Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Turning water into wine: A reappraisal

After reading Stuart Bathgate’s piece in the Scotsman this morning, I thought it appropriate to write a follow up of the article I wrote for the Terrace Scottish Football Podcast recently.
Bathgate’s views are markedly more pessimistic than my own, although he was writing in the wake of an utterly inept Hearts performance at McDiarmid Park on Sunday, whereas my own views were put forward after a five match unbeaten run in the SPL, which saw the club climb to within a point of third place Motherwell.
It is an age-old, perhaps justified, criticism of football journalists and commentators that the performances of smaller sides are often overlooked after defeating a supposedly superior side.  The same reproach may be directed towards me after what follows (especially if Angus reads this), but the focus of my opinions in what follows solely regard Hearts.
The defeat by St. Johnstone on Sunday, Paulo Sergio’s first defeat in six SPL matches, sparked an explosion of knee-jerk responses on forums and comment sections.  Whereas a week ago most disgruntled Hearts supporters were calling for a change of style, the consensus amongst this particular group now seems to be for a change in manager.
This would be drastically premature, however. 
Sergio has barely been in the job two months and is currently working with a group of players that are not his own.  I remember a time when managers were afforded at least three or four years to assemble a squad and implement their ideas, and I’m not that old!
In his first spell as Hearts manager, I recall Jim Jefferies asking for patience (years, in fact) as he sorted out the mess he inherited from the previous incumbent.  Three years later he brought the Scottish Cup back to Gorgie for the first time in forty-two years.
I am not claiming that Paulo Sergio is going to eventually be the first manager outside the Old Firm to win the Scottish Premier League title since Alex Ferguson in 1985, nor am I trying to assert that Sergio inherited a mess from Jefferies, but the facts are that the side were on a terrible run of results – relegation form, to be frank – and he has turned this around already.  Furthermore, changing something as fundamental as the playing style, in such a dramatic fashion, will, without doubt take some time.
The strategies he wishes to implement are high risk, however, when mastered can be the most devastating.
As has been well documented, the players at his disposal are not suited to the patient build up play he desires and he has, as yet, had little room for manoeuvre regarding signings.  The timing of his appointment didn’t suit his change in style, but this is no fault of his own.
He will, at least, require two transfer windows before he will have anything near the squad required.
In saying that, until then, he would do well to adopt a more pragmatic outlook, for certain encounters at least.  John Sutton remains the club’s top scorer this season with two goals, despite not being involved in the last seven fixtures.  Reservations of fielding a target man may need to be put on hold until he has the types of players able to effectively work intricate passing moves from deep positions.
The match on Sunday is a perfect case in point.  St. Johnstone set their stall out to sit deep and break with speed after regaining possession.  The intelligence of Francisco Sandaza and the pace of Cillian Sheridan were able to exploit the high defensive line of Hearts, after the away side conceded possession cheaply, and the pair linked up again in similar fashion for the second goal.
After taking the lead, the home side were then able to sit deep, squeeze the space between the lines and look on as Hearts’ play grew more and more frustrated.  Adapting to the circumstances, i.e. bringing on a target man that at least gives you the option of going direct, would surely have served Sergio better than stubbornly insisting on instructing his side to pass the ball across the backline and wait for a good passing option ahead.
A dearth of movement from middle-to-front, coupled with lack of a midfield player to drop as deep as the centre-backs, collect the ball and then spark attacks, meant that Hearts rarely enjoyed possession in the final third of the pitch.
Target men are almost designed for matches where the opposing side are intent on defending deep, when your own patient passing approach is failing and the ball won't stick in advanced areas.  Even some top sides across Europe use knocking the ball direct to a target man as an option, not just clubs in the SPL.
But even though it is apparent Sergio’s methods aren’t quite working, another change in manager at this stage of the season is not the answer, and I find it rather amusing that some supporters who are calling for the manager’s head are the same ones who berate the owner for his apparent lack of patience.  One defeat - two, if you include the cup exit to Ayr United on penalties – and the usual mob are chucking their scarfs and kicking their hats.
It is certainly time for Sergio to give some of the others in the squad an extended run in the first team, along with adopting a variance in approach - at least during matches when the current one is so obviously failing – but time for another manager it is not.

Monday, 19 September 2011

New article


I wrote an article for the excellent Terrace Scottish Football Podcast
website this morning, which can be found here.

