Scott Brown’s imminent return to first team action at Celtic has raised many questions about the captain’s role at the club. The 33-year-old’s time out has coincided with an upturn in form for the champions and has led some to ask whether his place in Brendan Rodgers’ starting eleven is as secure as many once thought.

Callum McGregor has deputised at the base of Celtic’s midfield during the intervening period and had rightly earned plaudits for his recent performances. In fact, McGregor has been so impressive that some have suggested that Brown might find it difficult to nail down a place in the starting eleven upon his return to full fitness. But is this really the case?

The role that the two players are vying for in the Celtic midfield will primarily be defined by one attribute more than any other: their passing ability. In terms of overall passes per 90 minutes and their accuracy, Brown has the advantage. The Celtic captain averages around seven more passes than McGregor, with a slightly greater degree of accuracy too. It should be pointed out that all of McGregor’s stats used in this article come from when the 25-year-old has been playing in Brown’s role in central midfield.

During Brown’s absence, there have been some accusations that the combative midfielder can actually slow down Celtic’s build-up play and that he merely moves the ball from side to side, whereas McGregor is more direct. There is some truth to this - McGregor does play more long passes per game on average, but it should be noted that Brown plays them more accurately. There’s also a question of how valuable this actually is to Rodgers: Celtic play fewer long passes per game than any other Premiership side.

When it comes to passes into the final third, Brown again has the advantage over McGregor. The 33-year-old attempts marginally more of these passes, and again has a greater degree of accuracy than McGregor in this regard. Likewise, Brown makes more forward passes and fewer backward passes than McGregor does during any given match. This is obviously at odds with the common perception of both players, but the numbers do not lie.

McGregor (1.99) does play significantly more passes into the box than Brown (0.69), although does so with a far poorer degree of accuracy. 86% of Brown’s balls into the box find their man, as opposed to McGregor’s rate of 54%. McGregor is more likely to attempt passes like these, but around half won’t even find their man.

During defensive phases of play, there can be little doubt that Brown is outperforming McGregor. In fact, he’s doing so across the board. Brown attempts more tackles, more interceptions, challenges for more aerial balls, blocks more shots and hits more clearances.

Not only is the Celtic captain doing more off the ball, but he also has a greater rate of success too. Brown has higher success rates when it comes to tackles and aerial challenges, with a tackling success rate more than twice as high as McGregor’s and a slight advantage when it comes to headers, winning around 6% more.

It looks as if Rodgers’ decision is relatively straightforward then. Celtic’s form has undoubtedly improved dramatically with Brown out of the team, but there is little indication that the captain’s absence is the sole reason for this. McGregor has impressed in the role and may well be a long-term solution once Brown eventually hangs up his boots but for now, at least, Brown should remain Rodgers’ first choice.