There’s been quite a change between this year’s list and the one last year, except at the very top. You should know without going any further who the best full-back in Scotland is, but deciding the rest was rather more difficult.
A number of new players at the position have come into the Scottish top flight this year, while there’s been a significant improvement in some and radical drop off in others.
Some may complain about the lack of lower league representation. However, it should be noted that Liam Smith was a star at the position in the Championship this term for league winners St Mirren. While he’ll have the chance to go back to Hearts next season and establish himself as a top flight talent, Jambos are still sceptical that he has what it takes at that level. Even below seventh place Motherwell there hasn’t been a lot to shout about, suggesting once again that Scottish football’s talent is being hoarded by the biggest clubs.
If you want to recall last season’s elite dozen, you can find that here.
Note: this is a selection of the 12 best overall and not just their form this season.
• Click here to listen to the episode of The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast where the top 12 was debated.
12. Lee Wallace (Rangers)
The Scot clings on to his place in the list of best full-backs in Scottish football because of credit built in the bank. In the previous two years he has made the top six of the list, including a season when he played in the Championship.
Wallace has featured in only seven games this campaign, including what will forever be known as the Progrès Niederkorn debacle. He last played in a 2-2 draw with Partick Thistle, lasting only 12 minutes. It would be easy to forget his presence at the club, despite being captain, due to the form of his replacement, Declan John.
He has came back to prominence due to his alleged involvement in a dressing room bust-up following defeat to Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final. It led to a suspension.
Despite the recent incident and long-term injury, his standing within Scottish football has not regressed a great deal. Most Premiership clubs would see Wallace as a shrewd signing; he would improve both former club Hearts and second-place Aberdeen at the position.
It is hard to estimate how the groin operation has affected his physical state. One of his key attributes is his driving power and acceleration when motoring forward from left-back. Throughout his career he has been a robust and quick defender well suited to the intensity of Scottish football.
Best moment: Doing what he does best, running behind the opposition defence before calmly picking out Eduardo Herrera as Rangers defeated Ross County 3-1.
Stats - He has only played 552 minutes of football this season.
11. Jon Aurtenetxe (Dundee)
The 26-year-old was seen as quite the coup for Dundee when signed from the Spanish lower leagues. He had spent most of his career until this point playing in La Liga, making more than 100 appearances for Athletic Bilbao and Celta Vigo.
Overall he has been an impressive recruit for Dundee and an improvement on Kevin Holt who has never quite looked at ease in the Scottish Premiership, even if the latter has won his place back in the side of late.
Basque Jon, as he has become to be known owing to the complexities of his surname, has been a constant attacking outlet, especially when he has played as a wing-back. There is little surprise that he is a very composed and technical player, after all he played in the Copa del Rey and Europa League finals in 2012 for Bilbao under Marcelo Bielsa.
He hasn’t been fazed by the peculiarities of Scottish football. Not a powerful full-back, he has used his awareness and intelligence to time his runs and get into good positions to provide a threat from the left. With Scott Allan having departed Aurtenetxe has been key in creating chances even if they are not what you would class as clear-cut chances.
Defensively he is sound and is eager to stop crosses which is a rarity for a full-back in Scotland. His form in recent weeks, however, has dipped.
Best moment: The defender excelled as Dundee were able to defeat Rangers at Dens Park earlier in the season.
Stats - No full-back betters Aurtenetxe’s 1.89 key passes per minute.
10. Lewis Stevenson (Hibernian)
In some circles Stevenson’s Hibs career has been patronised. It goes that the only reason he has been at the club so long - he celebrated his testimonial last year - is because he has not been good enough to progress.
That is one pessimistic way to look at it. On the other hand, this is a player who has played nearly 400 times for one of the biggest clubs in Scotland.
He failed to make the list of best full-backs in the previous two seasons where he was solid for the Easter Road side in the Championship. This season he has shown that he does belong at top-flight level.
He is one of many in the Hibs squad who is adaptable, allowing Neil Lennon to be flexible with his line-ups while also providing balance. Under Alan Stubbs he wasn’t the most reliable attacking left-back as width arrived from the full-backs. He has the stamina to cover the flank but perhaps lacks consistency in the crossing department - although his cross to set up Jamie Maclaren against Celtic was pinpoint.
The 30-year-old, who still looks like a teenager, has largely played as a wing-back but not in the traditional sense. He plays more a more reserved role, allowing Martin Boyle greater freedom on the right. He also has an unusual relationship with Paul Hanlon, the Hibs centre-back playing as a left winger at times when the team has possession.
