John McGinn vs John McGinn

Our midfield has gone from an area of stability, to an area of flux in recent weeks. The previously undroppable Douglas Luiz has been rotated in and out in favour of Marvelous Nakamba. Ross Barkleys early year form has dried up in recent weeks, seeing him given time out of the team, in favour of Morgan Sanson and Jacob Ramsey. However through out all that, we have seen one Ironman stay the course. The Glaswegian Gyroscope that is John McGinn. It's no surprise to see him play the most minutes amongst our midfielders, as he is renowned for his engine and relentless ability to buzz around. However, through out this year it has often been said that SJM has not performed to the same level as last year. There is something different about him. Ive thought the same myself, so I said I would take a look at his performances and try figure it out. 

In my minds eye I thought back to last year and the swashbuckling performances, the opening day goal against Spurs, the effervescent Cairn Terrier like running style with the sting of a Scottish nettle in the tackles that were put in. Can I really say that I have seen that this year, and if I cant, then why is that the case?


I started by looking at John McGinns positioning and boy does that tell a story in itself. I even went back to cross reference against his season in the Championship to make sure It wasn't an anomaly. Amazingly John McGinn has been asked to play 3 different roles over the last 3 Dean Smith seasons. 

In the Championship McGinn was given a lot more freedom to contribute in all phases of play, with a focus on transitioning from defence to attack. He was given the task of pressuring higher up the field and creating a high press. He was very busy in the upper mid 3rd and attacking 3rd (see the graphic below Fig.1 ). He was back and forth sideline to sideline and also protected the centre and right of the centre circle in the main.

However moving up to the Premier League, while it saw the predominant 4-2-3-1 formation stay in place, John McGinn was tasked in more of a number 8 role but the wrinkle in the new tactic was that he was very much so tasked with minding the right half of the field. It was like there was a fence down the middle of the field and McGinn was not allowed to cross this divide. Once again he was tasked with pressuring higher up the field but his heat map tells the story that his defensive game was needed more and more and we can see the exact spots where we set up our mid block. I would hazard a guess that it moved from just above the half way line to just below the halfway line after Project Restart (see the graphic below Fig.2 ).

So that brings us to this current season. Looking at McGinns heat map it is radically different to the last two years highlighting the 3 different roles he has been tasked with playing in his Villa career so far. This current season, I was surprised to see how far forward he has been deployed. His task has changed from guarding the right side of the field to essentially being tasked with following the ball. Not unlike how he was tasked in the championship he was asked to pressure and almost create a high press on his own. This may have been a task given to him to compensate for the defensive work of the CAM whether it be Jack Grealish or Ross Barkley playing centrally. Either way his concentration of pressures and touches suggest that he has been given target points on the field to close down, and be active within, to cause the most disruption. It's like he is playing the game in 4 quadrants with less of a focus on the defensive left quadrant as is suggested by the map below. 

John McGinn Graphics002jpeg


So if the above rings true and McGinn is more active in getting around the field this year, then what does his production with and without the ball look like. Its all well and good looking at where he is most active within the field, but what is the outcome.

This is where the rubber meets the road on this analysis. Ive looked at John McGinn 19/20 (28 games) vs John McGinn 20/21 (25 games) in the phases of play: Shooting, Passing & Defensive. Reason I have disregarded the Championship season is I wanted to have a more apples to apples comparison and also the fact that 19/20 & 20/21 have a similar sample set.

If the above heat maps don't tell the story of the differing roles of John McGinn over the last 2 years then this may help show the night and day roles that John McGinn has been asked to play. John McGinn has had dramatically fewer shots for a start. 55 shots in 19/20 as opposed to 28 shots attempted in 20/21with a huge delta year on year of minus 14 shots on target. Also an interesting stat which may not seem huge on the face of it is that McGinns shots on average 0.8m further out than last season. Looking at John McGinns Shot Creation Actions these are also drastically down on the past year with a delta of -34 year on year (98 SCA in 19/20 vs 64 SCA in 20/21)

Note: Shot Creation Actions are defined as the two actions directly leading to a shot ie. passes, dribbles and drawing fouls.

In the passing game we have seen some varied results year on year, with McGinn getting on the ball a lot more when in attack attempting 142 passes and completing 170 more passes than the previous year. McGinn has been allowed try to advance the ball forward more this year than last, with a positive progressive pass distance increase of 1,322yds on last year. 

Note: Progressive Passing Distance is defined as the Total distance that completed passes have travelled towards the opponents goal. Passes backwards count as zero and not a negative contributor in this calculation.

Saying this McGinn has been passing the ball in more congested areas as is highlighted with the increase of intercepted passes being a higher exponential number (almost 300% increase) than the increase in the amount of passes attempted (24% increase). This in my view back up the view that McGinn has is being asked to play in the most congested quadrants of the field. Looking at the break down of the type of passes that McGinn has attempted his distribution distances of passes between Short, Medium and Long have not changed much year on year

John McGinn Graphics001jpeg

While McGinn has been passing the ball more and for a further distances, there is a significant change in the amount of dribbles attempted per game by McGinn year on year, in this system. McGinn has dribbled 14 times less and with a reduction in the success of these dribbles of 3.2% compared to last year. 

In defensive actions, McGinn has also not had as many pressures year on year and has had a dramatic drop in the amount of pressures in the Attacking 3rd, compared to the previous season. Also he has had over 50% less tackles completed in the Attacking 3rd than last season, leading me to once again point towards his role of defending quadrants, passing lanes and space more so than impishly harrying and hassling opponents in possession. 

The biggest thing that has resonated to me from looking at John McGinns performance production & positioning is how much more we are playing a 4-3-3 this season and how much more leg work & running that John McGinn is having to do to close down space while not getting production from it. He is being used more in covering space and blocking off popular passing lanes on the perimeters but more in the middle third than we are used to seeing, as is highlighted by his heat map.

Also in transition he is being used more as a part of the double pivot to transition the ball to attack quicker as opposed to being one of the people receiving the ball from the pivot like he was last year, again referenced by his sharp drop in dribbles forward and his increase in passing in the short & medium distances.

The change in McGinns role I feel has come about from Dean Smith wanting to get people closer to Ollie Watkins, namely Ross Barkley. McGinns production with the ball and his tenacity in the tackle has been sacrificed for more zone coverages and space defending than we are used to seeing and he has become more of a water carrier, getting the ball to players like Grealish, Traore and Barkley thus giving them the freedom to attack more.

All in all I have developed a heightened respect for John McGinn (if that is possible). His willingness to do for the team 3 different jobs in 3 seasons shows why he is such a high character player. Ive been questioning whether John McGinn has plateaued this year, and while it was evident from the eye test that he was playing deeper, the stats paint a picture of a more selfless player chasing space to the detriment of his over all numbers and stats.

This analysis makes me feel that there is only so much one man can do and that if I have previously blamed John McGinn for the downturn in attacking output then maybe I offer him an apology. He is performing his role of providing cover to the passing lanes, using his high motor and allowing the creative players further up the field more freedom. The fact that we haven't been able to get the game going through the middle, further up the field since the turn of the year is a mystery that is not John McGinns to figure out in this system and structure. Could he do it if deployed further forward? Yes, but I cant think of many that have his engine and could do his new job over 90 mins. Ive said it before, Dean Smith has horse for courses in this squad. John McGinn is his Clydesdale.