Monday, February 20, 2017

Talking Points from the Premiership

Tommy Wright is amazing
Missing your most creative attacker (Danny Swanson)?  No problem.  Lose your best midfielder (Murray Davidson) to injury?  Ditto.

It's like St Johnstone can just plug anyone into the gaps and be confident they will be filled adequately.  Most of this game was spent with David Wotherspoon out of position on the left wing and Ricky Foster deputising on the right, yet it was the same old Perth Saints.  Robust defensively, able to disrupt Ross County high up the pitch without ever seeming to leave space in behind to be exploited; dangerous and clever on the break, with Steven MacLean once more giving a clinic on how to play as a lone striker.

MacLean might have been the standout player at Victoria Park but it was his late replacement off the bench, Chris Kane, whose sensational strike on the turn gave the visitors a deserved win.  Ross County had no answer to their opponent's organisation, with the extra man in midfield limiting them to long balls.  Craig Curran's equaliser was the result of a lucky ricochet they scarcely deserved.

But St. Johnstone showed remarkable character to bounce back and find the winner.  Of course they did, because it's what they do.  This team has no stars, and a wage bill that's probably well below many Premiership teams, including County.  Yet they'll finish top six.  Again.

And that's how it's been ever since Tommy Wright became manager here.  Because he's a really, really, really good manager.  Surely a bigger club is going to notice eventually? LS



Addison costs Killie precious points
I think it's fair to say that Miles Addison ruined many a Killie fan's Sunday afternoon; they may well have still been having nightmares about it in the middle of the night...

You could look to the more positive outlook on the game's late substitutions and credit Derek McInnes for bringing on Jayden Stockley and Peter Pawlett, who would go on to score the late goals that would overturn Kilmarnock's first half opener - Rory McKenzie firing a low shot beyond Joe Lewis after the Dons defence couldn't get the ball clear - but it was either a stroke of genius or a Jedi mind trick to Lee McCulloch to put on Addison as well.


The defending for the first goal was horrific.  Although successfully backing off Jonny Hayes inside the penalty area, he clearly expected that Freddie Woodman should be coming off his line to collect the ball when the keeper didn't appear to have any intention to do so; in the ensuing confusing, Stockley blindsided him to poke the ball into the net.  The second goal was more unfortunate; a botched headed clearance fell to Pawlett, and while he did his best to charge down the shot he only succeeded in deflecting it beyond his keeper's reach.

For all that, Miles should probably still have earned his team a shot at redemption when he had his shirt pulled back in the box by Ash Taylor in the dying minutes of the game, but referee Andrew Dallas waived away the appeal.  

It must have been a tough loss for McCulloch to take in his first game in charge following Lee Clark's departure the previous week, although he must have been encouraged by the performance of his team overall.  Remarkably, had Killie held on for the win they would have risen into the top six of the table; as it is, they remain 4 points away from the relegation play-off place.  Where Kilmarnock ultimately ends up may go a long way to deciding whether McCulloch remains first team manager beyond the end of this season. MI




Murty isn't a long term solution
After only one win in Mark Warburton’s final five games, interim coach Graeme Murty made the not unreasonable decision to shake things up by setting the team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation and playing a more direct style at Dens Park. Paul Hartley, presumably having watched a lifeless performance against Morton last week, instructed his players to go at the visitors from the start, looking to take advantage of fragile confidence and an even more fragile right wing of James Tavernier and Martyn Waghorn.

Dundee were well worth their win; Rangers looked lost - not surprising perhaps given Murty's lack of experience.   He has been installed "for the foreseeable future", a situation reminiscent of Kenny McDowall's two years ago when he succeeded Ally McCoist because he was pretty much the only man left.  McDowall was quickly found out, but he lasted 10 matches which just compounded the mess he inherited and derailed any hope of success that season.

