After a failed medical scuppered his move to Celtic a year ago, David Turnbull was forced to miss the entire 2019/20 Scottish Premiership season with a serious knee injury. The young Scot was close to full fitness before the league shut down in early March and was instead forced to wait until August for his long-awaited return to first-team action. There was uncertainty over whether Celtic were going to reignite their interest this summer given the extent of Turnbull’s injury, but after a string of impressive performances for Stephen Robinson’s Motherwell team, who have struggled in the early part of the season, Turnbull made the move to Neil Lennon’s side, for whom he will be looking to help secure a tenth league title in a row.
This scout report will analyse how Turnbull will fit into Neil Lennon’s tactics, as well as providing a tactical analysis of the 21-year-old’s style of play. The scout report will provide analysis on Turnbull’s areas for improvement as he looks to nail down a starting position in what is arguably the Premiership’s strongest midfield.
Creativity in the final third
One of Turnbull’s main strengths is his creativity around the penalty box and this is evidenced in his statistics this season. Turnbull currently has the highest number of shot assists per game of all the midfielders in the Scottish Premiership, with an average of 3.25 per 90 mins. In addition, the young Scot also has the highest expected assists (xA) rate (1.86) of any midfielder in the league, as seen in the chart above and is second overall behind Rangers’ Borna Barisic (1.9).
Turnbull also performs the most through passes of any midfielder in the league with 3.25 per game, an example of which is seen above against Ross County. Here, Turnbull receives with his back to goal and is able to create space for himself to thread a pass through to Chris Long, who hits the post from close range.
This image shows a similar situation from the same game and this example highlights Turnbull’s creativity around the box. On this occasion, there is a lack of space to play between the Ross County centre-back and left-back and Turnbull recognises this so instead, he flicks the ball over the head of the Ross County left-back into the path of the striker. Again, Long is unable to convert, but both these examples highlight the young Scot’s ability to play dangerous passes through and over defences into the box.
Turnbull also possesses the ability to create from deep positions and is very effective in playing over defences into the box, highlighted in the number of deep completions (a non-cross pass that is played to within 20m of the opponent’s goal) he makes per game. He performs an average of 2.23 deep completions per game which is the third-highest rate of the league’s midfielders behind Rangers’ Scott Arfield (2.52) and Hibs’ Drey Wright (2.65).
An example of his ability to play these kinds of passes is seen here against Hibs. On this occasion, Turnbull is able to pick out right-back Stephen O’Donnell with a clipped pass into the penalty box, after which the former Kilmarnock man puts a shot narrowly wide.
Another example, from the same game, shows Turnbull again able to successfully play into the penalty box for a Motherwell runner, on this occasion, Sherwin Seedorf. This accurate pass led to striker Jordan White firing the ball into the net, only for the goal to be disallowed for offside against Seedorf.
Delivery from wide areas
Another feature of Turnbull’s game is his crossing ability, which without a doubt makes him a more rounded player, who in recent games has proven his ability to create both from central and wide areas. The youngster completes an average of 4.06 crosses per game which is the seventh-most of any midfielder in the league, with Motherwell’s Sherwin Seedorf completing the most crosses per game (5.76). Notably, Turnbull’s 55% crossing accuracy is higher than both Seedorf (52.38%) and Chris Burke (36%), who themselves attempt the most crosses, implying that the Celtic man is one of the most effective players in the league from wide areas.
An example of Turnbull’s ability to create from wide is seen here against Livingston, where after moving wide, he is able to deliver a low cross towards the penalty spot. The cross is directed narrowly wide by White, who given the position of the shot, should have hit the target.
Above is another example from the Livingston game and in this instance, Turnbull cleverly shifts the ball pass the Livingston defender to create crossing space. From here, Turnbull delivers an excellent cross to the back post, which the Livingston right-back manages to toe away from Seedorf, who was waiting to attack the ball at the back post.
Movement off the ball
As well as his ability in possession, Turnbull shows great intelligence with his movement off the ball. He is quick to identify spaces and performs clever combinations to get into dangerous positions in and around the box.
In this example, Turnbull plays wide from a deep midfield position and immediately makes a penetrating run into the space behind the Hamilton full-back. He is found by Ricki Lamie and manages to pull the Hamilton centre-back out of the penalty box before laying the ball back for the former Livingston man to cross into the box.
The image above shows another example of Turnbull’s movement. Here, the midfielder combines with O’Donnell on the right flank and his movement forces Hibs midfielder, Joe Newell to track his run, thus causing left-back Josh Doig to cover inside. This disorganisation in the Hibs defence creates space in behind, which O’Donnell moves into and is found by Turnbull and from this position, the Scotland right-back can play a cross into the box.
This movement into the space beyond the opposition full-back is a feature of Turnbull’s game, as seen again in this image against Ross County. The position of the Motherwell left midfielder creates distance between the Ross County centre-back and right-back, which Turnbull moves into and delivers a cutback across the box.
Where will he fit in at Celtic?
With an abundance of midfield talent, including Ryan Christie, Callum McGregor, Olivier Ntcham, and fan favourite Tom Rogic, it is unclear who Turnbull would replace in the Celtic starting line-up. In recent games, Celtic have opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Ntcham operating in the number 10 role, which is arguably not his strongest position, as well as being a position in which Turnbull excelled for Motherwell.
When comparing Turnbull to the Celtic attacking midfielders who have played this season, he ranks highest on through passes per 90 (3.25) ahead of Ntcham (1.64) and Christie (1.51), suggesting that he is more effective in breaking lines with passes, which is crucial for a team like Celtic who constantly find themselves trying to break down packed defensive blocks.
Also, Turnbull has a far superior number of expected assists (xA) with 1.86 compared to Christie (0.86) and Ntcham (0.3) displaying his superior ability at creating clear-cut chances for the attackers. Furthermore, Turnbull also has a higher crossing success rate (55%) than both Ntcham (37.5%) and Christie (25%), highlighting his superior delivery from wide areas.
Areas for improvement
As a 21-year-old, Turnbull will only get better and one part of his game that may require focus is his decision making when in shooting positions outside the box. Turnbull attempts, on average, 3.25 shots per game and has racked up 16 shots in total so far this season, scoring only once. A reason for this is that the areas he chooses to shoot from would be deemed as low-value positions, evidenced in his total expected goals (xG) value of 0.64, which works out a 0.04 xG per shot taken this season.
This example against Hamilton highlights the issue, as when facing a packed low block, Turnbull opts to shoot from outside the box, despite several bodies between him and the goal. The shot is blocked and perhaps a better option for the Scotland U-21 midfielder would have been to play the ball wide to another Motherwell attacker.
Another example is seen here against Hibs, where Turnbull again opts to shoot from distance, firing high over the crossbar. Again, the youngster has options right and left that could have allowed Motherwell to get into a more dangerous position and enter the Hibs penalty box.
This example shows Turnbull’s only goal so far this season, where he finds himself in the penalty box and skilfully shifts the ball past two Livingston defenders to fire low into the bottom corner. This example demonstrates Turnbull’s finishing ability, and these are the positions that he must attempt to move into more often to give himself more chance of testing the opposition goalkeeper.
Turnbull is undoubtedly an exciting young talent and it is no surprise that recently exited UEFA Champions League side Celtic were so quick to snap him up this season. After 5 league games, he has proven himself to be one the league’s most creative midfielders, which will no doubt stand him in good stead when facing stubborn defences at Parkhead for Celtic.