Saturday, 27 December 2014

Rangers' Problems Amplified After McCoist Departure

With the events of the last week, within which Ally McCoist was placed on gardening leave, it is Kenny McDowall who is now tasked with guiding this Rangers side through the remainder of a turbulent season.

If the Rangers supporters thought that an uninspiring appointment, albeit temporary, they would be just as underwhelmed when they saw the caretaker boss’s first team selection. McDowall was given the opportunity to put his own stamp on the current side. He could have changed the shape and introduced some players that found appearances difficult to come by under McCoist. Instead he picked exactly the same personnel in exactly the same archaic formation as has become the norm at Rangers this season.

Nicky Clark partnered Kenny Miller in the attack of a 4-4-2, which saw the centre of their midfield drowned by the 4-3-1-2 of Hibernian. With Dominique Malonga and Jason Cummings taking turns to drop deep, this meant even more of a mismatch in the centre of midfield and the problem was highlighted early in the match when both Nicky Law and Ian Black were caught out up the pitch as Hibs countered.

The shape of the Hibernian midfield and the advanced nature of their full-backs meant that they contained sufficient width when attacking – evidenced by the performances of David Gray and Lewis Stevenson – and enough cover when defending.

Much of the positivity on the progression of Stubbs’s side has been focused on the performances of Scott Allan and today was no different. Due to Hibs' numerical advantage, he was free to dictate play for most of the match and was involved in all four goals. For the opener, Allan burst forward off the ball and dragged Stevie Smith into the centre to pick him up. This created space for David Gray to collect the ball and fire Hibs ahead after 8 minutes.

For the second goal, Smith was in position when Allan collected the ball but failed to get close enough to stop the cross. Allan’s ball found Craig, who volleyed back for Cummings to tap into an open goal. Allan then capped off a majestic performance with two clever assists in the second half to give Hibernian a 4-0 victory.

It should not be surprising to see Hibs dominate this match as Alan Stubbs has won the tactical battle in many of the big matches this season. He was dominating McCoist – changing his formation at the correct time – before Danny Handling was sent off  in the Petrofac Training Cup at the start of the season and, much like this match, he blitzed Rangers in the first half of the previous league meeting between the sides.

Furthermore, he more than matched Hearts for large parts of the opening Edinburgh Derby of the season and, but for an injury-time wonder strike, was seconds away from victory in the second at Easter Road.

Rangers, by contrast, have been found wanting in most of the big matches in the Championship this season. Even in the matches they have edged the initial tactical battle – the recent performance at Tynecastle, for instance – they have still gone on to lose the match. In four Championship matches versus Hearts and Hibs this season, Rangers have lost all four.

And there is nothing in the pre- or post-match interviews of McDowall, nor from the performance of the team, to suggest that he is the man to inject some modernity into the Rangers tactics. It is rather telling by his comments after the match, in which he revealed that he is being “told to carry on”, that he is either unwilling or unable to take charge of this Rangers side.

McCoist liked his team to knock the ball into the channels and work it down the wings, always looking for the overlap from the full-backs and that is exactly what we got from McDowall in this match. If further confirmation was needed that working the ball wide and crossing the ball as often as possible hasn't worked, you only have to look at the full-time statistics: Rangers had 7 attempts with 1 on target - Hibernian had the same amount of efforts but hit the target 5 times - and had 8 corners to Hibernian’s 0.

One of the reasons most of the Rangers play was focused down the wings was to avoid the congested central areas in which they were outnumbered. It appeared that McDowall had identified this when Kyle Hutton was stripped and ready to come on after 34 minutes. Unfortunately for Rangers, he hadn't and Hutton was nothing more than a like-for-like replacement for Ian Black before the former Hearts man collected a second yellow card. The change may have improved the Rangers performance for a short period, but the same issues remained.

Even the half-time substitution made little sense. Kris Boyd was introduced for Fraser Aird but instead of changing the shape of the side, Clark was moved to the right of midfield in the same formation that Rangers have played for about 37 years now.

It is perplexing that a qualified football coach, despite his lack of experience as a football manager, failed to notice or rectify the major tactical issue his side faced in the match. Rangers had two strikers on the pitch for the whole of the match, yet their manager failed to notice that having two strikers is useless if you cannot win the ball when out of possession or else supply them when in possession.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Ian Baraclough Making the Right Noises

I already like the sound of Ian Baraclough. While he dropped a few clichés, stock answers and blind optimism into his first interview as Motherwell manager, Baraclough spoke well about his preferred style of football, his thirst for developing youth, his previous successes and his desire to see that optimism spread throughout the club.

The former Sligo Rovers manager was unveiled around the same time the club announced some encouraging developments regarding the financial future of the club. A debt-free Motherwell on a sound financial footing and owned by the supporters – or, at least, on the road to community ownership – gives Baraclough every opportunity for his ambitions to be realised.