As regards this campaign, Rangers are in danger of allowing Aberdeen to drift out of sight in the race for second place. Perhaps that would be no bad thing; the difference between finishing second and third is not significant enough to justify rushing into any managerial appointments (especially when the current boss finds the job so easy that he can do it standing on his head!). But under Murty, you wouldn't rule out a big enough slump that they ended up even further down the table. IM



Doolan is Thistle's best hope up front
Whisper it, but Partick Thistle look to be the likeliest of the bottom seven to sneak into sixth place (just as well, given yours truly predicted it back in July).  After a mediocre start to the season, they've improved over time, ironing out their defensive problems with the addition of Adam Barton and cutting down on the mistakes.  The midfield is pretty decent too with Abdul Osman, Chris Erskine and a resurgent Sean Welsh.

As has been the case for the last three and a half years, Thistle's one big issue is up front.  This season Ade Azeez was brought in to solve that problem; he currently has just a single league goal despite starting 15 games.  So back to Kris Doolan they turn; it was the wily forward's double from the bench that beat Accies, moving him onto seven goals for the season and ninety-seven as a Thistle player.

The trouble with Doolan is that, clever as he is, he isn't quick enough or strong enough to get much joy as a lone forward.  Azeez is big, powerful and fast, but unfortunately is a haddy in front of goal.  Alan Archibald would be better sticking with Doolan for the run-in, but his repeated failure to snap up a goalscorer is the one thing holding Partick back. LS



Easy street for Celtic
3pm kick-offs at home on a Saturday have been a rare treat over the past few years for Celtic fans, this one saw a 2-0 win over Motherwell  that may end up the most routine win of their season.  Mark McGhee's side were not expected to trouble the Champions-elect after their humbling in Aberdeen during the week and they never really offered anything to set your heart racing, their agenda clearly being to keep the score down. 

A first-half penalty from Moussa Dembele broke the deadlock and you would have been excused at that point for thinking that he was on his way to a third consecutive hat-trick but it wasn't to be but that wasn't due to lack of effort from the Frenchman.  But by half-time James Forrest, who chipped in with another, for me, man-of-the-match performance, scored the second goal with ease as he cut inside to find the far corner.

The second-half came and went without very much incident at all.  You'd think Brendan Rodgers' men were saving themselves for challenges to come...were there actually any.  For Celtic are 27 points clear and 31 games unbeaten domestically. The only blip remains that draw in Inverness; you would be surprised to see another one before the end of the season. PF



Can Caley Thistle kick on?
Inverness really need some sort of big result to kickstart their season; a win at Tynecastle would have fitted the bill, and time will tell whether this battling draw will have the desired effect.

It was at least Caley Thistle's best result and performance in some time.  Richie Foran called it "the old Inverness", and he was spot on - there was an energy and determination, especially in midfield (is it a coincidence that Iain Vigurs was absent?) that has been rare in recent months.

So can the Highlanders kick on?  The trouble is that the next couple of games don't get a lot easier - a wounded Rangers on Friday, then Celtic at home.  Any momentum could dissipate depressingly quickly. LS



Paul Fisher (PF) is our Celtic correspondent, and spent a number of years helping with Celtic Live.  He is actually a professional journalist.

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army, and he has the greatest beard that Lawrie has ever seen.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Mark McGhee embarrasses self, club again

Poor Mark McGhee.

The Motherwell manager was really rather upset with fourth official John McKendrick on Wednesday night.  So much so that he threatened legal action against him; having told the press post-match that he was "disgusted and horrified by the attitude of the fourth official" and accused him of having "an agenda" against McGhee, he then added "I'll be speaking to a lawyer".

What McGhee expects from his counsel is unclear.  For a start, it can be reasonably pointed out that most of us would have said 'agenda' with any grown man who is behaving like a complete bellend.

The legal threat was just about the most ridiculous of McGhee's post-match comments, just ahead of his claim that "I wasn't even getting excited about the fact we were losing the game...I was having a bit of a laugh actually" when he was sent to the stand.  Motherwell were 6-0 down at the time.  As you can see from the video below, McGhee did indeed take it all in good spirits.