Stevenson doesn’t put up big numbers or sit high in many measurements but more than anything he provides balance.
Best moment: He may have scored against Rangers but he was imperious in Hibs’ 2-1 win over Celtic recently, winning his battle with James Forrest and providing quality width.
Stats - Stevenson makes 3.63 interceptions per 90 minutes.
9. Greg Taylor (Kilmarnock)
It just seems to be getting better and better for Killie. Not only have they won six of their last seven but they have also tied down a number of key individuals to longer contracts. The latest was Taylor who penned a contract until 2021.
The 20-year-old is one of Killie’s biggest on-field assets. Both in terms of the actual playing of football and as a potential revenue stream when he is sold on.
He first emerged when thrown into the relegation play-off in 2016, a week after his first-team debut, and didn’t look out of place. He shot to prominence, however, when he was red carded for a thunderous challenge on Joey Barton.
He has not overstepped that particular line since but he continues to play with a tenacity, in and out of possession, shown by his willingness to compete and get involved.
His background playing as a central midfielder means he takes care of the ball in tight areas and as all modern full-backs should he offers a threat going forward with an able crossing ability.
Taylor hasn’t made the same improvements under Steve Clarke as some of his team-mates, but that is because was already operating at a good level. His abilities are the type welcomed by Clarke who will appreciate Taylor’s commitment, while his understanding of the game belies his age.
Best moment: He helped Killie earn a draw at Tynecastle when he lunged in to scoop a goal-bound effort off the line.
Stats - No full-back has been involved in as many defensive duels as Taylor’s 329.
8. Mikael Lustig (Celtic)
Technically still a full-back — it’s where he will play for Sweden in the World Cup — his role has changed over the last two seasons. Lustig’s new, more narrow, role has become more pronounced this season. So much so that it could be argued he is more of centre-back than full-back.
It also could be argued that this has been his worst season, performance wise, in a Celtic top. Season 2014/2015 saw the player’s campaign ravaged by injury. Since then he has been a model of consistency going both ways. In last year’s list it was noted that up until this season he had provided a goal or an assist every 4.24 games throughout his Celtic career. This season he has scored three times and assisted twice in 43 appearances.
That is understandable considering the change in role. Brendan Rodgers is keen on balance and positional play. With James Forrest playing, and excelling, as an auxiliary wing-back, Lustig has been used as a right sided centre-back due to the paucity of options in central areas.
However, it is defensively where Lustig has been found wanting. His physical vulnerabilities have been noted in the past but that is more to do with being susceptible to injuries. In previous seasons, when he has played, he has shown the mobility to cover the flank, while being one of the hardest full-backs to better. He has looked a more soft touch this campaign.
Not only has he been slower in his movement but also in the mind. Rash decisions with and without the ball have crept into his game. With Forrest playing so well and the likes of Jack Hendry and Kristoffer Ajer emerging, the Swede’s time at Celtic could be winding down.
Best moment: Checking his pocket for Jamie Murphy in the recent 5-0 thumping of Rangers at Celtic Park. It’s this kind of mischief making that endears the defender to Celtic fans so much (see: nicking a policeman’s hat in the same game).
Stats - The Swede’s change in role has seen his defensive duels rise from 5.97 per 90 minutes to 6.88.
7. Jason Naismith (Ross County)
An accurate description of the former St Mirren defender would be ‘all-action’. The 23-year-old is natural successor to Callum Paterson as Scottish football’s boulder in Indiana Jones.
Throughout the season he has been charging up and down the right wing, careering into anything and everything, driving the team forward. Without taking anything away from the player, the fact he is so crucial to most facets of County’s play offers a glimpse into why the team are struggling.
He has made 58 more crosses than anyone else in the team, he is in the top three for dribbles, second for passes and top for key passes. Without even looking at his defensive contribution he is such an important player in the way County have attached this season. When he has been thwarted County can struggle. And it is clear he has been targeted. Only Partick Thistle and Aberdeen have given the ball away more than the Staggies. Naismith tops County’s list for ball losses.
He has been an excellent addition since signing last January. While he has spent time at centre-back he is an ideal full-back with his power and physicality, as well as the quality he does possess in the final third. But he doesn’t shirk his defensive responsibilities, only Marcus Fraser has been involved in more defensive duels.
Best moment: He earned County a point against Hearts with a fine strike across Jon McLaughlin after pushing into a dangerous position.
