From Pedro Caixinha publicly stating his interest in the midfielder to the announcement earlier this week that Graeme Shinnie will take on the Aberdeen captaincy for Saturday’s Scottish Cup final against Celtic, Ryan Jack’s future has been placed firmly under the microscope of late.
Derek McInnes has confirmed that Jack has revealed his intent to leave the club, but has not specified where his next destination will be. However, the silence has been deafening and to many it seems a stark possibility that the player, who has amassed some 248 appearances for the Pittodrie club, will make the switch to their Scottish Premiership rivals Rangers.
With this in mind, we take a look at the reasons why McInnes ought to think carefully about picking Jack to start Saturday’s Scottish Cup final as Aberdeen look to lift the trophy for the first time in 17 years.
Solving a problem like Scott Brown
The Celtic captain has been invigorated under the tutelage of Brendan Rodgers, to the point that there was uproar when it was revealed that his peers hadn’t nominated him for PFA Scotland Player of the Year.
Aggressive and combative, Scott Brown has the ability to bully his midfield counterparts into quiet submission. Whenever Jack has come up against Brown, he has come out second best. All of the things that he does well, Brown can do well, and in the areas he is lacking, whether that be breaking up play or tackling, the Celtic midfielder is not.
In the corresponding Scottish League Cup final fixture in November, Aberdeen mustered just 39 per cent of the possession. On that day, their midfield was unable to get near Celtic’s as Brown, Stuart Armstrong and Tom Rogic stroked the ball around with ease. Jack played as though he had an inferiority complex, unwilling to force the agenda with his passing and though not the only offender, his performance was yet another where he was overwhelmed by the quality of this particular opposition. McInnes is faced with a choice between persisting with a player who has struggled against Celtic in the past and opting for a different approach altogether.
The team’s form in Jack’s absence
Since Jack’s last start in the 2-0 defeat to St Johnstone, Aberdeen have won three of their four games, despite concerns that another post-split capitulation was on the cards. In the process they lost to Celtic 3-1 at Pittodrie but a spirited display showed signs that they are capable of unnerving the champions.
While the exact personnel in the first 11 hasn’t remained constant in Jack’s absence, the performances have. Since the second half of the 2-1 win over Hearts, Anthony O’Connor has become the preferred option in a deep-lying midfield position alongside Shinnie and, based solely on his personal form, it would be harsh to drop the Irishman. As a footballer, O’Connor is not without flaws but his contribution, characterised by physicality and composure, suggests that, given a consistent run of games, he could become a reliable first team player.
McInnes then faces the dilemma of trading what O’Connor offers defensively in the position with Jack’s traits of switching play and recycling possession. Dropping the former would also sacrifice what he offers at set pieces, both defensively and offensively, an area that will be have to be executed effectively in order to have any joy against Celtic.
It is worth noting that in Jack’s return to proceedings in the second-half against Patrick Thistle, the evidence of a full recovery from injury was not conclusive. The midfielder’s movement was still slightly restricted, and McInnes confessed that he had previously had reservations about including him in the squad to travel to Firhill. Come Saturday, however, another six days will have passed, allowing Jack to do his work on the training ground in the confidence of having emerged unscathed from 45 minutes of football but it remains unclear whether his manager will gamble on the former captain.
A difficult relationship
The relationship between Aberdeen and Rangers is inherently complicated. The animosity bred during the Alex Ferguson era when the two regularly challenged for silverware has caused an aversion in the North East to all things light blue. As a result, footballers who have departed the Granite City in search of adulation in Govan have never fully recovered their reputation with the Red Army.
Jack could emulate names such as Sone Aluko, Ricky Foster, David Robertson, Theo Snelders and Stephen Wright in swapping Pittodrie for Ibrox and, while the move has yet to progress beyond speculation, Aberdeen supporters have already begun the process of moving on. Just as a difficult break-up would unravel, old photos will be thrown out and the memories of the good times purged. The notion of a player, who has captained the club for two years, deciding that the allure of a move to Rangers is too great to spurn will sting for supporters who have dreamt from childhood of experiencing the same opportunity.
Followers of the NBA might see correlations in Jack’s situation with that of LeBron James’ decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami Heat in the summer of 2010. Cavs fans were incensed that someone born and raised in the area could turn his back on the loyalty and love showered upon him in search of a new professional challenge on the East coast. There is one significant difference, however, as James returned to Cleveland in 2014 and received forgiveness because simply put, he was a basketball great. Jack, a local Aberdonian, will not be able to look in the direction of his hometown again without provoking fury, such is the almost blasphemous nature of the move in question.
Therefore, if Jack starts the match on Saturday, it then becomes difficult for this not to be the dominant narrative. In the build-up to the game McInnes has stressed that the focus be placed on the team and not individuals, and while the fans will throw their weight behind whichever 11 takes to the Hampden pitch, it cannot be denied that his inclusion has the potential to detract from the task at hand.