The Spice Boy
Younger readers will know Steve McManaman as a an analyst on BT Sports football programmes. Those of us of the Fantasy Football generation will remember McManaman as an assist machine for Liverpool – a key member of the “Spice Boys” as Liverpool transformed from serial winners to glamorous bridesmaids through the 1990’s.
Celtic supporters will remember him breaking our hearts in the 1997/98 UEFA Cup scoring an amazing last minute equalising goal to swing the tie in favour of the Anfield club.
McManaman was, during his Liverpool years, a winger of prodigious dribbling ability with excellent creativity and passing skills, once assisting 25 times on one season. Although not a prolific goal scorer, he managed double figures in four Liverpool seasons and 66 goals in 364 appearances.
Tall and rangy, McManaman was not blisteringly fast, relying on dips of the shoulder and excellent close control.
He won two Cups at Liverpool as well as many plaudits but is best known for being arguably the most successful English player to play abroad in a major league. Lasting four seasons at Real Madrid, McManaman racked up seven trophies and the adulation of the Madrid Ultras. They loved his work rate, commitment, willingness to adapt and adopt the Spanish language and culture. They loved his “stick-ability”, surviving through the early Galactico years and the high level of political noise associated with on the world’s great footballing cauldrons. The highlight of his career was the 2000/01 Champions League final where he was arguably the man of the match and scored a memorably volley to clinch the cup.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of McManaman’s career, however, is how he adapted his game whilst at Real Madrid. At Liverpool he was an out and out attacking weapon, usually wide but he could play in support of Fowler or Owen more centrally. In the rarefied but debt ridden dressing room at the Bernabeu, McManaman kept himself relevant and useful by transforming into a central midfield work horse. Possessing great stamina as well as work rate, McManaman became a ball dribbling “water carrier” – the term Eric Cantona famously coined for the French World Cup winning captain Didier Deschamps. Intended as an insult, it became a badge of honour for Deschamps describing his rather unglamorous, yet pivotal, role in the team as its central midfield defensive rock and giver of simple passes.
Joining the dressing room of Raul, Morientes, Hierro, Helguera, Casillas and Roberto Carlos would not suit the shrinking violet. With Luis Figo becoming the attacking pivot in (McManaman’s) season two, McManaman commendably held his place over four seasons where the team went max Galactico. In his final season, he shared a dressing room with Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo and half the Spanish national team. With such talent around him McManaman stayed relevant by adapting, becoming the £4.5m a year water carrier to the Galacticos.
I am not going to suggest Callum McGregor has the talent of Steve McManaman (although I’ll wager one day he is a superior pundit!) nor is it probable he will have such a stellar career. Within the Celtic Timternet there is growing realisation of the importance McGregor has within the squad. Rodgers has been praising him through the MSM, highlighting his technical ability, passing consistency and willingness to perform many jobs for the team.
McGregor (now 23) has been a Celtic as a youth player, primarily playing as a wide attacker. Commendably, he played a full season in English League One for Notts County playing 41 games and scoring 14 goals. With the arrival of Deila, McGregor found a role in the team from the start of his reign. McGregor’s initial season in the first team petered out with only 50 minutes played in the 2015 section of the 2014/15 season. Starting the 2015/16 season out the first team picture, by the end of the campaign he appeared in eleven of the final twelve games, starting the last four. Under Rodgers he has only been left out the match day squad once.
Season on season, he is getting more game time, and adapting his game.
*2013/14 data is for Notts County plus 1 unused sub for Celtic.
School of Hard Knocks
It is remarkable, I feel, that McGregor played a full season for a struggling team (Notts County), in so many positions, and was so successful in such an attritional league and he had never appeared for Celtic! I live in Sheffield and occasionally watch Sheffield United who have been in League One for a few years now. They have had many Scottish players (or players who have played in Scotland) such as Jamie Murphy, Stefan Scougall, Ryan Flynn, Jay McEveley, Michael Higdon, Jason Holt and they have all had their difficulties adjusting to the hurly burly of the league.
Yet a young and slight McGregor was top scorer by five goals in a team that avoided relegation by one place and three points. McGregor played across the attacking midfield positions, never playing more than three games in the same position.
