The 12 best wide midfielders in Scottish football right now
The top 12 wide midfielders currently playing in Scottish football at the moment, as voted by members of The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast
In 2017 we wrote that there wasn’t a great depth of quality in the wide areas in Scottish football. A year on and it has improved slightly. One only has to look at a trio of players who didn’t make the list.
Patrick Roberts, one of the most talented players in the league, has been hampered by injuries and fell down the pecking order at Celtic. Colleague Jonny Hayes was second on the list last season but drops out completely as a broken leg sustained at Dundee in December followed on from a slow start at his new club. Then there is Brandon Barker. This writer (who voted for him) is not sure why the Hibs winger didn’t make the cut. Perhaps an erratic end product or, again, injury.
But one thing is for sure, there are wide men operating in Scotland who excite and entice fans out their seats, plus there is a great variety. There are strong runners, mazy dribblers, crossers, bye-line hitters and inverted wingers. Some even fit into more than one category.
So which 12 have made the list...
If you want to recall last season’s elite dozen, you can find that here.
• Click here to listen to the episode of The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast where the top 12 was debated.
12. Chris Cadden (Motherwell)
It has been quite the week for Chris Cadden. With the days counting down until he runs out for Motherwell at Hampden Park in the Scottish Cup final he received his first Scotland call-up. With players such as Barry Douglas, Matt Ritchie and Ryan Fraser not fancying the trip to Mexico and Peru it has opened space for more willing individuals, like Cadden.
Anyone who has watched the 21-year-old over the past three seasons will know he is just that, willing. Every time he goes onto the pitch he carries out the instructions of the manager and puts a shift in. It is this professionalism, this attitude which, it could be said, has hampered him slightly. He’s played in every position bar centre-back and goalkeeper. His determination and physical attributes as allowed him to be versatile.
So even after more than 110 appearances for the Steelmen we are still none the wiser as to what his best position is. Is he a reliable wide midfielder? A back-and-forth wing-back? Or a box-to-box centre midfielder? This season, at wing-back, he has been an important cog in Motherwell’s success; his energy and commitment to the cause perfect qualities to this structured, direct and intense Well team with little ego.
His future likely belongs in the middle despite his powerful running and able crossing qualities. But in the meantime he is doing a fine job, a job which he will carry out in Mexico and Peru.
Best moment: Cadden got the season up and running with a fine goal against Queen’s Park but it will be hard to top a Scotland call-up.
Stat: Cadden’s 128 crosses from the right is the fourth most in the league.
11. Lewis Morgan (St Mirren)
“I’ve worked with him day in, day out over the last 15 months and I firmly believe he has enough attributes, with his natural talent, how hard he works at his game and his temperament, to deal with the challenges that lie ahead,” the words of St Mirren boss Jack Ross about Lewis Morgan.
The biggest challenge in his nascent career will begin soon as he tries to make his mark at Celtic and become a first-team player at the Scottish champions. However, it is the belief of Ross and thousands of St Mirren fans that he is capable of doing so.
Morgan has been at the forefront of the Buddies’ promotion back to the top-flight, the match winner and talisman. He has scored and assisted 20 goals in the Championship, producing big moments to do so, while earning Saints 21 points.
Watching professional footballers struggle to kick the ball with their ‘weaker’ foot is infuriating. Surely it is a prerequisite to ‘make it’. There is no such issue with Morgan. It is hard to tell which of the ambidextrous 21-year-old’s feet are stronger. It can make such a difference, especially to a player who operates in the positions Morgan does. Drifting in from the left he can go either way past a defender, shoot with either foot or play a pass with ease without having to find his balance then shift the ball to foot he feels more confident using.
Can he make the step up? Only he can decide but having netted four times in two home games against promotion rivals Dundee United before the end of 2018 is a good sign.
Best moment: An incredible back-heeled assist to set up Cammy Smith’s opener in a 2-1 win over Dunfermline Athletic in front of the BT Sport cameras.