All right, he was being goaded by Dons fans who, recalling the humiliating period when he managed their club, thoroughly enjoyed his terrible night.  But the "get that tae f***" at the end will be remembered and treasured by Scottish football supporters for a long time to come.

The 7-2 humiliation at Pittodrie comes on the back of a 3-0 drubbing at home to Hearts in their last league match, where 'Well midfielder Carl McHugh was given his marching orders with the game goalless and his side promptly went to pieces.  McGhee was not exactly gracious after that match either: "It's never a red card in a million years.  It's an embarrassment...I think every single player on the pitch was astonished".

video

Erm, aye.  Those Hearts players who went mental at the challenge were clearly astonished by the decision.  And whilst Andrew Dallas is a honking referee - he booked a Hearts player in that game when one Motherwell player tripped over another - it's hard to argue with a dismissal for a challenge where one player catches the ankle of another with his studs.  Unless you're McGhee, who in his current mindset would probably abuse a referee who claimed that the sky was blue.

Motherwell didn't even appeal the dismissal, though they did release a rather whingy statement requesting "clarity on the guidelines surrounding serious foul play and in particular 'excessive force'.  This writer's own opinion is that hacking an opponent's ankle with your studs showing is probably 'excessive force', but then what do I know?  'Well also made reference to their failed appeal of Scott McDonald's red card against Rangers the previous week, which they clearly thought was unreasonable even though McDonald had, er, hacked an opponent's ankle with his studs.

Of course, it's coincidence that the officials got such stick on two occasions were Motherwell got thumped.  Their performance with ten men against Hearts was shambolic, not least because of the double substitution McGhee instantly made which handed all initiative to Hearts and left him without sufficient attackers to get his team back into it after they fell behind almost instantly.  And conceding seven in a single game tells its own story.  Lucky for McGhee that both times he had other subjects he could complain about, rather than having to take awkward questions about his team's horrendous catipulations.

Managers behaving like twats is hardly a new thing; blaming referees for their own mistakes isn't exactly original either.  But this particular manager is actually on the SFA payroll, for he moonlights as Gordon Strachan's assistant manager.  Perhaps given his status a bit more decorum might be appropriate?  I would imagine the 'lawyer' comment was just petulance rather than a genuine threat, but if McGhee was indeed to get a solicitor involved I don't imagine his paymasters would be impressed.

Hell, I hope they throw the book at him anyway; it's just as well that all the payoffs he's had from clubs that have sacked him over the years (Aberdeen included) mean that he can probably afford the hefty fine that's coming his way...


Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Talking Points from the Premiership

Celtic go through the gears when it matters
Celtic made it 29 games unbeaten in domestic competition and if you look at the scoreline without watching the highlights, you would be excused for thinking it was another stroll in the park for Brendan Rodgers' men.

At half-time the online chatter was pretty much focused around whether St Johnstone would be the first team in the country to beat Celtic since, well, St Johnstone did at the tail end of last season. 
An early goal from Liam Henderson settled the nerves that I had pre-match but a Bitton masterclass in how not to defend a header and a Dedryck Boyata OG made it 2-1 to the hosts at the break. 
A lacklustre Gary Mackay-Steven was replaced by a returning Moussa Dembele on 59 minutes and thanks to that terrible refereeing decision from Craig Thomson he had an opportunity to level things up from the penalty spot, he duly dispatched it and the result was only ever going one way after that.  A Dembele strike put the Bhoys 3-2 up, the league's top scorer, Scott Sinclair, made it four before the big French striker finished off a fantastic team move to make it a five-star performance from the Champions elect.

It's now 95 goals for the season from Celtic and 23 of them from the 20-year-old Dembele. 
Who can stop this ever improving juggernaut that is Celtic under Brendan Rodgers? Inverness in the Scottish Cup at the weekend? I wouldn't think so...PF


Foran's stay of execution
It's actually questionable whether a loss to Dundee would have meant the end for Richie Foran - the Caley Thistle board do not rush to dismiss managers - but the question would have been asked rather loudly, especially after a dreadful first half in which Inverness picked up where they left off at Hamilton on Tuesday, and not in a good way.

