Monday, 30 May 2011

Republic of Ireland 1 Scotland 0

Scotland made four changes from the victory over Wales on Wednesday.  James Morrison and Gary Caldwell missed out through injury while Ross McCormack and Stephen Crainey were dropped to the bench.  In came Barry Robson, Phil Bardsley, James Forrest and Grant Hanley.  This meant a slight change in shape.  Steven Naismith moved into a more central position just in behind Kenny Miller, which meant that Robson and Forrest took up wide roles.  The result was a 4-2-3-1 shape, a slight modification from the 4-1-4-1 that Craig Levein has favoured recently.

Giovanni Trapattoni also made four changes to his starting line up.  In came Darren O’Dea, Liam Lawrence, Keith Fahey and Stephen Hunt for Damien Delaney, Keith Tracey, Seamus Coleman and Kevin Foley.  Their shape was largely 4-4-2 although Hunt tended to play a tucked in role to help out in the centre of midfield and Simon Cox would drop off to link play, leaving Robbie Keane to play on the shoulder of the last defender.

The first ten minutes were dominated by the hosts, who either looked to hit balls towards Cox, who would drop deep to link play, or in behind the defence and use the pace of Keane.  The problem was that Scotland kept a deep defensive line, denying space for Keane to exploit.

After that Scotland began to dominate possession and put together some decent passages of play without creating many clear-cut chances.  Their best attempt at goal came from a goal-bound, long range effort from Bardsley that was tipped onto the bar by Shay Given.

Despite Scotland’s dominance it was Ireland who took the lead through Robbie Keane.  Paul McShane intercepted a Scott Brown pass and drove forward, feeding Keane around the halfway line.  Keane was allowed to run from the centre circle to the edge of the box unopposed as Hanley’s inexperience showed.  Keane’s strike was poorly dealt with by Allan McGregor who really should have saved.  It was a well taken goal from the Irish captain although, from a Scotland perspective, the fault lies with at least three players.

Up to that point Charlie Adam had been the deeper of Scotland’s two holding midfielders, although whenever the Blackpool talisman broke forward Brown would provide cover.  After the goal, Adam became the more advanced of the two with Brown more focused on defensive duties.  A similar switch was made in the match versus Wales when Scotland found themselves a goal down going in at half-time.

Scotland continued to enjoy more of the ball but still struggled to create.  There were two things that stood out compared to their two victories earlier in the tournament.  Firstly, Adam and Brown had pretty poor games overall.  The pair misplaced far too many passes and they, along with Naismith just ahead of them, should really have done better against the central midfield two of Ireland.

The second factor regards the nature of the wingers.  Against both Northern Ireland and Wales, Naismith began on the right with Kris Commons on the left in former of the two matches, McCormack in the latter.  In both those matches, even though their starting positions were wide they would often break forward when their side had possession to form a front three with Miller.  This allowed the full-backs the space to overlap, something they failed to do at all in the first half last night and very seldom in the second.

Relatedly, Naismith is much more effective when starting on the right drifting inside than when playing just off the striker.  This is something Rangers manager Walter Smith identified and rectified at half time in the League Cup final in March.  The problem last night was that Naismith’s movement was much easier to track: When he stayed deep he was picked up by either Fahey or Keith Andrews and when he positioned himself more advanced he was marked by one of the central defenders.

Second half

The second half began similar to the second half with Ireland exerting more pressure on the Scotland defence.  This time their dominance was a bit more sustained but after twenty minutes or so it became clear that they were happy to gamble on protecting their lead.

This meant that Scotland began to enjoy more of the ball once again.  This time they managed to create a number of chances but unfortunately were not clinical enough in front of goal.  As the match entered the dying stages, Scotland’s play became more hurried and they displayed a distinct lack of composure in front of goal.  Both Naismith and Miller passed up excellent opportunities to level the scores.

Both sides made three substitutions each but the only one of the six that really made a difference was when a struggling Darren O’Dea was replaced with Kevin Foley, which meant that McShane moved into the centre alongside man-of-the-match Stephen Kelly.


After the match Levein insisted that his side deserved to win the match.  It is certainly true that Scotland enjoyed more of the ball, passed the ball about better and created more chances, however, most of their opportunities were rushed and in the final twenty minutes and they were not clinical enough in front of goal.

Other than poor finishing, Scotland’s downfall was down to the set-up of their midfield five.  Robson and Forrest were deployed as inverted wingers although Robson only managed to cut inside and whip in an inswinger on two occasions, both in the first half, and Forrest stayed out wide and didn’t see much of the ball at all.  The knock on effect was that Scotland’s full-backs rarely got forward.  Furthermore, Naismith was marked out of the match and not nearly as effective as when positioned on the right.

