The prospect of Scott Brown leaving Celtic on a free was eliminated at the weekend, when the captain signed a new 3-year contract, complete with possibility of a 1-year extension. Having signed in 2007 from Hibernian for a hefty £4.4m fee, it’s now expected that should Brown move on in the near-future, potential suitors will be forced to part with at least that sum.
His manager Neil Lennon was quick to express his satisfaction, stating: ““Scott is a crucial member of our squad and someone we felt it was very important to keep at the club. He is a special player and his commitment, drive and all-round ability is something we feel is very important to us.”
But unlike most club captains, curiously there has always been a sizable element of the Celtic support who don’t particularly rate Brown’s footballing. Erroneously billed as an attacking midfielder on arrival, his meagre goal return and enthusiasm for a scrap saw his role revised as a tenacious ball-winning midfielder.
Celtic’s persevering transfer policy has seen a constant influx of central midfielders, and for years now the position has been burgeoning with talent. At the beginning of the year, Brown had just returned from a serious ankle injury and faced up to the prospect of breaking back in to the midfield. This article considered his limited options.
Indeed, Brown couldn’t usurp the likes of Joe Ledley, Beram Kayal and Ki Sung Yeung in the centre, and went from “making do” with a wide-right role, to positively making the position his own.
Almost one year on he faces a similar conundrum – only now with the additional complication of hot prospects Victor Wanyama (impressive alongside Kayal in the centre) and James Forrest (in searing form on the right).
His critics fear, perhaps cynically that his gravitas in the dressing room and the fact that he’s just signed a lucrative new contract will guarantee a return to the starting eleven – irrespective of performance or merit. Regardless, it begs to be asked (again) where does the captain fit in, and what does he add to the team that isn’t already there?
Consider Brown’s return to action on Sunday. Celtic had lined up in Lennon’s currently preferred 4-2-2-2 with Georgios Samaras high on the left (as a kind of wide targetman) and James Forrest on the right (as a conventional right-footed winger).
Kayal and Wanyama were the midfield enforcers, and dilligently performed in the first hour.
After 67 minutes, Lennon felt the need to introduce the captain – perhaps a risky move given the slim 1 goal advantage away to Dundee Utd. What facilitated Brown was a chain-reaction of switches. Centre-back Glen Loovens made way for Wanyama, Wanyama made way for Ki, James Forrest was switched to the left and Brown came on at right-midfield.
Could this be Lennon’s choice scheme to accommodate Brown in the future?
The immediate disadvantages of the changes were apparent. A gelled and reasonably successful central defence partnership was broken up, as was the well-performing central midfield. Finally the right-footed Forrest is generally considered less effective on the left.
Lennon explained post-match that Glen Loovens suffered a slight knock that required getting looked at, but even if this is the case, the use of Brown could be indicative of what’s next.
Apart from the hotly contested midfield area, Celtic have finally returned to good domestic form – a 5 match winning streak and unbeaten in 8. So should Brown be forced to bide his time?
Brown’s supporters will point to recent quotes from his own manager: ““I think we missed him at times when he was out. If you look at his playing record since I have been manager, we have won more games than not when he has been involved.”
Do the stats back this up?
Just to set the overall picture, the below two tables represent every single match in all competition since Brown has appeared on the scene.
Below takes into account only the games that Brown appeared for more than 45 minutes in:
Matches featuring Brown
And the below only considers the few matches that Brown featured less than 45 minutes in.
Matches without (or with very little use of) Brown
What’s frustrating in terms of Brown’s overall contribution to the team, is that the win ratio in all competition is consistently the same with or without him. But the “all competition” stat seems fairly imperfect – if the best players are to be rested (and we can assume that Brown is considered in that bracket) then there will be a number of easy early-round cup wins, as well as his featuring in extremely touch European matches. In short, the spectrum of quality may suggest that the “all competition” stat isn’t ideal.
The SPL only stat might be more relevant given the more similar quality of opposition. And it’s arguably in the SPL that we see Brown’s statistical benefit.
- With Brown in the side, Celtic have won 72% of SPL matches played. Without Brown, Celtic have won 67% of matches.
- With Brown in the side, Celtic score on average 2.19 goals per game. Without Brown Celtic on average score 2.02 goals per game.
- With Brown in the side Celtic on average concede 0.74 goals per game. Without Brown, Celtic on average concede 0.92 goals per game.
The evidence therefore backs Brown over four seasons and 168 SPL matches. Critics will probably be surprised that more games are won, more goals are scored and less goals are conceded with Brown in the side.
There’s also his intangible qualities. The captain is generally the most influential player in the squad, and no team would react well to losing such a significant figure. Then there’s the oft-quoted “drive and determination” – essentially the infectious will to win.
Whether Lennon continues shoe-horning Brown into what appears to be (currently) a winning side remains to be seen. But it’s also important to remember that stats only tell a part of the story. Some figures in the midfield position shed a different light: Kayal and Ledley have improved win-ratios over Brown (while Ki has slightly worse). See the twitter timeline of fan @fitzpas for stat insights.
The question of most accessible place in the team revisits the old number 10 problem . Lennon hasn’t yet settled on the right player for that position, his choice may currently be Ki. But what Brown offers is more energy, hassling and tackling in higher areas of the pitch. Attributes that may come in handy against the bigger sides.
The uneasy conclusion sits at square one: Brown is a very good player and on paper a successful one, but how can he benefit the team most? The impossible decision for Lennon, is that he may benefit the team most by minimising disruption and staying out of it.