But the comeback from two goals down, on the back of an outstanding performance after the interval, at least allows one to use the narrative that 'the players are still playing for the manager' and that there's still the chance to turn this around.  But that would be a big conclusion to jump to.  Caley Thistle's last three games were all winnable - against Partick, Accies and Dundee - and they managed to pick up as many points (two) as they missed penalties.

And just look at the upcoming fixtures.  After Celtic away in the cup next week, they have Hearts away, Rangers at home and Celtic at home.  It will be a shock if they are still within three points of the sides above them after that.  Their next winnable fixture is not till 11 March.  And if ICT are still in the mire at that point, surely there isn't enough time for Foran's successor to rescue them.  In hindsight, they might wish they had lost to Dundee and got a new boss in who had enough time to change things and prevent relegation. LS




The biggest "embarrassment" was McGhee
Despite the best hopes of referee Andrew Dallas, the sending off of Motherwell's Carl McHugh didn't sufficiently distract from his earlier decision to book Hearts' Malaury Martin for the heinous crime of being a yard away when one Motherwell player tripped over his own teammate (No, I'm not kidding).

That's partly because the McHugh decision was right - he hacked Don Cowie with his foot raised and his studs showing, catching the Jambo on the ankle.  It was dangerous and wild.  This author has very little time for those sort of challenges - in all his years of playing in kickabouts he's never fouled anyone like that, nor seen a foul like that.  Jumping in with studs raised or two feet is a deliberate decision by a player, not a natural movement.

So for Mark McGhee to label the decision an "embarrassment" was almost as remarkable as his "never in a million years" rant that it was part of.  Whilst Dallas is a dreadful ref, he got this one spot on.  One wonders whether McGhee was looking to deflect blame from his side's latest poor result at home (no-one has conceded more goals on their own patch this season), their lacklustre performance with eleven men or his immediate tactical changes to try and hold out for a draw...which allowed Hearts to turn the screw and score jjust six minutes after McHugh's dismissal, as well as making sure that there was no chance of a response.

And so presumably Motherwell will put their money where McGhee's mouth is and appeal the decision?  It turns out they won't.  Given they already wasted several hundred pounds they don't have last week fruitlessly contesting Scott McDonald's Ibrox red, the 'Well board thankfully aren't as stupid as their manager is. LS



Aberdeen have depth...up to a point
Partick Thistle were stubborn, stuffy opponents at Pittodrie; for long periods it looked like Aberdeen might not manage to break them down, until substitutes Jayden Stockley and Ryan Christie struck in the last quarter of an hour to give the Dons a precious victory that moves them into second spot.

Expect to see more of Christie in the coming weeks; Derek McInnes will likely use him in a similar manner to how he deployed James Maddison - often nominally on the left but with licence to drift inside and take advantage of whatever space is available.  Christie is particularly adept at this and will prove a real asset.  Stockley is a fine backup option at centre-forward, not quite consistent enough to frequently dislodge Adam Rooney but good at holding the ball up and capable of getting some goals.

Aberdeen will feel pleased about the strength of their bench - Peter Pawlett, Miles Storey and Anthony O'Connor were also amongst the subs.  But whilst that seems like impressive depth, there is precious little beyond the matchday eighteen - teenager Frank Ross would have been next man up.  If the Dons were to suffer a few injuries, particularly in midfield, then they'd have a problem.  Keeping everyone fit is crucial to their hopes of holding off Rangers and Hearts. LS


Brophy's time to shine
This was supposed to be the season that Eamonn Brophy pushed on; now 20, the Hamilton striker showed plenty of flashes of his potential in the second half of last season, including a great goal against Celtic last February.