Sitting in the stands on Saturday, the new manager was treated to a match that perfectly displayed the strengths and weaknesses of the current playing side.

With the hosts trailing 1-0 following a poor first half, Lionel Ainsworth came off the bench to make an impact for the second week in-a-row, setting up John Sutton to score from close range, before his strike partner Henrik Ojamaa outpaced and cleverly ran across Ross County defender Steven Saunders before drilling the ball low into the net.

These goals turned the game on its head, however, it was another common aspect of the Fir Park side’s season that will be of concern to the new manager. With Motherwell defending in numbers late in the game, Tony Dingwall appeared unmarked in the box to slam the ball past Dan Twardzik for the equaliser. While there was no one slip or poor clearance that led to the goal, no fewer than eight Motherwell defenders are in the box at the time and not one of them gets within around ten yards of Dingwall.

Baraclough’s introduction to management was a short and unsuccessful spell at Scunthorpe United, initially taking over as caretaker but he was given the job full-time after some impressive results. Less than five months later he was relieved of his duties with the club in the relegation zone.

Around a year later he was appointed manager of Sligo Rovers where he admitted how tough it would be to further the progress of his predecessor Paul Cook. During his first interview as Motherwell manager – which you can see in full here - Baraclough made similar comments about following Stuart McCall.

“I am delighted and find myself in a privileged position. I’ve done some research into the history of the club and I know how well the football club has done, certainly over recent years,” he said. “It will be a hard task to take over from Stuart but one I’m very excited to take up.”

Despite the perceived enormity of the task, Baraclough went on to secure the League of Ireland Premier Division for Sligo, their first for 35 years, before leading the side to victory the FAI Cup and to their first ever triumph in the Setanta Sport Cup – a cross-border competition contested by clubs from both nations on the island.

While nobody in Scottish football will believe the 41-year-old’s claim that he can repeat that success at Motherwell, you have to at least admire the positivity coming from the man and  his comments make more sense given his more recent explanation.

Believing you are inferior to the competition is no way to prepare yourself, be it for a one-off match, a cup run or for an entire domestic season. His priority for now, though, is to improve the current players, add some of his own in January and steer the club clear of the relegation and play-off places.

Baraclough built a reputation for being shrewd in the transfer market at Sligo after losing his top players to financially superior opposition while working on a tight budget, something he must also become accustomed to at Motherwell. He claims his range of contacts within the game are “vast” and will need to exercise these effectively if he is to implement his preferred style of play successfully.

“I want players to be comfortable with the ball,” he told MFC TV. “I don’t want us to give up possession easily. I think the more possession you have of the football, the more chance you have of winning games.”

As well as his willingness to dominate possession, the new Motherwell manager is known for being tactically flexible, tailoring his strategy to nullify the strengths of and exploit the weaknesses of the opposition, which is something smaller clubs often require from their manager.

His preferred formation at Sligo was 4-4-2 in a league dominated by 4-2-3-1, a formation also popular in the Scottish Premiership at the moment . It should also be noted that McCall used the 4-4-2 effectively during his time at Motherwell. Though often dubbed ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘dead’, the 4-4-2 is alive and well and not just in the sense of two banks of four with a strike partnership. In fact, the 4-4-2 – as with any other formation - has many variations depending on who is positioned where and continues to be used throughout football, even if less so at the very top level of the game.

Whatever the formation and style of play, Baraclough will be required to strengthen the current Motherwell squad if he is to be nearly as successful as he is aiming to be. Defence must be a priority. They've lost 27 goals in 16 league matches this season. And it is not only the amount of goals, but the way in which they have conceded them, which has been the main issue for Motherwell.

Mark O’Brien, on loan from Derby County, is young and needs someone to guide him through matches. Stephen McManus, who is older and is club-captain, is expected to take on this role yet plays like someone who himself needs talked through games.

Cover, if not strengthening, at full-back is also required. Craig Reid and Steven Hammell are both currently injured and attempts to have Fraser Kerr and Zaine Francis-Angol deputise have been unsuccessful.

Further forward Motherwell possess some good attacking talent but may need to strengthen in the centre of the park if they are to play the possession game that Baraclough professes. Paul Lawson has failed to hit the heights expected of him and Keith Lasley is grinding slowly towards the end of his career.

Finally, if the new boss cannot turn John Sutton back into the twenty-goal striker he was last season, then the striking options will also need strengthening. Lee Erwin is raw and has shown much potential, but it would perhaps be too much to ask him to become the focal point of the attack of a struggling side.

In the short-term, the new Motherwell manager must improve the current squad by adding players and improving the ones already there. In the longer-term, he will be expected to challenge for European places, make some progress in the cup competitions and promote youth. There's no point in sounding like the right man if you're not going to back it up with substance.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

County Still Searching For Defensive Combination

When Jim McIntyre took over as manager in Dingwall, he inherited a side bottom of the table with zero points, level with St Mirren, and a goal difference of -11. Ten league matches later the side have amassed 8 points, the same as St Mirren, and have seen their goal difference dip to -19.

