Once again, BT’s pre-match Scottish Football Extra show descended into wonderfully, entertaining squabbling as each of Chris Sutton, Michael Stewart and Stephen Craigan chose their team of the season so far.
Ahead of the Heart of Midlothian v Aberdeen clash, Sutton ridiculed Stewart for choosing Liam Boyce as his striker. Stewart labelled Sutton “embarrassing” and questioned his knowledge of the teams other than Celtic after he picked nine players from the league leaders. Craigan? Well, Craigan was just incredibly defensive. He has his opinion and he has his pro-licence.
Sutton probably did come closest to selecting the ‘true’ team of the season so far. Celtic have been that good and are that far ahead of the competition. But there are numerous factors that need to be taken into consideration. For example, Stewart had every reason to put Boyce in the team. He is the league’s top goal scorer. For Ross County.
It isn’t an exact science. That’s clear. We’ve opted for a different approach to the question posed. We’ve selected 11 players and a manager with only one individual allowed from each team. Now, this won’t give us the very best XI, but would it really be that interesting reading about what would effectively be a Celtic XI?
To make it even more interesting, the players must fit into the chosen system and give the team balance. There’ll be no Garth Crooks WM formation with five forwards and two defenders who have scored a couple of goals.
Lastly, we’ve opted for a 3-5-2 formation. It’s one which has been in vogue this season. Every side in the league, barring Kilmarnock, have more or less lined up in this particular system, give or take a few yards here or there.
GK: Joe Lewis
Easily one of the signings of the season so far. You begin to wonder what effect his arrival would have had on Aberdeen’s title challenge last season if he came in when Danny Ward was recalled by Liverpool. It is quite clear why he was held in such high esteem as a youngster, leading to an international call-up to the full England squad while at unfashionable Peterborough United.
The 6ft 5in stopper has spread confidence throughout the team. The ability to come and take crosses takes a lot of pressure off the back line, something which Lewis does confidently.
His frame makes the goals look smaller, a daunting prospect for forwards. When it comes to saves, he makes the great look ordinary, and the exceptional look good. There was a blemish in Europe against Maribor but he has been reliable apart from that. He produced arguably the save of the season with a finger-tip denial of a goal bound Scott Sinclair strike in the 1-0 defeat to Celtic. Only one other goalkeeper has the reach to produce something of similar quality, and that’s Craig Gordon.
CB: Darren O’Dea
Selecting a Dundee player was a difficult process. There have been few, if any, star performers. However, Marcus Haber has had a positive effect since his arrival - take results into account since he was signed and the Dees would be fourth - while, at the other end of the pitch, Mr Consistent has been Darren O’Dea.
Whether in a back four or back three he has had a revolving cast of partners, but has still produced competent performances on a regular basis. Most often stationed in the centre of a back three he has been relied upon more often than not as the last bastion of the Dundee defence.
While fellow ex-Celtic centre back Stephen McManus hasn’t had as influential a time at Motherwell, O’Dea is everything you expect from someone who had played in England’s Championship and won 20 caps for Republic of Ireland. Good in the air, robust in the challenge and a sound reading of the game.
CB: Ben Heneghan
Asked by Stephen Craigan who the club’s best summer signing was, Keith Lasley, Craig Samson and Richard Tait all agreed it was the 23-year-old recruited on a two-year-deal from National League side Chester.
Heneghan, who was on the books of both Stoke City and Everton as a youngster, was linked to Hull City, Burnley and Bright & Hove Albion prior to his move north, while Hibernian were rumoured to have scouted him. The key for the defender was game time, and that is what he has been given at Fir Park, as he’s started every league match.
His performances show a young defender who has experience of coming up against physical strikers in rough and tumble encounters. This standing, rather than the passive experience of under-23 football, has given him a solid grounding for his future. He rarely looks fazed in the centre of the Steelmen’s defence, composed in position and never bullied.
CB: Liam Lindsay
Scotland’s dearth of centre-back options was reiterated throughout 2016 as the national team’s struggles continued. Lindsay is one of two centre-backs earmarked as potential full-caps, the other being John Souttar, and both have been one of their club’s key performers so far. The 21-year-old’s displays have even led to covetous glances from promotion-chasing Leeds United.
He is a modern-day centre-back who has clearly come through a youth system which has focused on footballing ability rather than more traditional defensive qualities. Loan spells away from Firhill, coupled with time in the first team last season, gave him experience of what it takes to be a defender that academy football doesn’t teach.
From his initial games for the Jags it was clear he was comfortable on the ball. This season there is an aggression required in the top-flight to go with it. He is more adept when it comes to a battle with strikers and his determination in the air has been displayed in both boxes, notching five league goals already.
RW: Callum Paterson
Such is Paterson’s misfortune, he won’t be featuring in any team of the season come May, having been ruled out for around 10 months due to damage to his knee. A pity for the Scotland internationalist as new boss Ian Cathro’s tweak to the Hearts system seemed set to get the best out of him.
His stand-out statistic is the 10 goals he’s plundered in all competitions. The power, directness and aerial ability on offer sees him as a constant presence on the right. It is such a key weapon for Hearts as an attacking outlet. He stretches play but when the ball is on the opposite flank he is often found in the box or hanging just outside it. Remember, this is a full-back.
He is a physical specimen, which would have seen him adjust to English football following an expected summer move, prior to injury. However, as a defender there is still work to be done. His pace allows him to get out of tricky situations, but one on one with a winger he is prone to getting turned inside out, while sometimes reticent in closing down crosses.
