SPFL

2017-18 Scottish Premiership XI

Last weekend, the Scottish Premier League played out the final chapter in this season’s dramatic tale. It’s been a crazy campaign, with almost all the top six receiving sizeable shake-ups: Rangers played musical chairs with their managers and now have a roster Frankenstien-ed together from three different teams; Hibs audaciously ditched their two top scorers and brought in two deadly replacements; Kilmarnock managed to revive the careers of a couple of SPFL veterans whilst making perhaps the season’s smartest signing; and Celtic seem to have developed a peculiar habit of spending reasonably large sums of money on players they have little interest in actually playing.

Now that the dust has begun to settle, here’s a line-up of some of this season’s best performers. It is in no way definitive, just a collection of players whose campaigns deserve recognition, lined up in a gentlemanly 4-2-3-1 formation. Though one or two could have been called before the season began, the team features an enjoyable number of surprise success stories, with players emerging from wilderness years and defying age expectations to become some of this season’s MVPs.

GK – Jon McLaughlin (Hearts)

McLaughlin’s first season as a Jambo was so good that it will likely also be his last. Having already forced his way into the Scotland squad, the 30 year-old stopper is being linked with a move back to England and Craig Levein has conceded that he will likely lose his No.1 to the lure of an English salary.

But in his time as Hearts keeper, there has been no safer pair of hands in the league. Though he has had the benefit of standing behind a rigorously defensive side, McLaughlin has been vital to the Edinburgh team’s impenetrable displays. With him between the posts, Hearts have conceded the third fewest goals of any top division side and set a new club record for consecutive clean sheets.

Of the few goals they have conceded this season, you’d be hard pressed to find one for which McLaughlin was to blame.

LB – Kieran Tierney (Celtic)

Another year, another armful of Young Player of the Year awards for the Celtic left-back. In a campaign where many hooped shirts have housed players struggling to reach the heights of last year’s Invincibles run, Tierney has been unyieldingly reliable. On his bad days, he defends solidly and works tirelessly to get up and down the left flank. On his much more common good days, he terrorises the opposition with pace, pinpoint crosses and a truly lethal left foot.

That all becomes that much more impressive when you consider the sheer volume of games he has played. This season’s European qualifiers arrived less than two months after the previous campaign had concluded, yet Tierney has remained an almost omnipresent fixture in Rodgers’ Celtic team from first day till last, racking up a handful of Scotland caps along the way. By Christmas, he had played more football than any top flight outfielder in Europe.

Still only 20 years old, his potential appears almost boundless.

CB – Christophe Berra (Hearts)

While you could have pencilled in Tierney’s name before a single game had been played this season, Christophe Berra most likely didn’t strike most football fans as the one to watch this time around. Entering his 33rd year, the Scottish centre-half was thought to be a little past his prime. The national team still relied on him, but there were hopes that someone younger might soon arise to take his place. Stylistically, the game seemed simply to have moved beyond him: today’s teams demand defenders who are comfortable on the ball, able to pick passes and bring possession forward to launch counter-attacks. Berra was of the old school, taught to treat the ball with utter reprehension.

Come the end of the season, he’s been crowned Hearts’ Player of the Year and been roundly applauded as one of the best performers anywhere in Scotland. He hasn’t changed: any ball that comes near him is sent packing with a ferocity that leads you to imagine he sends a string of expletives soaring after it. He is a defender who defends the same way that a hammer hammers: fulfilling its single purpose with blunt force and total efficiency. In sticking to his olden style, he has become talismanic of a club that prides itself on its no-nonsense football.

CB – Kristoffer Ajer (Celtic)

Though they share a position, rangy build and practically a first name, the two selected centre-backs are polar opposites when it comes to their style of play. While the Hearts veteran prides himself on clearing his lines, Ajer is made in the modern mould that asks for a little more finesse. Arriving at the club as an attacking midfielder, this season has seen him fully adapt to the role he began playing while on loan at Kilmarnock last term, taking to it so completely that he has established himself as the Scottish champions most (and sometimes only) reliable central defender.

The transformation is obvious even at a glance: the once spindly Norwegian has filled out to become a commanding physical presence. No longer a lightweight, he is now able to take full advantage of his considerable height and achieve an aerial dominance matched by few in the country. Just as Berra is emblematic of a team who seldom stray from “Route One”, Ajer’s cultured style makes him the perfect fit for one which likes to take the scenic route, ambling towards the opposition goal via a winding path of short passes and clever interplay. Strolling around the defence with an ease that belies his previous position, he regularly looks to stretch those long legs and gallop beyond a player or two, offering an attacking impetus from the edge of his own area.