It must be noted that the Ross County squad under McIntyre’s predecessor had swelled to ridiculous proportions and he, therefore, cane be afforded time to sift through his options. Matters were made even worse when another 3 players were added on transfer deadline day, shortly before McIntyre's appointment - although he has frequently used all 3 – before he added a further 5 of his own.

Ross County were deficient at both ends of the park early in the season and these problems have continued under the reign of McIntyre. The goals from Yoann Arquin and Darren Maatsen in the defeat to Dundee United on Friday night were the 5th and 6th league goals - of their 15 this season - that has failed to alter the outcome of the match.

The Staggies have only taken the lead in just 4 of their league matches this season and have also failed to take the lead in three cup outings. More often than not, they have found themselves further behind before finding the net – if they do at all - rendering many of their goals meaningless in terms of points accumulated.

If your team has only managed 6 first half goals in the league so far – with 3 of those coming in a 3-0 victory - then ideally your defence should be resolute, allowing the few goals you can muster the chance of being converted into points.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Ross County have conceded the first goal in 11 of their league matches, have conceded a total of 34 goals – and average of 2.27 per game – and have only managed one clean sheet in 18 matches across all competitions.

This is partially down to a lack of quality in their squad - County have limited resources and can only afford a certain level of player - but is also partially a consequence of the many combinations they fielded in a perpetually unsettled back four. Paul Quinn - signed by McIntyre shortly after taking over – may have performed admirably so far in a backline devoid of confidence, but his pairing with Lewis Toshney on Friday night was the club’s 10th different central-defensive partnership this season† .

Before then Scott Boyd had partnered Timothy Dressen, Jordi Balk, Ben Frempah, Darren Barr and Paul Quinn, while Frempah had previously lined up alongside Dressen, Jackson Irvine, Paul Quinn and Darren Barr (albeit for 4 minutes towards the end of their match versus Aberdeen) before Toshney and Quinn were selected for the defeat to Dundee United.

And while we can blame Derek Adams more than McIntyre for County’s scattergun approach to recruitment this season, McIntyre has been responsible for testing 9 of these 10 partnerships in the centre of defence.

The situation at full-back has hardly been much better. Toshney, Barr, Balk, Richie Brittain and Jim Fenlon have all been used on the right this season, while Barr, Fenlon, Graham Carey, Uros Celcer and Jamie Reckord have been tried at left-back*.

Three of the defenders signed in the summer – Dressen, Balk and Celcer – have already agreed to cancel their contracts, suggesting that a more meticulous transfer policy in the summer no doubt would have benefited the club. Rather than having 14 defenders on the wage bill at one point this season, they surely could have veered more towards quality over quantity before it got to that stage.

A similar argument can be made about the goalkeepers. Last season Kilmarnock were guilty of spending part of their budget on two first-team goalkeepers and have now released one and gone with young Conor Brennan as back-up instead. This allows them to use much needed funds to recruit for other positons.

The man Kilmarnock released, Antonio Reguero, initially made his way to Victoria Park to provide competition for Mark Brown. After a short, uninspiring run in the side, Reguero was dropped and hasn’t appeared since. And while Brown has, in the past, been known as a steady pair of hands at Premiership level, he has looked increasingly bereft of confidence as the weeks have progressed, culminating in Friday’s performance.

Jim McIntyre may be some distance off the squad and starting line-up he desires, but he surely now has to work on establishing some continuity  with his first XI, especially in defence, and must only bring in players during the next transfer window that improve the starting line-up, rather than bulk up an already overweight squad.

† Ross County central-defensive partnerships this season:
Boyd-Dressen x3
Balk-Boyd x3
Frempah-Boyd x3
Barr-Frempah (for last 4 minutes of Aberdeen match)
Boyd-Quinn x5

*Defenders who have played for Ross County this season (appearances in brackets):
- Scott Boyd (13), Darren Barr (6 overall, 4 in defence), Ben Frempah (6), Jim Fenlon (4), Lewis Toshney (7), Paul Quinn (6), Jamie Reckord (3),  Graham Carey (13 overall, 5 in defence), Uros Celcer (5), Timothy Dressen (3), Jordi Balk (4), Richie Brittain (13 overall, 3 in defence) 

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Gomis Red Card Ruins Intriguing Cup Tie

After the meaty challenges of their match versus Rangers last week – both the one punished with a red card and the others that should have been – it was disappointing to see Hearts captain Morgaro Gomis dismissed for a two-footed lunge on Scott Brown with only seven minutes gone in Sunday’s Scottish Cup tie.

