John McGinn: Aston Villa’s Atypical Technician

John McGinn’s competition is fierce – but there is a chance that he is the world’s most underappreciated footballer, a feat made even more remarkable by his Premier League status and talismanic form for Scotland.


Usually, truly ‘underrated’ players are based outside of the ‘major leagues’ in Europe. They are dominant domestically and productive internationally, but left on the outside looking in at the ‘big’ show. Beloved by the kind of people who champion the ‘next big thing’ in Major League Soccer, the Belgian Pro League, or the Chilean Primera Division. Nerds, this author included, in other words.


McGinn doesn’t fit the mould above – he is a veteran figure in the world’s strongest domestic competition and has starred for his national team for years. Even so, his level of play is underappreciated beyond the borders of his heartlands: Birmingham (the claret and blue side) and Scotland. The question is: why?


Aston Villa’s Resurgence: The Unai Emery Effect


The 29-year-old came to stardom later than comparable talents – who parlayed ‘wonderkid’ status into ‘world-class’ shouts as rookie professionals. McGinn, by contrast, spent his age-23 season in the Scottish Championship and required two more years of seasoning before his Premier League bow.


Born in Glasgow, McGinn is physically unspectacular at 5-foot-10 and moves awkwardly around the field in an environment where so-called ‘natural athletes’ are often the preferred choice of fans and scouts alike. “I don’t think anyone runs the way I do,” he told The Telegraph in 2021, “I don’t think anyone has a backside the size of mine.”


However, McGinn’s performances for Aston Villa and Scotland have rendered criticism of his unorthodox running style useless. Perhaps one of the reasons for McGinn’s underrated-ness is his positional versatility, with the Scot fielded in six distinct roles through December 2023.


The St. Mirren academy product started the month in central attacking midfield but later saw action on each flank and in an assortment of deeper central roles. But he is a threat in all situations and is now treated as such by opposition coaches and their armies of analysts.cArsenal visited Villa Park on Saturday, 9 December and provided a masterclass on how not to stymie McGinn, a master of the ‘third-man run’.



Leon Bailey receives the ball with his back to the touchline on the halfway line, triggering the press of Oleksandr Zinchenko, who is pulled away from his left-back position into midfield, and Kai Havertz, who follows the path of the ball.


Bailey passes the ball inside to the unmarked Boubacar Kamara, who plays a first-time ball to Youri Tielemans. The Belgian receives the ball on the half-turn, drawing pressure from behind from Zinchenko, and feeds a progressive pass into the path of Bailey.


With Arsenal’s midfield breached and their left-back pulled out of position, Declan Rice drops into central defence to form a make-shift back-four. McGinn runs untracked into the penalty area as a result, weaponizing his space and time to control Bailey’s cutback, swivel his body to face the net, and fire the ball beyond the reach of David Raya.


Aston Villa, lethal on the transition, converted halfway line possession into three points within ten seconds thanks to a combination of neat technical play (Tielemans: two-touch verticalization), teamwide tactical cohesion (Kamara: quick forward pass), and intelligent forward runs from McGinn and Ollie Watkins. McGinn’s strike versus Fulham at Villa Park on Sunday, 12 November is the clearest example of his technical proficiency.



Lucas Digne loops a pass towards the penalty area, but his delivery is cleared by Fulham defender Antonee Robinson. With the Aston Villa attack squeezed into the left two-thirds of the field, McGinn arrives at the scene first and seizes control of the loose ball unopposed. 


João Palhinha rushes forward to restrict his opponent’s space, but overcommits and lunges towards the ball. With his marker unbalanced, McGinn shifts to his left and rifles a driven shot into the bottom corner.


McGinn sets the pace for Aston Villa in and out of possession, with Unai Emery’s arrival sparking further improvement in his play. The Scotland international ranks in the top three percent for successful take-ons amongst midfielders in Europe’s top 5 leagues this season, totalling 3.76 dribbles per 90. McGinn’s pass map is similarly progressive, averaging 2.93 passes into the penalty area per 90.


Defensively, McGinn is ferocious and an important part of his side’s ball recovery plans, with 1.88 interceptions and 4.4 ball recoveries per 90. In short, the numbers match the eye test when it comes to McGinn – his quality is now undeniable.


Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Richard Heathcote / Getty Images