Please check out their podcast which will be out at some point tomorrow.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Dunfermline 2 Hibernian 2

Dunfermline continued their poor defensive record at home this season but managed to come from two goals behind to salvage a point. It was a case of poor defending, as opposed to devastating attacking play, which brought about the four goals in this match.

Dunfermline made one change to the side that lost 3-2 away to Kilmarnock last week, replacing the injured Craig Easton with youth academy product Ryan Thomson. For the first time this season, Jim McIntyre chose to go with 4-1-4-1 at home – his preferred formation away from home – abandoning his usual 4-4-2.

Colin Calderwood welcomed former-Hearts assistant Billy Brown to his dugout for the first time and stuck with the 4-4-2 used in recent weeks. Callum Booth returned at left-back in place of the injured Ian Murray and Leigh Griffiths was given his first start at the expense of Junior Agogo.

The only difference in terms of shape was to move Ivan Sproule over to the left and Martin Scott to the right. With only one natural winger, this gave the Hibernian midfield a lopsided shape similar to that used by Neil Lennon’s Celtic.

The initial strategies of the sides were in stark contrast to one another. Whereas the home side looked to build from the back and work the ball through midfield, where they had a man advantage, Hibernian looked to hit the forwards quickly with long balls.

With the pace of Griffiths and Sproule up against the slow back four of Dunfermline, a better strategy would surely have been to retain possession, tempt their opponents out and then exploit the space in behind. However, when Hibernian’s play did eventually settle and they attempted to play the ball from the back themselves, they looked short of options and would eventually revert back to long, direct passes.

Hibernian’s left-hand side

Readers of this blog will be aware that Hibernian have been particularly vulnerable down their left side this season and today was no different. The Dunfermline manager obviously identified this as a potential weakness but rather than double up on the off-form Booth, his strategy was to instruct Danny Graham to drift into central areas, both with and without the ball, luring Booth out of position and using Jason Thomson on the overlap.

Even though none of the Dunfermline goals came directly from this side, they created a number of chances from this area that should have led to goals. To mention just two, Jason Thomson hit the side netting midway through the first half when he should have cut the ball back for a tap-in and Graham should have taken a shot at goal rather than cut it back, when he found himself in-behind Booth.

Again, I do not wish to single out Booth, he wasn’t helped much by Sproule - who failed to track back on a few occasions - but it was another poor performance from the young left-back.

Graham drifting into the centre of the pitch was a key feature of Dunfermline’s attacking play, which overloaded the centre of the pitch to the home side’s advantage. He weaved in and out of the Hibernian midfield consistently which should have earned him the man-of-the-match award – strangely, it was awarded to Ryan Thomson, who played well but was nowhere near the best player on the pitch.

Hibernian took the lead late-on in an even first half – both sides had their spells of possession and dominance – when Sproule finished off a quick move after a Richie Towell throw-in. The goal was very well taken but was indicative of the poor defending Dunfermline have displayed this season.

Second half

Hibernian emerged from the break in a 4-3-3 formation with Scott now in central midfield, rather than tucked in on the right side, and Griffiths moving over to the right of an attacking trident.

The switch appeared to suit the away side as they now matched Dunfermline man-for-man in the centre of the pitch and, further, it led to Garry O’Connor and Griffiths combining for the first time in the match.

The pair linked up minutes after the restart to force Paul Gallacher into a smart save and they combined once more to give Hibernian a two-goal lead after fifty-one minutes. Griffiths flicked a long punt from Graham Stack on to O’Connor and the former-Birmingham striker was afforded too much space to turn and unleash a deflected strike towards goal.

Hibernian’s two-goal advantage lasted all of fourteen seconds, however, as Graham was again allowed to drift inside, collect the ball and drive towards goal. His through ball was collected by Ryan Thomson, after Paul Hanlon lamely allowed the ball to simply bounce off him, and he knocked the ball past the advancing Stack.

Calderwood’s substitutions

After a brief feeling of comfort, the match was now Hibernian’s to throw away.

This was not helped by Calderwood’s strange choice of substitutions on the hour mark. It was not so much the players that were withdrawn but the players that were introduced and the resultant switch back to a 4-4-2 that was their downfall. O’Connor, possibly due to a knock sustained when challenged by Gallacher, and Griffiths, who is short of match-fitness, were taken off and replaced by Agogo and Akpo Sodje.

