Scotland: Is Oli McBurnie lost cause or potentially invaluable?

Oli McBurnie spurned a couple of presentable opportunities against Slovakia on Sunday
Oli McBurnie spurned a couple of presentable opportunities against Slovakia on Sunday

A useful option for Scotland at the Euros, or an overhyped, overpriced striker who has commitment issues with international football?

Oli McBurnie, the £20m Sheffield United forward, ought to be a priceless commodity for his country, but has yet to deliver on his promise. He remains a perplexing figure to Scotland fans, who have been lukewarm at best to his contribution – or lack of it – so far.

McBurnie did his reputation no favours by withdrawing from Steve Clarke’s squad in August, then playing for his club two days later. And a handful of underwhelming cameos since – most recently in Slovakia on Sunday – have only hardened the opinions of those unconvinced by what he brings.

Amid all that, BBC Scotland examines whether the 24-year-old is a misunderstood talent worth persevering with.

Thrown in at deep end

Leeds born, but eligible through his grandparents, McBurnie made a low-key full Scotland debut in a 1-0 friendly defeat by Costa Rica at Hampden in March 2018.

His cap count now stands at 14, including seven starts, and he is yet to break his scoring duck. It’s an inauspicious start deserving of a deeper look.

As a raw, young striker pitched into a side struggling under Alex McLeish, three of McBurnie’s first four appearances coincided with Scotland failing to score.

McBurnie graphic

His game time totals just 702 minutes, with around a quarter of that coming in the tour defeats by World Cup-bound Peru and Mexico two years ago, and the disastrous 3-0 loss at Kazakhstan in Euro 2020 qualifying. Scotland’s paucity of threat in those matches left him isolated and frustrated up front.

And McBurnie is not alone in having to wait to make a scoring breakthrough. Steven Naismith took seven games to net for Scotland – scoring once in his first 12 – while Leigh Griffiths’ first strike came on his 13th appearance.

Sharp for the Blades

McBurnie’s record at domestic level – up until this term, at least – belies his faltering international start. His 24 goals for Championship side Swansea in 2018-19 convinced Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder to break the club’s transfer record for him.

The fee may have seemed steep, but his trajectory didn’t take a downturn. He was an effective part of a side that defied expectations by finishing ninth in their first top-flight campaign in 12 years.

Six goals from 36 league appearances made McBurnie the club’s joint top scorer and his 50 shots, and 111 touches in the opposition box, were both more than any team-mate.

Player Expected goals Expected assists Combined
Oli McBurnie 7.72 1.85 9.57
David McGoldrick 7.99 1.28 9.27
John Lundstram 5.28 2.22 7.50
Lys Mousset 5.53 1.22 6.75
John Fleck 3.13 3.35 6.48

In fact, the stats paint the picture of a well-rounded skill-set. Opta’s data for combined quality of scoring chances and opportunities created show he was the Yorkshire club’s biggest goal threat.

There’s more to his game than finishing, though. McBurnie won possession 16 times in the final third, a figure only bettered at Sheffield United by midfielder John Lundstram’s 17.

And McBurnie put his 6ft 2in frame to good use too. His 200 aerial duels won was the second highest tally of any Premier League striker, with West Ham’s Sebastien Haller leading the way on 218.

Granted, he is yet to score in eight Premier League appearances this season, but that is as part of a side struggling badly to replicate their form of last term.

Fan antipathy, but manager faith

Why has McBurnie not been taken to the hearts of the Tartan Army? The absence of goals hasn’t helped, nor has an unfortunate incidentexternal-link when Sheffield United TV footage led to claims he was not keen on international duty.

Wilder batted those accusations away – saying his player is “proud” to play for Scotland.

Yet his August withdrawal was not a one-off. Last October, McBurnie pulled of matches against Russia and San Marino, while playing for his club either side of that double-header.

Pertinently, though, he still has the support of Clarke. After he rammed in an emphatic penalty in the seismic shootout win over Serbia, the striker was given the full 90 minutes against Slovakia and pleased the head coach with his performance.

“Oli left everything on the pitch against two tough centre-backs,” Clarke said. “The lad Milan Skriniar plays at Inter Milan and gets a lot of good press but Oli gave him a hard time.

“His qualities are holding the ball up and bringing other people into the game, and you saw that. He had one good chance where he couldn’t get the ball off quick enough, but I’m pleased with him.”

Before the emergence of Lyndon Dykes, McBurnie was the leading candidate to fill the lone striker role. But that chance is now gone and the doubts over his reliability have heightened.

Dykes is available again for Wednesday’s game in Israel and will surely start, so where does that leave McBurnie?

‘With the right service, he’s unplayable’

Former Scotland striker Chris Iwelumo

I think he’s quality. He ticks all boxes as a striker – mobility, presence, link-up play. He puts his head where it hurts and is an absolute pain for defenders.

With the right service, he can be unplayable. He gets a bit of stick, but doesn’t shy away from it. Once he gets his first Scotland goal and that weight is off his shoulders, he can kick on.

He has pulled out a couple of squads but the public never really know what players are carrying – I once joined the Scotland squad with a hamstring injury that I’d just suffered and I couldn’t walk. It’s not prioritising club over country, it’s just doing what’s right for your body.

BBC News