Looking at the tournament as a whole, and the progress of the Scotland squad overall, things are looking promising for Levein.  His side now look far more capable of attacking than they have in recent years and still have some key players missing, most notably Darren Fletcher, Steven Fletcher and Alan Hutton.  The main worry is that Levein will now have to wait until September, after the domestic campaigns are underway, to get his squad together for a competitive match.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Celtic v Motherwell - Scottish Cup Final Preview

Celtic will be without Joe Ledley and Beram Kayal but Kris Commons returns from suspension and will almost certainly start after netting nine times in his previous nine appearances.  Motherwell have a full squad to choose from, meaning the only selection worries Stuart McCall has is who to leave out of his starting eleven.


With the absence of Ledley and Kayal in the last few games, Neil Lennon has moved Scott Brown into the centre of midfield alongside Ki Sung-Yeung.  In order to add more industry to the midfield, Charlie Mulgrew has been moved from his makeshift central defensive position to a makeshift midfield role.  Mulgrew has been deployed on the left-side of midfield but in a more tucked in role, like that of Brown for much of the season only on the opposite side.  The knock-on effect has been to move Kris Commons over to the right, meaning that we are now seeing a mirror of the lopsided 4-4-2 that Lennon has preferred for much of the season.

With Mulgrew being moved into midfield, Glenn Loovens has found himself restored to the starting line-up recently.  The Dutchman will take his place in an otherwise familiar back four.  The only other decision for Lennon is who to select in attack.  Gary Hooper is a certain starter but he then has to choose between Anthony Stokes and Georgios Samaras to partner him. 

Samaras broke his duct of only being selected for Old Firm matches when he was selected to play against Motherwell at the weekend and managed to get on the scoresheet.  Hooper and Stokes have a great understanding and their link up has been excellent at times this season, although Stokes seems to have been overlooked when the bigger matches arise, including Celtic’s previous cup final appearance this season.


With the cup final in mind, Stuart McCall has chopped and changed, rested and experimented in recent weeks so his last few line-ups and formations will have no bearing on his selection for Saturday.

The Motherwell manager has a full squad to choose from and has let it be known this week that he has decided upon his starting eleven with the exception of one position.  This could possibly be related to what formation he is deciding to go with.  When he first took charge, McCall experimented with a number of formations but settled upon a 4-4-2 (which became a 4-2-3-1 in possession) when Motherwell hit their best run of form since he took charge.

Despite this, Motherwell’s 2-0 victory over Celtic in February saw McCall line up his side in a 4-5-1 formation, matching Celtic man-for-man in the middle of the park.  The formation also included two pacey wingers that were positioned high up the pitch, pressing against Celtic’s full-back, thus, nullifying the threat they posed.

For that reason, as well as the probability that McCall will want to keep it tight early on, I think that Francis Jeffers, who usually partners John Sutton in attack, will have to make do with a place on the bench to make way for an extra central midfielder.  This means that the main selection worry that McCall was alluding to was more likely whether to go with Steve Jones or Chris Humphrey on the right wing but more on this below.

Key Battles

Whether or not Motherwell start the match with a central midfield two or a central midfield three, this area will be one of the key areas of the field.  Celtic’s formation is such that they, in effect, have three central midfielders, meaning that Motherwell will find themselves overrun should they go with 4-4-2.  So assuming Motherwell start 4-5-1 then Hateley-Jennings-Lasley up against Brown-Ki-Mulgrew will be an intriguing contest.

Even if matched man-for-man in the centre of midfield, Celtic’s ace in the hole could be Kris Commons.  The Scotland international’s starting position is that of a winger although he likes to drift inside and occupy the space between the lines, no matter which side he starts on.  With the central midfield three of each side lining up man-form-man against each other, Commons may just be the man to find space and punish Motherwell.

The above means that Celtic’s midfield tends to be narrow but, as has been a feature of their play and a successful tactic for much of the season, they like to get their full-backs forward to provide width.  Mark Wilson and Emilio Izaguirre have both been dangerous when getting forward though, as mentioned earlier, the presence of two Motherwell wingers high up the pitch may cause them to think twice before their forays into the opposition half, therefore, making them less of a threat.

Which takes us back to McCall’s main selection problem: Jones or Humphrey?  Jones is tricky and has more of an end product, whereas Humphrey is, for the most part, pure pace.  Jones likes to cut inside when on the right wing, whereas for Humphrey it’s all about hugging the touchline, getting outside the full-back and hitting the byline.