Even more disappointing given the vulnerability of Celtic immediately after European matches, with Ronny Deila’s side winning only one domestic match following a Champions League or Europa League night so far this season. Celtic looked far from impressive when they went down 3-1 at home to Red Bull Salzburg on Thursday night and, with Hearts still preserving a 100% record going into Sunday’s match, there was a feeling that they had the potential to not only vastly improve on the 7-0 between the two sides in exactly the same fixture one year ago, but that there was the potential to upset the champions and progress to the next round.

Hearts didn’t necessarily start the game on the front foot, but they looked assured in possession, particularly when passing the ball out from the back – with the exception of a terrible Alim Ozturk pass – and showed that they had talent in forward areas to at least concern the Celtic defence.

Even though you may be aware of my persuasion when it comes to Scottish football, I think I can speak for most supporters of the game in this country when I say that this match was set up as a cracker for the neutral. This fixture is invariably a fiery encounter with much history and promised to be a lot closer than it eventually turned out.

I had hoped to be posting something about two of the more tactically astute managers clashing for the second time this season, be it through describing the way one side as a whole dominated possession or even the way one individual’s movement settled a chess-like cup tie. Instead I’m writing about an idiotic challenge that ruined the match before it had started.

Thanks Morgaro Gomis.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Jonny Hayes: The SPFL's New Most Versitile Player

Dundee 2 Aberdeen 1

Another clever set-piece – one designed to catch the Aberdeen defence off-guard – and a customary strike from David Clarkson gave Dundee the victory at Dens Park in a pulsating Scottish Cup tie. It was, however, the man-of-the-match performance of Aberdeen’s Jonny Hayes that caught the eye.

Aberdeen seemed to confuse their opponents from the off. Hayes lined up at kick-off as if he was going to operate on the left but, as soon as the game started, drifted into one of the holding midfield positions in a 4-2-3-1. The Dons immediately created a chance from kick-off and were inches away from taking the lead. This is an unfamiliar role for the former Inverness star but he slotted in seamlessly, dropping deep to collect the ball from the Aberdeen defenders before launching attacks.

But this was by no means the full extent of Hayes’s contribution. In a tactic reminiscent of Guardolia’s Bayern Munich full backs arcing into the centre of the pitch to become holding midfielders when their side have possession, Hayes performed what was almost the inverse: bursting up towards the left wing when Niall McGinn drifted into central areas.

The Aberdeen equaliser came when Hayes collected the ball in the middle of the park and drove at the Dundee defence before teeing up McGinn and was also found covering at left-back when required. He even popped up on the right wing in the second half to go on a mazy run down the touchline and again set up a teammate, this time Adam Rooney.

With Aberdeen again chasing an equaliser, now into injury-time, Hayes found McGinn once more, this time with a cross-field pass but the Northern Irish international’s fierce strike forced an incredible save from Scott Bain in the Dundee goal.

Hayes was unfortunate to find himself on the losing team and will no doubt be happy with his individual performance. It will be interesting to see if his manager continues to deploy him as such in the continued absence of Willo Flood and Barry Robson.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

What They Said: Deila & Hughes

Ronny Deila

I enjoy listening to Ronny Deila pre- and post-match. He is a modern tactician with a methodical approach to all aspects of the game, which is evident whenever he faces the media. Even after each one of their shocking Champions League efforts he cut a reasoned figure in a difficult situation. After his side laboured to a 1-1 draw against a newly-promoted Dundee, however, even he was struggling to find any acceptable excuses.

When referring to his central defence, Deila stated that ” can’t expect too much from young players”. This excuse would maybe carry some substance had Celtic actually started the match with Eoghan O’Connell and Jason Denayer. In reality, O’Connell took to the field at half-time for Adam Matthews (with the amount of time the Welsh full-back spend on the treatment table a separate defensive concern) and, moreover, Denayer is currently valued at around £10m and tipped to be the future of a highly-rated Belgian national side. Besides, the young centre-back pairing actually managed a clean sheet over their forty-five minutes on the pitch together, aiding their side in winning the half and tying the match.

The truth appears to be something closer to the following: shortly after arriving at the club, Deila identified that defence was one of the club’s strongest areas - choosing only to supplement it with the loan signing on Jason Denayer - before identifying the attacking areas as the priority to strengthen. Now though, he has realised that his prized asset in this area, Virgil van Djik, no longer wants to be at the club; that Efe Ambrose, cuts more and more of a nervous figure with each passing appearance; and that Emilio Izaguirre ran up the wing sometime in the past year and has never returned.

Joking aside, on the rare occasions when the Honduran left-back does return to fulfil his defensive duties, his concentration and positioning cannot be relied upon. Deila identified this after the match: “We were too open, especially on the left-side”, which gave Dundee pair Phil Roberts and Martin Boyle plenty of freedom on that side at different points in the match and came very close to securing all three points for the Dees.

