With the Scottish Premiership coming to an early end, it’s fair to say that Motherwell’s 2019/20 campaign was a success. Stephen Robinson’s side confirmed themselves as the best of the rest, whilst Celtic and Rangers fought for the title. To recap, Motherwell won 14, drew four, lost 12 and using the points per game model, finished on 58 points. That’s an increase of eight points from last season and more importantly, was enough to qualify for the Europa League qualifiers.
Throughout their campaign, ‘The Well’ support has been fortunate to witness some impressive individual performances too, one of which has been from Liam Donnelly. This season he’s scored an impressive 11 goals in 29 games for the Fir Park outfit. Moreover, it’s the Northern Irishman’s points per game statistic that’s caught mainstream media attention; 2.15 points per game with him in the XI, as opposed to 0.75 without him.
Having caught the eye of the former Northern Ireland manager, Michael O’Neil, one can’t help but wonder what the future looks like and if so, EFL side Stoke City may be interested in the player. This scout report will better inform the reader of Donnelly’s strengths and weaknesses. It will provide and make use of his statistics from this season. By doing so, we can develop an objective foundation that will allow for an accurate tactical analysis and evaluation of his ability.
Depending on the tactics, the Dungannon-born number 22 plays as a defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3 or at centre-back in a 3-5-2 for Motherwell.
Out of possession, Donnelly is responsible for protecting the space in front of the centre-backs. The roles demands include mental traits such as awareness, communication, and discipline, as well as physical and technical attributes, including mobility, aerial ability, and strength.
In possession, Donnelly is responsible for the tempo of the match, keeping and advancing possession under pressure. Mentally, the role requires the performer to be aware, concentrated and confident on the ball. Physically, he has to be fit enough to keep up with play and technically he needs to pass with accuracy and evade pressure with quick decisions.
The best players in this role offer long-ranged passing, shooting and aerial threat. Think Fernandinho or Nemanja Matic from 2014 to 2016 or Fabinho at the present time.
Let’s examine his positioning at set-pieces.
Above, at defensive corners, Donnelly marks a man at the back post. In this position, he utilises his aerial ability.
At attacking corners, Donnelly will make a late run from the edge of the box toward the far post. Alternatively, he sits on the edge of the box waiting for scraps. When he runs into the box, he’ll utilise his aerial threat. When he waits, he attempts to counter-press, recovering possession and shooting early.
The picture above shows Donnelly’s role during defensive free kicks. He stands in the pack and watches the line. As the ball is played, note how Donnelly is focused on the opposition players breaking through, not the ball. He tries to apply pressure, distracting and pressurising any player that attempts to score. His height, strength and aerial ability give him a better chance than most to succeed in this role.
At attacking free kicks, Donnelly makes a run to the back post, attempting to win the aerial duel and score. Marked white outside of the box is the location that Donnelly will take the free kicks from. His technique from a dead ball situation allows him to both cross and score often.
Through the duration of the game, as a defensive midfielder, Donnelly defends the space in front of his centre-backs. He moves forward with the attack, but always protects the centre-backs from being exposed, unless there’s cover. Moreover, he faces 8.22 defensive duels per 90, succeeding in 58.2%. This season, he’s shown the Steelmen that he can last the 90 minutes, recovering possession and aerial duels regularly. Let’s take a deeper look at the statistics.
This season, Donnelly finished third in counter-presses amongst midfielders in the Premiership, averaging 9.06 per 90. This statistic gives us an insight into his determination to win the ball back in the defensive transition. Moreover, he ranks second in recoveries, averaging 14.44 per 90. It’s fair to say Donnelly is a player determined to win the ball back for his team.
Another defensive attribute, synonymous with his performances this season, is his aerial ability. Ranking fourth for this, averaging 8.66 per 90, succeeding in 64.3% of attempts, Donnelly’s ability to deal with direct play creates a secure atmosphere amongst the defensive units.
The picture above portrays Donnelly’s defensive positioning when Motherwell attack the final third. He puts himself between the opposition’s midfield and attacking units. By doing so, he is capable of counter-pressing the opposition’s midfield unit if they attempt to dribble out, or block the passing lane into the forward unit. If a pass makes it through to the opposing striker, Donnelly is in a position were his speed allows him to catch up with play and delay them from breaking his defensive line.
Note Donnelly’s awareness, as he checks his shoulder to make sure the distance is enough to prevent the counter-attack.
Above, Donnelly shows when he presses. Note how the St. Mirren striker drops deep to break Motherwell’s midfield unit. As a defensive midfielder, Donnelly’s role is to press the player or space in front of his centre-backs. Therefore, he abandons the central attacking midfielder of St. Mirren. As a result, he forces the striker on the ball to release quickly, instead of allowing him to turn and run at Motherwell’s defence. Consequently, Donnelly’s mobility permits him to apply pressure fast, preventing his opponents from penetrating through the middle regularly.
