David Turnbull scout report: Celtic’s centrepiece who could erupt for Scotland at EURO 2020
David Turnbull has a story that is one of utter redemption and inspiration, as you might have heard already. As a 19-year-old he scored 15 times and placed 4 assists in the 2018/19 season, all but earning himself a move to Celtic Park. However, a freak scenario transpired where a precautionary CT scan highlighted a problem with his knee cartilage, which would require surgery and prevent his move to Celtic from happening that year.
It took nearly a year to recover with just 38 minutes of football played in the 2019/20 season, before finally joining the Bhoys in 2020/21. What would come about was a sparkling debut campaign in green and white, and this scout report will do an analysis of the type of player he is, and what he could become under the yet-to-be-revealed new head coach at the Lennoxtown Training Centre.
Turnbull started his footballing career in 2009 as a nine-year-old with Motherwell and stayed with them until he joined Celtic in 2020. An 11-year journey with a club that served him incredibly well. He rose through the ranks at a very quick pace – consistently playing above the age groups he was supposed to be at. This was rewarded with a first-team debut at 18-years-old towards the end of the 2017/18 campaign, which he duly repaid with an assist against Partick Thistle.
Joining Celtic, he did not become an immediate starter. He had Ryan Christie and Tom Rogic ahead of him in the pecking order, and surely, he would only manage to become a rotation option in his first season for the Bhoys. In an unlikely turn of events, he forced Christie out to the right-wing and eventually benched Rogic to become the first-choice #10, and sometimes he would play as an #8, dependent on the chosen system.
Standing at 6’1” / 185cm, Turnbull is not a mobile attacking midfielder in the mould of Phil Foden at Man City, but rather his teammate Kevin De Bruyne. A rangy midfielder with a fantastic weight of passing and a good variation in his attempts too. Like the Belgian, Turnbull is not opposed to crossing the ball with frequency either, and they both share set-piece duties. Turnbull also has a preference to shoot from just outside the area, demonstrating a robust weak foot in the process.
David Turnbull’s player profile, created by the wonderful Sathish Prasad (@SathishPrasadVT on Twitter).
Expert vision, the finely-tuned weight of pass and variation
Easily Turnbull’s best attribute is his eye for chance creation. He is an instinctively smart player who is always looking to pass the ball into pockets of space where a teammate can collect the ball and take a chance on goal. His vision, and speed of thought to act on these opportunities, sets him apart from any other playmaker in the division. It is a skill that many top players in Europe do not possess either.
Scatter plot of Scottish Premiership central/attacking midfielders xA per 90 compared with progressive passes per 90.
The scatter plot above demonstrates Turnbull’s ability to both progress the ball and create chances at a high rate, but it is his Expected Assists that astounds the most. His 0.35 xA per 90 is only beaten by eleven players in Europe’s top five leagues, which should give you an idea of what an elite chance creator Turnbull is in the Scottish Premiership. It is a shame then that he is only notching 0.21 assists per 90, being severely let down by his attacking teammates.
As mentioned, Turnbull’s best attribute is his vision, and he utilises it well by keeping his head up in the final third and scanning what is ahead of him. He likes to stay behind the forward line so he can scan their movement and play the ball when necessary. Even he is not on the ball, his movement is intelligent, knowing when and where to place himself to receive the ball and play the quick through pass to a teammate.
Here we see Turnbull in plenty of space just ahead of the Rangers defence, awaiting Edouard’s pass.
Turnbull acts quickly, moving the ball to his right foot and playing the chipped through pass into the path of Edouard’s run, which results in a poor first-touch on the Frenchman’s behalf.
On a fairly frequent basis, Turnbull will look to complete a nuanced pass that the defenders do not expect, often completely dumbfounding several opponents at once, or bypassing a couple of levels of pressure with one through ball. We saw this on his Scotland debut versus the Netherlands, where he received the ball under a fair amount of pressure, but still maintained a cool head and played the through pass down the line in between several Dutch defenders. The fact that he was still attempting these types of passes on his international bout is very promising.
Turnbull will receive the pass in a tight area down the right flank, accompanied by a couple of Oranje defenders.
Turnbull turns quickly and plays the through pass out to the right-wing, bypassing four Dutch defenders in one foul swoop.
This sentiment is backed up by the statistics, with Turnbull producing 1.71 smart passes per 90 (95th percentile in the league) and 1.99 through passes per 90 (97th percentile). Yet, his through passing is not his only piece of threatening distribution, as he possesses a fantastic variation of efforts. He is a brilliant set-piece taker, demonstrated by his almost equal split between his open-play and set-piece xA figures (0.22 and 0.16 according to The Analyst).
This could be a fantastic asset for Scotland to have. They might expect to be up against the wall versus teams like England and Croatia – so having an excellent dead-ball operator will be a mightily useful resource to benefit from. He can strike fizzed crosses into the area, but most often, Turnbull will focus on precision over power.
Turnbull is aiming for Scott Brown in the box here, who is aided by the movements of his teammates to create space in the area for him to head into the left side-netting.
Turnbull is also a capable progressor of the ball with his forward passing. His 7.69 progressive passes per 90 are above average, but this figure rises when the Scotsman operates deeper in midfield, usually in one of Lennon’s back three systems that he utilised this season. It certainly outstrips his 1.61 progressive runs per 90 – with his dribbling abilities not his strong point.
