Craig Fowler picks his select XI of the best players in the top flight through 16 weeks.
So, why do a Team of the Season now? What’s so special about the second weekend in December?
Well, nothing really. Waiting until the midway point of the campaign, or at least until the winter break where red-hot content is at a premium would normally be standard practice to release a recap of the season so far.
The reason I’ve not done that is because at the end of this month I get the feeling that the individuals in a (halfway) Team of the Season will come almost exclusively from one team. At present, this is not the case.
Of course, Celtic are undoubtedly the best side. They’ve the strongest starting XI and the best squad. But they’ve also been concentrating quite heavily on Europe this term, first in terms of getting into the Champions League and then the group stages themselves. As a result, they’ve chopped and changed their team quite a bit, meaning a lot of players have yet to get into a rhythm in league football. Now that their European campaign is on a two-month hiatus they can switch their focus to laying waste to all in front of them in the Ladbrokes Premiership. I fully expect there to be some continuity about the Celtic team over the next seven games and for them to take maximum points over that period.
For the meantime, though, there are too many players who have played too few minutes in which to qualify for a select XI. Patrick Roberts (295 minutes), Olivier Ntcham (583 minutes), Tom Rogic (860 minutes), Nir Bitton (882 minutes), Leigh Griffiths (669 minutes), Dedryck Boyata (750 minutes), Stuart Armstrong (771 minutes), Moussa Dembele (434 minutes), and Jozo Simunovic (544 minutes). In my opinion, none of these guys have played near enough to earn their pick. Over 900 minutes felt like a fair cut-off point, seeing as there are three players in the league who’ve gone over 1500 (these stats include injury-time).
So, without further preamble, let’s get to the team.
GK - Jamie MacDonald (Kilmarnock)
A few of you may already be aware that I’m attempting, and so far struggling, to watch every Ladbrokes Premiership this season. In order to make the most out of the experience from a productivity perspective, I’ve started keeping running lists of certain highlights: best goals, worst refereeing mistakes, worst misses, best saves, and biggest goalkeeping howlers among others. Of the latter two categories, MacDonald has five in the first and zero in the second. No goalkeeper has made as many eye-catching stops as the Killie custodian this term, while he’s yet to throw one in.
DR - James Tavernier (Rangers)
The full-back is proving many of his doubters wrong. He’s still not a brilliant defender, he may never be, but he’s improved quite a bit on that end of the park this term. (Side note: he’s never actually been a bad one-on-one defender, it’s just his positioning, aerial ability and anticipation which has been quite poor.) This allows the attacking side of his game to shine, and he’s improved on that front as well. It took him a while to frighten top flight defenders in the same manner he did in the Championship, but he’s truly become a force at the highest level in this country. He’s got a combined total of seven goals and assists, and is fourth for crossing accuracy of Ladbrokes Premiership players who’ve played over 900 minutes this term.
DC - Paul Hanlon (Hibs)
The Hibs stalwart is now the full package as a centre-back. He was always someone calm and collected in possession, but lacked the bulk and the hunger for the fight. Three years in the Championships seems to have been the best thing for his career. It’s enabled him to grow in confidence after stagnating in some, frankly, rotten Hibs sides before their relegation, while also giving him time to toughen up both mentally and physically. He’s been excellent for a defence which, despite the loss of arguably their strongest centre-back in Darren McGregor for most of the term, is currently second for fewest goals conceded.
DC - Cedric Kipre (Motherwell)
This was a tough one. I thought long and hard about the selection, changed my mind, and then changed it once again. Part of me really wanted to pick Christophe Berra. On such a disappointing team, Berra has been excellent. First and foremost, he’s just a colossus at the back. His positioning, anticipation, heading, tackling, pace, it’s all of the highest standard in the Ladbrokes Premiership, and he would deserve a spot on this team.
In the end, though, I went for Kipre. For two reasons: one, the current Motherwell team has been just terrific to watch so far this term, and it didn’t feel right rewarding them with only one player in this team (more on the other later); and two, in today’s football it helps to have a centre-back who is comfortable with the ball at his feet and can pick a pass. Kipre can do that; Berra struggles a little. Besides, there has been no better centre-back performance this term than the one displayed by the Frenchman in Motherwell’s recent 1-1 draw with Celtic. He was outstanding.
