The X-factor for all 12 Scottish Premiership teams this season

Uche Ikpeazu has a big role to play if Hearts are to significantly improve upon last season. Picture: SNS
Uche Ikpeazu has a big role to play if Hearts are to significantly improve upon last season. Picture: SNS
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Ahead of the new 2018/19 Premiership season, Craig Fowler looks at each squad and picks one player who could lift their team to the next level or just as easily spend the majority of 2018/19 watching on from the sidelines.

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Aberdeen - Dominic Ball

Overall the former Rangers man should not have been deemed a successful signing last term. However, there were promising signs towards to the end of the campaign, enough at least to convince Derek McInnes that he was worth another go.

Though he’s played as a centre-back, right-back and attacking midfielder, Ball does his best work as an dynamic screener in front of the defence. His skills on the football are limited, but he brings real energy to that area of the park, lifting the tempo of those around him and putting pressure on the opposing midfielders.

In games when Aberdeen are expected to pen the opposition in for long spells his skills may not be required, especially if Graeme Shinnie is going to keep his residence in the centre of midfield, but in matches against the rest of the top six he could be vital in disrupting the flow of the opposition. A transformation into a dependable all-action midfielder would also enable Shinnie to return to left back if McInnes requires a little more attacking impetus from deep.

Celtic - Scott Sinclair

Towards the end of last season, Hoops boss Brendan Rodgers began to prefer Callum McGregor on the left of midfield. At times this pre-season he went with a 3-5-2 formation in order to play Odsonne Edouard and Moussa Dembele together, which would likely see Kieran Tierney stationed on the left flank if used on a regular basis. Make no mistake about it, Sinclair faces a battle to become one of the first names on the Celtic team-sheet once again.

It was quite a drop between his first season and the following campaign, as Sinclair went from the clear POTY award winner to arguably not even in the top 10 performers on his own team. While they still have an abundance of talent, Brendan Rodgers’ side are worse off for Sinclair’s struggles. That’s because there are few players who possess the explosiveness that the former Swansea star has. When he’s at top form there’s no more threatening attack in the league.

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Dundee - Sofien Moussa

This writer really wanted to pick Steven Caulker or Josh Meekings because the pair have the potential to be one of the best centre-back partnerships in the league, and indeed would probably have been considered just that had they played together five years ago at this level, when Caulker was an England international and Meekings was one-half of an impenetrable pairing alongside Gary Warren at Europe-chasing Inverness CT (that sentence has not aged well).

However, while there’s no doubt Dundee can benefit from a settled centre-back pairing, what they really need is goals in attack. Moussa was deadly from the penalty spot last season, but it took him until April to find the back of the net from open play in the league. There were also question marks surrounding his overall play: some weeks he was a destructive force to the opposition; others he simply wrecked his own team’s chances with rudimentary attempts at ball control.

Dundee would love to see more goals from him this term. But even more importantly, they need him to perform consistently enough to a level where he’s the focal point of their attack on a weekly basis. This will help others around him and should allow Neil McCann’s side to boost their goal tally through a team effort.

Hamilton - Mickel Miller

The loss of Greg Docherty, David Templeton and Ali Crawford in the space of six months is a difficult setback for Accies to overcome. That’s a lot of creativity lost from their squad, and with the majority of their new signings coming from a lower level there is no guarantee they’ve come anywhere close to replacing it during the summer.

Towards the end of last term, Martin Canning preferred what was almost a 6-0-4 formation as a defensive midfielder sat in front of a back five, while two attacking midfielders supported the forwards and looked for knockdowns from the massive punts up the park.

We can’t know until the season starts whether they’ll stick with the same gameplan, though it does seem likely the burden will fall on the strikers to keep Accies’ heads above water.

Miller played sparingly last season, though he did look lively whenever he did get his chance. He’s a raw talent but has the attributes to be a solid contributor at this level and he should be buoyed by a hat-trick against Berwick Rangers in the Betfred Cup. An elusive striker who can find the back of the net regularly could just be what separates Accies from the other favourites for relegation at the bottom of the table.

Hearts - Uche Ikpeazu

There’s already a sense that Hearts will go as far as Uche Ikpeazu is able to take them. That may sound like an overreaction after one-and-a-half games, but there’s still a very good chance that, when the teams are read out for the opening game of the season against Hamilton, the summer signing from Cambridge will be sitting on the bench.

In Steven Naismith, Kyle Lafferty and Steven MacLean, manager Craig Levein has options in attack where he knows exactly what to get from these players. By his own admission, Ikpeazu is a wildcard. Reading between the lines from what the Hearts boss has said, this guy could follow up that man-of-the-match performance against Inverness last Sunday with a shocker against Accies.