Overall, Turnbull’s creative capabilities seem ready to translate to another level. Numbers in the Scottish league for one of either Celtic or Rangers can be skewed by their dominance in the division, but Turnbull’s only game in the Europa League against Ligue 1 winners Lille of all teams resulted in one goal and one assist. This side of his game seems ready for a higher level of competition, for sure.
Goal-scoring ability and robust weak-foot
As much as Turnbull has fantastic creative abilities, Celtic really purchased him off the back of a fantastic goalscoring season for Motherwell, reaching double-digits from attacking midfield in the league as a teenager. He occupies an adjusted role at Celtic, but he has still demonstrated his finishing boots; long-range belters and late-runs into the area, he’s garnered both.
Scatter plot of Scottish Premiership central/attacking midfielders xG per 90 compared with shots per 90.
Turnbull is once again a strong performer in the data, with a high number of shots per 90 resulting in a high xG per 90. He does outperform his xG somewhat, scoring at a rate of 0.31 per 90 with an xG of 0.26 per 90, which is indicative of his clean and cultured finishing ability. 63% of his strikes at goal are from outside the penalty area, which is creeping into a percentage that becomes concerning where you are conceding more goalscoring opportunities than you are potentially taking.
From what must be more than 30 yards out from the goal, Turnbull decides to take a shot at the goal, ignoring the several passing options available to him that could progress the play further
Again, from a slightly more favourable shooting position this time, Turnbull ignores the four or five defenders who could block and clear his effort on goal.
On the other hand, his mixture of long-range shots and passing in the final third makes Turnbull an unpredictable force in an attacking sense, which has its benefits and drawbacks. Adding to this, he possesses a robust weak foot that he ought to utilise more often than he currently does. His left foot has shown to strike the ball with enough accuracy and power to score additional goals.
We saw this again versus the Netherlands, where he executed a neat one-two pass between himself and teammate, getting into space, before letting fly with a finessed effort towards the top-left with his left boot. It is rare for a footballer to look as adept with his weak foot as his stronger side, and although Turnbull is not quite at that level, he would do well to utilise this skill more often.
Here, Turnbull displays his good ball-striking technique from his left foot, arching his upper body over the ball to keep the shot down whilst driving through his laces to generate sufficient power.
His clever movement has also earned him a few goals as well. As mentioned, he is a player who prefers to hang back in attacking scenarios, collecting the ball into his feet so he has his teammates in front of him so he can track their movements. This benefits Turnbull in a goalscoring sense too since he can ghost into the penalty area and take shots a plenty from high-value goalscoring positions.
Turnbull smartly delays his run, but when he begins his run, he does so at full steam to catch the defence off-guard.
He then has an easy tap-in to finish off the move.
Generally, Turnbull is an attacking midfielder who can score at a decent rate. At the moment, he does take too many shots from outside the area that can frustrate onlooking fans. Sometimes, in these moments he should look to recycle possession, retain the ball, and wait for an opening, rather than rush an opportunity like he currently does. Other than that, he has a good ball-striking technique which will put him in good stead when earning a move into Europe’s top five leagues.
From a defensive perspective, it is difficult to analyse Turnbull. He has played for Celtic under a coach who does not encourage a high-pressing style of play, and as such, Turnbull is not defensively proactive. Although, there have been a few games in central-midfield versus Aberdeen, Motherwell, and the Netherlands, where he has been more proactive in this sense, exhibiting another layer of depth as a footballer.
Scatter plot of Scottish Premiership central/attacking midfielders defensive duels per 90 compared with defensive duels won %.
We can see in the data above that Turnbull does not rank highly for the volume of defensive duels and sits just beneath average for the percentage of those duels won. It is clearly not his role at Celtic to actively win the ball back. As a #10 he will occasionally press the ball-carrier, but more often he will passively look to cut off the passing lanes or back up another teammate pressing their opponent.
Turnbull here cuts off the passing lane timely to intercept the ball and spark a counterattack.
As a #8, Turnbull does get more involved in the defensive side of the game, however. He usually stays within the line of the midfield, screening left and right wherever the ball-carrier warrants them to go. He has a decent tackling technique, but can be heavy-footed in his efforts, intermittently barging into his opponent by accident, which can cause fouls.
When he played as a central midfielder against Aberdeen and St Mirren, with a back three behind him, you could see Turnbull was more cautious to drive forward, in fear of exposing Celtic defensively through the middle of the park. He has shown signs of being more defensively aware for Celtic in the league, and this adaptability will only benefit him for the upcoming Euros.
Against Aberdeen, Turnbull can be seen here winning the ball back in midfield, protecting the back three.
And again here, winning the ball back in midfield against St Mirren.
What he demonstrated against the Netherlands was that he is adaptable. He was asked by Steve Clarke to be more defensively proactive in that game, and he slotted in naturally; he did not look out of place defensively against some elite attacking players. He was not perfect, but he did show good defensive application, positioning and acumen.
Turnbull against the Netherlands was even getting involved in defence out on the right-wing – really pressuring the Dutch players on the ball.
EURO 2020 forecast
Whether Turnbull is in Clarke’s starting XI against the Czech Republic we cannot be sure, but he made a good case in his debut versus the Oranje. He displayed press resistance, ambitious passing, and an ability to strike the ball cleanly from range. In their 5-3-2 system, he is unlikely to be a better option than John McGinn or Scott McTominay, but in a formation with a natural #10, Turnbull has to be the first choice. If he gets a chance, there is a strong case to be made that he has a breakout tournament.