DL - Kieran Tierney (Celtic)
It wasn’t going to be anyone else, was it? The best defensive full-back in the league and a constant menace going forward. He could easily be in the running for Player of the Year come the season’s end, and I don’t mean just the Young Player award - though he’ll probably win that too. What else can you say? The lad’s brilliant.
DM - Scott Brown (Celtic)
I really wanted to pick Dundee’s Glen Kamara. As you’ll know if you’ve read the other article of mine published today, I’m a big fan of the Finnish-born, 22-year-old who had made only 13 competitive first-team appearances prior to his Dens Park move. But when selecting a player to sit in front of the back four, there can be only one man for the job.
As things stand, Scott Brown is the Player of the Year. Last season he was unfortunate not to receive a nomination, and if he continues to shine it would be an absolute travesty if history repeats itself in May. He’s so vitally important to the Celtic team and more so than any other player in that squad. The gameplan is all about dominating the opponent through possession. Brown not only dictates a lot of where the ball goes, he also routinely stops opposing attacks dead in their tracks. His consistency in the league this year has been nothing short of incredible.
MR - Daniel Candeias (Rangers)
Dropped to the bench in the last couple of matches against Aberdeen, but even then he came on and made an impact. Of a much-maligned summer recruitment policy, Candeias can make a case for being the pick of the bunch so far. He’s got a combined seven goals and assists, a statistic aided by the fact he leads the league in crosses by quite some distance. He works hard on the defensive end and has the motor to power past flailing full-backs at a second’s notice.
James Forrest received real consideration for a place but has played roughly 400 minutes fewer than Candeias this term. The Celtic man would have made it had Betfred Cup matches played a part in the decision making.
MC - John McGinn (Hibs)
McGinn is so good that, even when he’s playing poorly in the eyes of his own supporters, he’s still one of the best players on the park. At the top of his game he’s such a exciting player to watch. He’s so good at backing into opposing midfielders, getting them turned and then powering away with the ball. He doesn’t score very often, but when he does they tend to be of the screamer variety. Therefore, when his performance is a little more subdued, a little more quiet, fans can be critical. But even then he works his backside off to win the ball and retains a magnificent range of passing unmatched by almost everyone else in the league.
MC - Callum McGregor (Celtic)
Celtic’s swiss-army knife. Called upon to play anywhere, McGregor always does a job. However, this season he’s really set himself apart as one of the best centre-midfielders in this country and, to pay him an even greater compliment, arguably the second best in his own squad on current form. Aside from bringing real enthusiasm and energy to the team on a weekly basis, McGregor is a consistent threat in the final third, tallying up five goals and two assists despite playing only 947 minutes. That may seem low, but he has played his part in 14 of his side’s 15 league games, a mark matched only by Craig Gordon, Scott Sinclair and Kieran Tierney. Furthermore, with his equalisers against St Johnstone and Hibs, not to mention winning the penalty against Motherwell - a match in which he was Celtic’s strongest player - he’s done more than anyone else to protect the unbeaten run.
ML - Scott Sinclair (Celtic)
Yes, Sinclair hasn’t had the best of seasons by his standards, but we need to remember those standards are ridiculously high. He’s still contributed to his team with five goals and two assists, and it’s not as if he’s been below par in every game. He still routinely terrorises defences and, as he pointed out himself, has forced opposing managers to alter their shape to assign a player to man-mark him.
Also, who else would be deserving of the left-midfielder spot? You could only really argue Josh Windass, especially as the raw numbers have him ahead of Sinclair with eight goals and assists combined. But while Sinclair may have appeared a little subdued this term, Windass has been downright flaky. Besides, two of his best performances of the campaign have come in his last two games, when the Rangers man played up front.
FC - Louis Moult (Motherwell)
Obviously! With eight goals to his name he currently leads the league. Furthermore, he’s shown himself to be much more than just a goalscorer this season. He can successfully scrap with defenders, link with midfielders, hold up the ball, show deceptive moment around the final third, shoot from distance and, as we’ve come to expect, sniff out chances inside the penalty area. At this level the guy has got it all.