Stat: With 438 dribbles, Morgan led the league by 175.
10. Niall McGinn (Aberdeen)
Aberdeen had their heart and identity ripped from them in the summer with the departure of flying wide men Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes. If it wasn’t for his early struggles at Celtic and then an injury when he seemed to be getting up to speed, the latter would have easily made the list. As for the former, a failed move to South Korea and a relatively underwhelming return to Pittodrie has seen him drop from fourth in the last two editions of the list.
The Northern Irishman should be commended for trying something different by making the move to Gwangju FC. He made only eight appearances as the team were relegated and opted for a return to Scotland where he had plenty of interest. Aberdeen welcomed him back with open arms, and it was as if he had never been away. In his first six appearances he scored twice, assisted three times and had a big hand in two further goals.
But his form then hit a dip, with McGinn taking a backseat role. Although it should be stated that he has had little time off over the past two summers with the European Championships in 2016 then the move to South Korea.
His first half-a-dozen appearances should give Aberdeen fans enough evidence that he will continue to be a key player into next season with his jinking runs, ability to shift the ball quickly from left to right before whipping in dangerous crosses. And, of course, a goal threat.
Best moment: McGinn got his first start against Kilmarnock in January, delivering two assists and a fantastic individual goal.
Stat: McGinn has made three assists in ten starts since his return.
9. David Milinkovic (Hearts)
Anthony Brown, sports reporter for The Scotsman’s sister title the Edinburgh Evening News, tweeted that never had he had such a response to a story about the fitness of a player. But it wasn’t just any player, it was David Milinkovic, and Hearts fans were besotted.
The French-born winger was a late arrival last summer as Craig Levein searched desperately to add some pace, width and creativity to the barren mess he took over. Then over the weeks fans were drip-fed snippets of this mercurial 23-year-old. The club’s support can be taken by such individuals, namely Mauricio Pinilla.
Levein talked Milinkovic up but was hesitant to give him a starting role, talking about his work in a collective. Fans, already taken by the player’s output on Instagram, were just desperate for a player to inject a bit of inspiration. Celtic came to Tynecastle Park in December and Milinkovic came to the fore. On top of netting twice and assisting Kyle Lafferty, he worked himself into the ground, giving Kieran Tierney a testing afternoon.
If Milinkovic plays Hearts are a different team. No game emphasised that more when he was brought off the bench against Motherwell in the Scottish Cup quarter-final. The belief is that if he started Hearts would have won. He is the one player who can carry the team up the pitch with his dribbling and put the opposition on the back foot, while his tremendous work-rate is appreciated.
Everything is done at a high-tempo and he does get caught up in the occasion which can see him lose his position, much to the chagrin of Levein, or over do it with the ball. But he has a goal threat, the ability to spot a pass, as seen by a wonderful assist to set up Steven Naismith against Aberdeen, and an attitude which has endeared him to the maroon side of Edinburgh.
Best moment: Terrorising Tierney and scoring twice as Hearts beat Celtic 4-0.
Stat: Milinkovic’s 0.64 key passes per 90 minutes is the third best in the league.
8. Gary Mackay-Steven (Aberdeen)
Gary Mackay-Steven’s move to Pittodrie hasn’t quite gone swimmingly. At times the winger has played as if riding the crest of a wave, making a mockery of defenders, while on the other hand there have been spells where he has looked submerged.
The 27-year-old was one of a number of intriguing signings made by Derek McInnes as he looked to reshape a squad devoid of Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes. Mackay-Steven had a difficult time at Celtic after a respectable start. He was insipid in the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Rangers in 2016, while he never seemed to have the game intelligence to thrive under Brendan Rodgers.
A starring role with responsibility at Aberdeen was an interesting step in the player’s career. He had a couple of early positive moments but for most of the first of the season it was a case of waiting, with increasing impatience, for the player to arrive and show his undoubted talent. Then he blitzed Hibs with a fantastic individual performance within the collective as he hit a hat-trick and laid on a goal.