All things considered, Humphrey may just be the better choice.  Izaguirre has shown a little bit of fragility to the defensive side of his game – most notably in the post-split fixtures versus Inverness and Motherwell – and Humphrey may not only cause the Honduran to stay back more often, he may possess the attributes to punish him more effectively.  The other option is to keep Humphrey for later on in the match and use him as an impact substitution when everyone else is tiring as the pace he possesses could be deadly at that point.  The trouble with this is that it gambles that the match will still be alive come the latter stages.

Whichever player McCall decides upon, it will be interesting to see whether he, along with Jamie Murphy on the other wing, can not only prevent the Celtic full-backs from moving up the pitch and get involved in attacks, but also punish them if they do decide to get forward.

Monday, 16 May 2011

SPL Team of the Season

An SPL campaign in which the actual football rarely hogged the headlines saw a departing Walter Smith lead his threadbare Rangers side to the title.  The eleven players below are predictably dominated by Old Firm players who once again were streets ahead of their rivals.  You may wonder, given the eventual champions, why there are five representatives from Celtic and only three from Rangers.  The answer is that Celtic played the better football throughout the course of the season.  Rangers ground out results a bit more, apart from towards the end of the season when they pretty much blew everyone away, and their play was overall more reactive than Celtic’s, although not exclusively so.

Before proceeding I should mention a few players that were unlucky to miss out.  There were two positions that were extremely difficult to decide upon – goalkeeper and striker.  Allan McGregor could just as easily been selected instead of Marian Kello.  His penalty save in the final Old Firm match of the season was a major factor in Rangers winning the title and he also saved his side on a number of other occasions.  Despite this, I have opted for Kello for the reasons given below.  The other player that was very difficult to leave out was Gary Hooper.  Nineteen league goals in twenty-five league matches is a fantastic return for his first season in the SPL, however, I feel that Nikica Jelavic’s overall contribution trumps that of Hooper, more on this below.

Some may also be disappointed not to see any Dundee United players represented.  They had a tremendous second half to the season after the return of Craig Conway and Danny Swanson from injury.  Although highly influential, these two did not quite perform consistently enough to warrant a place and the other candidates – David Goodwillie and the central midfield three – are worth a mention but unfortunately cannot be included at the expense of any of those selected.

Marian Kello, Heart of Midlothian

To keep Allan McGregor out of the side you must have had a tremendous season and that has certainly been the case for Marian Kello.  The Slovakian goalkeeper has faced up to three penalty saves this season and saved them all, including one in the 93rd minute of a match that ensured a 2-1 victory over Dundee United – an absolutely vital three points for Hearts in the end given th eventual difference in points between the two sides.

His stand-out performances include the 0-0 draw at Pittodrie as well as the 1-0 victory at home to Rangers, a match which saw him awarded the Clydesdale Bank SPL save of the season award for one of his many stops that day.

Mark Wilson and Emilio Izaguirre, Celtic

Emilio Izaguirre was awarded both the SPL and the PFA player of the year awards this season and it is a given that the Honduran World Cup star finds his place in the best XI of the season.  His attacking prowess from left-back has seen him take up the position of a winger for large parts of matches and his delivery into the box is always dangerous.  He has been exposed defensively on a few occasions, including in the defeat that cost Celtic the title, however this should not detract from the high level of performance he has given throughout the season.

On the opposite side, Mark Wilson has finally managed a season of being relatively injury free and shown himself to be one of his side’s top performers.  There was a period in the season when he would also get forward at every opportunity but has become more and more reserved in his positioning as the season has drawn to a close.  Wilson is defensively solid, filled in at central defence for a short spell this season and has found himself a member of the most recent Scotland squads.

Marius Zaliukas, Heart of Midlothian

When his manager has been allowed to select him, Zaliukas has been vital to the defensive solidity Hearts have shown at times this season.  The Lithuanian international is prone to the odd horrific mistake but this aside he is one of the top central defenders in the country.

Zaliukas was frozen out at the start of the season due to a breakdown in contract negotiations and during that time Hearts struggled to keep clean sheets and, therefore, pick up points.  Hearts managed only one clean sheet in their opening seven matches without Zaliukas and it is no coincidence that they began a run of twelve wins in fourteen SPL matches, including eight clean sheets in nine matches, upon his return.

Charlie Mulgrew, Celtic

Bought under the pretence he could solve Celtic’s left-back problem, Mulgrew struggled in his early days at Parkhead and found himself out of favour before long, especially after the arrival of Izaguirre.  After multiple injuries in the centre of defence, Mulgrew found himself deployed as a makeshift centre-half and has since made the position his own.  The return of Majstorovic and other central defenders - Thomas Rogne and Glenn Loovens - from injury failed to oust Mulgrew and he must now be considered as a potential international in this position given the lack of quality Craig Levein has available there.

