enough for United fans, but there’s no telling how poor they could have been without Andreu’s contribution.
He makes it into this top 12 over other impressive lower tier midfielders (Marvin Bartley, Craig Sibbald, Jamie Lindsay) because we know he can do it at the top level. The seven-figure price tag may have been Alex Neil doing his old club a favour, but there’s no argument that Andreu was top notch during Hamilton’s first season back in the top flight, and he would likely have been on his way for a significant fee regardless of Neil’s departure.
In some ways he’s a typical foreign No.10. His technique is superb, his touch is close and he can make things happen around the penalty area. But in other ways he’s thoroughly Scottish: working hard for the team, mucking in on the defensive side, and playing with selflessness when the situation calls for it.
Due to return to Norwich in the summer, he’ll be a massive miss for United next season.
9. Don Cowie (Heart of Midlothian)
Having exited the Scottish Cup to Hibs in February last season Hearts season had all but ended, taking into consideration the eight point buffer and two games in hand they held over fourth position. Eleven days after the derby disappointment Hearts defeated Kilmarnock 1-0 in a nondescript encounter at Tynecastle. It would have been a forgetful experience for all involved if it wasn’t for Don Cowie living up to his ironic ‘Donaldo’ moniker.
Standing over a free-kick near the half-way line, Cowie proceeded to do a stuttering walk 360 degrees around the ball. Pause. Then do another 180. Pause. He then passed straight to a Killie player allowing them to break forward. It encapsulated a frustrating final few months of the season for Hearts and Cowie.
The veteran midfielder was seen as quite the coup with more than 200 appearances in the English leagues with Cardiff City, Watford and Wigan Athletic. Yet, he had barely kicked a ball in the first half of the season. He was off the pace and did very little to impress. In fact he did the opposite.
Slowly but surely he has won many Hearts fan over with his willingness, his endeavour and energy in a season which has been largely missing all three elements. His standing among fans was shown at home to Aberdeen when his removal was met by a cacophony of boos directed at Ian Cathro.
Cowie is heavily involved in much of Hearts’ attacking play, whether playing in a narrow role from one of the flanks or through the middle. He has created 11 goals this season, creating many more chances with his forward passing which he does frequently. Cowie’s combination of combative and direct play should see him heralded at Tynecastle. His reputation may have been dented from his first few months at the club and simply being apart of the shambles which is the current Hearts squad, especially away from Tynecastle.
Despite being 34 years of age there are few signs of him regressing. Clearly one of the fittest and most professional players in the division.
8. Callum McGregor (Celtic)
Only recently on these pages did we focus on Callum McGregor’s integral role within the Celtic squad, rather than the team itself. A player who has, on occasion, been much-maligned by the Celtic support. Fans looked at McGregor and all they saw was a player who had to improve, or, preferably, the club bring in an upgrade.
But what the 23-year-old has done is silently impress Brendan Rodgers. There is little flashy about McGregor, nothing pretentious or ostentatious, just a player who listens, learns and improves. A character and attitude which suggests he really is the player who is trying to make the most of his ability, the player who actually comes in before anyone else and stays behind after every player has gone.
The aforementioned article on the schemer compared McGregor to John O’Shea. Some would see that as a damnation of his ability. It was nothing of the sort. It was praise for his versatility, his work ethic and his ability.
In recent months, or more pertinently the two recent Old Firm derby wins, many doubters have been won over. He scored in consecutive games against Rangers and was ubiquitous in Celtic’s dominance. Yet, season to season he has been improving, stealthily. Doing work which perhaps goes unnoticed by many, but not Rodgers.
He scored 14 in a season-long loan to Notts County, three less than in the whole of his Celtic career, which, coupled with his goals against Rangers, suggests he should score more regularly. But his importance to Celtic and Rodgers is in his work-rate, ideal for the pressing ethos at the club as well as being reliable in possession. As per Celtic By Numbers the quantity of his passes have increased over the last three seasons, as has their accuracy, while defensively he has improved, making more interceptions and more defensive clearances.
Rodgers and his team-mates can trust him, McGregor is reliable and constantly improving.
7. Ryan Jack (Aberdeen)
Aberdeen’s captain is the type of midfielder who can split opinion in British football. The term ‘what does he do?’ gets bandied around a lot. Michael Carrick is tarred with the same brush – are we saying Ryan jack is Aberdeen’s Michael Carrick? Yes.
The Englishman has his detractors both within and outwith the game. Despite playing more than 450 games for Manchester United over eleven seasons, and despite winning five Premier League titles and a Champions League trophy among others, he has won only 34 English caps. Stewart Downing, Wayne Bridge and Shaun Wright-Phillips all have more. Yet, players to have played with him can’t speak highly enough of the passing and calming qualities he brings to the centre of midfield.