McInnes was enthused but noted that he had to have the belief and mindset to do that on a more regular occasion. Yet, typically, it was followed by a non-descript showing in a 3-0 defeat at Celtic Park. Not long after there was an unfortunate incident on a night out.
It has been the player’s career in a nutshell, ups and downs, peaks and troughs. He has found it hard to deliver consistency. If he could he would find himself much higher in the list.
Best moment: Tormenting Efe Ambrose and the Hibs defence in a 4-1 win, which included a thumping effort as part of his treble.
Stat: Gary Mackay-Steven dribbles 8.55 times per 90 minutes.
7. Josh Windass (Rangers)
The ball started at the back and just over 10 seconds later it was in the back of the Partick Thistle net. It was one of the brilliant team goals of the season finished off by Josh Windass. It was a goal to celebrate. The Englishman, however, opted instead for the finger to his mouth, telling the travelling Rangers support to ‘ssshhhhh’.
To say the player isn’t universally loved at Ibrox is an understatement. He has got into a few spats with fans who question his attitude and social media output. Only recently he felt the force of a small number of the club’s fans for uploading a picture of himself with Wes Foderingham and... Scott Allan. GASP! Send him to the Hague to be tried!
And this is after an excellent campaign on the field. It has gone under the radar just how much he has improved from last season to this. From a combined five goals and assists in the league to 18, coinciding with a more advanced role. It was in a central attacking role which he thrived for Accrington Stanley in 2015/2016, prompting Rangers to sign him. But then he was played as a No.8.
This season has seen Windass either play from the left or as a second striker effectively and he has been much more involved in the final third. His shooting has increased drastically, as have his dribbling and touches in the box (from 27 to 116), while his passes per 90 minutes have dropped. He is a powerful runner which can be hard for opponents to match, making him a useful asset on the counter-attack.
Question marks still exist over his attitude, especially when out of possession, and he can drift to the periphery of matches, but he has the qualities to be a very useful and dominant forward player.
Best moment: While he may have had better performances, it is hard to beat scoring a hat-trick which he did against Hamilton Academical.
Stat: Windass has hit 99 shots, the most in the league.
6. Jamie Murphy (Rangers)
It is widely accepted that Jamie Murphy was by far the best bit of business the club made in the January transfer window and, behind Daniel Candeias and Alfredo Morelos, the best signing this season for Rangers.
The 28-year-old carved quite the career for himself in England following his move from Motherwell. It is easy for players to get chewed up and spit out in the grind of the Football League. Murphy performed admirably over two and a half seasons for Sheffield United before doing the same for Brighton & Hove Albion, who he helped earn promotion to the Premier League.
Still around the prime of his career, Scottish football is witnessing a more refined player than the one which left and Rangers should benefit. Despite playing in the forward positions he is not a regular goalscorer — one goal in five. But what he offers is balance, defensive diligence and creativity coming in off the left flank — he is leading the league in assists per 90 minutes.
Murphy has that ideal quality for a winger, being able to evade opponents without looking like he is moving too quickly. He always seems in control as he jinks through a maze of bodies and he has the vision to pick out the right pass at the right time.
Best moment: A goal and a trio of assists in a 5-3 win over Hamilton Academical. The third assist was the best of the lot, a first time backheel into the path of Windass.
Stat: Murphy 0.42 assists per 90 minutes is the league’s best.
5. Martin Boyle (Hibernian)
“I had to run to the doors with the parcels. It was a nightmare. It kept me fit, but I was shattered going training at night.”
When the Hibs winger was helping his mother out with her courier job while studying for an HNC degree in sports science at college and playing for Montrose he couldn’t have envisaged that he surely couldn’t have envisaged becoming one of the best wingers in Scottish football.