Another youngster with a bright future, Celtic’s recent decision to secure his signature on a four year deal speaks volumes.

RB – James Tavernier (Rangers)

The Rangers man almost seems like an off pick for this season’s best right back because evidence still abounds that it may not be his best position. As he captained his side to the astonishing 5 – 5 draw which concluded their season, this point was further underlined. He roamed forward brilliantly as he has done all season, notching his eighth goal of the campaign with a well-timed run, intricate one-two and a striker’s finish. But he also floundered as part of a backline which continued to bleed goals with abandon, offering little in the way of defending as Hibs swept through again and again. As the one constant in a back-line that has been re-arranged throughout the season in pursuit of something resembling competence, he has admittedly been given very little to work with.

So hell, if Marcelo can call himself a full-back and play for Real Madrid without showing the slightest interest in anything happening in his own half, then James Tavernier can receive a pass on the same basis. If it’s good enough for Zinidine Zidane, it’s good enough for me.

And there is no denying that, going forward, Tavernier has been utterly electric. While those around him have lost their heads (and often their jobs), he has calmly continued to bombard the opposition from the right flank. A match for most wingers in terms of pure pace and capable of rounding out a bounding run with either an expert delivery or a fine finish of his own, he is the ideal player for any side that sees wide defenders as just more attackers.

With plenty of teams willing to adopt that mentality, a big money move may await.

DM – Scott Brown (Celtic)

Having already spent a couple of thousand words in praise of the Celtic skipper, this time I’ll keep it brief.

In his tenth year at Celtic, Brown has evolved into the one man army he always threatened to become. When Brown is on the park, the midfield belongs to him and Celtic continue hurtling towards trophy after trophy. When he isn’t, the centre simply will not hold, and the whole team crumbles outward.

Simply put, there is no-one in Scotland more indispensable to their team right now.

DM – Youssouf Mulumbu (Kilmarnock)

Steve Clarke’s mid-season arrival at Kilmarnock turned more than a few heads: here was a manager with establish English Premier League pedigree risking his reputation to try and revive a Killie side that seemed to be almost in free-fall. The announcement that Youssouf Mulumbu would be rejoining his former West Brom gaffer was also fairly unexpected. He was the kind of player you knew as a Premier League fixture but who maybe you kind of forgot about in recent years. Norwich certainly had, relegating the Congolese midfielder to the bench for the eight months prior to his departure.

About to turn 31 years old, short on game time and heading to a failing team north of the border, you’d have been forgiven for wondering if Mulumbu’s day had past.

But you would have been astronomically wrong. Having honed his skill across 164 EPL appearances, Mulumbu plays with an almost precognitive appreciation for positioning. He is always there to scoop up the opposition’s stray pass, to take the pressure of his own defence, to pick the pass that sets them off on the attack. He doesn’t need to run as quickly as those around him because he thinks twice as fast. A model of reliability, he is also a big game player able to step up into the hardest games.

It’s no coincidence that his sole goal of the season gave Kilmarnock a victory over Celtic.

LW – Jordan Jones (Kilmarnock) 

A great number of positions on this list were hard to fill because of how fierce the competition was. Scott McKenna, Paul Hanlon and perhaps even Cedric Kipre made good claims towards the centre back post. Dylan McGeough and John McGinn have both been fantastic in the centre, and Olivier Ntcham might also easily have partnered his Celtic skipper there. Moussa Dembele or Alfredo Morelos might have found themselves up front had one not spent so much time injured and the other continued to lose his cool on the big occasions.

But the left wing is the one position which becomes difficult for the lack of clear choices. Scott Sinclair is still probably the best player in that position and still finished as Celtic’s top scorer in the league, but his season has been blighted by as many poor performances as good ones. Ryan Christie has been dazzling for large parts of Aberdeen’s campaign but ultimately seems to be gravitating more towards the No.10 position than the wing, having only played their five times this term. Daniel Candeias has been, alongside Morelos, the only thing Rangers fans have to thank Pedro Caixinha for and can play on the left, but has featured almost exclusively on the other side of the park this term.

If that preamble turns Jordan Jones’ selection into a bit of a back-handed compliment, I apologise. The young winger has had plenty to recommend him this season, scoring a couple of stunning goals and setting up ten others. It surprised no-one when he there was talk of a big move during the winter break. The factor that seals his place on this list, though, is the role he plays within Kilmarnock. Since Steve Clarke took over, his masterstroke has been knowing how best to utilise what he has: a team whose central spine contains Kirk Broadfoot, Youssouf Mulumbu and Kris Boyd is unlikely to produce the kind of free-flowing football Hibs and Celtic trade in. But it can be effective.