This was even apparent in the opening seconds of the match: Straight from kick-off, Dundee launched the ball into Celtic’s left-back area where Izaguirre was caught napping. Denayer managed to cover this time but conceded a corner from which James McPake gave his side the lead. After only seconds played, Celtic were 1-0 down due to a blunder from the once highly-rated full-back.

Celtic have now gone two games without a win in the Premiership, which extends to four games in all competitions, and there is a growing discontent among their supporters regarding Deila’s ability. The Norwegian was expected to come in and quickly assemble a side - spending very little money in the process - to qualify for the Champions League. At the moment he is struggling to get the champions anywhere near the top of their domestic league.

John Hughes

The pretenders to Celtic’s throne are currently Inverness, though their boss is adamant his club are fighting a relegation battle. “I very much doubt it”, Hughes claimed when questioned about sustaining their current run, which sees them unbeaten after five matches and yet to concede a goal. A run which also includes a home win over relegation-rivals Celtic. “We’re going to try as hard as we can...whatever it takes to stay in the league .”

John Hughes’s vocabulary is often cliché-driven and this is yet another. This is a type of deflection used frequently by managers of overachieving clubs, attempting to play down expectations. Maybe newly-promoted Hamilton – who have only one less points than the Highlanders as it stands – can be forgiven for retaining modest aims despite their start, but are we to believe that the height of this current Inverness side’s ambition is to avoid relegation in the weakest Scottish top-flight in living memory?

Inverness have recorded top-six finishes in the previous two seasons and may have finished higher than 5th last season had they not lost momentum from their manager abandoning them mid-season. Furthermore, Inverness have one of the most settled and balanced squads in the division and possess enough quality all over the field to cause problems in any given match this season.

It sounds to me that this is an obvious attempt at reverse-psychology by Hughes in order to take the pressure off his players, thus pre-empting the media hype. The trouble is that he has over-compensated and instead just sounds like he’s talking nonsense.

Friday, 29 August 2014

SPFL Betting Preview


Considering their respective form going into the weekend fixtures, Aberdeen and Motherwell’s prices appear slightly short. These are the two clubs that finished in the immediate places behind champions Celtic last season and, as a result, their odds are shorter for their home ties than they perhaps should be.

Motherwell have been battling with a fluctuating injury list since the season began and Fraser Kerr’s suspension - for his inexcusable challenge on Jamie Hamill in the recent defeat by Kilmarnock – means that Mark O’Brien, on loan from Derby County, will likely step in for his debut. Other than the untested 21-year-old central defender, Steven McManus and Craig Reid are the only recognised first-team defenders available for selection, with Stuart Carswell filling in as the makeshift left-back.

Motherwell have only managed a solitary victory in six matches in all competitions this season – which involved a two-legged affair against part-time Icelanders that appear to spend more time practicing celebrations than they do practicing ball retention – and have lost all of their last three league matches.

They welcome St. Johnstone to Fir Park on Saturday. The Saints may lack a little firepower right now but so do the home side, and the likes of MacLean, Wotherspoon and O’Halloran, as well as new recruit Brian Graham, should be able to take advantage of that improvised Motherwell back-line. I expect St. Johnstone, fresh off their victory over Aberdeen last week, to take the three points with similar comfort to Inverness a few weeks back. Back St. Johnstone to win with McBookie @21/20.

Aberdeen’s recent form has been equally as poor as Motherwell’s. They have lost four of their last five matches – although two of those came in a Europa League qualifier against a superior Real Sociedad – and have only managed two league goals in three league matches so far, both of those goals coming in their win over Kilmarnock.

Partick Thistle, who travel to Pittodrie on Saturday, may have lost on three separate occasions to Aberdeen last season, however, the Glasgow club eventually recorded a win over the Dons with a 3-1 victory in the final meeting. The early season form of the sides suggests that Thistle are the team to back as they have found the net in all four of their matches so far this season, only losing one of those. That said, I’m slightly less confident of outright victory than I am with St. Johnstone, so instead I’ll be looking at Double Chance Draw/Partick Thistle @ 21/20 or Partick Thistle to win (Draw no bet) @27/10.


Livingston are unbeaten in the four matches since their defeat at Easter Road on the opening weekend of the Championship season, winning three of those. Although according to the BBC, they are unbeaten in their last five after recording two 4-1 victories over Hearts in the same night.

Conversely, Dumbarton have lost four-in-a-row and have conceded fourteen goals in the process. In fact, with the exception of a 1-0 victory over Brechin City in the first round of the League Cup, the Sons have conceded at least three goals in every match so far this season (2-3,1-3,0-4,1-4,2-3).  This includes their twelve-minute capitulation versus Hibernian on Tuesday evening and suggests that an in-form Livingston side may be too much for them come Saturday. Back Livingston to win @ 13/10.

