If you want to be given proof of the increasing quality of the Scottish Premiership look no further than this list of the 12 best middle men.
Compare it to last season’s list here and notice the jump up in quality. Five players have been replaced and each one, you can argue, is an upgrade.
The fact players the likes of Scott Allan, a creative force in the league, Gary Dicker, so influential to Kilmarnock, and no one from Ibrox make the final cut emphasises the quality.
The list is dominated by three teams, one in particular who have built up real depth in the central areas.
Without further ado here is this season’s best dozen.
• Click here to listen to the episode of The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast where the top 12 was debated.
12. Glen Kamara (Dundee)
This season has been Glen Kamara’s first real experience of consistent, competitive football. He has been, by some distance, Neil McCann’s best signing, having been plucked from Arsenal’s under-23s as the Dees boss tried to sort out the unbalanced mess he had inherited.
His affect has been such that he received his first call-up for the Finland national team, making his debut in November.
Dundee fans would be right to have sleepless nights if they were imagine where they would be without the 22-year-old. In a recent Open Goal podcast, Peterhead’s Simon Ferry recalled a conversation with Dundee midfielder Paul McGowan. To paraphrase, he said that McGowan moans about everyone, but he was fulsome in his praise of his midfield partner. The duo have struck up a fine relationship in the middle of the park.
McCann has looked to instil a progressive and expansive passing game. Only Jack Hendry and Kamara seemed comfortable with the remit. The latter is happy to take possession under pressure while facing his own goal. It’s something which is often met with gasps and a sharp intake of breath in the crowd, especially in Scotland, but the midfielder is clearly confident in his ability.
He is adept at playing first-time passes and playing around the corner, but he comes into his own when he wriggles away from markers before advancing with the ball, dribbling past others with ease. His quick feet are more akin to a winger than deep-lying midfielder. The way he slaloms and slips past opponents, it’s as if the ball becomes invisible in his presence.
He did have a mid-season dip. Something which can be explained to the player having never played so many games at such an intensity in his career.
Best moment: The numerous times he has swayed his way past his opponents, but he played a crucial role in setting up AJ Leitch-Smith’s winner against Hamilton deep into injury-time.
Stats: Kamara sits fourth in the league dribble success rate, completing 80.92 per cent.
11. Ryan Christie (Aberdeen)
Arguably the most talented player at Pittodrie, Derek McInnes went as far to say Ryan Christie has been the club’s best player this season. That comment was made a few weeks ago. Since then the on-loan Celtic attacker has regressed. Even when the comment was made Christie had too often been on the periphery of matches.
When Aberdeen were looking for someone to conjure up something in the recent draw with Rangers Christie was found wanting, running down blind alleys or failing to deliver a competent cross.
However that should not take away from his early season form. As Aberdeen adjusted to life without their flying wingers Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes, and Gary Mackay-Steven and Greg Stewart bedded in, it was Ryan Christie who became the go-to man.
He delivered a wonderful performance against Siroki Brijeg. It was his cute reverse pass which set up Stewart for the opener before an incisive through ball for the second. It was Christie in a nutshell, picking up the ball on the turn, taking players on, driving forward before using his vision to pierce a defence.
Yet, he’s never had settled position or role. Is he a wide-playmaker, cutting in on his left, or an out-and-out No.10. This summer is an important one in his career. Do Aberdeen retain him and build the team around him or is he capable of forcing his way into the Celtic team?
Best moment: The man of the moment performance in the Europa League qualifier against Siroki Brijeg. He was instrumental in helping Aberdeen progress to the next round with two assists.
Stats: The on-loan Celtic creator has made the most key passes in the Aberdeen side with eight.
10. Kenny McLean (Aberdeen)
Kenny McLean has had two seasons within one. In the first half he frustrated fans with his midfield play, sitting at the base he failed to put his mark on proceedings and influence the game. A favoured move of his was to try and keep switching play but to little avail. It was as if he had forgotten that Jonny Hayes or Niall McGinn had moved on.