From then on Hibernian, again, found themselves a man short in the centre of the pitch and, as well as this, were now impotent in attack. Alex Keddie and Andy Dowie dealt far more comfortably with the two stocky strikers than they had with Griffiths and O’Connor.

Thus, it was no surprise when Dunfermline equalised through a Paul Hanlon own goal. Joe Cardle cut in from the left and saw his shot saved by Stack, but the ball fell to Jason Thomson in the box and his cross/miscued shot was knocked into his own net by the hapless defender.

Dunfermline continued to pile on the pressure but were unable to find a winner.


Today was a case of previous trends continuing to occur, for both sides.

The left side of Hibernian continues to be an issue, as does their manager’s apparent lack of a coherent strategy. His move to a 4-3-3 at the beginning of the second half looked to have won the game for his side but the introduction of Sodje and Agogo and subsequent move back to a 4-4-2 contributed to their capitulation.

Dunfermline have now conceded nine goals in four home matches, which goes a long way to explaining why their only victories have come away from home. Nonetheless, McIntyre deserves some credit for the way his side have applied themselves at the other end of the pitch. Two goals today takes their total goals at home to seven and, furthermore, their industrious midfield allows Cardle and Graham to join in attacks. On this form the pair will cause problems for most SPL defences they face.

However, as McIntyre himself has pointed out, he cannot expect his forwards to score four goals every encounter in order to win matches.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Given that Aberdeen are still so poor, why is there not more criticism of Craig Brown?

When Craig Brown took over as Aberdeen manager in December of last year, he inherited an almighty mess left behind by his predecessor Mark McGhee.  After some initial progress in the second half of the previous campaign, the current Aberdeen manager has now accumulated fewer points than McGhee had at the same stage last season.

This, firstly, raises the question as to why there has been significantly less criticism levelled at Craig Brown, but also why do Aberdeen remain so poor with a supposedly superior manager at the helm?

In most analyses of Aberdeen, it seems it is the players who take most of the blame.  Aberdeen's most recent opponents Hibernian sit one point below the north-east club, yet Colin Calderwood faces criticism from supporters and pundits on almost a daily basis.

After the recent draw away to Hibernian, Brown was questioned about his side’s poor start to the season.  His response was to reference the fact that two of his seven matches – which include a solitary win and two draws – have come against the Old Firm.  Granted, anything taken from these matches can be envisaged as a bonus for most sides in the SPL, however, in the other five matches Aberdeen have played far this season, they have managed a measly two goals, both of which came against fellow strugglers Inverness in their only victory of the SPL campaign so far.

Brown also pointed to “a lack of cohesion, combination-play and fluency” which, he claims, will come once they manage a few favourable results.  This seems to be putting the cart before the horse, however.  Surely attaining the cohesion, combination-play and fluency the former-Scotland manager craves is exactly what is needed to bring about these much needed results?

These are not the only bizarre comments Brown has uttered following a match this season.  In every  post-match interview so far, minus the defeat in Paisley, Brown has claimed that Aberdeen have dominated all or part of the ninety minutes, or else have deserved something from the game.

In fairness, his side were unlucky not to take anything from the match at Ibrox a few weeks ago, but to claim that his side were “totally dominant” at Tynecastle for thirty minutes, and that the scoreline was a distortion, is to embellish their performance that day.

Furthermore, his assertion that Aberdeen had done enough to take a point from their match versus Celtic at Pittodrie is, frankly, delusional.  Not only did they concede 62% possession, they allowed Neil Lennon’s side twenty-five attempts at goal (thirteen on target) to the home side’s six (three on target).

As mentioned earlier, Brown inherited a sorry state of affairs when he was appointed Aberdeen manager.  This includes the personnel available to him as well as squad morale.  What the squad possessed slightly more of then, that they sorely lack now, is width and creativity. 

The likes of Sone Aluko and Chris Maguire, the latter of which is more suited to a central role but showed similar quality when used out wide, provided a link between midfield and attack and Brown used the January transfer window to add David McNamee and Steven Smith, both of whom provided impetus from full-back.

Aluko and Maguire have since moved on whereas McNamee and Smith were not retained for the new season.  Their departures, along with the lack of replacements, have left Aberdeen sorely lacking in these departments.

Richard Foster has returned from his loan spell at Rangers and started the season as the first-choice left-back.  Against Hibernian on Sunday he was pushed up into the left of midfield and was one of the better performers in a dull encounter.