When the opposition break through the middle third, as shown above, Donnelly works hard to prevent the opposing central attacking midfielder from finding space. As the former Manchester United player Liam Grimshaw presses the opposing winger, Donnelly makes sure to occupy the space between his centre backs. Thus, any loose balls that come off his defenders, he can deal with immediately.
Above, the opposition has broken the defensive unit and penetrated the box. In this scenario, Donnelly will vacate his position and cover the centre back nearest the ball. Note how Donnelly is aware of the threat as his fellow centre-back, former Celtic player Declan Gallagher, over commits. Donnelly is positioned to react and prevent St. Mirren from scoring.
In possession, Donnelly controls the tempo of the match with movement and vision. As play moves into the opposition’s third, Donnelly will position himself a few yards back from the edge of the box, limiting his opponent’s counter-attacking options. When Motherwell need a goal, Donnelly attempts to shorten the distance from the box. From here, he’s utilised his long-range shooting and aerial ability, scoring eight goals and one assist this season.
Donnelly’s 40th position in the Premiership passes per 90, 16.17, suggests that he has not been the focal point of the team. However, when he does pass the ball, he boasts a 79.1% accuracy rate. As mentioned, this role requires a player that exudes composure under pressure and succeeds in maintaining possession. Donnelly does this for Motherwell. Averaging 4.22 offensive duels per 90, with a success rate of 52.63%, tells us that Donnelly doesn’t take many players on, but when he does, he can beat him.
Progressing through the thirds
When asked to break lines and progress play, Donnelly does this by dropping deeper to receive, turn and distribute the ball. Additionally, he uses movement to open up passing lanes for the forward units to receive. His awareness, combined with his quick footwork, permit him to retain possession and/or break lines. When he drops deep, his vision and versatile passing ability allow him to perform progressive passes.
The statistics do not paint the full picture of Donnelly’s ability to progress play. His clever movements to open gaps up for his teammates to pass through cannot yet be recorded in an effective way. However, the stats do show us his ability to progress play by passing. He ranks 35th in the Premiership with an average progressive passes of 6.13 per 90, with an average distance of 159.19m. This tells us that he doesn’t receive the ball as often as other midfielders in the league, hence his low average of progressive passes. However, his average distance per match is an outstanding statistic amongst the league’s midfielders.
Above, Donnelly shows great awareness. As mentioned, his movement in this example is hard to quantify into a statistic. While the centre-back carried the ball forward, Donnelly occupied the half-space. However, the opposition blocks his space. As a result, he drops inward, drawing the opposing player towards him. Consequently, he creates a channel for the left winger to receive the ball.
It’s a great example of vertical possession. As Donnelly receives the ball, he has three options. A, to carry possession into a space where he can expose the centre-backs, B, to play the striker in, combining with the winger, or C, switch the play right, allowing the winger and full-back to create a 2 v 1 situation. Donnelly chose A. He carried the ball forward before playing the striker in. It leads to a goal, and highlights Donnelly’s decisive vision to spot the best pass that leads to a goal-scoring opportunity.
When the ball is in the channels, Donnelly’s concern is preventing counter-attacks. He doesn’t look to provide a passing lane. Instead, he becomes a defender, focusing on the central attacking midfielder. Note how Grimshaw provided the option, but Donnelly is happy to make sure his space is defended.
The final third
This season the Northern Irish prospect has netted eight goals, with an expectancy of 3.82 and assisted one with an expectancy of 0.37. Donnelly takes penalties and, as previously mentioned, the occasional free-kick. When Motherwell is behind, Donnelly will shorten the distance from the opponent’s box. In this scenario, he’s capable of shooting from range and scoring with his head.
Donnelly’s total goal statistic of eight ranks him third amongst midfielders in the Premiership. His 40% conversion rate from chances after set-pieces validates his positioning on the edge of the box.
His 66.7% conversion rate from set-pieces justifies itself. He averages 1.29 shots per 90 with an xG average of 0.13 per shot. This depicts his desire to score but also suggests these attempts are from unlikely goal-scoring positions.
In the final third Donnelly will often position himself a few yards out from the box. However, in the scenario shown above, as his wingers get the ball into the box, Donnelly moves forward, making use of his long-range shooting ability. From here, Donnelly feeds off the scraps, striking from range and often causing the opposing goalkeepers a problem.
When Motherwell is desperate for a goal, Donnelly travels into the box. Arriving late, his aerial ability causes problems for the opposing defensive midfielder.
Donnelly has become an anchor in midfield for Motherwell this season. As a defensive central midfielder, he’s capable of nullifying the long-ball threat, which is so often used in the Scottish Premiership. Moreover, he has contributed in attack this year, proving more than capable in opening spaces for his forwards to exploit, as well as scoring from set-pieces.
With his first international cap secured, and talks of a potential move to Stoke City, one can’t help but think that Donnelly is a fine addition to the already strong Northern Irish midfield. However, the analysis would suggest he needs to improve his tempo out of possession. If he can, Donnelly may be the person to fill the space vacated by EPL player Oliver Norwood.