Whatever happened to Ryan Gauld?

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RYAN Gauld’s arrival at Easter Road is the latest chapter in the midfielder’s career that has so far failed to live up to the potential he displayed when he first broke into the Dundee United team back in 2013. The diminutive playmaker looked to be one of the brightest prospects in Scottish football when he burst on the scene and fans and pundits across the country were rightly excited about what the future held for the precocious talent.

A multi-million pound move to Sporting Lisbon followed the midfielder’s impressive stint at Tannadice but it’s fair to say that his career hasn’t quite progressed as well as many had hoped it would. It was undoubtedly a brave decision for the then 18-year-old to take, to move to a foreign country and test himself in a higher standard of competition.

Gauld is yet to make much of an impact at Sporting and has only racked up five first team appearances in his five years in Portugal so far. The 23-year-old has been given a lot of gametime for the reserves, who play in Portugal’s second tier, and has had a few loan spells but has generally struggled to make a significant impression since he left Dundee United back in the summer of 2014.

First off, we should point out just how exciting Gauld was when he first made his mark in Scottish football. Comparisons with Lionel Messi were clearly unhelpful, but one could see why these were made; his quick feet, dribbling ability and eye for a pass meant that he was regularly changing games for Dundee United despite his tender years. Here’s a video of some of Gauld’s best moments from the 2013/14 season, when he was regularly starring for the Tannadice club.

In 39 appearances that season, Gauld scored eight goals and set up another 11 from midfield: a wonderful return for a player so young. His ability to shimmy the ball and speed away from an opponent before threading a pass through to a team-mate was truly remarkable and it was no surprise when a team of Sporting’s calibre came calling.

On paper, the move made perfect sense. The Portuguese side have a fantastic history of developing young players – particularly attacking midfielders – and have one of the best youth coaching setups in Europe. Moving to a new country and learning the language was an obvious difficulty, but not an insurmountable one.

From there, however, Gauld struggled to find opportunities in Portugal’s top flight, the Liga NOS. The 23-year-old spent two seasons playing regularly for Sporting’s reserves in the second division but failed to replicate the form that got him his move to Lisbon in the first place. Obviously, adapting to a new league has its difficulties but in 64 appearances over two seasons, Gauld scored eight goals and only provided three assists in that time.

Gauld was loaned out to Liga NOS side Vitoria Setabul for the first half of the 2016/17 campaign but rarely featured for the side, playing a total of 657 minutes and only started in four league games for them. He returned to Sporting’s reserves for the second half of the season but again, didn’t make much of an impact. Gauld started nine games in Portugal’s second division and failed to register a single goal or assist during that time.

The 2017/18 season brought another loan for the attacking midfielder, this time for Desportivo Aves in the top flight. Once again, Gauld failed to nail down a spot in Desportivo’s starting lineup but it should be noted that in the few games where he started, he was effective. Of the five games where he started – three in the league and two in the Portuguese Cup – Gauld scored on three occasions. When he came off the bench, as was often the case, he failed to make much of an impact.

At the beginning of this season, Gauld joined SC Farense on a six-month loan and after a slow start, began to showcase his value to the second-tier side. And now, as we all know, the 23-year-old has joined Hibernian in a bid to recapture the form that made him one of Scottish football’s most in-demand properties.

Despite not always featuring regularly in Portugul, Gauld is still developing and the above graphic demonstrates his progression over the last few seasons. Interestingly, the 23-year-old seems to be a more effective dribbler when he attempts fewer runs per game; this season, where he has attempted far more dribbles on average, has also seen a 16% drop-off in his success rate.

It’s a similar story when we examine Gauld’s passing ability over the last four seasons. Generally, more of the playmaker’s passes find their man when he attempts fewer passes over the course of a match. There appears to have been a focus from his coaches on prioritising the quality, and not the quantity, of Gauld’s passes.

Gauld has significantly improved his ability to fashion opportunities for his team-mates over the last few seasons and the number of key passes that Gauld plays on average has more than doubled in that time. There’s been a slight drop-off this season (1.9) compared to last (2.2), but the diminutive midfielder has more than doubled his rate since the 2015/16 season.

One area that should concern Hibernian fans, however, is Gauld’s shooting ability. While at Dundee United he proved to be fairly dangerous in front of goal, both the number of shots he attempts and their accuracy has declined significantly over the past four seasons. In 2015/16 41% of the 23-year-old’s shots were on target; that figure has steadily decreased year-on-year and Gauld now hits the target just 19% of the time.

What these stats tell us is that Gauld has evolved into a more traditional playmaker, preferring to set up goalscoring opportunities for his team-mates than having a go himself. He continues to be an adept dribbler of the ball and one can imagine he should have some joy when driving at Premiership defences for the rest of this season. With Martin Boyle ruled out until next season through injury, Hibernian desperately require a creative player who is capable of carrying the ball forward and in Gauld they may have found exactly that.

Time will tell if Gauld will be able to recapture the form that excited the entire nation five years ago but there is every indication that he returns to Scotland as a more refined footballer. He may not have had quite as many minutes in the Liga NOS as he would have hoped for, but should still have plenty to offer Hibernian during the league run-in. At 23 years old, Gauld still has plenty of time to develop into the player we all know he can be and now is the time for the midfielder to start showing why he was so highly-rated at such a young age.