The fifth and final part in our series counting down the best players from the SPFL in 2015.
10. Virgil van Dijk (Celtic)
An underrated strength of Virgil van Dijk was his ability to cause chaos in the opposing defence while still being 40 yards from goal. He received plenty of plaudits for his other abilities as an attacker: how he was an aerial threat from set-pieces; how he could take free-kicks; how he had enough ability to act as an emergency striker. But there wasn’t enough spoken about what he could do when he received the ball a few yards into his own half, looked up at the opposition team sagging off and decided to charge forward.
When opponents face Celtic there are only so many threats to cover, even with 11 men behind the ball. A centre back capable of dribbling, playing one-twos and shooting from distance was something teams weren’t prepared for. And when an opposing defender broke rank to try and stop him it would throw the whole defensive shape out of whack, enabling others to exploit the space once van Dijk had shifted the play.
If you don’t believe me, look back at Celtic’s goals last season. A ludicrously high number of them begin with van Dijk in possession in his own half.
He, deservedly, got stick for his defensive performance in Europe across his Celtic career. But in Scottish football he was flawless and deserves to be in this top 10 despite playing only half the year.
9. Stefan Johansen (Celtic)
Johansen is placed at No.9 for two reasons.
1) He was voted Player of the Year for last season despite having a slow start to the 2014-15 campaign. Therefore, this would suggest he had a better start to 2015 than van Dijk.
2) Since the beginning of this term he has contributed as much as van Dijk - who was sold in August.
The baffling contrast in his play between either side of the summer break seemed to be explained when it emerged in late September the Norwegian had been suffering with a back problem. But it’s now been a few months since he was supposedly returning to full fitness and he’s still not gotten his mojo back.
8. Liam Boyce (Ross County)
If you’d told me this time last year that Liam Boyce would score 25 goals in 2015 then I’d have given you the kind of polite yet worrisome look usually reserved for those who think it’s acceptable to talk to strangers on public transport.
There looked to be no hope for County when 2014 drew to a close, and the same could be said of Boyce’s ability after he netted only three goals in 14 appearances, the last of which saw him ordered off in televised defeat at the hands of Dundee United. (It’s worth noting that Nadir Ciftci scored twice in that game for context on how much Scottish football has changed in the time since.)
Everything soon clicked into place for Jim McIntyre’s side. Boyce wouldn’t hit the goal trail immediately, but piece-by-piece his confidence was rebuilt and he soon discovered his scoring touch, including netting a hat-trick against St Mirren - his first of THREE this year.
Along with an obvious eye for goal, Boyce has a soft touch for such a powerfully built player, and buys into the Ross County work-till-we-drop ethos.
7. Jonny Hayes (Aberdeen)
“He plays on the left, he plays on the right... he plays at left back, he plays on the right of a front three, he plays...”
Ok, so maybe my song to fully appreciate the awesome versatility of Jonny Hayes needs a little work. In fairness, I’m still reeling as to how a classic style winger - pace, trickery, direct running - suddenly turned himself into a Jack (and master) of all trades.
How does he do it? How does he manage to contribute so positively regardless of position? Well, positionally he’s terrific, he plays with a drive and determination both on and off the football, and he’s technically proficient with either foot. And what sets him apart from other players capable of playing all over the park is that, regardless of which position he fills, Aberdeen are a better team for having him in the starting XI, and miss him when he’s not there. In short, Aberdeen fans all dream of a team of Jonny Hayes.
That’s maybe a better song.
6. Niall McGinn (Aberdeen)
If you want to know what went wrong or what went right with any particular Aberdeen result, McGinn’s performance is a good starting point.
That may sound like an insult, but it isn’t meant to be. It’s just that when the attacker is on form his team are almost impossible to stop, and if it were possible for him to play at that level of quality every week then Aberdeen would be champions. Although, in fairness, if he played at that level of quality every week he wouldn’t be playing in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
McGinn has all the tools you look for in an attacker: pace, dribbling ability, a good cross, a better shot, the desire to run at people, the ability to run past people, creativity, versatility, the list goes on. If he can improve his consistency in 2016 then we can begin talking up Aberdeen as legitimate title contenders again.
5. Michael O’Halloran (St Johnstone)
From a purely personal preference, Michael O’Halloran is the most exciting player in the league. He just wants to run at people, and a combination of blistering speed and close control while dribbling makes it something he’s really good at. To put it in slightly abstract terms, he plays the game in the same manner as if he were maneuvered around the field by my PlayStation controller.