When he announced that he would be leaving the club it was met with indifference among some, which was understandable considering it looked like he was going through the motions in certain games.
Then, in middle-to-late January, McLean completed a permanent deal to Norwich City and was loaned back to the Dons. It was as if he had been told by Norwich to play his way into the Canaries team next season by performing well with Aberdeen.
A switch flicked and the 26-year-old became the standout. He began to dictate games with purposeful passing, injecting pace into the Aberdeen midfield. Not his own pace but the pace of his passing and where he was passing. He became something of a No.8 and No.6 hybrid, even filling in a more attacking role in the 2-0 victory over Motherwell.
While Shay Logan and Graeme Shinnie were missed badly in the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Motherwell it was perhaps McLean who was the biggest miss of all.
Best moment: McLean was back to his best in January with a two-goal haul in a 4-2 win at Ross County.
Stats: McLean leads Aberdeen in passes (1701), shots (73) and crosses (104).
9. Youssouf Mulumbu (Kilmarnock)
What better way to make your first appearance in 302 days than in a 5-1 destruction of Partick Thistle, chipping in with an assist. The Congolese international last played for Norwich City in February 2017, also a 5-1 win where he set up a goal, before pitching up at Rugby Park with the Steve Clarke-factor crucial to his move north.
And what a move it has been for Kilmarnock and their long-suffering fans. The mercurial Alexei Eremenko wowed with his innate ability but the support have not had too many heroes in recent years to celebrate and cherish. The turnaround under Clarke and the quality of Mulumbu has changed that.
From the moment he pulled on a Killie top fans knew they had a special player on their hands.
Anyone who was familiar with Mulumbu from his Premier League days with West Brom, and less so Norwich City, could have expected a neat and tidy defensive midfielder who could help protect the defence. The Mulumbu which arrived has been a much more skilled version, one with the awareness and intelligence you’d expect from someone who made 164 appearances in the English top-flight.
Clarke pushed Mulumbu into a slightly more advanced role and he became a conduit between midfield and attack. His passing crisp and accurate, helping open space for team-mates by taking the ball in tight areas, attracting pressure before shifting to a colleague. He is adroit at evading challenges with his quick feet.
Everything he does at Rugby Park seems to be met by gasps of disbelief, nodding heads followed by a ripple of applause. He’s made passes others couldn’t see, went head-to-head with the best Scotland has to offer and possesses a velvety touch.
Best moment: He has risen to the occasion in big matches, none more so than his role in helping Killie defeat Celtic March, netting the winner.
Stats: With 41.31 passes per 90 minutes, Mulumbu is Killie’s most prolific passer with an accuracy of 82 per cent.
8. Graeme Shinnie (Aberdeen)
Has a player who had spent a large part of his career as a left-back made the move to the centre of midfield and become such a colossus for his team? This writer can’t think of any meaningful examples other than Graeme Shinnie.
The Aberdeen captain is a bundle of energy and his presence is key for Derek McInnes’ side. That was made clear when he was missing from the club’s 3-0 defeat to Motherwell in the Scottish Cup.
Shinnie is the captain who leads by example, fully committed. Where he goes others follow. It is this attitude which endears him to fans and sees him tread a fine disciplinary line. He looks to lay down a marker early with eight bookings come in the first half, including ones in the ninth, 12th and 13th minute. Only John McGinn has been booked more in the league.
Yet, Shinnie is not just running round kicking opponents, he’s driving the team forward. Ryan Jack’s presence at the base of the midfield has been missed but he carries the ball really well, breaking lines. He provided five assists in his first 13 leagues games but should score more considering his ability to get into the box.
Aberdeen’s only regret regarding Shinnie is that they don’t have two of him. One for midfield and the other to play left-back.
Best moment: The 26-year-old’s stunning strike as Aberdeen defeated Apollon Limassol in the Europa League.
Stats: With 378, Shinnie leads the league in defensive duels.
