Niall McGinn - Aberdeen
Ever since Aberdeen’s thrilling 3-1 victory over Heart of Midlothian at Tynecastle, McGinn’s importance to Aberdeen has slowly superseded. The fact the win came more than 15 months ago shows the gradual stagnation and then decline of the Northern Irishman.
The 29-year-old was dominant at Tynecastle, scoring a fantastic individual goal and providing a constant attacking menace.
In the intervening period he has been part of a side that has finished runners-up, while playing and scoring at the European Championships in France. However, there has been a deterioration in his all-round quality. He has still scored goals but his crossing from open play has been a source of frustration for Aberdeen fans, while he has faded out of too many matches, or not made himself known at all.
There were signs he was getting back to his best against Motherwell on Friday night. He finished a fine counter-attack from Hayes to top off a more threatening performance. There were numerous quality deliveries and an intensity to his play. He is one of the best in the league at dropping the shoulder to make room for a cross or to simply scamper away from a full-back.
He’s out of contract at the end of the season, but if he can find consistentcy Aberdeen will be looking to tie him down, while he will give them a massive boost in trying to oust Rangers for second place.
Stuart Armstrong – Celtic
There are a number of Celtic players who will be anticipating an interesting 2017. Can Leigh Griffiths play as much as he wants? Will Moussa Dembele be prised away from Celtic Park with a huge offer? Is Nir Bitton’s time at Celtic coming to an end?
All are valid and interesting storylines, but perhaps the most intriguing is that of Stuart Armstrong. He was seen as one of many players whose future at Celtic Park was under threat following the arrival of Brendan Rodgers. Yet, he has not looked back following his arrival on to the Hampden Park pitch as Celtic were looking for the inspiration to defeat Rangers in the Betfred Cup semi final.
Since his redeployment in the middle of the park he has been excellent. His energy and reading of the game allows him to press the way Rodgers desires; his game-intelligence is improving all the time, and he is a constant goal threat.
In Spain they talk of midfielders possessing ‘llegada’, which is the ability to arrive in the box to score. Case in point: the opening goal against Partick Thistle. He has a sniffer dog’s instinct for space and where he can hurt teams.
The issue is will Rodgers be looking for upgrades in the midfield. The midfield was a problematic area in certain Champions League fixtures as the ball was given away. Armstrong was guilty of doing so, especially in the two games against Borussia Monchengladbach.
He is held in high esteem by Rodgers, captaining the side in the recent victory over Dundee, and is a reliable seven or eight out of 10 each week in the Premiership. Can he make the next step on the European stage?
Craig Wighton – Dundee
He may only be 19 years old but it feels like Wighton has been around for years. And, well, that’s because he has. He made seven stars for Dundee in the Championship as a 16-year-old, while enjoying loan spells at Brechin City and Raith Rovers.
With 87 first-team games under his belt the next step is to consolidate his position as a Premiership player with the hope he adds a lot more to his nine career goals.
There has always been the belief that he needed a run of games in his best position rather than 15 minutes here, five minutes there in different positions across the front line. With Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart having departed, and their replacements failing to impress, he has finally been rewarded with a run of games.
He has started the last nine games, which has witnessed an upturn in Dundee’s fortunes, the four wins and a draw taking them into seventh. He has formed a decent partnership with Marcus Haber, the Canadian striker able to occupy defenders to allow Wighton to play his natural game. He can drop deep and float, look to get on the ball in space and penetrate defences.
However, his return of one goal so far in the league is disappointing for a player of his potential. Increasing his goal tally will likely feature high on his list of New Year resolutions. If he can achieve that then Dundee will like their chances of a top six finish.
Martin Canning – Hamilton Academical
Technically still a player . . .
Since taking over from Alex Neil as Accies boss Martin Canning has been in charge of 75 leagues games. His win percentage is *look away now Hamilton fans* 20 per cent.
With two wins in 19 games in the 2014-2015 season they avoided both relegation and the play-off. The following season they avoided the play-off by seven points despite a run of one win in 15 games. They haven’t won since October this season and sit in the relegation play-off spot.
