John McGinn might be the player most emblematic of Aston Villa’s men’s squad as a whole. He possesses all the right qualities to be a complete midfielder: he’s a defensive workhorse, able to dribble, hold players off the ball, and find a pass through the lines to a teammate in space. Yet, the Scottish midfielder has never put that all together consistently in the Premier League, showing up for a game or two before disappearing into anonymity for the next five. For this installment of our player analysis series The Boot Room, we consider the McGinn’s recently maligned performances and examine what role (if any) he will play in Villa’s future under manager Steven Gerrard.
After his excellent first season at Aston Villa, in which he scored the winner in the 2018–2019 Championship Playoff Final, some fans expected it would be John McGinn and not the now departed Jack Grealish who would light up the Premier League upon promotion. Unfortunately, the former remains a bit enigmatic. Several seasons later, it seems that if McGinn has a good day on the pitch, then so to do Villa, and when the midfielder is in full stride, he can be the player who embodies the cliché of taking the game by the scruff of the neck. This is partially why the midfielder has been undroppable under both Dean Smith and Steven Gerrard; his drive, obvious talent, and infectious personality are vital qualities to have in a team.
John McGinn has probably chopped and changed roles more than any other Villa midfielder as the side have changed. Before, it was often McGinn who was tasked with running in behind the defensive line or arriving late in the box from midfield, but the realities of the step up subsequently curbed McGinn, and in turn the whole Villa team. From that role as the furthest forward of Villa’s three midfielders in the Championship, he has been asked to drop further and further back, even starting as a defensive midfielder in Villa’s 2–1 loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
However, since the beginning of the 2020–2021 season McGinn has most often been used as a box-to-box or deep lying no. 8, asked to hold a deeper position and pass the ball into the final third for the more advanced attacking midfielders: Ross Barkley playing as a no. 10 to, most recently, Jacob Ramsey as an more advanced no. 8. To investigate how suited McGinn is for this role and where he could be improved, we have mapped several statistics for a midfield 8 onto a radar plot.
The radar plot reveals several other reasons McGinn has been undroppable for this Villa side. His impact in the final third creates scoring opportunities for others; his SCAs and xA are in the top 21% of midfielders. He also positively affects Villa’s attacking play with his long-range goal threat. The quality of his chances has reduced with his deeper and deeper role; his npxG has dropped from a goal every 7 matches in 2019–2020 to a goal every 20 last season. But thanks to his finishing ability he has outperformed the quality of his chances for the last two seasons, scoring 6 goals in that time from chances only worthy of 3.7 for the average player. While this overperformance often indicates a player is getting lucky and their finishing will “regress to the mean,” overperforming for multiple seasons is more likely the indicator of a good finisher. Further indication of this is McGinn’s high goal per shot on target ratio of 0.42—in the top 18% of midfielders—from 0.33 shots on target per 90, and an average distance of 23.6 yards, far further out the average distance for midfielders.
McGinn is also handy defensively, making an above-average contribution to tackles and interceptions. His busy nature is not well reflected in the radar plot, as his dribbled past statistic suggest a player who is bypassed more than average. However, the Scotsman tackles 41.1% of the 2.61 opposition dribbles he contests, putting him in the top 30% of midfielders for both his number of duels and the number of times he wins the ball from them. The plot also shows he makes a below-average number of pressures, but this can be attributed to the wider team style Villa often adopt to limit counter attacks under Steven Gerrard. When the opposition win the ball back in their own defensive third Villa look to quickly win the ball back, committing several players to crowding the ball carrier, then restructuring themselves into a narrow 4-3-3 mid block if that counterpress in beaten. Consequently McGinn’s 3.41 pressures per 90 in the attacking third are above average for players in his position.
Perhaps McGinn’s most useful attribute is his role in the buildup, regularly finding progressive passes between opposition lines and getting the ball into the final third by passing or carrying 6.22 times per 90. In the January transfer window Villa brought in Lucas Digne for Matt Targett, and while the French left back has improved Villa in the final third, he is outperformed by Targett when it comes to passing into that space, leaving more the responsibility of this task to the midfield. Villa’s midfield three under Gerrard provides Ramsey with the most license to get forward; he contributes 5.17 entries into the final third, though more often by dribbling with the ball compared to other midfielders. With Douglas Luiz’s lower 3.75 entries, 3.02 are passes reflecting his role as the no. 6. These numbers are pretty good, if not spectacular, and they are nicely distributed between the three, with Ramsey’s dibbling, Luiz’s passing, and McGinn’s ability to do either. However, Villa buildup play has struggled to create decent chances while remaining defensively solid. Recently this is because Aston Villa are caught between two styles, the counterattacking football this squad is used to and Gerrard’s aspirational possession style. McGinn’s performances are emblematic of this issue, with his passing number perhaps the most reflective.