Deila selected McGregor from the start of his reign with Forrest and Boerrigter injured. He started by scoring important away goals in European ties as (predominantly) an attacking right forward. Sometimes played as an attacking left forward, he only fleetingly appeared in a central position. 5 goals and 3 assists was as productive as Forrest (4 goals, 4 assists) as both vied for the same position. Forrest played only 1511 minutes that season but had won back his place by seasons end. Remarkably all 5 of his goals came away from home and 3 were in Europe. Two of his assists were in the home games vs KR Reykjavik, and a season highlight was creating 4 chances in one game versus Kilmarnock in October 2014.
By January 2015 he was out the picture as Deila rotated through Commons, Forrest and Mackay-Steven to fill the AMR position.
How lovely to see, like a blooming flower, the radar expand almost uniformly outward as if pointing towards the sun to brighten a developing career. The 2015/16 season saw Deila continue to grapple within his rigid 4-2-3-1 to find a permanent solution to the AMR position. Forrest, Commons and Mackay-Steven and even Johansen were positioned there, McGregor occasionally coming on as sub but now and again in the centre.
The 26th November 2015 Europe League match vs Ajax Amsterdam at home saw McGregor start in a more orthodox position as a MC. He scored within three minutes, continuing his love affair with European football. Although in the next match he was out at AMR again, ten of thirteen games up to early February 2016 saw McGregor deployed in a central role. He would often appear in two or even three positions in a game. He was out the picture again until March but finished the season playing the last three games as MC for 90mins.
A return of 6 goals and 9 assists was similar in output to Armstrong (4 goals, 8 assists) and Mackay-Steven (6 goals, 8 assists), who all eclipsed Forrest (2 goals and 2 assists). Five of McGregor’s goals came in games where he was played centrally, as did six of his nine assists.
As the radar shows above, he improved across his attacking KPIs. His assist rate of 0.4 per 90m eclipsed every other player except Commons (0.46). Only Griffiths, Commons and Rogic had a better Goal & Assist per 90m rate (0.66 for McGregor).
His overall contribution increased markedly too, completing 13 more passes per 90m 2% more accurately, whilst increasing his PEI by 4%.
I hadn’t looked at McGregor before this, so I have to register surprise (a pleasant one) at this improvement.
But what is this – our beautiful radar flower turning its head and shrinking as if struck by winters long, cold fingers? The basics, passes per 90m and accuracy are both up again, two passes per 90m and 2% more accurately. His PEI has gone up another 2% which is high for an attacking player.
The rest of the attacking data is down but let’s consider his role. In a season where McGregor has made his 100th appearance for Celtic, it is the first season some consistency is evidence in terms of playing position.
Whilst evidencing the adaptability Rodgers appreciates, he has been used predominantly as one of usually three central midfielders. Like in the Cup Semi Final, he may be slightly further forward than Brown/Bitton/Armstrong, but he generally plays closer to an orthodox central midfielder than a “10” like Rogic.
Consequently he has more defensive responsibilities, and we have only been considering attacking output based on his role in previous seasons. Here are McGregor’s defensive statistics over the last three seasons:
This highlights how effective McGregor was LAST season as an all-round midfielder. He won more tackles and a higher proportion of challenges. This season, in a more orthodox central midfield role, his intercepts per 90m is up, although he has a lower success rate. He is effecting more defensive clearances, more defensive saves, and less defensive errors.
I come back to his passing and overall PEI as indicative of a player improving his possession of the ball. McGregor’s PEI and pass completion % is lower than both Brown and Bitton but higher than Armstrong who tends to play riskier passes and more creative. It highlights that McGregor would be unlikely to displace a fit Brown or Armstrong as a first choice, but is trustworthy to be reliable when chosen.
McGregor is improving as a footballer year on year, which is all you can ask of any employee. Not a single game has been missed to injury over the last four seasons. He must possess a firm temperament and game intelligence to have been so adaptable in his early career to play different positions effectively game on game. This season he has adapted again to a central midfield role. He can continue to improve his defensive game, and he would be unlikely to displace anyone in a fully fit first XI. But he excels as a squad player and is a reliable performer when called upon, and if he continues to develop and improve, may one day be first choice. For now, his manager values him highly as his midfield water carrier.