The next chapter in O’Halloran’s career is an intriguing one. Some of you may be surprised to know he’s already 25 (well, not quite, his birthday is tomorrow). It’s likely to put off a number of potential suitors who, rightly or wrongly, will see the player as someone already in his prime, and therefore a footballer with little chance of progressing further.
His contract doesn’t expire until the summer of 2017 and St Johnstone will want some serious compensation for parting with their talisman. Other clubs don’t often buy players from Scottish football unless they, a) play for Celtic, or b) have serious potential. They would have to believe O’Halloran is a late bloomer, in the Jamie Vardy mould, who will continue to develop at a rapid pace even in his late 20s.
Or they could just love watching him as much as I do.
4. Nir Bitton (Celtic)
Every season Celtic’s signing/development policy coughs up another gem from their batch of unpolished stones and in 2014/15 it was the Israeli midfielder.
You’ll have to believe me when I insist that I was impressed with Bitton’s upside from the start. There already existed a video of his talents on YouTube prior to Celtic completing the deal to sign him, with his strengths there for all to see: tall with a feathery touch and knack of playing the game with his head up. Once he bulked out, which he has to a degree, it seemed obvious Celtic would have themselves a destroyer at the defensive midfield position, but one also capable of playing a bit.
He’s also developed a part of his game that wasn’t evident from the YouTube clip compilation, which is a penchant for unleashing long-range stunners. His shooting ability has netted him a few key goals this season and enables him to affect games in the final third as well as being the tempo dictator in front of the back four.
It should come as no surprise that he’s being touted for a move upwards of £10m. It is obviously a vastly inflated sum based on his talents now, but to call it a waste of money would be to assume he’s finished his development, which is likely not to be the case. Of all the players in the Hoops’ squad, he’s the one most capable of playing at the highest level.
3. Adam Rooney (Aberdeen)
Adam Rooney netted a superb 25 goals across the previous 12 months, a decent portion of which came in the latter half of the 2014/15 season where he finished as top goalscorer in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Rooney is a prolific scorer adept at swimming against the tide in an era where strikers, particularly those that play in a one-striker system, are expected to do more than what the Irishman can provide outside of the penalty area.
Doubts about his overall game have encouraged manager Derek McInnes to occasionally turn to David Goodwillie for assistance in tougher matches, though in the end Rooney always wins this particular one-on-one battle as his goals become too important to ignore, and there is no doubt he is Aberdeen’s leading man as we begin the new year.
2. Graeme Shinnie (Inverness CT/Aberdeen)
Unless there are some surprising developments over the next five months, this man is your 2015-16 signing of the season in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
The expectations were high when Shinnie made the switch from Inverness to Aberdeen in the summer, but he already seems to have even surpassed them. Originally thought to plug the apparent void at left back, where Andy Considine and Jonny Hayes had been covering throughout 2014-15, it is actually his play in midfield that has stood out the most.
The recent victory over Hearts showed Shinnie’s true value in midfield. While he’s undoubtedly still a top left back, arguably the league’s best, his energy both on and off the football allows him to impact play much more in the central role. Against Neilson’s side he fought hard to snuff out Hearts’ attacks before they started, while also linking his own side’s play across the field. When he moved to left back after half-time, when Mark Reynolds’ injury prompted a reshuffle, the drop off in Aberdeen’s play was there for all to see, even if they did manage to secure the win in the end.
1. Leigh Griffiths (Celtic)
Who else was it going to be?
36 goals across all competitions in 2015 made Griffiths the country’s top goalscorer during that time period.
The development of Griffiths has to be Ronny Deila’s greatest success as manager of Celtic. When he initially claimed the striker needed to work harder to force his way into the side, after many months of warming the bench initially under the new manager, many wondered what the hell Deila was on about.
After all, this was Leigh Griffiths, the livewire who played every match as if his life was on the line. How do you work harder than that? But Deila was right. Griffiths started taking better care of his body away from football and began applying himself harder in training, and the hard work has paid dividends.
He recently signed a new deal until 2021, meaning he has the means and opportunity to become a Celtic legend in the goalscoring department. Before he climbs that particular mountain, however, the task for 2016 must be to change the opinion of Gordon Strachan, thereby forcing his way into the Scotland starting line-up.