League One

Lastly, expect goals at Stair Park. On Tuesday, Stranraer’s leaky defence cost them a place in the next round of the League Cup and edged the scoreline above the 2.5 line - the fourth consecutive match of theirs that this has happened. In fact, if we stretch the stat back into last season, eleven of their last thirteen have broken the 2.5 goals barrier.

They take on a Dunfermline side who, after a shaky start to their League One campaign, are now beginning to find the net with increasing frequency. Their last three matches have ended in three goals or more, which means I’ll be backing Over 2.5 Goals @ 7/10.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

What They Said: Wright, Adams & Deila

Tommy Wright

“He knows how to link it up, and probably doesn’t get enough goals because of the unselfish work he does outside of the box”, said St. Johnstone manager, Tommy Wright, of Steven MacLean after his winning goal on Saturday. The former Dons forward had earlier struck the post before he netted the winner against his former club. Despite this, and his memorable goal in last season’s Scottish Cup final, it is without doubt his intelligence outside the box that is his greatest contribution to the team.

As well as dropping deep to link midfield with attack, MacLean assisted in bringing about the prolific form of Stevie May last season. There is no doubt the sale of the under-21 international to Sheffield Wednesday has left the Perth side a little lightweight in attack, but to expect MacLean to fill the void vacated by May – as some have suggested - would be to confuse his role in the side.

Granted, for Saturday’s winner, he may have started the move outside the area before finding space within to finish, however, what is required is a strike partner to share the goals with him, rather than him becoming the twenty-goals-a-season striker himself. This is not to say that he shouldn’t be adding to his goals from last season, more that he requires someone with complimentary attributes to work alongside.

When questioned about any recruitment in this area, Wright joked that “Shaun Goater’s gone. It’ll not be him”, while telling of a supporter stopping him in the street to enquire about the alleged new signing. “Are you for real? 43[-years-old] and two stone heavier than me!”, continued Wright before confirming that they were no further forward with any targets.

Derek Adams

“We started really well and Dundee United score against the run of the play…” assessed Derek Adams after their 2-1 weekend defeat to Dundee United. A similar defence of dominating the game for thirty-five minutes and individual errors costing the team was peddled after the defeat to Kilmarnock. Fair enough, but that still leaves the majority of the match where you failed to dominate. At home.

This time around, Ross County travelled to Tannadice and, to be fair to Adams, his side were in control when guilty duo Yoann Arquin and Jake Jervis passed up enticing chances with the score poised at 1-1. “Performance-wise, we were excellent today…”, added Adams. Forgive me, but aren’t defensive mistakes and horrendous finishing part of the performance?

There did appear – although there is only so much you can decipher from criminally short highlights that fail to convey the ebbs and flows of a match – to be some sort of team forming. He has a left-sided full-back in Uros Celcer that seems willing and able to push forward. Just ahead of him is Joe Carlde, known for cutting inside on to his right foot, which allowed the duo to double up on United full-back Keith Watson.

This can make make for a perfect blend when pulled off correctly and, added to this, as we saw on Saturday, is Graham Carey bursting from central midfield, instinctively drifting towards his more natural left side. The goal, as well as the two missed sitters, came from combination play between two of these three and if Adams can foster similarly strong partnerships across his line-up, his team will surely start to pick up wins.

Starting slowly in the top flight is becoming a familiar story for the Staggies though, and much of this is a consequence of the Vladimir Romanov-esque signing policy favoured by Adams. Including loans, no fewer than eleven players have arrived in Dingwall this summer, taking Adams’s total to an incredible forty in the last five transfer windows.

The previous two campaigns have followed similar patters: finding themselves bottom - save for a club in crisis - at the turn of the year before recruiting even more players in January and finishing the season more than comfortably out of the reach of the relegation and play-off spots. Though he managed some continuity in the starting line up during their opening SPL campaign, last season saw Adams struggle to find his best line-up for the first few months before another overhaul of the squad in January.

Managers often bemoan the notoriously difficult January transfer window but it is there that Adams seems to do his best work and whether or not the same happens this time, time will tell. What is apparent is that Derek Adams is still unsure of his starting eleven and that if Ross County don’t begin to pick up results soon, they are headed for another bleak start to their winter.

Ronny Deila

This quote was not taken from the weekend’s post-match interviews but is worthy of inclusion all the same. On Celtic’s upcoming second-leg Champions League qualifier, Ronny Deila started off by, rightly, talking up the occasion. "This is the most important night of this season. The biggest. I can't wait. It's been a long 10 weeks of hard work, ups and downs, and now we're here at the final moment, the moment of decision. We have to go out and attack the game”. He then seemed to completely forget Celtic’s much-publicised and fiercely-debated route to this stage. “If we go through, we will have shown that we belong in the Champions League because we've been good enough to qualify. That is the main thing."