Inconsistency is not what they require. What they need is someone who showed everything he did against ICT: power, dynamism, hold up play and a scoring touch. He adds a dimension to the Hearts attack which will be missing if he’s not there.

Hibs - Vykintas Slivka

Will John McGinn remain at Hibs for the duration of the campaign? Will Scott Allan return to the club? If he does, can he mesh with Stevie Mallan?

There are a number of unanswered questions about the Hibs midfield going into the season and a real concern that one of the most impressive units in the league last term is going to experience a significant drop off in quality. Therefore, it would be a huge boost if someone already at the club can step in and take their own game to the next level.

Slivka showed flashes of his capability after making the move from Juventus last summer, but spent large parts of the campaign sitting on the bench or in the stands. He possesses terrific technique and is a burgeoning threat in the final third. If he can find consistency then it will be a huge lift to Hibs amid all the uncertainty.

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Kilmarnock - Greg Kiltie

This is a make or break season for the 21-year-old who had the world at his feet a couple of seasons ago, but who now is battling to prove himself all over again after suffering two significant injury setbacks.

If he can recover his past form then he gives Kilmarnock an exciting and incisive attacker capable of playing in the No.10 role. Killie look well stocked to have another run at the top six, but while they possess a strong group of forwards and hard working midfielders, they’re a little light on creative players who can be trusted to perform on a weekly basis.

Livingston - Craig Sibbald

The Lions won promotion from the Championship last term with a significant number of players who’d performed in League One the previous campaign. And if they’re going to survive in the top flight of Scottish football, they’ll need another herculean effort from a group of stars who’re making the step up.

Sibbald is a man with something to prove. When he broke through at Falkirk at age 16 he was spoken about in glowing terms. But while so many others from that golden generation of Bairns went on to bigger things, Sibbald remained in central Scotland with no club from England or the top flight interested enough to pay Falkirk the required fee to sign him.

If he can channel that frustration into his performances then he’ll provide Livingston with an invaluable source of attacking incision from midfield.

Motherwell - Craig Tanner

The playmaker is expected back sometime in September as he continues to rehab a knee injury sustained in March. His return would complete the Motherwell striking corps and give them a dimension which is otherwise lacking from that unit - a bit of subtlety.

Stephen Robinson’s men have a battling reputation. Though it is not without reason, they do like to sprinkle in a bit of guile for the majority of their games, with either Tanner or Gael Bigirimana inserted into the team. While “Bigi” is a deep-lying midfield playmaker, Tanner does his work playing off the front-line. He’s both creative and quick and gives Motherwell an option that can’t be filled by the physical qualities of Curtis Main, Ryan Bowman or Conor Sammon. Not to mention, he’s got a wicked set-piece delivery.

Rangers - Lassana Coulibaly

Rangers have nine first-team centre midfielders currently in the squad right now but Coulibaly is arguably the only one who could play the role of combative destroyer. The on loan Angers star has already demonstrated a willingness to throw his strength around and crunch into tackles, something the Light Blues have been lacking in that area of the park for the last few years.

If this signing is a success then it could give Steven Gerrard the midfielder he needs to both protect the back-line and provide the insurance for the attacking midfielders to get up and support the play.

St Johnstone - Tony Watt

Few people fancy St Johnstone to reclaim their spot in the top six, but anyone that does will surely be reckoning on Tony Watt ‘screwing the nut’ and playing the best football of his career at a club that’s made a habit of squeezing their star players for every drop of talent.

Like Moussa, Watt was the obvious choice. And it was therefore tempting to go for someone like David Wotherspoon, who is being advertised as having a key role in the midfield as a replacement for Chris Millar: a player who can continuously recycle possession and keep the play flowing.

However, we know Watt is the most talented player in the squad, and if he can become a talisman in attack then Saints will have a real chance at performing above their station.

St Mirren - Kyle Magennis

It’s hard to know what to make of St Mirren at present with manager Alan Stubbs making no secret of the fact they’re still a few players away from their squad being complete. They’re certainly lacking a striker of top flight pedigree, along with some pace in attack. And they may require a few players in other areas if last season’s Championship stand-outs are unable to make the step up to the top flight.

One player who could help them if he hits the ground running is 19-year-old Magennis. While Lewis Morgan drew the majority of headlines last term, Magennis also impressed in the midfield area. He’s capable of playing on the flank or in the centre and his energy at the position can often lift the urgency of the entire team.

If a teenager with no Premiership experience can tackle the challenge head on, then it should give confidence to the rest of the squad also.

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