WHEN St Mirren recorded their first league win of the campaign a little over a week ago by producing a rousing comeback against Aberdeen in Paisley, the players could breathe a sigh of relief. The monkey was off their backs.

It stretched the Dons’ winless run to eight games in all competitions – a statistic that manager Stephen Glass will be sick of hearing, and one that has only worsened in the interim – but for Jim Goodwin’s men, it provided a platform from which to kick on and try to recapture some of the momentum of the previous campaign, where the Buddies missed out on a place in the top six by the narrowest of margins.

Jamie McGrath was a crucial player last term as St Mirren reached both national cup semi-finals and pressed admirably for the top half of the table. And it was the Republic of Ireland internationalist who was once again pulling the strings at the weekend and inspiring his team to victory.

McGrath’s performances at the SMiSA Stadium have not gone unnoticed. The 25-year-old was the subject of a failed deadline day bid from Hibernian and with his contract expiring at the end of the season, it would be no surprise to see Jack Ross attempt to raid his former club again once the window reopens in January.

The problem for Ross, though, is that he may well have other suitors to contend with by the time the new year rolls around. After establishing himself as a key player under Goodwin last term, McGrath is now excelling to the point where he is one of the Premiership’s stand-out players – something that tends to attract admirers, particularly within the context of the midfielder’s contract situation.

These are still very early days in the campaign and naturally, disclaimers should be made about small sample sizes and the like. But the data we have accrued during the season’s opening exchanges does provide an indication, if nothing more, of a player whose star is on the rise.

ON THE UP

McGrath spent much of last season deployed on the right of St Mirren’s midfield trio, although occasionally played further forward as an attacking midfielder. This year, Goodwin has gone one step further and even had McGrath playing off of Eamonn Brophy up top (see the 3-2 win over Aberdeen or the 6-0 hammering at Celtic Park).

HeraldScotland:

Figure 1 highlights some of the key metrics for a player in McGrath’s position – how many key passes (passes that lead to a shot) he makes from open play, the expected goals assisted (xGA) value of his passes, his dribbling ability, and so on. Each dial represents the player’s percentile rank for all central midfielders (including defensive and attacking) in the Premiership. The bigger the dial, the better a player is performing relative to his peers.

There are a few things that should jump out instantly. McGrath’s key passing has dramatically improved and his xGA has followed suit. He’s playing a lot more successful through balls as more creative responsibility has been placed on his shoulders, and his ability to carry the ball – both in dribbling and in winning fouls – is now among the best in the league.

What is perhaps most telling of McGrath’s development of late, though, is his ability on the ball in the face of pressure. Last season, 73 per cent of the passes he played under pressure found their intended target – a decent enough return, but nothing to write home about. This season, that figure has jumped to 83 per cent.

Remarkably, McGrath’s distribution improves when under pressure. The playmaker’s passes were six per cent more likely to find their man when he had an opponent bearing down on him last season, and this year that’s risen to 11 per cent – leaving McGrath in the top one per cent of Premiership midfielders in this regard.

What this tells us is that McGrath likely has a natural aptitude for remaining composed under pressure – something his fledgling international career will only enhance. Creatively, he’s mixing it with the best the Premiership has to offer so far this season and his acceleration and ability to draw fouls makes him a dangerous opponent in one v one situations. And at 25, there is still plenty of scope for development on the training pitch.

MOVE TO CELTIC?

Which brings us to Celtic. Ange Postecoglou does not have his troubles to seek at the moment between his side’s inconsistent displays or the seemingly ever-lengthening injury list. There is no question that absentees have limited Postecoglou’s options and forced square pegs into round holes on occasion but looking past the current injury crisis, there are still serious questions in midfield.

Postecolgou’s preferred trio of David Turnbull, Callum McGregor and Tom Rogic have linked up well at times but it is hard to shake the feeling that further tinkering is required in the middle. McGregor’s value at the base of midfield has been conspicuous by its absence in recent fixtures, and Turnbull – while there are legitimate questions over his level of performance in bigger matches – is a player with bags of potential, and his shooting ability from distance is a somewhat unique weapon in Celtic’s arsenal.

Rogic’s place, however, is far less secure. The 28-year-old has featured in every game of Postecoglou’s tenure thus far but there are concerns over his suitability to the new manager’s system. For all his technical ability, the Australia internationalist is not known for his industry or dynamism off the ball. Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is that Rogic does not do well when pressured by an opponent.

Given the fast and intricate build-up play that Postecolgou is trying to instil in this group of players, it’s important that the right-sided midfielder – a ‘playmaker 8’, if you will – recycles the ball, carries it forward and unlocks the opponent’s defence during attacking phases of play. Rogic can do so when he is afforded time but under pressure, he becomes far less effective.

HeraldScotland:

There isn’t much to separate Rogic and McGrath in terms of their key passing, chance creation or dribbling, while their work off the ball is also largely similar (although, it’s worth noting how many fouls McGrath wins for his side per game). But a stark – and significant – contrast can be seen on the right of our radar.

Rogic finds himself in the top one per cent of offenders for turnovers (misplaced passes or failed dribbles that gift possession to the opposition) in the Premiership, while his passing accuracy drops significantly under pressure – two-thirds of the players in our sample perform better.

This is where McGrath has a significant edge over Rogic. Too often, a misplaced pass under pressure causes Celtic’s attacking moves to break down. If those turnovers could be replaced by accurate passes, the knock-on effect would be dramatic. It might not be a solution to the lack of steel in Postecoglou’s midfield, but the additional guile would not go amiss. The compounded effect on chance creation could be dramatic.

With his contract winding down, McGrath could be recruited relatively cheaply by Celtic when the transfer window reopens in January. The financial risks are low, and he is a player who has shown great promise during his time in Paisley. With the greatest of respect, few Buddies fans would begrudge the claim that McGrath is destined for a higher level and while Hibs would represent a step up for the playmaker, he might just be ready for a bigger move still.