Stats - Naismith’s 11 key passes (passes which lead to a shot) is the highest in the Ross County team.
6. Declan John (Rangers)
James Tavernier and Lee Wallace appeared irreplaceable at Ibrox. Both players appeared infrangible with the mediocre Lee Hodson in place on the bench as a last resort. That was until the aforementioned Wallace went down against Partick Thistle at the start of the season and hasn’t been back in since.
What would have been if Rangers hadn’t recruited Declan John should be enough to keep Rangers fans up at night. The Welsh international’s performances has led to one query: “Lee who?!”
John has not put up the numbers of either Wallace or Tavernier and is certainly a more inconsistent performer. But one thing is for damn sure, he is exciting.
Rangers haven’t played with full-backs for nearly three seasons which has suited John. Their full-backs play more as wing-backs which suits John attacking instincts. He is arguably one of the best dribblers in the league and he has found the right team to be allowed to do just that. It is not uncommon for him to go on a rampage and find himself in an attacking position on the opposite side.
He is aided by his ability to use both feet, a quality which should be far more prominent in top-flight football.
Defensively, question marks still very much exist. Discounting Wallace’s handful of games, only Carlos Pena has a worse success rate in defensive duels. It is not an unfamiliar trait for Rangers full-backs but he can be caught too high up the pitch, although he does possess pace to help him recover.
Best moment: He hit a double in a 4-1 win over Hamilton. One with the right and one with the left.
Stats - The Welshman has made 138 passes into the final third with an accuracy of 76.09 per cent.
5. Shay Logan (Aberdeen)
Twelve months ago we were asking Shay if he had any Scottish grandparents, such was the need for a right-back for the national team and his consistent performances with Aberdeen.
Fourth on the list in 2016, he rose to second last year, and was perhaps the one player outwith Celtic who would make a Ladbrokes Premiership XI.
It seemed that Derek McInnes was so confident in the Englishman’s durability and consistency that he didn’t bother looking for a back-up. With key players leaving in wide areas, it was a position that offered him assurance and comfort.
Logan hasn’t been awful, he’s just not lived up to his previous high standards. No incident summed up Logan’s season more than the concession of a penalty against Kilmarnock in the Scottish Cup. Miscommunication with Kari Arnason was followed by a foul on Jordan Jones.
It was a sloppy piece of play during a sloppy season.
Still, Logan is still an important first team player. That was shown in the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Motherwell where there was a gaping hole at right-back where Dominic Ball was meant to be. Logan was sitting suspended in the stands.
He also remains a useful attacking outlet, especially with the loss of Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn (now returned). He is the second most frequent crosser for the Dons with the second best accuracy.
Best moment: The Englishman scored his sixth goal against Ross County with a powerful header at the back post in a 2-1 win.
Stats - Logan has the best crossing accuracy for a full-back at 43.42 per cent.
4. Stephen O’Donnell (Kilmarnock)
There is always a degree of scepticism when a player, who has impressed in Scotland, moves down south and is almost swallowed up and forgotten about before coming back to Scottish football.
O’Donnell was a really exciting, proactive full-back at Partick Thistle, encouraged to get forward in tandem with left-back Aaron Taylor-Sinclair.
On paper he looked a fine piece of business by Kilmarnock, but was he the same player who left Firhill for Luton Town? He was even sent on loan to National League side Gateshead towards the end of his spell in England.
Initial signs weren’t positive. He looked like a centre-back playing at full-back, rather than a wing-back playing full-back. Had he changed? Had he become more reserved?
In a word: no. It may have taken time but O’Donnell has returned to the powerful and direct full-back he was at Thistle and he has improved as a defender. It got to the point where calls for his inclusion in the Scotland squad were not outlandish.
Still only 25, he has emerged as a fan favourite at Rugby Park and a favourite of Steve Clarke.
With Jordan Jones afforded freedom on the left, Clarke has counteracted it by playing someone narrow on the right. This has opened space for O’Donnell to drive into and he has been a key threat on the counter-attack. On top of his four goals and five assists, he leads the team in passes, key passes (six more than Jones) and passes into the final third.
He has a similar build to the likes of Lustig and Naismith, so comfortable with the robust nature of Scottish football and very useful for defending crosses and set pieces. Killie are happy to cede possession, content in their structure and organisation. A lot has been asked of O’Donnell and he has delivered with the most interceptions, while only Taylor has been involved in more defensive duels.
Best moment: Picking up the ball in the midfield he drove at Motherwell before zipping in a daisy cutter from more than 25 yards to give Killie the win at Fir Park.
