Before the signing of Shaun Maloney hit the rocks, Aberdeen appeared to be all set in the attacking midfield position. Greg Stewart and Ryan Christie had each been recruited on a year’s loan to play on the wing, while Maloney would challenge Kenny McLean for a place as the team’s No.10. On paper, it was the best Aberdeen could have hoped for in the aftermath of Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn departures from the club. But as keen tactician Derek McInnes would know, games are not played on paper.
I’ve written about it previously in the wake of the Maloney deal - which could still be on the cards despite the Scottish international flagging up an injury issue - but it bears repeating: there’s a very big difference between Hayes and McGinn and potential replacements Stewart and Christie.
Stewart is a striker turned wide player. He likes to drift inside from the left of midfield, take up central positions and try to score just as often as he facilitates. Christie is a central attacking midfielder by trade who often fills in on the flank because a more experienced and consistent player occupies the No.10 spot. Neither provide much of orthodox wing play you would often see from Hayes and McGinn, who were first and second in total crosses last season.
Even if McInnes is looking to construct a different attacking gameplan, standing pat and waiting for Maloney, rather than going out and recruiting a natural wide man, would leave Aberdeen short on options. It would also call for an increased attacking input from Andy Considine and Shay Logan from full-back, which could leave an undermanned Aberdeen defence a little overstretched on occasion.
That’s why the signing of Gary Mackay-Steven is perfect for the club’s needs. It provides the team with depth and balance, and the club with another player who has experience of excelling in the top flight.
Admittedly, the ex-Dundee United player has seen better days than his form of the past two-and-a-half years. Some players continue to rise after being hauled into the Old Firm pressure cooker; Mackay-Steven wilted. A promising start made way to inconsistency and lack of playing time. By the time 2017 arrived his confidence was shot, as evidenced by his startlingly poor performance in the Scottish Cup victory over St Mirren in March. That game sealed his fate and it was little surprise to see Celtic allow the player to leave for such a modest fee.
It’ll now be up to McInnes to build him back up. He’s a different sort of player than Hayes and McGinn, more about finesse and skill than the power possessed by those two, but nonetheless capable of terrorising opposing defenders. During his days at United he was such a joyful player to watch. You just never knew what sort of flick or trick he was going to produce next, a trait which gradually dissipated during his time at Parkhead.
At 26, there’s plenty of time to re-energise his career, and he arrives at Pittodrie with a point to prove. If he can rediscover his United form this will be a great deal for Aberdeen. Back in 2014, Mackay-Steven was a better player than Hayes, and that can be true once again if the 30-year-old starts his decline over the next two seasons. To swap the players and earn a £1.15million is a seriously impressive bit of business, but only if GMS rediscovers his mojo.
Now, about that defence..