One year on, and he hasn't really made much progress.  Brophy has been largely confined to the bench not so much because of the excellent form of teammates but because he hasn't impressed when the opportunities have arisen.  But Alex D'Acol's early injury meant an introduction after 15 minutes against Kilmarnock and a lovely shot on the turn earned him only his second goal of the season.  Just as well really, as he'd earlier spurned a glorious opportunity.

Whilst D'Acol has been decent in spades, Hamilton really, really, really need a regular goalscorer if they are to finish above eleventh.  This is Brophy's time to shine. LS



Rangers struggle against mid-table opposition again
We’re a long way from the days where teams like Ross County would be content to get away from Ibrox without a sound thrashing, but Rangers still have aspirations to be challenging for the league in the near future.  If that’s the case, a game against a team with two wins in their last ten should at least be fairly routine.  While defeats to Celtic and Hearts are painful, it is results against the likes of Ross County, St Johnstone, and Kilmarnock that show that this Rangers team isn’t much better that the one that was in the Championship last season.

Even though they’ve won more than they’ve lost, few mid-to-lower table teams have been dismissed with the ease that a good team should expect.  Mark Warburton pointed to the number of shots Rangers had on Saturday, suggesting they were unlucky not to win.  On another viewing, Ross County were unlucky not to be out of sight by half time.  And even when they did create chances, the home side lacked the quality to finish things off; this was exemplified by one Joe Garner chance in the second half where he found himself one-on-one with the keeper but looked like he’d never been in that situation before. That’s "One Point Five Million Pound Striker Joe Garner", to give him his full name.

Things are drifting at Ibrox and it’s clear on the pitch but Warburton shows no sign of being able to change things.  He wants to play a game based on passing the ball out of defense, but when you have Clint Hill and Philippe Senderos at the back then maybe that game plan needs to be adjusted.  Enough money has been thrown at the problem to pretty much guarantee a top four finish, but currently the team looks as far away from Celtic as it has done since 2012.  The problem with rebuilding the team, from the manager down, is that it’s been a long time since Rangers have a had an ownership that would suggest such a project could be competently executed. IM


Paul Fisher (PF) is our Celtic correspondent, and spent a number of years helping with Celtic Live.  He is actually a professional journalist.


Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Talking Points from the Premiership

Can Celtic remain invincible?
Even without a recognised striker, the Celtic juggernaut continued on the way to six-in-a-row, with a thumping win over Hearts leaving them unbeaten in domestic competition for 27 straight games, eclipsing the start of the famous Lisbon Lions.  Goals from Callum McGregor, Patrick Roberts and a Scott Sinclair double restored the lead at the top of the table to 22 points and the result never really looked in doubt.  

Craig Gordon was rarely tested, Kieran Tierney and Christian Gamboa were given the freedom of the wings as they looked to punish the Hearts back line and a reborn Dedryck Boyata looked in imperious form in the heart of defence yet again.  The tactical know-how of the Celtic manager showed again when he moved James Forrest to the right from the left and put Patrick Roberts through the middle. This move reunited Tierney and Sinclair on the left-wing, a partnership which has provided dividends time and time again. 

Even the loss of Stuart Armstrong in the warmup didn't hinder the home side; Nir Bitton came in and showed what can do in the middle of the park.  With Eboue Kouassi still to strut his stuff, depth is not a problem.  

Ahead of the visit of Derek McInnes and Aberdeen on Wednesday you have to ask who can take points off Celtic, never mind beat them.  It'll take a touch of class, a bad decision and/or a one-off bad display from Celtic. (and maybe one or two 'honest mistakes' - Ed ;-))  At the moment though, they really do look like they could win the treble and go unbeaten till May.  Can anyone stop them?  PF



Hearts' misery compounded by injuries
The bottom line is that Ian Cathro's tenure at Tynecastle has so far produced just four points in six league games, along with extreme difficulty in getting past Raith Rovers in the cup.  And their Premiership defeats include blowing a two goal lead against Dundee, a toothless loss at home to Aberdeen, and now this shellacking at Celtic Park which came even though the injury-hit hosts had to deploy Scott Sinclair up front.

