Harry Clarke’s surprise departure from Ross County looks to be a big blow for the Staggies – but what do the numbers reveal about the qualities they now need to replace?
The news loanee Clarke, 20, had been recalled by parent club Arsenal – ahead of an expected January move to County’s Premiership rivals Hibs – will have left the Dingwall hierarchy gutted.
Boss Malky Mackay, who brought Clarke north in the summer, said: “Although we are disappointed to be losing Harry, I would like to thank him for his contribution in the last six months and I think he has become an even more rounded player in that time.”
A recent piece on how we reckon County’s 12 summer signings have fared, written by our north sports writer Andy Skinner, went further still – labelling Clarke the most successful capture of Mackay’s summer rebuild.
The young prospect played in his natural centre-back role at the start of his spell, but was also utilised – in at-times spectacular fashion – as a marauding right-back.
He scored three goals and laid on two assists for the fourth-highest scoring side in the Premiership.
Mackay and his staff will now need to find a way to replace Clarke’s influence in the County side, given the player had already managed to rack up 1,419 league minutes to this point in the season.
But what are they looking for?
A reliable centre-back option
Clarke initially showed impressive composure and assurance when he slotted in at his natural central defensive position after making the temporary switch from the Gunners.
His first game in the backline was a challenging one, coming on at half-time against Hibs at Easter Road with the Staggies already 3-0 down.
He was part of a rearguard which prevented any further goals being lost however, and was rewarded with a first start at home to Rangers in a 4-2 loss – a game in which he scored.
He would also play at centre-half in the 1-1 draw against Aberdeen at Pittodrie, as well as the 3-0 defeat to Celtic at Parkhead.
Clarke’s defensive numbers for his 17 County matches, in a team which ranks pretty low in terms of goals conceded, were as follows:
One high-profile defensive mistake he did make came after his move to the right-back role, when he lost his man at corner for St Mirren’s second goal in 3-2 loss on October 16.
Clarke revealed attacking talents at right-back
However, Clarke’s significant value to County in the first half of the season was in what he offered going forward after moving to full-back.
An injury to Connor Randall saw him relocated to the right flank, and he immediately caught the eye with his unrelenting energy and willingness to burst forward.
These graphics show the extent of his ball-carrying abilities, and where he ranked in the County squad for this in the opening half of the campaign:
This ability to spark an attack made Clarke a key full-back asset, and, as I’ve said above, he contributed with three goals and two assists in the league, as well as laying on a host of other chances.
He clearly liked the role, saying: “I have enjoyed it at right-back. It gives me the license to get forward and do things at the other end, and show my pace as well.
“That’s obviously harder to do at centre-back.”
Clarke was moved to right-back at the start of October, scoring his second Premiership goal for the Staggies in the 3-2 home loss to Livingston on the 23rd of the month from distance.
He would then net in the spectacular 5-0 victory at Dundee – County’s first league win – with his goal an exquisite angled, outside-of-the-boot finish after a driving run up the right flank.
Watch it below (it’s quite something):
It was clear right-back suited Clarke, although he was sent off for two bookings in the 1-1 home draw with Dundee United on November 27.
His resultant suspension gave fit-again Randall a route back into the side, but ongoing issues at left-back and Randall being needed there meant Clarke could return to the right side for the 3-2 Dingwall win over Dundee on December 11.
He would play there again in the 2-1 home defeat to Celtic days later.
However, in County’s last three league matches before the winter break, Clarke played as a centre-back (with Randall outside him) twice and once at right-back, so it was unclear how Mackay was planning to use him in the second half of the campaign.
What is clear, though, is Randall – or a new signing in January – will have to perform well to replace the attacking abilities offered by Clarke from right-back.
Look at these stats, which show Clarke created eight league chances in his time with County, with this total in part achieved due to the 23 crosses he managed to send in.
Clarke is a player willing to get on the ball, and – if he doesn’t find a team-mate – he isn’t afraid to take a shot himself.
His Premiership touch graphic also demonstrates how mobile he was for County at right-back:
The next graphic shows the three goals Clarke scored in the league for County were all pretty low-rated chances, according to Opta, and therefore were high-quality finishes.
He showed shooting ability to go with the all-action, energetic displays.
All of this adds up to a defender who was in the top-10 for shots taken in the first half of the 2021/22 Premiership, with only three defenders in the division – all from club’s well above County in the table – having scored more goals.
Big shoes to fill when you look at the numbers, but how will County approach the void left by Clarke?
Can former Liverpool youngster Connor Randall provide the same mix of potent attacking threat and competent defending in the second half of the campaign? And will they be able to bring in another right-back option, given they also look to be in need of more natural cover for Jake Vokins at left-back?