A lot of managers have been sacked for producing much better returns. Yet, so far this season Hamilton’s performances have been substantially better than their results. They have played positive, tenacious football but a ruthless streak has been conspicuous by its absence.
The reason Hamilton are where they are is because they have lost *look away now Hamilton fans* a staggering 22 points from winning positions.
Yes, the players need to take a share of the blame. But the season is yet to reach New Year and Hamilton have missed out on the equivalent of seven wins and draw – they would be sitting second – due to their inability to either hold on to leads or put games out of sight of their opponents.
That is an issue with mentality and organisation and that’s a big part of Canning’s responsibility. He is only 35 year old and is still learning on the job. But the early months of 2017 will be crucial if he doesn’t want to be looking for a new job.
Callum Paterson – Heart of Midlothian
There is no question that Paterson’s future lies away from Tynecastle. What will be interesting is where it lies and when he will depart.
Hearts are intent on playing hardball with prospective buyers, continuing to demand top dollar for their roving right-back, safe in the knowledge they will be due compensation when he moves on.
It is believed the Scotland international sees his future in England, and he currently possesses the physical attributes to succeed, certainly in the Championship. Question marks still surround the defensive aspects of his game. He has a tendency to leave space behind him, while he has to get better at stopping wide men getting a cross into the box.
Due to these fallibilities it is highly unlikely he will go straight to the Premiership. He will need to choose his next club wisely, a place where the coach will help and allow him to improve, while not curbing his attacking instincts which could see him net double figures in England’s second tier.
The right move could set him up to be Scotland’s right-back for the next decade.
Greg Tansey – Inverness Caledonian Thistle
Just over a year ago Tansey was apparently on the verge of a move east to Aberdeen only for it to fall through. It wouldn’t be erroneous to say that the failed transfer prompted a slump in form which hasn’t yet recovered.
Another player on the list whose contract expires in the summer, the 28-year-old has witnessed his influence wane. Tansey is adept at playing short combinations and longer passes to switch play or send players wide or in behind defences. Towards the end of last season his range departed him.
This season, the team’s new set-up with him dropping in to the backline and having Iain Vigurs rather than the physical attributes of Ross Draper alongside him has spread him too thin. He is not getting on the ball in areas he likes as much as he used to and with fewer players stretching games there isn’t the options he is used to.
It is likely he will move on in the summer but such is his reputation he will have overtures from other clubs. The quality of clubs interested could depend on how well he responds after the winter break and if he can help steer Inverness away from relegation.
Souleymane Coulibaly – Kilmarnock
It can only be one player. Coulibaly has been a revelation for Killie since signing in the summer; easily the finest of a whole host of signings.
His eight league goals account for half of Kilmarnock’s goal tally. That’s despite him being fielded in a wide role.
The Ivorian, 22 years old today, spoke confidently during his introduction to the press, and it is unlikely he will stay at Kilmarnock long if there is more appealing offers on the table. Before then he will have a crucial role to play if Kilmarnock are to survive the bottom two places. His pace and power has replaced that of Josh Magennis and he is capable of the spectacular.
Lee Clark has made it known that they can’t continue to rely on Coulibaly, but with Kirs Boyd and Nathan Tyson having netted three goals between them the reliance looks unlikely to reduce.
Chris Cadden – Motherwell
There is an intriguing dynamic evolving at Fir Park under Mark McGhee. Following the club’s Scottish Youth Cup victory there has been an emergence of propitious young talent into the squad. They’ve joined an experienced spine in Craig Samson, Stephen McManus, Keith Lasley and Scott McDonald.
The most promising of the new batch is Chris Cadden. The 20-year-old broke through during the second half of last season and has cemented his place this season, starting every game.
In a recent BT Sport feature Motherwell team mates said he was McGhee’s favourite, but there is no question there is an abundance of talent, plus the physique of a modern day footballer. The quality he possesses could be seen during the 4-3 defeat to Celtic where he tormented Emilio Izaguirre, so much so that the Honduran international was subbed before the break.