Stats - With 180, the right-back leads Killie in interceptions.
3. Richard Tait (Motherwell)
Another candidate for the Scotland right-back position. Born in Galashiels but having spent the vast majority of his football career in England, there are many who have not realised he is Scottish.
Tait has largely played at left-back in a 3-5-2 system, which has allowed Stephen Robinson to fit Chris Cadden into the team, while taking care of a the problem left-back position. For most full-backs this would have a major issue, especially for one whose crossing is a key attribute.
But Tait is as comfortable on the left as he is on the right, able to fire in a wide variety of crosses from either foot. This ability allows him to change the angle of his crosses or scoop one out from awkward positions.
On top of that, Tait is well-suited to this Motherwell team and their ethos. A gym enthusiast who can be found doing CrossFit — an intense workout combining a number of elements including high-intensity interval training, Olympic weightlifting, plyometrics, powerlifting and gymnastics — on his days off. He is one of the fittest players in the league which helps him cope with such a demanding position.
He is constantly back and forward, aggressive in his play and committed. Few teams dig in more than Motherwell and they earned a point against Celtic with ten men thanks to a superb last-ditch block from Tait on Scott Sinclair.
Best moment: The aforementioned block. Tait comes out from nowhere.
Stats - Tait is crossing the ball more often, hitting 5.13 per 90 minutes, up from 4.73 per 90 last season
2. James Tavernier (Rangers)
“He’s great going forward but can’t defend.”
It’s a familiar lament of full-backs and one which Tavernier has no doubt heard countless times since his move to Rangers. In the past the point certainly stood. He could be caught out of possession and did not read the game well when Rangers lost the ball, too slow to get back into a defensive position.
In the last 18 months or so there has definitely been a maturity to Tavernier’s game, so much so that he now wears the captain’s armband at the club. Previously such a scenario would have raised a few eyes but no eyelids have been batted.
Look around the top teams and the most ‘involved’ player is often found in the centre of midfield. Scott Brown, John McGinn and Kenny McLean to pinpoint three examples. A cursory look at the stats suggests Tavernier, too, is an all-action midfielder, getting box-to-box.
Seven goals and eight assists in the league. Only Brown has made more passes, while he is in the top three for passes into the final third, through passes and key passes. He’s fourth for defensive duels and second, behind team-mate Daniel Candeias, for crosses.
The Tavernier-Candeias link-up on the right-hand side has given Rangers a potent threat. You could be forgiven for thinking the duo were an RAF station, such has been the aerial assault they have provided.
Candeias has helped Tavernier defensively, even if the Portuguese can at times switch off, but the Englishman is no longer an obvious weakness.
Best moment: He hit a double in a 3-0 win over Aberdeen, including a goal typical of a poacher.
Stats - The Englishman’s eight assists is the highest for a defender in the league.
1. Kieran Tierney (Celtic)
This has not been a stellar season for Tierney, his growth having begun to slow. Yet, it is still obvious that in terms of full-backs he is miles out in front. And generally he remains the best player in the division.
Tierney’s season personally hasn’t been too different to Celtic as a whole. Still clearly better than the rest but there have been moments of doubt, moments where, for once, they’ve looked vulnerable.
The 20-year-old’s most trying game came at Tynecastle where Hearts hounded Celtic, ending the champions’ 69-game unbeaten run. A recent trip to the capital also proved difficult against the pace of Hibernian’s Martin Boyle.
These are just a couple of instances among a plethora of excellent or professional displays from the Scotland international. He showed up really well against Arjen Robben in the Champions League, while adapting to more attacking role as a left-wing-back-cum-winger.
Last season he had built an impressive relationship with Scott Sinclair. The pair were hard to live with for most teams. In time opponents did figure out how to squeeze them out the game. With Sinclair in and out the side now, Tierney has been given more responsibility on the left, yet his crosses per 90 minutes and dribbles have both dropped, the latter substantially so from 6.07 per 90 to 3.97.
It would be wrong to focus too much on the negative for a player with so much quality and one who is still the league’s best talent. Despite Andy Robertson’s success with Liverpool there is still a case to be made that Tierney is still the better of the two. And that in itself says so much about the Celtic star.
Best moment: Standing up to the challenge of Europe and keeping Arjen Robben quiet in the Champions League.
Stats - Tierney has been more involved in Celtic’s play, making 1,869 passes, the third highest in the league. He made a total of 1,440 in the whole of last season.