Even at the start of this season there were doubts that Boyle had what it took to make the step up to the Ladbrokes Premiership. The player had swapped League Two football for the top tier when Dundee signed him in 2012. He played nine times in the first half of that season before moving back to Montrose and League Two on loan.
He was a key part of Hibs’ promotion last season, offering width and pace, even if Hibs boss Neil Lennon was frustrated with his tendency to fall over. His importance has only increased in the Premiership with the player handed more responsibility and a greater trust, earned by his form.
Throughout the season Lennon has flitted between a flat back four and a back three with wing-backs. Boyle has been crucial element in that. No matter the role he has terrified defenders with his pace and directness, while he has developed a fine relationship with John McGinn — staying wide for switches of play or darting in field to get on the end of McGinn’s clipped passes.
It has been at wing-back where he is most comfortable, his presence giving the team equilibrium and the deeper position allows him to run onto passes and confront opposition full-backs at pace. His final product can still be erratic but six goals and 13 assists in all competitions is a fine return.
Best moment: Boyle gave Jamie Brandon and Conor Randall a chasing in successive Easter Road derbies.
Stat: Boyle’s 280 dribbles are the second most in the league.
4. Scott Sinclair (Celtic)
Can someone who could be about to complete a second treble having scored 18 goals in all competitions be deemed to have had a poor season? Not really, especially when you look back at the quality of his goals and assists. Yet, with a player of Sinclair’s talent it has still been underwhelming.
A look at his game time in the past few weeks suggest it is a view also held by Brendan Rodgers. The Englishman has only started once in the last six matches, and that was the most low key of the split fixtures, a 0-0 midweek draw with Kilmarnock. It makes it hard to judge the player in terms of the list. Clearly he is very, very talented but his performance levels haven’t matched or come close to matching last season.
The previous campaign saw Sinclair link up expertly with Kieran Tierney. The pair worked in tandem with Sinclair drifting between the lines and between full-back and centre-back from the left with Tierney bombing down the line. It is hard to think of a more effective combination in Scottish football in recent years. Opponents took to man-marking both players such was their threat. Sinclair banged in 25 goals in all competitions, 21 in the league.
That latter figure has dropped to ten. Enough to make him the club’s leading scorer in the league. Yet, relegated Ross County’s Alex Schalk scored more. Some of those goals have been brilliant. The dip of the shoulder, the shuffle, the dive inside and a thumping finish into the opposite corner. As have some of his mazey runs, painting pretty patterns around defences. But too many times he has backtracked, made the wrong turning or simply been engulfed by opponents, too slow to make use of the ball.
If Sinclair turns up Celtic win. It is that ‘IF’ which has left Celtic fans frustrated and the player on the bench with the Scottish duo of James Forrest and Callum McGregor making more of a consistent impact.
Best moment: Netting against Anderlecht in Brussels in what was an excellent team performance and a fine individual one.
Stat: No Celtic player has had more touches in the opposition box than Sinclair’s 136.
3. Jordan Jones (Kilmarnock)
It is ironic that the Northern Irishman missed the end of the season due to a twisted testicle as it is something he has been doing to opposition full-backs all season. Both Aberdeen and Rangers have shown an interest in the player, back when he could have been described as raw and picked up on the cheap - or so they and Ayr United manager Ian McCall thought.
Like so many under Steven Clarke, Jones has kicked on and found a consistency which has pushed the winger from frustrating to promising to fully-fledged.
The player recently tweeted his thanks to Killie, talking about his fear of starting a new journey 150 miles from home when he moved in 2016 and how it was his last chance he couldn’t waste. He’s made the most of it.
The 23-year-old is easily one of, if not the most exciting player in the league. When fans go to games they want to see players who transfix, those who, when they have the ball, you can’t take your eyes off them. Jones is that player. Former England international Chris Waddle said that when he was at Sheffield Wednesday he would hear a clattering when he got the ball as fans got out their seats, ready to be taken in by his ability to beat opponents. Jones is of that ilk.
