The Premier League is a tough place for young British players to emerge, with the financial clout of the division meaning that first-team opportunities are hard to come by.
Swansea City centre-forward Oli McBurnie finds himself in the common predicament of being at a stage in his development where his potential isn’t refined enough to be a regular fixture in a top-flight side but is in need of a step up in challenge from the under-23 Premier League 2.
He made his first start under Paul Clement in midweek where he cut an isolated figure as the lone striker against Manchester United but glimpses of his hold up-play and ability to link-up with his supporting midfielders showed why he has been an outstanding figure in the development league in England.
20 goals in 18 games not only suggests that he is a prolific goalscorer, it is a record that should ensure that his place in the Scotland U21 squad is the only time he will be playing non-senior level football after the January transfer window.
A protracted loan move to Barnsley feel through on deadline day as his parent club delayed until the return of Wilfried Bony had been confirmed, but that jeopardised the move as the paperwork couldn’t be completed in time.
Barnsley’s recruitment over the past few seasons has been exceptional and McBurnie looked to be another that would have a similar impact in the Championship as Ashley Fletcher.
It is expected that he will finally make a temporary switch to gain first-team experience but Scotland fans are also pinning their hopes on the 21-year old being the successor to Leigh Griffiths.
McBurnie is not blessed with the level of athleticism that is ubiquitous in the upper echelons of English football or indeed international level, but he has articulated a precise set of attributes which make him more of a threat than his languid figure suggests.
At 6ft2 he has the physical presence to lead the line on his own but, while he is undoubtedly a target in the air to go direct and miss out the midfield during build-up, he is stronger at receiving the ball to feet with his back to goal.
From goal-kicks Scotland have utilised his aerial ability by allowing him to peel onto the full-back and win flick-ons but he has more success when running onto the ball than he does trying to hold off a defender and knock the ball forward.
His strongest play is when he comes towards the ball and receives from an advancing midfielder. He has developed a subtle ability to take any topspin out of a pass, killing it dead to allow him to pivot his body and play to the reverse side. It is akin to a tennis player running round his backhand side.
This aids his link-up play as his gangly limbs – enhanced by wearing his socks ridiculously low – possess a deceptively deft touch. Peter Crouch would be the obvious comparison but McBurnie is more mobile.
Swansea’s under-23s play with overlapping full-backs like most modern day sides, and the timing of their runs is something McBurnie shows a good appreciation for. Being able to read third-man runs from midfield has seen him strike up a telepathic relationship with George Byers at club level, which helps to gain territory through the central area, but he regularly shows perceptive peripheral vision to sweep the ball out wide first-time that indicates he has an innate quality in terms of assessing space.
McBurnie doesn’t have the blistering acceleration to run away from defenders, but he has an old-fashioned desire to get into the box with an aggression reserved for true poachers.
He sometimes becomes passive during controlled phases of possession but as soon as the ball goes wide in the final third he always peels off onto the far-side centre-back. There is an astute awareness of angles when he positions himself in the penalty area. So often nowadays centre-forwards don’t attack the front post but he has a variety to his movement, even if it doesn’t consist of more than one sharp change of direction.
There are no exaggerated feigns but the number of times McBurnie finds himself on the end of a cross terminating between the posts is a promising sign that he will score at most levels.
Often, if the possession has become stunted, he will check his run when the full-back has the ball or the deep midfielder and will pin the defender on the edge of the box by making good use of his body. It enables him to act as a bounce pass for midfielders to run off him.
He is tailor made for teams with a clear emphasis on crossing from high up the park. That is not to say he is incompatible with passing-based teams though as he has shown with Swansea that he is adaptable.
Beneath his bounding stride pattern belies an intelligence of movement that exploits opposition defences on the counter. He may not have the sharpness to get down the sides of teams camped in a low block or to create goals from nothing, but if a team is stretched he has made great use of running against the grain to open up the reverse through ball to great effect.
The hat-trick he scored against Chelsea earlier in the month showed the improvements he has been making. The last goal, courtesy of the aforementioned trademark run where he curves his run when breaking at the defence, saw him open up his body to curl the ball into the far-post. He also opened the Swans’ account against Celtic thanks to the exact same movement.
McBurnie should hold aspirations of playing in the top-flight but sooner or later he is going to have to decide whether he should drop down a level, whether that be the English Championship or a top-half Scottish Premiership side, in order to test himself under pressure.
The latter division would suit his characteristics but McBurnie can’t be far off breaking into the senior national team squad such is the dearth of Scottish talent at the top end of the park.
The forward’s athleticism may limit how far he progresses in the game but his natural instinct in front of goal should ensure that his form in the under-23s transfers into the senior game.