This meant that Aberdeen lined up with four central defenders across their back line – McArdle, Mawene, Arnason, Considine.  Part of Brown’s strategy here was no doubt to benefit from set-piece opportunities and in theory this should have worked, however, they failed to test the Hibernian rearguard from ten corner kick attempts.

In a few of the matches where Foster has been deployed at left-back, Brown has gone with four central midfielders in a narrow 4-4-2 formation - in the 3-0 defeat to Hearts for example - using two holding midfielders – Isaac Osbourne and Kari Arnason - and two more creative players - Robert Milsom and Fraser Fyvie – on either side.

This system failed to bring about many clear-cut chances, never mind goals, amplified by the lack of an overlap or any sort of width from the full-backs.  Rory McArdle rarely gets forward from right-back and Foster, naturally a right-sided player, always looks to cut on to his stronger foot, rendering any overlap ineffective, or at best partially effective.

Moreover, Milsom displayed against Hibernian that he is more valuable when used in the centre and able to drop deep and collect the ball from the centre backs, while Fyvie is also more naturally a central midfielder. 

In an attempt to address this issue, Fyvie has since been moved to just off Scott Vernon as a second striker, but a lot of hope seems to have been pinned on the eighteen-year-old this season, who recently recovered from a cruciate injury that sidelined him for around nine months.

The young midfielder put in an exciting performance in the season opener versus St. Johnstone but has failed to replicate this in subsequent matches.  Since being moved into a more advanced position, his role now seems to involve getting on the end of knock-downs from Vernon, rather than getting on the ball and causing opposition defenders problems.

There are several other examples of players being used out-of-position.  Striker Josh Magennis and central-midfielder Ryan Jack have been experimented with on the flanks, while the latter has also been used at right-back.  Andrew Considine, naturally a central-defender, found himself positioned at left-back in the match versus Hibernian.

Chris Clark was the latest to be used in a wide-midfield role, also versus Hibernian.  He is versatile enough to play anywhere across the midfield – he is also adept at left-back in the past – but doesn’t possess the attributes of a winger and, therefore, doesn’t seem to be the man to solve Aberdeen’s problem when used out wide.

The only natural winger in the first-team squad is Peter Pawlett but his performances haven’t quite been up to scratch and his manager seems reluctant to give him an extended run in the first team.

Craig Brown has now been in charge of the club during two transfer windows but seems to have failed in acquiring the necessary personnel to provide support for his striker(s).  Scott Vernon showed last season that he can score goals, managing a total of fifteen in all competitions, but has only netted once so far this campaign.

There is no doubting the defensive instincts of Craig Brown - evidenced by four centre-backs being deployed across the defence, instructing his side to sit deep and hit the forwards with long balls, and the narrow nature of most of his line ups - but even given the players now at his disposal, is there a solution to the problems currently facing this impotent Aberdeen squad?

Perhaps moving back to the narrow 4-4-2 used at Tynecastle wouldn’t be such a bad idea now that Clark has returned from injury.  Clark pushing on from left-back with Foster doing the same in his more natural right-back role would, in theory, provide the side with the necessary width required to allow Milsom and Fyvie to occupy central areas between the holding midfielders and strikers.

The use of two holders – say, Arnason and Osbourne – just ahead of the back four would offer adequate protection and cover for the meandering full-backs and would not leave the central defensive pair exposed.

The final benefit of such a system is that it would allow Brown to go with a strike partnership:  It is questionable whether Vernon is able to play up front on his own and the pace of Magennis or Darren Mackie, despite their terrible recent scoring records, would surely benefit the English striker.

This is, of course, all theory and the application of this would no doubt raise its own problems.  Nonetheless, Brown better find a solution quickly or else he will find attendances dwindle even further at Pittordrie and see his battling at the wrong end of the table once again.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Dundee United 0 Rangers 1

Peter Houston was missing Sean Dillon through injury and replaced him at right-back with Keith Watson.  He made two other changes from the 3-3 draw with St. Johnstone, replacing Barry Douglas and Stuart Armstrong with Scott Robertson and Danny Swanson.  They lined up 4-3-3 with a very fluid central midfield three.  Robertson moved from side-to-side across the pitch with Willo Flood and John Rankin taking turns to burst forward from midfield.