Thursday, 21 August 2014

SPFL Betting Preview


My first bet for the weekend is to back Callum McGregor to score each-way against Inverness Caledonian Thistle in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off. Kris Commons was the standout bet of this kind last season but hasn’t shown the same instincts so far this time around and was benched for Celtic’s recent clash in Slovenia. His odds of 15/4 offer little value.

McGregor’s accurate striking ability, coupled with a shoot-on-sight policy, has seen him net four times in seven matches, with two of those breaking the deadlock. His loan spell at Notts County saw him score nine of his twelve goals before the turn of the year, so I’ll be backing him more often than not until he shows signs of slowing.

The obvious argument against this bet is that Inverness currently sit unbeaten at the top of the table unbeaten and are yet to concede a goal. However, Celtic have had little trouble finding the net domestically this season, scoring nine times in their two league matches, and have scored eleven goals in two previous encounters with John Hughes’s side this calendar year. And we remember what happened last week when a team sitting top of the table, yet to concede a goal, faced Celtic.

I took this bet both last week and in midweek, made a tidy profit and came very close to making more when the 21-year-old struck the post in the first few minutes versus Dundee United. Back Callum McGregor to Score First (E/W) @ 6/1.


Two of the Championship’s part-time clubs face off at Central Park on Saturday with both teams having failed to win either of their opening league matches. In fact, the only wins for both clubs have come in the early rounds of the cup competitions. Alloa Athletic have fared slightly better, winning three cup ties from three, with Cowdenbeath defeating Clyde and only managing a draw over ninety minutes with Brechin City, a tie they lost in extra-time.

Add to this that the Wasps are unbeaten at Central Park in nine attempts, that seven of those have ended in draws and that the home side have lost their goalscoring duo from last season and it would appear that betting against the Blue Brazil is the smart way to go. I’m going to back Alloa or the Draw @ 7/10 but if you’re feeling brave you could back the draw at 5/2.

Elsewhere in the Championship, including last season’s results, Rangers have been involved in matches with more than 2.5 goals in eight of their last nine (or eleven of their last thirteen). Dumbarton managed a clean sheet in a victory over Brechin City the other week but have conceded a total of ten goals in their other three outings so far this season. 

Kris Boyd broke his scoring duct with a hat-trick in an 8-1 victory over Clyde on Monday night and he will be widely expected to continue this form into Saturday’s match. It is possible that this, along with the margin of victory, will have allowed Ally McCoist’s men to shrug off their sluggish start to the campaign and begin to dominate the opposition the way their vastly superior budget and playing staff suggests they should.

Even though not many recent Rangers matches have seen more than 3.5 goals, three out of Dumbarton’s four matches have and since the Over 2.5 Goals market offers little value @ 48/85, I’ll be backing Over 3.5 Goals @ 6/5.

League Two

Finally, League Two has seen two-thirds of its matches end with both teams scoring and, furthermore, all of those matches have broken the 2.5 goals barrier. The standout fixture for these selections is undoubtedly Berwick Rangers v East Stirlingshire. Backing both teams to score would have returned a profit in all five of Berwick’s matches this season, while four of those five have resulted in more than 2.5 goals. This includes a 5-2 extra-time defeat at the hands of Greenock Morton in midweek.

East Stirlingshire’s record makes for similar reading – more than 2.5 goals in all four of their fixtures so far, three of those have seen both teams score. Both Teams to Score and Over 2.5 Goals can be backed separately @ 1/2.

All odds are taken from McBookie at the time of writing.  

Monday, 18 August 2014

What They Said: Stubbs, Hartley & Adams

The post-match interview is the avenue through which managers address the supporters and wider public in the wake of, say, a dominant performance or a total capitulation. Some, like well-trained politicians, choose to deflect questions as if they weren't asked while some can't seem to move beyond tired clichés. There are those who honestly address the issues at hand, then there are those who refuse to face certain media outlets at all. 'What They Said' picks apart selected post-match interviews from the weekend in Scottish football.

Alan Stubbs

The Hibernian manager has now lost two from two against opposition they are widely expected to challenge for the Championship title this season - even though the Rangers match came in the Petrofac Training Cup. Both matches have been lost 2-1 and Hibernian have failed to lead at any point in either game, despite being awarded a penalty with the score at 0-0 in Sunday’s Edinburgh derby. Regardless, manager Alan Stubbs didn't “think the [final] scoreline [versus Hearts] reflected the game.”

To give him his due, the former Celtic defender appears to be instilling a more progressive style at Easter Road and has made some decent signings so far, most notably a proven Championship striker (who has netted twice already) as well as the first decent right-back at the club for around seven years. It is also true that his side have shown some “really encouraging signs” and have “come a long way in a short space of time.”