Finding himself at the heart of the defence with the best record in the SPL is an excellent achievement for Mulgrew and it will be interesting to see whether he remains in this position next season or whether Neil Lennon decides to strengthen and keep Mulgrew as back up.

Steven Davis, Rangers

Steven Davis may not have made the best start to the current SPL campaign but the Northern Ireland international has improved as the season has progressed and is another one of the reasons why Rangers finished as champions.  Davis, more often than not, formed a central midfield pairing with Maurice Edu who has a tendency to underperform and go hiding in matches.  Despite this, Davis has controlled and dictated the midfield area, be it coming deep to collect the ball from his defence, his tremendous range of passing, or through his driving runs from deep positions.  His dominance in matches is even more impressive when considered that he and Edu often faced up to a central midfield three yet did not find themselves overrun.

Beram Kayal, Celtic

Beram Kayal was almost everyone’s choice as the man unlucky to miss out on a player of the year nomination.  Some even touted him as the actual player of the year.  Bought for a modest sum of £1m, the Israeli, along with Izaguirre, shows just how effective the Celtic scouting system has been over the past year.

Kayal is the full package.  He takes up the position of a deep-lying or holding midfielder, he is tenacious in the tackle, presses his opponents hard and can also dictate play.  He usually keeps it simple, playing sideways passes but can also hit a killer pass when the opportunity arises.

Alexei Eremenko, Kilmarnock

The signing of the season.  Mixu Paatelainen took over a side that avoided relegation on the final day of last season and immediately used his contacts to seek out some reinforcements.  His fellow countryman Alexei Eremenko was signed on loan from Ukrainian side Metalist Kharkiv and deployed in the ‘number 10’ role, a position few in Scotland posses the attributes to play effectively.

Even though he didn’t score many goals during the course of the season, it was his link up play and the assists he provided where he was most valuable.  Flicks, tricks and always at the heart of Kilmarnock’s good passing moves, he has been a joy to watch and it is a shame that he won’t be around for us to enjoy again next season.

Steven Naismith, Rangers

I have to say that out of all the nominees for the PFA player of the year I found the inclusion of Steven Naismith the most surprising.  Up to that point he had had a great season, however, it seemed that at no point up until then had he even been the best player in the Rangers side.

Since then it is like he has been out to prove all his doubters, or maybe just me, wrong.  Another player who struggled with injury for spells during the season, his return saw him fielded in a few different roles until Walter Smith settled him into a right-midfield/right-wing role.  During matches, Naismith likes to drift inside, playing just behind the striker(s), allowing right-back Steven Whittaker space to overlap and providing Rangers with an extra man in central areas.

Naismith has scored ten goals this season, the most notable of which was this spectacular effort in the recent hammering of Motherwell.

Kris Commons, Celtic

Even though Kris Commons only signed for Celtic in January, it is difficult to look past him for a place in the team of the season.  The English-born Scotland international almost signed for Rangers and up until a few weeks ago, looked as though he might be the difference between which side won the league.
Commons opened up his scoring account for Celtic minutes into his debut and has managed eleven league goals, fourteen in all competitions since, some stunning goals at that (check this one out too).  He has scored nine goals in his last nine matches.  All very impressive for a winger.

Deployed as a wide player, at least in terms of his starting position, like Naismith, Commons has a tendency to drift inside and allow the full-back, in this case Izaguirre, to overlap.  He is usually deployed on the left of Lennon’s lopsided midfield four, which, along with its many variations, has probably been the most interesting tactical feature of the season.

Nikica Jelavic, Rangers

As mentioned in the intro, this was a very difficult position to decide.  It could just as easily have been given to Gary Hooper and that is not even to mention the likes of David Goodwillie of Dundee United and Conor Sammon, formerly of Kilmarnock.

But Nikica Jelavic it is.  The Croatian international has shown himself to be a more complete player than Hooper, evidenced in his ability to play either up front on his own or else as part of a front two - towards the end of the season he has formed a devastating partnership with Kyle Lafferty.  His ability to come deep and link play is better than any other in the league and his goalscoring ability, with his feet and in the air, is again unmatched in the SPL.  He was awarded goal of the season for his expertly taken overhead kick against Aberdeen.  What made this goal even better is that it came in a 1-0 victory and not when his side were already cruising to victory.

Jelavic suffered from a bad injury towards the start of the season and has grown stronger and stronger as the season has progressed.  We can only wonder what his goal and assist tally would be had he been fully fit for the entire season.

SPL Young Team of the Season

Here's my (undescribed) SPL young team of the season also.  Honourble mentions go to Johnny Russell of Dundee United and Gregg Wylde of Rangers who both narrowly missed out.