Jack possesses a similar ability, in relative terms. Pedro Caixinha may have angered Derek McInnes, as well as a number of other managers who have nothing to do with Jack or Aberdeen, with his comments about Jack but he was on the money when he spoke about the balance he gives the team when it’s attacking, his consistency, his game intelligence and being available as an out-ball.
It was an astute observation of what Jack adds to the Dandies. He may not split open defences or play sweeping World Cup passes without looking. But he recycles the ball effectively and efficiently. Why try and do something you aren’t good at when you can play simple, crisp passes to the likes of Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn? His passing stats show a reliable holding midfielder who isn’t simply about sideways passes, he does look to get the ball forward.
He reads the game well, both in his positioning, awareness and anticipation, recording positive figures in interceptions and defensive duels.
There is an argument to be made that Jack will be the hardest role to fill for McInnes this summer, such is his impact and presence in the Aberdeen team.
6. Arnaud Djoum (Heart of Midlothian)
This inclusion is based on the body of work rather than recent form. If it were based on performances in 2017, Djoum would be nowhere near this list, but considering the deterioration throughout the squad since the arrival of Ian Cathro and departure of competency, the Cameroonian shouldn’t be too harshly judged for letting the malaise affect his own displays.
It’s also not helped Djoum’s cause that he’s been surrounded by equally passive team-mates over the last few months. He used to stand out in Robbie Neilson’s side as being the player with a bit of poise and technique. While all those around him were losing theirs, Djoum would keep his head, use a little bit of skill and suddenly a bit of football would break out. Now there’s Malaury Martin and Alexandros Tziolis. Each of them are similar players to Djoum in that sense, while sharing his biggest weakness: they play at a speed a notch or two lower than the 100mph we’re used to seeing in this country.
If Hearts can rediscover some sort of up-and-at-them identity over the summer, then Djoum should flourish again as the bit of something different. He’s got great close control, is a confident passer and can make those late runs into the penalty area you want from a supporting midfielder, netting 13 times over the past two campaigns.
He’s also got a perfectly spherical cranium. It’s not relevant to anything but worth pointing out all the same.
5. Kenny McLean (Aberdeen)
Ever since signing from St Mirren Aberdeen fans have been patiently waiting for the form Kenny McLean has displayed since the end of 2016. He made the move north from Paisley in February 2015 for more than £300,000 but for the majority of his career at Pittodrie he has too often blown hot and cold.
The midfielder shot to prominence at St Mirren, who slumped to relegation the season he was sold to Aberdeen. His departure was seen as one of the reasons for dropping out the league. Two years on and he has been the catalyst in Aberdeen’s rise to second place, ahead of Rangers, a team with a far greater budget.
Even so, McLean’s season has been synonymous with Aberdeen’s. He was most often stationed in a deeper centre midfield role with James Maddison deployed higher up the pitch. While there were moments of flashes for the Dons, notably the victory over Rangers at Pittodrie, it was all too fleeting.
On December 18 the Dandies sat in third place with the same number of points as Hearts in fourth and seven behind second-placed Rangers. They had just been defeated by Ross County. A trip to Fir Park proved the turning point in McLean’s and Aberdeen’s campaign.
Stationed in the attacking midfield role within a balanced team, the Dons won 3-1 and went on a fine run which has led to a runners-up position and a Scottish Cup final. Integral to the turnaround has been McLean. He has been a proactive presence in the midfield, and has carried his form as a number 10 back to the centre of midfield when called upon.
He plays a high percentage of through-balls and makes a number of passes per game to the final third, as shown in the graphic at the top of the page. And with a passing success rate that hovers around 80 per cent it shows how accurate he is. The switch has made him much more active in the attacking phases but not nearly as clinical as he perhaps should be. He has as many yellow cards as goals this season (five) and only four assists.
Yet, he has not neglected his defensive duties. Aberdeen have suffered defensive errors throughout the season. Neither Ash Taylor or Mark Reynolds are reliable, but the team defend solidly as a whole and that is down to the work rate put in by the likes of McLean who makes a number of interceptions per game and has a high defensive duel success rate for an attacking midfielder.
His form has led to increasing calls for him to be involved with Scotland. If he were to increase his output in terms of goals and assists he’d make it impossible for him to be ignored.
4. Graeme Shinnie (Aberdeen)
He’s definitely now a centre-midfielder, isn’t he? Even the Aberdeen fans who were vocally critical of Derek McInnes and his refusal to play Shinnie in his natural position left-back have now been quietened. Andrew Considine, largely viewed as a centre-back masquerading on the left of the back four, has enjoyed the finest season of his career to date. There’s no longer much evidence to support the argument that Shinnie must be used in defence.
Which might be the best thing for Aberdeen, because a ‘natural’ in the area or not, Shinnie is a tremendous centre-midfielder. The boundless energy which enabled him to be a superb two-way full-back help him to become an industrious midfielder. He’s always in fifth gear and he never seems to let him.