The passing plot above illustrates how, at short and medium distances, McGinn makes fewer passes than an average midfielder, and across all ranges has a lower level of completion than an average midfielder as well. In fact, while they vary in their completion rates none of Villa’s midfielders—especially the 8s, McGinn, Ramsey, and Sanson—attempt a large number of passes. It is little coincidence that Gerrard introduced a midfield diamond with deeper fullbacks against Leeds United, which added more options to buildup play, including the roaming Philippe Coutinho. This helped McGinn as the counterattacking formation allowed him to beat the press by using his low centre of gravity and move the ball on quickly to exploit a higher opposition line with his progressive passing.
In Gerrard’s preferred possessional 4-3-2-1, however, Villa have failed to hold onto the ball in the opposition third for long enough periods to pressure opponents, something the manager has remarked upon. McGinn is a good example of this; his low passing attempts, passes under pressure, and low completion rate show that he has not developed the metronomic quality required to recycle possession as a deeper midfielder. This leads to Villa losing the ball too often. Along with Villa’s middling counterpressing to win the ball back when possession is lost, this is major reason why Villa have looked flat in this formation. These tactics also require McGinn to cover the rightback space for an advanced Matty Cash. From there he can receive the ball in space, but for a player like McGinn, this supresses many of his best qualities. It is well known that pass completion data is flawed; some of the Premier League’s best midfield talents like Bruno Fernandes and Kevin De Bruyne have poor pass completion rates because they often attempt risky passes to unlock defences. If McGinn isn’t suited to his current role, then a closer look at the types of passes he makes would shed light on where McGinn’s talent can be best utilised.
The radar plot of McGinn’s passing continues to show the midfielder isn’t particularly well suited to a deeper role; his attempted passes, passes under pressure and total distance are all in the bottom third of midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues. What is impressive is how often the midfielder is making these passes. His progressive passing and passing into the final third are in the top 30% of midfielders, his number of cross-field switches and key passes land in the top 20%, and his number of crosses and passes into the box climb to the top 10%. This reinforces the conception that John McGinn is a player who takes risks on the ball, and when those risks come off in the right system, he can unlock defences and create goals. However, in his deeper role these sorts of passes are too risky and can often result in turning the ball over to the opposition in dangerous areas. Scotland manager Steve Clarke has realised this. Despite McGinn’s own admission that he has made errors in a deep midfield role, subsequently costing Scotland, Clarke recognised the midfielder’s talent and positioned him as an advanced midfielder or even as a second striker, something McGinn has paid him back for with goals and assists. While he doesn’t have the technical quality of Phillipe Coutinho or Emiliano Buendía, the Scot’s best Villa matches have come as a result of his pushing into the box. Should he be played in Ramsey’s role with subsequent defensive cover behind him, Villa could get the best out of McGinn on a more consistent basis.
This refusal to use John McGinn in his best position is emblematic of Villa’s larger issues. Sanson and Ramsey are also best in an advanced no. 8 role, getting into the final third and the penalty area. Meanwhile, Gerrard’s team lacks deep progressors who can move the ball from defence to those more advanced players while providing defensive cover. Douglas Luiz or Carney Chukweumeka may fulfil this sort of role, but the former has spent most of his time at Villa as a no. 6 and is running down his contract, while the latter is a youth prospect who may not have the consistency and physicality needed at the top level. The arrival of Boubacar Kamara from Marseille, a target 7500 to Holte scouted last summer, suggests Douglas Luiz, who gave some of his best performances in claret and blue from a deep 8 role, can move to that position, possibly freeing up McGinn.
This summer is an opportunity to rebalance the midfield and demonstrate Gerrard’s intentions regarding Villa’s shape and, crucially, identity for next season. But that involves the difficult decision to drop the promising Ramsey or the omnipresent McGinn. Making that decision may well be necessary to see the best of this Villa side.
Yet this analysis of John McGinn’s play explicitly illustrates why the Scottish midfielder has been ever-present (when fit) under both Smith and Gerrard, and should remain so next season if he is moved further up the pitch. Jacob Ramsey may end up being his long-term replacement, but right now McGinn provides the drive and the personality of an on-pitch leader, traits that are rarely evidenced in statistical maps. When McGinn plays well so do the Villa, and with some personnel tweaks, Villa fans will consistently see the best of him.