Barrie McKay: What Hearts will get from the chance-creating ex-Rangers star who divides opinion
Hearts were at Ibrox in December 2016. Barrie McKay had already put Rangers 2-0 up on Ian Cathro's debut after some poor Faycal Rherras defending.
The 2-0 lead should really have become 3-0 in the final 30 minutes. McKay, who has signed a two-year deal to join the Tynecastle side, picked up the ball just inside his own half. Tracked by Perry Kitchen, he cut inside the American then, spotting the out-to-in run of Martyn Waghorn, picked up a scalpel, as if in a science lesson dissecting a frog, cut open the visiting defence with a pass which took out three defenders and sent his team-mate through on goal.
That was the story of McKay’s 2016/17 season at Ibrox. He created chances, team-mates fluffed them.
A video did the rounds on Twitter towards the end of that campaign, showcasing the varied way Rangers players made a mess of a McKay chance. That season the Glasgow side scored ten fewer than they were expected to, while McKay set up two goals but his expected assists was beyond seven, the fourth best in the league.
In short, McKay, who arrives after his release from Swansea, was a chance-creating machine.
His numbers were hugely impressive. No player played more through passes (Boyce was second) or made more passes into the final 20 metres of the opposing half.
The 26-year-old was also in the top five in the Premiership for key passes, progressive runs and dribbles.
McKay was hugely exciting, as he had been the season before, helping Rangers get back into the top-flight and earning a Scotland cap.
It is easy to see where he would fit into Robbie Neilson’s side. The positions either side of Liam Boyce are tailor made for someone with his skillset. He is adept at holding his width, making the pitch wider and taking on opposing defenders.
The beauty of McKay when he’s on his game is that he’s unpredictable. Getting the ball out wide gives him the option to take on defenders but it also provides him with different passing angles. Third-man raids or players making diagonal runs can be picked out with piercing balls from wide.
There is also a willingness to play further in the field, picking up pockets of space in the final third, almost like a No.10. It was a position he played for Fleetwood Town when Simon Grayson replaced Joey Barton and switched the system to a 3-5-2.
He could be perfect for setting up the likes of Josh Ginnelly, Ben Woodburn or Gary Mackay-Steven bombing beyond Boyce.
McKay’s arrival could be viewed as having an impact on the Northern Irishman and the way he plays. The striker is keen to come towards the ball and is widely considered by supporters to be the team’s best No.9 and best No.10.
Yet, he is not as involved in build-up play this season when compared to last. He’s creating fewer shots and playing fewer through passes and passes into the penalty area. Importantly, his xG (expected goals) per 90 minutes has increased despite the jump up in leagues.
McKay will only help Boyce to try and hit that 20 goal mark.
Now for the but…
BUT he can be a player who frustrates.
At times, he did so at Rangers. He did it on loan at Raith Rovers. And he did it in England, notably with Swansea City and Nottingham Forest.
He started off well at Forest where he linked up with his former Ibrox boss Mark Warburton, scoring four times and assisting seven in his first 16 league games.
McKay was top five for progressive runs per 90 minutes, behind Jack Grealish and Adama Traore, and top ten for key passes and smart passes per 90 minutes.
The assessment from a journalist covering Forest, however, was that he "was occasionally brilliant but more often than not frustrating beyond belief”.
It wasn’t much better in Wales.
He was a regular in the first half of his first season at Swansea before falling down the pecking order and then out of favour completely.
Swans fan Jack Carroll, who covers the club for the SOS fanzine and JackCast, told the Evening News, McKay showed “flashes of quality” but would "go missing too often” and that his best game was his debut for the club.
The right environment
The attacker fared much better at Fleetwood Town, “good on the ball and really creative” and described as a “class above" when he first arrived by journalist Tom Sandells, linking up with Barton.
He became a key player out wide before the season was paused due to the coronavirus pandemic. He returned last season on loan but his influence dipped, a combination of a change in management and illness.
McKay is a player who needs the right environment, the right stimulus to produce his very best. He should get that at Tynecastle.
Sporting director Joe Savage expressed how much the club value his quality.
“We look at Barrie McKay and think he will come in and impact the starting 11,” he said. “That puts more pressure on the boys there just now and that's the quality we need to get to where we want to go.”
If Robbie Neilson can get him back to the level which earned him a move to England then the Hearts fans and his attacking team-mates are in for a treat.