7. John McGinn (Hibs)
One of the most intriguing players in Scotland. There will be many reading this and wondering why John McGinn is as low as seventh, after all he is the future of the Scotland midfield. A position outside the top six shouldn’t be a slight. Celtic have an array of quality midfielders, while a Hibs colleague has simply had a better and more influential season.
It wouldn’t be remiss to say he has it all. The epitome of an all-action, box-to-box midfielder. A dying breed in a game where players are defined as specialists in a particular position, a No.6, No.8, No.10 etc. McGinn can do a bit of it all. But it is not the case that he is a jack-of-all trades, master of none. There is no player better than the 23-year-old at launching a counter-attack with a bursting run.
While the aforementioned Glen Kamara does so with his dribbling ability. McGinn seems to hit the Nitrous and propel past players with sheer pace and power, but still managing to control his functions to easily evade opponents. His low-centre of gravity, tree trunk thighs and the way he hovers and crowds the ball makes it extremely difficult for the opposition to win it from him.
No player has been fouled more than the 105 times McGinn has been felled - 35 more than the second most fouled (Kamara). Hibs boss Neil Lennon is right in saying he gets kicked a lot, but he is also a savvy operator able to win fouls with minimal contact and can certainly stand up for himself.
A player of his quality should have more than six goals in all competitions. But the stats say it all about his wide range of abilities. He has hit the second most shots from outside the box in the league, third for dribbles, eighth for defensive duels, tenth for passes, first for through passes and passes to the final third.
Best moment: Hibs were unfortunate to only draw 2-2 with Celtic at Parkhead in September with McGinn bossing midfield with an imperious performance. He also scored both goals.
Stats: McGinn tops the yellow card count with 15 bookings in the league.
6. Olivier Ntcham (Celtic)
The Frenchman was the marquee signing of the Scottish Premiership season from Manchester City for around £4.5 million. Such a price-tag in Scotland meant he was expected to hit the ground running immediately and help Celtic to reach the next level. It didn’t quite transpire that way, and rightly so.
He was only 21-year-old when he arrived at Celtic Park with only 41 first-team appearances under his belt from his time in Italy with Genoa. It is a huge ask for a young, inexperienced midfielder to take on such responsibility at a club like Celtic, especially in his debut season in Scotland. The country’s football has its critics but it has its own, special demands.
In the first half of the season he showed flashes of his clear ability. But it was interspersed with moments which made people jump to conclusions and question the fee. To describe his performance in the 3-0 win over Anderlecht as loose and erratic would be generous. Even still, he set up a crucial goal. The inconsistent start was part adaptation to the league, but mainly an expectation that he was a certain type of player.
It was thought the now 22-year-old was the player to dictate the game from the base of the midfield, giving Celtic more control, especially in Europe. But as the season progressed it was obvious that he was more use further forward. It is in a slightly advanced midfield position from Scott Brown that he has thrived and became a Rolls Royce of a midfielder, controlling games from higher up the pitch.
He is able to shift games to his wanting but he is keen to make a difference in the final third. He is a powerful shooter from distance, while he leads Celtic in passes to the final third and is behind Tom Rogic in through balls. If the season was to extend a month or two and the list was compiled he’d likely make the top three.
Best moment: In Celtic’s most recent win against Rangers people really began to sit up and take notice of Ntcham, the best player on the pitch.
Stats: Ntcham leads the league in shots from outside the box with 62.
5. Callum McGregor (Celtic)
There would be quite a few Celtic fans who would have Callum McGregor much higher. There are some in Scottish football who still don’t quite ‘get’ him and would therefore have him lower. Gordon Strachan? You’d imagine he would be nowhere near the former Scotland manager’s list. After all he’d be trying to shoehorn mediocre English Championship players in.
McGregor is a somewhat unique talent in Scottish football. He doesn’t possess the lung-busting, bull-dozing energy of a Stuart Armstrong, the buccaneering of John McGinn, the controlling influence of Scott Brown or the incision of Tom Rogic. It is easy to think that if McGregor emerged in the early noughties he wouldn’t have found a place at Celtic. However, the Barcelona-fixation of the last 10-plus years — the way Pep Guardiola’s football influenced not only top level coaches but coaches at all levels down to grassroots — has opened more doors for players like McGregor.