Cathro must feel like he's walked under a ladder whilst stepping on a black cat.  Not only are too many players out of form, but he's lost pretty much the entire defence that he inherited from Robbie Neilson.  Whilst Faycal Rherras will return from international duty soon, and Alim Ozturk was no great loss, the departure of Igor Rossi left him without his best centre-back, and now John Souttar is lost for the season with an achilles injury.  With Callum Paterson already on the treatment table till the summer, defensive options are very limited...though not so much so that Juwon Oshaniwa is getting a game.  Yet.

Hearts have been busy in the transfer window - Alexandros Tziolis became their seventh January arrival today.  But moulding all these players together will prove a short-term test.  And yet if form does not pick up soon, it won't only be Kris Boyd going after the Jambos' manager, whose inexperience and different way of doing things are a very easy stick to beat him with. LS



Ajer could be an inspired Kilmarnock signing
So much for Kilmarnock struggling in the AC (After Coulibaly) era; they only went and scored three goals in a game for the first time in the league this season, with Kris Boyd on target for the first time since September.  Loanee Sean Longstaff grabbed a late winner here which gives Killie much-needed breathing space at the bottom.

The star man was another temporary arrival - Kristoffer Ajer, the thirteenth loan signing Lee Clark has made so far this season.  The Celtic teenager had to fill in at centre-back here, given his new team's injury problems, but strolled through the match defensively; more crucially, his willingness to bring the ball out from the back gave Kilmarnock control over the game.  Observers likened his ball skills to those of ex-Bhoy Virgil Van Dijk, which is high praise indeed for the eighteen-year-old Norwegian.

Clark's recruitment policy has frequently smacked of throwing youngsters against the wall and hoping a few stick.  Ajer has stuck harder and faster than any of the others, and will be a major weapon in their fight against the drop. LS



In Hyndman, Rangers finally have the midfielder they need
Emerson Hyndman is the latest American to play for Rangers, and on first viewing he could be one of the best.  Granted, Alejandro Bedoya and Carlos Bocanegra aren’t going to end up in the Ibrox Hall of Fame.  But Claudio Reyna held his own in a very good team, and DaMarcus Beasley was fun to watch, while Maurice Edu at least scored a last minute winner in an Old Firm game.

Obviously it’s early days, but on Saturday the Bournemouth loanee not only worked hard, but added some composure to Rangers’ attacks that has been sorely lacking.  His work in the build up to his victory-sealing goal was lovely to watch and just reward for a Man of the Match performance. Had Rangers picked up Hyndman instead of Joey B****n at the start of the season then we all might have saved ourselves a lot of drama...and the Gers might be out of sight for second spot.

Motherwell must have thought it would be their day after Michael O’Halloran’s early red card, but they weren’t able to take advantage after Scott McDonald first missed an open goal and then got himself sent off.  The home side were unable to create anything of note and it became a case of whether the visitors could break them down.  There was little controversy surrounding the red cards, but McDonald’s tackle looked particularly egregious given the victim was a senior citizen, albeit one that can’t stop scoring.

The three horse race for second place looks very much that it will be down to two, particularly if Rangers beats Hearts on Tuesday.  It’s no title race, but the battle between Aberdeen and Rangers is probably going to the most interesting thing about the second half of the season, at least in the top six. IM


Niall McGinn is back to his best
The outcome of this Friday night match - thankfully under fully operational floodlighting - could perhaps have been a different one had Paul McGowan's attempted lob from 25 yards out dipped into the goal instead of crashing off the crossbar.  But once Ryan Jack opened the scoring with a convincing header (followed up with some less than convincing 'dabbing'...) there never seemed to be any reasonable doubt as to the end result.