Ally McCoist was without Nikica Jelavic - the striker was injured whilst on international duty with Croatia - and Ross Perry was dropped to the bench which meant that Steven Whittaker and Juan Manuel Ortiz were restored to the starting line up, also in a 4-3-3 formation.  Steven Naismith was deployed in a deeper central midfield role than usual with Maurice Edu patrolling in front of the back four.  Edu actually had one of his better matches in a Rangers shirt, winning the ball well on several occasions and playing simple sideways passes.

The match took a while to settle in a very expansive first half.  Rangers were more attacking than they have been in recent away matches but struggled to make the ball stick in attacking areas, while Dundee United looked threatening from set-pieces and shots from just outside the box.

Dundee United’s formation from middle to front was very fluid.  The middle three have already been mentioned above and, added to this, Swanson would look to cut into the centre of the pitch as often as possible while Jonny Russell regularly moved towards the lone striker Lauri Dalla Valle to offer support.  Dalla Valle himself would look to drop deep and link play.

Russell red card

Rangers were handed a man advantage when Russell stupidly aimed a headbutt towards Kirk Broadfoot.  The ordering off saw Swanson moved over to the right and Rankin pushed out to the right in a 4-4-1 formation.

The consequence was that the Rangers midfield now had much more time on the ball and space to exploit as their Dundee United counterparts chose to now standoff, as opposed to pressurising, them.  As well as this, Steven Naismith was pushed into a more advanced position, meaning the Rangers formation now resembled more of a 4-2-3-1.

Rangers almost capitalised when Edu scooped a delightful ball over the top for Naismith to run on to.  He controlled well but failed to steer his strike on target.

Perhaps surprisingly, Dundee United finished the half the stronger of the sides, choosing to press their opponents more as the half came to a close, and should have taken the lead from another set-piece opportunity.

Second half

Peter Houston sent his side out in a 4-5-0, more precisely 4-3-2-0, at the start of the second half with the original central midfield three restored.  Dalla Valle and Swanson were fielded wide but were given free rein to drift infield and across the attacking areas.

United now matched Rangers man-for-man in the centre of midfield once more and had wide men tracking back but, counterintuitively, conceded three chances in quick succession early in the second half, more than they had in the fifteen minutes they played with only two players in central midfield.

The home side had failed to create anything resembling a chance in this time and responded with another change in formation.  A few minutes before Rangers took the lead, Houston moved Dalla Valle back into a striking role with Swanson just behind in a 4-3-1-1 formation.  Swanson now looked to drop deep and collect the ball before launching attacks.

This left United vulnerable down the flanks, especially with the Rangers full-backs pushing on and it was no surprise that the Rangers goal came from a delivery from a wide area.

Gregg Wylde had stayed on the right side of the pitch following the breakdown of a corner and received the ball from Whittaker after he surged forward from the halfway line.  The young winger cut onto his left foot and sent a wonderful inswinging cross from deep.  Kyle Lafferty got in behind Watson before powering a header past the hapless Dusan Pernis.

It was the first, and only, good delivery Wylde managed in the entire match and must have persuaded his manager to at least consider deploying him on this side.  On the left he has the pace to beat most full-backs he comes up against, however, at speed he seems to lack the composure to pick out a teammate in the box.  Further, inswinging crosses seem to carry more of a threat when fired into the danger area.

Dundee United brought on the impressive Ryan Dow for Dalla Valle and pushed further up the pitch in an attempt to salvage something from the match.  They came close late on when a low, bobbling effort from Rankin shaved the outside of the post but they left themselves exposed and, in truth, were lucky not to concede again, especially when Steven Davis saw his shot come back off both posts.


The match was pretty even until Russell inexplicably got himself ordered off.  United then finished the half stronger but as soon as the second half was underway, it was pretty clear there was only going to be one winner.

Dundee United manager Peter Houston tinkered with his formation a few times after being reduced to ten men – he experimented, firstly, with a 4-4-1 before moving to a 4-3-2-0 at the start of the second half and finally with a 4-3-1-1 – but couldn’t prevent his side from conceding numerous chances.

Rangers were far more direct and attacking than they have been in their previous away matches this season, especially after going ahead.  In the matches versus St. Johnstone and Inverness, the defending champions have resorted to a counter-attacking approach after taking the lead.  Today, perhaps due to the fact their opponents were down to ten men, they continued to attack and were unlucky not to increase their margin of victory.