The 24-year-old doesn’t have an obvious ability which is easy to pin down. Instead, it’s his awareness and intelligence of locating the right space at the right time in a game which puts him ahead of opponents and colleagues. There are few better at taking the ball in tight areas, using his body shape to both protect possession and progress play to move forward. He rarely loses the ball, completing more than 90 per cent of his passes and 87 per cent of his passes into the final third.
These qualities are alluring to Brendan Rodgers. McGregor has been afforded more trust and responsibility, while continuing to offer versatility. He has responded with his best Celtic season in terms of numbers. Eleven goals and eight assists in all competitions.
Best moment: Rather than pick a specific game or goal, such has his arrowed finish against Rangers in the Scottish Cup, simply being recognised as a key first-team player in the starting XI is a huge progression for the player.
Stats: No centre midfielder has had more touches in the opposition’s box than McGregor’s 69.
4. Stuart Armstrong (Celtic)
It wasn’t so much of a masterstroke by Brendan Rodgers to say to Stuart Armstrong that he had to play centre midfield - to paraphrase the very catchy ditty fans sing about the 26-year-old - it was common sense. But sometimes the hardest thing to see is something staring you in the face.
The driving runs, the stamina, the ability to play round players with quick incisive passing are attributes suited to a No.8 position, rather than a role on the left as Armstrong had largely played at Dundee United and under Ronny Deila. Since his momentum-turning introduction in the semi-final of the 2016-2017 Betfred Cup he, like when he picks up the ball in the midfield, has rarely looked back.
He was so impressive from that semi-final victory over Rangers onwards that he propelled himself to the top of this list 12 months ago. A drop of three places suggests a poor season but it doesn’t tell the whole truth. It has been more frustrating with a knee injury keeping him out for long stretches. The issue has prevented Armstrong from finding an equilibrium, a consistency of performance.
There is no question he is a technically sound footballer. But what he brings to the table for Celtic is that directness, those bursts of acceleration which can break tight and compact defensive lines. There is definitely a correlation between Armstrong’s underwhelming form and Celtic being stifled more by opponents. Last season he hit 15 goals and provided seven assists in the league but this campaign it has dropped to three and five respectively.
Just as the season is coming to a close there was the sign of the excellent Armstrong of last season in Celtic’s 3-1 win over Hearts. Off the bench he added energy to a game which had went flat and opened up Hearts numerous times with his forward runs and dribbling.
Best moment: Armstrong was influential in Celtic’s recent 3-0 defeat of Ross County. He was just getting back up to speed after injury and netted for the first time since December 2017.
Stats: Armstrong’s 10.63 passes to the final third per 90 minutes is the fourth best in the league.
3. Dylan McGeouch (Hibs)
“You have to play the game to understand it.” It is a familiar lament of fans and pundits by those that manage and play ‘the game’. Then you come to the discussion regarding player of the year. Ex-manager and current players talked up John McGinn, and he eventually made the shortlist for PFA Scotland Players’ Player of the Year.
Hibs player of the year? Dylan McGeouch. Any Hibs fan would tell you that he has been the club’s best and most influential player.
Similar to a player we will get to on this list, the 25-year-old has had his injury problems to deal with and the doubts over his reliability which often follow. There were suggestions that they were affecting the player mentally. But those have been put to bed following a wonderful season in which the player has been formidable in the middle of the park.
McGeouch has mostly played as a No.10 or No.8 throughout his career but has excelled in a more restricted role for the Easter Road men. While McGinn brings anarchy and chaos to the midfield, McGeouch exerts control. The signing of Scott Allan was a curious one. How was Neil Lennon going to fit Allan, McGinn and McGeouch into the same midfield? It was a balance Alan Stubbs sometimes struggled with. But it was simple. Allan brings those penetrative passes in the final third, McGinn box-to-box and McGeouch is the brains of the operation from the base of the midfield.
