In football there are often players that coaches love and players that fans love. The former are often unassuming water-carriers who diligently play unspectacular possession retaining passes or tireless workhorses who incessantly press and harry the opposition (see Carrick and Fletcher at Manchester United). The latter on the other hand, are more often gifted forwards who are forgiven their defensive disinterest for moments of pure creative inspiration and brilliance. Kevin McDonald it would seem falls firmly into the ‘players that fans love’ category with supporters repeatedly calling for the midfielder to be involved even during his continued exile from the first team. BMGH looks at why Burnley fans seemingly rate the Scottish under 21 international much higher than his managers have done.
McDonald’s wonderful creative passing ability is often cited as the biggest reason for his inclusion in the team with the home game v Arsenal in the Premier League used as an example of how he can run games even against top sides with the BBC match report describing the player afterwards as “outstanding”. This match (along with the League Cup Quarter Final the season before) is commonly regarded as the players finest for the club so it seems appropriate to analyse this match in particular.
Below we see the Guardian chalkboard for McDonald during that game.
Passes 43, Successful 27, Unsuccessful 16 (pass completion ratio 63%)
The chalkboard shows off McDonald’s range of passing reasonably well with a mixture of short and long passes as well as a number of successful forward passes into dangerous wide areas; however, it also hints that he was actually quite wasteful with the ball.
Passes 55, Successful 43, Unsuccessful 12 (pass completion ratio - 78%)
Passes 23, Successful 18, Unsuccessful 5 (pass completion ratio 78%)
When compared to his midfield partners on the day we can see that McDonald’s pass completion ratio of 63% was significantly worse than either Graham Alexander’s or Andre Bikey’s - both 78%. It also reveals that McDonald was less involved in the game than Alexander who attempted 55 passes compared to McDonald’s 43 albeit with the veteran’s board showing a less impressive variation in pass. It ought to be pointed out here that as the most attacking of the three we would expect McDonald’s pass completion ratio to be slightly less than either Alexander or Bikey as he more often attempts incisive and therefore riskier passes. Compared to Burnley’s other attacking players in that game the midfielder compares more favourably:
Elliott 62%, Fletcher 59%, Eagles 57%
However, for these players, passing isn’t considered the principal part of their game and they also have less space to operate in; so McDonald’s involvement, in a game that is held up as an example of what he can do is surprisingly disappointing when faced with the data. In comparison Aaron Ramsey who replaced Cesc Fabregas just before half-time for Arsenal completed 33 out of 39 passes (85%) playing a similar role as McDonald in the Arsenal midfield (albeit admittedly in a much better team although the possession for either side on the day was surprisingly even Burnley 48% Arsenal 52%). The problem is that often one elegant shift of body weight followed by a precise and perfectly weighted 30 yard ball out to the toe of a team mate is usually much more memorable than ten diligently performed possession retaining passes but managers, increasingly, have the match statistics available to see beyond such aesthetic biases.
The critic’s stock response to McDonald’s many supporters is that the midfielder is a liability from a defensive point of view and the stats appear to support this claim. The player is often accused of being lazy and negating defensive responsibilities when his side lose the ball and the heatmap below shows that he spent the vast majority of his time in the opposition half against Arsenal. This is perhaps understandable as the most attacking of the three but it is still useful in showing the player’s positional mentality.
The stats also show that McDonald only completed one tackle during the whole 90 minutes. This in a vital area of the pitch is telling. Chris Eagles for contrast, a player also accused of being adverse to defensive duties, won 5 tackles during the game.
Football has changed remarkably over the last decade becoming much more holistic in nature. Teams no longer tolerate the out and out goal poacher who contributes little to the team or the midfield playmaker who is absolved of all defensive responsibilities in exchange for moments of inspiration. This shift can be traced back to the 1970s with pioneering coaches such as Rinus Michels and Valeriy Lobanovsky but it is Pep Guardiola’s outstanding Barcelona side that have shown the world what can truly be achieved when football is viewed holistically with sides both attacking and defending as one rather being broken down into various specialised compartments; simply, when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Kevin McDonald however, seems at odds with this modern view of football. Often seen strolling back into position pointing at opposition players who have made runs past him, McDonald demands that more defensive players be placed in midfield alongside him to compensate and allow him to perform. This inevitably weakens the team as a whole. This is not to say that McDonald is a bad player. He quite clearly isn’t; he possibly possesses the most impressive range of passing and vision in the whole Burnley squad but is he quite that good to warrant building the team around in such a way? His managers clearly haven’t been convinced. Therefore, if McDonald wants to regain his place in the team he is going to have to work on and develop his all round game and it is at this point where persistent accusations regarding the player’s attitude come into play. The midfielder does have areas of his game that he needs to work on but if the player isn’t willing to do so, as rumours suggest, then his exclusion from the team, despite his obvious natural talent is, unfortunately for his many supporters, completely justified.