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Breakout star Turnbull has quality to bridge gap to Celtic

 • by Tom Bodell
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Last season was a whirlwind for David Turnbull. He only made his first league start of the campaign for Motherwell in October, but by 2019 he was starring in midfield.

He ended up with 30 Scottish Premiership appearances, 15 goals, and a nomination for the PFA Scotland young player of the year. Since then, he has been linked with a move to Celtic.

At just 19, he is seen a big player not only for his club, but in the future of his country. He won his only two under-21 caps this year, and many were tipping him for a place in new senior national team boss Steve Clarke’s squad for the European Championship qualifiers with Cyprus and Belgium.

Turnbull was part of a youthful regeneration at Motherwell in 2018/19. After a poor start, manager Stephen Robinson decided to bring in some fresh new faces from the club’s academy, including the young playmaker and Rangers-bound winger Jake Hastie. There was a change of system, with the 3-5-2 ditched for a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, and Turnbull played a key role in midfield as a No.8 or No.10 behind the lone striker.

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With a role that suited him and an increasing focus on playing through the thirds and passing short as opposed to going long and playing for second balls, he began to thrive. Not only did he show his class on and off the ball, but he scored just under a third of his side’s total goals tally. Indeed, only two players in the entire league scored more than he did: Alfredo Morelos and Aberdeen hitman Sam Cosgrove. Both, unlike him, are out-and-out strikers.

That explains how Turnbull got to this point, with opposing team’s fans demanding he receive a Scotland cap and the country’s reigning champions hunting for his signature. But his next move will be a big one, with English Championship teams Derby County and Barnsley also reportedly interested.

Playing for Celtic means the opportunity to continue his development in a league and football culture he knows intimately, as well as a chance to play in the Champions League. There is no other club linked to him that could give him this. However, history suggests it will be anything other than a smooth ride.

Lewis Morgan joined the club from newly promoted St Mirren last summer after thrilling in Scotland’s second tier and earning caps for the national team. Within six months he was sent out on loan to England’s third tier with Sunderland, having not started a single Scottish Premiership game. Only time will tell whether he succeeds at Parkhead.

Previously, Ryan Christie endured a similarly difficult start to life at Celtic. Arriving after a successful few seasons at the top level of the domestic game with Inverness Caledonian Thistle, he went out on loan three times – twice to Aberdeen – before being granted a chance to fight for a place with his parent club.

Even captain Scott Brown had a hard time in his first year after joining from Hibernian. The lesson here is that Celtic is a tough first move for young Scottish talent, and it often takes a few years for the player to begin making a real impact.

Turnbull may have enjoyed an astonishing breakout season, but that doesn’t guarantee continued progress were he to join the champions this summer. He would, after all, have to compete with exceptional creators like Christie, not to mention Tom Rogic and Callum McGregor, for a place in the line-up.

However, what does offer some room for optimism in this regard is how his numbers from last season look compared to the former.

Turnbull isn’t far behind Christie when it comes to average shot assists (1.8 to 1.9 per 90 minutes), progressive runs (0.9 to 1.1) and his average expected assists of 0.2 per 90 was exactly the same. He completed 1.2 fewer dribbles per 90, which is significant, though he still had highly respectable output in this category for someone playing in a team that averaged a lot less possession.

Both players scored 0.5 goals per 90 minutes on average, though Turnbull did this with an average xG (expected goals) of 0.3 compared to Christie’s 0.4. This can be explained by the Motherwell star’s proclivity for long-range screamers. While this data might suggest he cannot sustain such a scoring rate, there is also the possibility that he just has a nose for goal that other midfielders do not.

Since taking over from Brendan Rodgers, Neil Lennon has shown a slight preference for a 4-2-3-1 system, with two midfielders holding and one advanced playmaker operating just off of Odsonne Edouard. This will likely mean only one No.10, rather than two attacking No.8s. Turnbull, then, would have to compete with Christie for a starting spot. Fortunately, the numbers suggest he can do just that.

It’s a risky move to make after one good season, but the 19-year-old is undoubtedly a player of great quality and even greater potential. With a little bit of patience, he could gradually establish himself as a key man at Celtic.

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