He is so calm and composed on the ball, seeming to play with 360 degree vision. He protects the ball so well and so often chooses the right passes. And he is no slouch defensively. He sits fifth in the team for defensive duels, interceptions and fouls, while sitting in the top three for passes, through passes and passes to the final third. When he leaves he will be a huge miss.
Best moment: Hibs defeated Hearts comfortably at Easter Road in March and McGeouch was key to that. Head and shoulders above anyone else on the pitch, he kept Hearts at arm’s length, controlling proceedings.
Stats: Outside of Celtic and Rangers, Hibernian’s McGeouch makes the most passes per 90 minutes (49.54).
2. Tom Rogic (Celtic)
Kieran Tierney aside, is Tom Rogic the most talented player in the league? The answer would be a lot clearer if it wasn’t for a host of injuries and niggles which have affected the Australian’s development at Celtic Park since arriving in from Central Coast Mariners in 2013. He has had a knee injury, an ankle injury and a groin operation - he missed the entirety of the 2014/2015 season.
This apparent fragility has seemingly built this belief that he can’t last 90 minutes - there’s an expectancy that he will be subbed between the 60th and 70th minute. In the last two seasons he has started 52 games, completing 90 minutes on 22 occasions. But such is his talent that rather than focus on his questionable intensity levels it should be his quality which comes to the fore.
No player in the league has his combination of technique, strength, power, close control, dribbling and shooting ability. It’s as if a Baobab tree has developed the ability to move and play football to a high level. He is a frightening proposition for opponents and the ultimate No.10.
He is fantastic at moving laterally to get the ball. He rarely stands still in the middle of the pitch. He prefers pitching up in the half-spaces on the pitch, especially on the right. Those box areas in front of the defence and behind the midfield, between the centre-back and full-back. He is so slick at taking the ball on the half-turn, taking possession and moving forward in one continuous and polished nature.
When he gets the ball on the edge of the box... DANGER! He can combine, play eye-of-the-needle passes or simply thump or curl the ball into the top corner.
Best moment: Anytime he set foot on a pitch when the opposition were Aberdeen or Rangers. Yet, few moments were more special than his glorious individual goal at Ibrox with Celtic trailing. Rangers were rampant until Rogic picked up the ball, turned, drove forward and curled an effort past Wes Foderingham,
Stats: The Australian makes 2.04 through passes per 90 minutes, the second best figure in the league.
1. Scott Brown (Celtic)
Obituaries were being penned as little as two years ago regarding Scott Brown’s playing career at a club the size and ambition of Celtic. Towards the end of Ronny Deila’s spell in charge of the Hoops, Brown was a mere caricature of the player he had been. His influence was waning domestically.
Enter Brendan Rodgers. The former Liverpool boss reinvigorated Brown. The Celtic captain had a manager he wanted to play for: someone who would set high standards, demanded training was intense, while making football fun again for the Celtic players. No player bought into this more than Brown. He roared back.
The 32-year-old has continued his new lease of footballing life, free from injury, into this season, dominating proceedings domestically. From breaking through at Hibs and being refined at Celtic few would have envisaged Brown evolving to become a midfield metronome at the base of the midfield.
It can be said that he is in the middle of a dominant team up against a standard of player increasingly inferior. However, he is so far ahead the majority of his midfield peers. His intelligence off the ball has improved, picking up possession in good areas, offering different angles, before building play. He has been kicked and stamped on but largely rose above it with a swagger, such is the superiority he feels.
Best moment: He didn’t have to be at his best in Celtic’s 4-0 Scottish Cup win over Rangers but he played with a cigar in his mouth and smoking jacket on. That or his amusing swagger at Pittodrie after being fouled and having the ball kicked at him.
Stats: Brown leads the league in passes by more than 400 with 2,541 at an accuracy of 93.43 per cent.