His enthusiasm for getting around the pitch has even seen him used at the attacking midfield position. Though he’s not a natural scorer, evidenced by his three goals over three seasons, he still enthusiastically attacks the box in the role and forces himself into the minds of opposing defenders.
Really, though, it’s without the ball where Shinnie really shines. For any side looking to outfight Aberdeen, he’s the terrier that refuses to back down. For anyone looking to pass their way around them, he’s a retriever, hunting down the ball and incessantly breaking up the play.
3. Tom Rogic (Celtic)
Fitness and injury. Those are the only two issues stopping Rogic from being the best player in Scottish football. Over the last three seasons he’s played 38 league games. Most of those either end around the hour-mark, as he runs out of steam, or come via a substitute appearance as he looks to play his way back into the starting XI following the latest injury set-back. Just when it looks like he’s truly cemented his place as Celtic’s No.10, and is building up his reputation as one of the most feared attackers in the league, his body breaks down again.
Hopefully he can eventually put these problems behind him. Because when he’s at the peak of his game he’s a devastating attacking player. There’s no-one else in the country, not even Moussa Dembele or Scott Sinclair, who can match his unique blend of power and technique. Taking the ball in tight areas, he’s equally capable of dancing around his opponent or running right through them. Winning possession from him is a fool’s errand for most defenders. He just uses his ample frame to shield them away, and then attacks the space.
Then there’s his shooting ability. From anywhere inside 30 yards the man is a threat. His strike is both accurate and ferocious, and it’s easy to imagine him bagging 20 goals across a campaign if he would stay fit. Despite missing four months of this campaign he’s still tallied ten goals.
2. Scott Brown (Celtic)
When last year’s top 12s were collated, there was a real debate over the Celtic captain and whether he merited a conclusion. In the end he just sneaked in, placing at No.11. This was an acknowledgement of career accomplishment rather than anything else, because on form alone he wouldn’t have been anywhere near the list.
Well, it goes to show how much difference 12 months can make. It’s been written about at length already, but it deserves to be repeated: Brown is a player reborn under Brendan Rodgers. Whether it’s the fact that he’s finally fit after a series of injury problems, or his new boss concentrating his role on the defensive side of the game and not asking too much of him, he just seems to have rediscovered some of the pace and quickness which defined his early career.
It was a shame his team-mates hogged most of the headlines, which counted against him at voting time as he missed out on a Player of the Year nomination. Across the entire campaign, he’s been Celtic’s second best player behind Scott Sinclair.
1. Stuart Armstrong (Celtic)
Twelve months ago even the most optimistic member of the Armstrong family would have scoffed at the idea that Stuart would be in the running for player of the season. Not just Celtic’s. But Scottish football’s. Even towards the end of October it was a scenario which looked highly unlikely.
Then, there were 27 minutes left at Mount Florida. Twenty seven minutes which, although possibly a hyperbolic summation, which changed the career of Stuart Armstrong.
Signed half-way through the 2014-2015 season, Armstrong looked to have found his feet immediately. But what followed was 18 months of mediocrity and frustration, on the periphery of games. In Deila’s final season he finished only two league games after New Year. He did not feature in any top 12 list last season – Gary Mackay-Steven did. Like many in the Celtic squad, he probably feared for his future at Parkhead.
In the opening couple of months of the season he flitted in and out the team, but it was clear, early on, that Rodgers saw him as a centre midfielder even if he filled in on the flanks. Then came the sliding doors moment. The Betfred Cup semi-final.
Celtic were dominant but struggling to breakthrough an uncommonly organised Rangers defence. Nir Bitton was at his pedestrian worst in the centre of the Celtic midfield. What Rodgers needed was drive. Enter Armstrong. The former Dundee United man brought a powerful direct presence to proceedings. Celtic upped the ante and avoided extra-time with a late winner.
Armstrong has not looked back. A Scotland call-up and cap followed with Gordon Strachan describing him as one of the most impressive Scottish players in March ahead of the country’s crucial clash with Slovenia.
Meanwhile, back at Celtic Park he has been vibrant. Preferring the left of the two number eight positions in the Celtic midfield, he has been emboldened by the freedom to move laterally and more importantly vertically. A destructive triumvirate has developed with Armstrong linking effectively with Kieran Tierney and Scott Sinclair.
He has all the qualities, technical, physical and mental, to go far with Celtic and his career. He’s already been earmarked as a potential Celtic captain but unsurprisingly he has attracted attention from the English Premier League. He possesses deceptive acceleration which allows him to break the midfield lines, he passes well and forward, while being very precise in his shooting – only Lionel Messi has scored more goals from outside the box than Armstrong in all of Europe’s top flights (as per @theSPFLRadar).
Fifteen goals and seven assists from the centre. An excellent season and worthy of the top spot.