Scotland vs Ukraine: John McGinn eyes Nations League promotion amid Aston Villa uncertainty
He led his country to two important victories, earned his 50th cap and became the eighth top scorer in Scotland’s history. It’s been a memorable international break for John McGinn – and there’s still room for his fortnight to improve further.
The Aston Villa midfielder is the darling of the Tartan Army, and his crucial strike against Ukraine characterized his effort in a dark blue shirt. McGinn found the bottom corner with unerring ease, but only after using his trademark physique to dispossess a bewildered Valeriy Bondar.
The 27-year-old has amassed 14 goals for his country and is currently just five behind Ally McCoist on the all-time list. McGinn has gradually advanced as his international career has progressed – and he’s more comfortable and punchy in advanced areas.
At the start of his international career, McGinn was often used in a deeper midfield position, but his erratic character in possession quickly became troublesome. He is a carefree performer, a risk-taker at his best when acting impulsively, and a restrictive, disciplined role isn’t entirely compatible with his attributes.
Most central midfielders are content to run the ball and maintain a high success rate, but McGinn is rarely interested in the safe option. He’s also comfortable receiving possession with his back to goal, and few players use their backs to outsmart and pin opponents quite like him.
McGinn starts as a No.10 for Scotland, but he plays a more traditional midfield role for Aston Villa. With Steven Gerrard’s reliance on his full-backs to provide attacking thrust, central midfielders are preoccupied with shuttling across the width of the pitch, filling gaps and being vigilant.
The new Villa captain hasn’t scored for his club since Gerrard’s second game in charge at Crystal Palace last November. His attacking instincts have been reduced under the former Rangers boss, but nonetheless his burgundy and blue form has rarely wavered above mediocrity over the past 12 months.
The armbar is likely to ensure that McGinn remains a starter for Villa regardless of his output, and Gerrard is a big proponent of his skill set. It remains clear, however, that McGinn, eaten up with defensive responsibilities, is struggling to influence or dictate things from the engine room.
Gerrard lured Joe Aribo to Rangers in the summer of 2019, hoping the silky Nigerian would bring creativity to a functional midfield. After a largely ineffective start to his career at Govan, Gerrard moved Aribo into a wide frontcourt – allowing him to play with greater freedom. Aribo responded positively to the change of position and his current manager, Ralph Hasenhuttl, signed him to play a similar role in the top league in the world.
McGinn would also benefit from a Gerrard overhaul, but the dressing room prankster is unlikely to be selected in a more forward-thinking role when the manager has Philippe Coutinho and Emiliano Buendía at his disposal. There is also a quality gap between most international fixtures and the Premier League, and it remains unclear whether McGinn is able to replicate his Scottish performances in a Villa shirt.
McGinn is at the start of his fifth season at the club in the Midlands, an era of modern football, and he might benefit from a change of scenery. With the armband on his sleeve, Villa are unlikely to consider leaving – and an obvious destination is unclear anyway.
Although McGinn struggled in international matches in June, he continues to play enthusiastically for his country. His club form is a concern – and there doesn’t appear to be an obvious solution – but his immediate priority is to try and lead Scotland to promotion from their Nations League group.