While those other teams have a wealth of pacey, potent wide options, Jones is often found floating out on the left as his team’s sole source of flair. With lighting quick feet and an eye for the killer move, he terrorises opponents in a way none of his teammates could hope to, offering Kilmarnock an extra dimension they would lack without him.

RW – James Forrest (Celtic)

Last season saw Forrest move from the fringes of the Celtic squad, in severe danger of drifting right off the edge, to a dependable option able to challenge the mercurial Paddy Roberts for the right wing spot. This season, he has moved even further into the team’s centre, pushing the beloved number seven right out of the team (albeit with the help of some unfortunate injuries) and generating a level of acclaim that would probably have seen him take home at least one Player of the Year award had his captain not been in such ferociously good form.

His first season under Rodgers saw him develop mainly in terms of defensive cover and tactical nous. He was never going to best Roberts for technical ability – there are few in Scotland who can – but the stocky Scotsman’s engine and drive allowed him to cover the wing more fully than his English counterpart, at times operating as the sort of all-conquering wing-back which Rodgers often employs. He gained a discipline that allowed to roam up and down the left side while holding the team’s shape, providing an attacking outlet and putting in a defensive shift simultaneously. On Celtic’s best days, when they play something approaching Total Football, players like Forrest make it possible.

This term, he has built on those qualities by adding the cutting edge which fans had been crying out for his whole career. Blessed with pace to burn, past seasons too often saw him blaze past defenders only to squander the ground gained on a wild finish or an aimless delivery.

Prior to this season, his goal tally had seldom even come close to the double figure mark. This term, he has lashed in 17. He now possesses a threat so great that Rangers were forced to practically double-mark him in the season’s later derbies, and still they were unable to prevent him notching his first Old Firm goal.

AM – Tom Rogic (Celtic)

Another hotly contested spot this term, but in spite of the big Aussie having once again spent far too many minutes out injured, he remains the most mystically talented No.10 currently plying his trade in Scotland.

Watching Tom Rogic is like those rare occasions when you try and describe a new band to a friend and realise your usual paradigm of “their like x meets y” won’t work because what your hearing is fundamentally unlike anything you’ve heard before. Light on his feet and full of elegant turns and touches, his beanpole build seems like it belongs to a different sport or at least a different position. He almost seems like a tennis player – darting spryly over a smaller area to strike the ball with an unfailing deftness – that someone stretched out and dropped onto a football field. The game’s ninety minutes certainly doesn’t seem to suit him as he remains mostly unable to complete a match but, when he’s on and he’s on form, he is practically unplayable.

Leaning on players from the high-centred gravity of his wide shoulders and stroking the ball around like it’s connected to his toe, he turns backlines inside-out on a regular basis, often reserving his best flourishes for the biggest occasions. There is almost no-one in Scottish football more fun to watch, partially because he plays with such an obvious enjoyment: with a permanent smile and a love of the spectacular, the lanky Socceroo might as well have “No Worries” printed on the back of his shirt.

CF – Kris Boyd (Kilmarnock)

At 33 years old and in his third stint at the club, Kris Boyd began this season off the back of a couple of campaigns which, while perfectly okay, had been nothing to write home about. Outspoken and opinionated, he seemed already to have one foot in his footballing afterlife as a pundit, ready to hang up his boots for good in the near future.

At 34 years old, he has just finished as the Scottish Premier League’s top scorer for the fifth time in his career and now boasts more SPFL goals overall than any player ever.

Like Berra at the other end, Boyd is a relic of a time before tiki-taka. In the present game, penalty area-poachers in the mould of Ruud Van Nistlerooy and Alan Shearer have been driven almost to extinction. False 9s and bonus No.10s are the new norm. Players who can create something for themselves with link-up play, fast feet and long-range efforts are now preferred to those who camp out inside the opposition area and wait to be fed.

It’s easy for Kris Boyd’s less glamorous style of play to go under-appreciated. A highlights reel of his goals this season (excluding a thunderbolt free-kick that stunned everyone) can give the impression that he isn’t doing anything any Sunday Leaguer couldn’t manage just as well, bashing the ball artlessly into the back of the net from point-blank range. And it is entirely true that almost all of Kris Boyd’s goals come from so close that he can probably tell you what aftershave each keeper wears, but to chalk that up to luck would be wrong. You don’t get lucky 20 times in 34 games. You build a career out of being in the right place at the right time not through fortune but through an exacting understanding of where the right place will be and how to ensure you are there ahead of everyone else, even if they’re quicker than you are (which, in Kris Boyd’s case, literally almost every other SPFL player is).

This season might turn out to be Boyd’s swansong, and might even be the death knell for a whole breed of centre-forward. What a way to say goodbye, though.

Image credit.

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