He twists and turns as if performing some interpretive dance, weaving past opponents, happy to go either way, while he packs a punch with his shooting as he showed with a fabulous goal against Hibs. Because he is still relatively inexperienced in terms of game time, an improvement in his decision making will see him reach the top level.
Best moment: The player made his Northern Ireland debut in November in a World Cup qualification play-off encounter with Switzerland, a reward for his work at Killie.
Stat: With 399, Jones leads the leagues in dribbles — 119 more than anyone else.
2. Daniel Candeias (Rangers)
Two players arrived at Ibrox from Benfica in summer as Pedro Caixinha began his Rangers rebuild. There was a 29-year-old winger with 12 clubs in five countries on his CV. He had played for 11 of them, including nine loan spells. The other was a promising 21-year-old who had spent the previous season playing with the club’s B side gaining valuable experience.
Presented with that information it would have only perfectly understandable for Rangers fans to be excited about the latter. That player was Dalcio. After the Progrès Niederkorn debacle he played only one more minute.
As for Candeias he has been just short of a revelation for Rangers. If he was 21-year-old he would have been described as just that. Few Rangers players have offered such consistent productivity. Some within the media will fail to look past his reaction to being subbed by Graeme Murty in the Scottish Cup semi-final shellacking at the hands of Celtic, but that pales in comparison to what he has brought to Scottish football.
Simply put, there is no better crosser of the ball in the country. That is quite the statement for a player with cross accuracy of 25.96 per cent - lower than Aberdeen’s Andrew Considine. But no player has crossed the ball more often in total, more often per 90 minutes and more often to dangerous areas.
Crossing is his key asset. He doesn’t look to bamboozle full-backs or get to the bye-line - he’s only 14th for dribbles this season with more than 230 less than Killie’s Jordan Jones. It’s simple, if the ball comes to him in the final third he will look to sweep in a cross, whether he takes a touch to steady himself or first time. It’s a throwback to the likes of David Beckham and the reason why he leads the league in assists.
While he works hard for the team he can be defensively naive but he is underrated and someone the club should look to keep as they go in a new direction.
Best moment: Candeias had two assists and a man of the match performance as Rangers thumped Dundee 4-1.
Stat: No player has crossed the ball more than Candeias (235).
1. James Forrest (Celtic)
The most positive of Celtic fans couldn’t have foreseen the season James Forrest was set to have. The player probably couldn’t either. Even after a productive 2016/2017 campaign, which saw the 26-year-old’s resurgence at Celtic Park under Brendan Rodgers after it looked like he would leave the club. The final season under Ronny Deila was so underwhelming Forrest failed to make the 2016 list. Michael Gardyne, Steven Lawless and David Wotherspoon were just three of the players chosen ahead of him.
You rarely find a player at the Old Firm make such an improvement while being in their mid-20s. Forrest has done just that, with credit due to both himself and Rodgers. But with Manchester City’s Patrick Roberts expected to return on loan it was thought he would simply be a squad player than a recognised starter.
Fortunately for Forrest, Roberts arrived a few games into the season and the former had begun impressively, starting all of the Champions League qualification matches and the first six league games. In the league he netted three times. But his biggest contribution was in Europe, scoring the goal in Norway which took Celtic past Rosenborg. The goal may have been just what the player needed as reassurance he deserved to be at that level.
His standards throughout the season have rarely dropped below good. In the first half of the season they rarely dropped below excellent. He may not have the same talent as the likes of Scott Sinclair and Patrick Roberts, but he has been more important this season than the two Englishmen. Celtic look a much more balanced team with Forrest in it. Not only can he play as a winger he has also shown himself to be an effective wing-back. His understanding of the game is impressive but the biggest improvement has been in the final third. He has been more positive, more effective and now has more options in his arsenal rather than simply running in a straight line.
Best moment: The winning goal against Rosenborg to take Celtic into the final Champions League qualification round.
Stat: Forrest has had his best scoring season with 17 goals.