Stubbs had the better of Robbie Neilson in the opening exchanges on Sunday, pressing the home side so that they couldn't distribute to the defence, forcing a nervous-looking Jack Hamilton to kick poorly. He also had the better of Ally McCoist for large parts of their cup tie. In that match, Stubbs’s side dominated midfield due to McCoist believing that it would take three central defenders to nullify the threat of Farid El Alagui. Then, when McCoist switched to a back four, Stubbs made the correct decision to go with two strikers up against two centre-backs. Unfortunately, Danny Handling’s red card minutes later meant we never saw how Rangers would have coped, or how their manager would have responded.

However, even if they continue to perform yet find themselves unable to challenge, how long will these types of rationalisations wash with the Hibernian faithful? They are, by now, well-accustomed to managers claiming that their side played well despite the defeat, although this previously came from the mouths of more regressive managers in Pat Fenlon and, more recently, Terry Butcher. Even though Stubbs already seems to have more tactical nous than either of the two previous managers, the deficiencies in his squad are still there to be seen.

None more so than the mentality of some of his players, especially in the centre of midfield. During Sunday's derby, after a decent start to the match, captain Liam Craig lost his composure to miss a first-half penalty and never seemed to recover. He was even found projecting his own failings and indiscipline on to the Hearts players towards the end of a bad-tempered match.

And what about his midfield partner? Scott Robertson got booked for throwing himself into anyone he could find and was nutmegged for the opening goal. He then, like Craig, failed to regain his self-control and conceded a penalty which effectively lost his side the game and, further, brought about his dismissal. Perhaps this is what Stubbs was referring to when he spoke of “ill discipline” costing the team.

These are the players tasked with protecting a vulnerable defence, igniting attacks and being two of the more experienced heads to guide the younger players through matches. It appears, on Sunday’s evidence, that while they may have some attacking capabilities – more so in the case of Craig – they lack the required discipline and temperament to protect their back four and to leader others.

Paul Hartley

Dundee fought their way to a third successive league draw on Saturday versus Partick Thistle and have 17-year-old Craig Wighton to thank after scoring following his half-time introduction. The teenager won a new contract prior to his first top-flight goal and afterwards received some lavish praise from his manager.

The praise came seconds after manager Paul Hartley dared not to over-hype the youngster. “We don’t want to say too much because we know how good he is”, but the former Scotland international seemed to forget his own words instantly as he went on to describe Wighton as “…the future of our club.”

Dundee’s managing director John Nelms, as well as defender James McPake, have since further played-down the young striker's abilities, respectively describing Wighton as “an exceptional young talent with maturity beyond his years” and “…up there with the best”.

I wonder what they would have said had they over-hyped him.

Derek Adams

Finally, fresh after stating it did not matter how his side played in their 4-0 defeat to Partick Thistle on Wednesday, Derek Adams displayed perfectly the rampant hypocrisy found in just about any post-match interview. For the two goals conceded in a 2-1 home defeat to Kilmarnock at the weekend, Ross County have “…got to stop the cross…and the ball getting to the attackers for headers”, according to Adams. Yet for County’s own headed-goal - which came with just ten minutes remaining - was not only a “…good goal from Liam Boyce. It’s a good cross from Joe Cardle”.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Science of Penalties

Sunday’s Scottish League Cup final was billed as a potential classic: Two teams currently battling it out in the top half of the Scottish Premiership. One, former powerhouses of Scottish football, looking to end 15 trophy-less years, the other still in its infancy and appearing in its first major final.

Though not the most drab 0-0 you’ll ever see, 120 minutes of goalless action in a cup final hardly constitutes a classic. And so it took penalties to separate the sides. Which is a lottery, right?

Well it depends which manager you listen to. In their respective post-match interviews, Derek McInnes spoke in a measured tone that his team talk just before the spots kicks was “It’s not about have practiced them all week”. His Inverness counterpart, John Hughes, by contrast bemoaned penalties being “down to luck”, wedging yet another overused, empty expression into his already cliché-ridden vernacular.

This is where the final was won and lost in the end and the marked divergence between the managers’ attitude towards penalty shootouts is clear to see. Hughes, essentially, compared penalties to a lottery, and how can you practice for a lottery?

If it is a lottery, then why pick your best five penalty takers? Furthermore, best estimates put the amount of penalties scored somewhere around 80% - incidentally, the amount scored in yesterday’s shootout had a 75% success rate - if so, then why bother practicing other ways of putting the ball into the net, be it other dead-ball situations like free-kicks and corners or attacks through open play?

These situations end in goals with far less frequency than penalties kicks, making them even more of a lottery, so why bother practicing them either?

The fact is that scoring from the penalty spot is as much of a skill as finding the top corner on the turn or threading a through-ball through a tight space. Fine-tuning putting the ball into areas where the goalkeeper can’t reach, mastering run-ups that confuse and, from the goalkeeper’s point of view, researching where the taker is likely to strike the ball, are all techniques that can be practiced and developed.

Practicing and developing these skills will increase you chance of scoring penalties. Not some unexplained cosmic force.