MF: Liam Polworth
Prior to Inverness’ derby defeat to Ross County, a fan took to Twitter to lament the absence of Polworth: “Unless Polworth has had a leg amputated at the knee, dropping him to the bench today is lunacy.”
Such is the Scotland under-21 midfielder’s influence he is a massive miss when not included in the Caley team. They may have won only three games this season but Polworth started every one. He is best in a central role, but such is Richie Foran’s insistence of shoehorning Iain Vigurs into the team, Polworth, more often than not, has had to settle for a place on the wing.
Playing wide means there is a diligence when tracking full-backs, and Polworth’s football intelligence and willingness to put in a shift means he’s given the nod ahead of others who cannot be trusted. However, to get the most out of Polworth he needs to be stationed centrally as seen with his role in rescuing a point at Hamilton Academical earlier in the season. He is able to cover ground, drive forward and offer penetration through his passing or shooting. If Caley are to survive, one of the reasons may be playing Polworth in his natural position more often.
MF: Danny Swanson
Tommy Wright has a super power. Instead of being able to fly, teleport or run as fast as The Flash, he is able to make the most mediocre of players competent and give unfulfilled talent a platform to shine. The latter is the case for Swanson. He came back north and flourished in Perth, moved to Heart of Midlothian and struggled, before returning to McDiarmid Park and excelling once again.
Twelve goals have been netted, seven of which have come in the league and helped St Johnstone punch above their weight as they fight for fourth place and a possible return to Europe. Fielded centrally or out wide, Swanson has never looked fitter. He has been given creative responsibility and freedom by Wright, although he still has to chip in with the defensive side of the game, such is St Johnstone’s work ethic and structure.
He has never been the quickest, but his low-centre of gravity allows him to skip and slip away from defenders before delivering a cunning pass or firing a shot at goal – his goal against Hearts in the Betfred Cup was one of the strikes of the season so far.
MF: Ali Crawford
The 25-year-old is the club’s talisman. There is no other word to describe him. It isn’t remiss to begin wondering where the Accies would be without him. His seven leagues goals have earned Hamilton four points, just under a quarter of their total.
The majority of Hamilton’s positive forward play goes through Crawford. He either starts as a number 10 or a number 8 in a midfield three, linking play, playing off the striker(s), and delivering decisive passes or scoring himself.
His set-piece ability is also another potent weapon for Hamilton. If they were to lose his passing, driving runs and shooting ability for any length of time between now and the end of the season the Accies would be in big, big trouble.
LW: Lee Wallace
No matter the division, Lee Wallace has been one of Rangers’ best and most reliable players. His form in the top-flight has led to a Scotland call-up and selection against England.
While there were understandable question marks over James Tavernier’s defensive ability in stepping up from the Championship, there were none when it came to the club captain. Wallace is a constant threat down the left-hand side. His pace, power and understanding of the left-back role allows him to dominate the flank.
The rapport with Barrie McKay has been stop-start due to McKay’s drop in form, but Wallace has continued to perform both going forward and backwards. He is imperative to the way Rangers play, offering incision and forward runs beyond the forwards. He should have a better return than a lone league goal, however.
FW: Liam Boyce
Thirteen leagues goals. More than Moussa Dembele, more than Scott Sinclair, more than Leigh Griffiths, more than Adam Rooney, more than all Hearts strikers combined. Boyce has been integral to County’s rise in to the top six ahead of the winter break.
How integral? He has scored 56.5 per cent of the club’s league goals. These strikes have earned 12 points, with another sealing a 4-2 win over St Johnstone. He is the type of forward every club are on the look out for, especially those teams not named Celtic. He can play as part of a strike-partnership or as a lone striker. He has a goal poacher’s scent but there is more to his game than simply goals.
He may not be the tallest striker but he is strong, using his physique to hold off defenders when playing with his back to goal and linking play. He is intelligent when it comes to choosing when and where to run on the last line of the defence, while he is adept at timing his jump to net with his head – six of the 13 goals have come via his noggin’. He’s the complete striker.
FW: Souleymane Coulibaly
While Boyce deals with the bread and butter, tap-ins and headers, the Ivorian sticks with the spectacular. Even then he has still netted eight times this campaign despite spending the majority of it on the right of a forward three, which comes with its defensive responsibilities.
Coulibaly is an eager player. Constantly moving, looking to be involved, looking to be a pest, he has a work ethic to go with his substance and end product. His eight strikes have earned Killie six points and make up 50 per cent of the club’s league goals.
Coulibaly alone could have a goal of the season contest. There was the audacious: a 40-yarder v Celtic. The daring: an overhead kick v Dundee. The fantastic: curling efforts against Hamilton and Hearts.
He was bullish on his arrival and has duly delivered.
Manager: Brendan Rodgers
There have been a number of fine performers at Celtic Park but a lot of that is down to one man. The Northern Irishman had an inauspicious start to his Celtic career. While he was welcomed by thousands of fans, his first competitive game was a debacle - a defeat to Lincoln Red Imps. Since then, however, it has been continuous progress for the Hoops.
It was expected that an overhaul of the squad which faltered under Ronny Deila’s stewardship would be undertaken with a number of players jettisoned. Yet, Rodgers has shown the impact a change of manager can have on a squad of players. Adding class in Scott Sinclair, Kolo Toure and Moussa Dembele, Celtic have a deep squad with many contributing as they hightail it away from the competition to effectively have the league wrapped by January.
Rodgers has brought a flexibility to the team which was lacking under Deila. Players are taking up different positions in different systems. They each have an understanding of their respective roles and look as fit as they have done. Improvements have come individually and as a team. One only has to look at the impact James Forrest, Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong have had on the team.
Easily the signing of the season and star performer.