The biggest challenge Derek McInnes faced going into this summer, once he’d decided whether or not to jump ship for Sunderland, was the task of replacing Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn.
The two wingers in the manager’s preferred 4-2-3-1 were so key to the way Aberdeen attacked opponents that their loss was greater than just a pair of stars exiting the club. They were incredibly high volume players in last season’s Ladbrokes Premiership, ranking one and two in total crosses, while Hayes sat in fifth for most one-on-one dribbles (McGinn was 30th), and McGinn registered fourth in total shots (Hayes was 26th). It meant they were vitally important to whether Aberdeen won or lost, and even if McInnes plugs another couple of excellent players into the position, which he has, it doesn’t mean you can stick with the exact same strategy.
For starters, Ryan Christie isn’t a natural winger. It would be difficult to expect the same production from him if he’s used out wide. And if he doesn’t predominately play there, it leaves a question mark over what to do with the midfield three of Kenny McLean, Graeme Shinnie and other new signing Greg Tansey. And while Greg Stewart was a similarly important player during his two years at Dundee, he still had the tendency to play as a striker who just happened to have been stationed out on the wing.
How McInnes is going to fit these new pieces into his side, or whether he’s going to adjust the side to fit them, is something he’ll have to figure out.
For the meantime we can only really judge the type of talent being brought in, and in this regard there’s little doubt McInnes has excelled himself. Having already recruited Christie, one of the country’s most prodigious young talents on a year-long loan, he then went one better with the signing of Stewart.
The attacker returns to Scottish football following a frustrating season with Birmingham. Forced to play under three different managers after the man who signed him, Gary Rowett, was bizarrely sacked earlier in the season, Stewart managed only six starts and scored no goals at St Andrews. Unless his confidence and career momentum have taken irreparable hits from the past year, he should star once again at Pittodrie. Twice nominated for PFA Scotland Player of the Year award in his two seasons with Dundee (despite playing on a team that finished sixth and eighth), he was one of the country’s brightest stars before his departure, and barring a dramatic loss in form you have to expect he could easily hit double figures in both goals and assists this coming season.
The succinct way of summarising Stewart would be to describe him as a playmaker. He scores, he creates, he takes set-pieces and has sufficient skill to bamboozle opponents.
His favourite trick is to drift inside, whether starting on the left or the right, and have a shot. In the 2015/16 campaign, he sat fifth in the entire league with 88 total shots. For comparison’s sake, McGinn had 80 with Hayes further back on 67. For such a high volume shooter, particularly from outside the area (he ranked fourth) his 40.91 shooting percentage (21st of all players) was highly impressive, and a number that ranked him ahead of both Hayes and McGinn in that particular season.
Of the two men he’ll be trying to replace, it’s fair to say he’s more McGinn than Hayes. Like the Northern Irishman, he’s spent significant time in his career as a forward, which encourages a ruthless eye for goal even from the wing.
Hayes, meanwhile, is more of a typical winger; one likelier to stay out wide and deliver crosses. That said, though he doesn’t deliver as much, Stewart is an efficient crosser. His final season with Dundee saw him send in 98 fewer crosses than McGinn and 152 fewer than Hayes, though he delivered with greater accuracy (38.89 per cent to Hayes’ 35.54, with McGinn further back on 33.33).
Pedro Caixinha’s end-of-the-cycle comments looked prescient when Aberdeen’s squad began to break apart this summer. Following the last two deals, though, he might just be made to eat his words. Make no mistake about it, Aberdeen aren’t ready to give up second spot without a fight.