Yet, a question that should be posed, what is his best position?
He has been used on the right of midfield, the centre of midfield and the right of a midfield three. The coming year should see him nail down his best position which is the centre of the park. He is dependable on the ball, mobile and works both ways. Qualities which should a two or three-man midfield.
2017 will be the year where his responsibility increases and he leads his fellow youngsters and Motherwell forward.
Stuart Bannigan – Partick Thistle
Bannigan hasn’t played since March and following knee surgery in August he was set to miss between six and nine months of the season. Depending on his recovery he could be in place in the weeks after the winter break or for the run-in.
The 24-year-old, who signed a two-year-deal in June, would have thrived this season, the way Thistle have been playing. The change to a 3-5-2 would likely have suited Bannigan. He often provides balance between midfield and attack. He links with the forwards with direct play, and has an intelligence beyond his years which he uses to organise midfield.
Thistle, like Hamilton, have struggled to see out games, and Bannigan’s game management would have aided the team as they look to push towards the top six. His return would, as the cliché goes, be like a new signing.
Thistle are progressing under Alan Archibald and the sooner they can get Bannigan back the smoother it will go.
Martyn Waghorn – Rangers
The latter months of 2016 have been underwhelming for Waghorn. There have been niggling injuries, a lot of time on the bench and an off-field altercation.
Only once this season has he completed 90 minutes in the league, with a total minutes of 638 minutes game time in the Premiership. He started his first game since October earlier this month where he was excellent in a 2-1 defeat of Hamilton, netting the two goals which won his side the game.
Playing from the right of a front three he was a constant threat with his pace, power and control. There has been a lack of incision from Rangers this season with Aberdeen and Hearts having both scored more and Celtic recording nearly double the amount of goals. Waghorn offered that penetration which has been lacking.
There has been speculation regarding his future, but analysing the Rangers squad he is the most reliable in front of goal. He has the qualities you want in a forward, it may just be the case of attitude and application.
The second half of the season should see Waghorn have a greater presence in attack in the second half of the season. He will surely add to his three goals and keep Rangers as favourites to finish best of the rest. What the future holds during and after the summer . . . who knows.
Andrew Davies – Ross County
If Liam Boyce continues his current strike rate he will attract interest both north and south of the border, while also netting 20-plus goals in the league. Currently his goals are sending County in to the top six, albeit there is a long way to go. Jim McIntyre will hope others will soon lessen the load on the Northern Irishman, while also expecting his defence to tighten up.
County have kept one clean sheet in a dozen games, and only Highland rivals Inverness have conceded more than the Staggies’ 32. For that to be turned around a lot will be expected of Andrew Davies. He wanted to leave in the summer before performing a u-turn, leaving McIntyre with three similar centre-backs.
A back three experiment didn’t work and the signing of Jay McEveley hasn’t turned out as well as hoped. There is no doubt Davies is the most talented defender, although one who is susceptible to pace. His experience, leadership, organisational skills and qualities in duels should give the side a base to build.
His contract expiries in the summer and would be surprising to see him extend his stay, but his presence, along with that of Boyce, should ensure County extend their stay in the top-flight.
Danny Swanson – St Johnstone
Without an agent, Swanson has already refused offers to extend his contract at McDiarmid Park and is reluctant to sit down with the club to hear more. He sees his future away from Perth, despite the form he has shown in two spells with the Saintees.
He has been linked with a move to Hibernian, the club he supports, but he has said in the past that he feels he has a point to prove in England. With the way it failed to work out at Hearts the last time he left St Johnstone his next move is of increasing interest.
It is somewhat surprising that he is currently not interested in hearing what his current employers have to say, due to the way Tommy Wright coaxes the best out of him, and how well he has played in Perth.
Top scorer, the 29-year-old is the stardust on top of the organisation and structure of St Johnstone. He is given a platform to create, take players on and shoot. A key competent in what is surely going to be another top six finish. He has talked of a Scotland call-up and perhaps thinks a move to a bigger club may help him achieve such a feat.