Niall McGinn, the creator of the opening goal, added a double of his own in a dominant display that was possibly one of his best ever in a Dons shirt.  His first goal was as stunning as McGowan's would have been had it gone in - controlling a knock down from Ash Taylor with the inside of his right thigh before swiveling to strike a left foot volley from similar distance.  His second goal came late in the second half, nodding in a cross from Jonny Hayes.  McGinn looked tired in the early part of the season after his summer efforts with Northern Ireland; he looks revitalized by a winter holiday.

The home support emplored Aberdeen 'Don't sell McGinn!'.  Even if he stays through the January transfer window, the decision will be out of the hands of Niall's employers if he chooses not to extend his contract beyond this summer.  It would be understandable if he decided to move on in the event that a significant offer did emerge for him, and nobody could reasonably begrudge him such an opportunity after years of quality service for the Dons, but hopefully the contract situation can be sorted out sooner rather than later. MI



Accies have reasons to be positive...
To the outsider a three-nil defeat looks pretty comprehensive, but both Tommy Wright and Martin Canning agreed post-match that, until Graham Cummings put St. Johnstone ahead early in the second half, Accies were actually the better team in Perth.  "We'll play better and lose" was Wright's take on the game.  Had Ali Crawford not made a dreadful hash of a glorious first half chance, Accies would probably have come away with a result of some sort.

That will be of some solace to Canning, though less so to a support who are baying for his blood and threatening boycotts until his dismissal.  Hamilton were actually under-strength for this clash, particularly at the back with Georgios Sarris, Massimo Donati and Michael Devlin all suspended; the latter two will be back for the crucial midweek tie with Inverness, while new signing Blair Adams may be fit to start at left-back.  It's a match that may define their season, but they have a wee bit more reason for optimism than their opponents. LS



...but Inverness don't
Caley Thistle could at least claim a rare clean sheet (just their second in the league this season) to go along with their point against the Real Jags, but that was about as far as the positivity could stretch in the Highlands.  This was a truly dreadful game, where the visitors had much the better of the possession and the paltry chances.

Richie Foran explained afterwards that Gary Warren and Greg Tansey were playing through illness, but that went very little way towards explaining his side's toothless attacking play, or the fact that several other players were, shall we say, blowing out of their arses in the final quarter of the match.  For long periods the home side had ten men behind the ball; the eleventh, Henri Anier, committed more fouls than he had touches.

Foran lost the tactical battle for the umpteenth time this season.  Whilst he started with a 4-4-2 (Anier alongside Lonsana Doumbouya), Partick Thistle had, like everyone else, identified that by keeping their wide players high up the pitch they could eliminate Inverness' hope of getting width from their full backs.  And so Steven Lawless and Chris Erskine wreaked havoc between the lines and Thistle were dominant in possession even after Foran switched to 4-2-3-1...then swapped 'wide' men Liam Polworth and Larnell Cole...then moved Polworth into the centre with Anier going wide...then subbed the ineffectual Doumbouya for Iain Vigurs.  Pep Guardiola this was not.  Had Partick's final ball not been frequently terrible - step forward, Callum Booth - they would surely have headed south with all the points.

Inverness have gone eleven league games without a win for the first time in their history.  Foran's status as a club legend has protected him from a lot of criticism, but there was a real sense that the fans' patience is running out.  The trip to Hamilton is huge, and it's not escaped attention that the last time the club sacked a manager (Craig Brewster) it was after a defeat at New Douglas Park. LS


Paul Fisher (PF) is our Celtic correspondent, and spent a number of years helping with Celtic Live.  He is actually a professional journalist.

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army, and he has the greatest beard that Lawrie has ever seen.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Borrowers


The above tweet made me do a double-take this morning...until I realized it was a reference to the members of Eiffel 65 and St. Johnstone's cringeworthy music video that has just gone viral and earned them some excellent publicity.

St. Johnstone don't actually have a player on loan at the moment, which puts them in the minority in the Scottish Premiership currently.  Bringing in players on loan is becoming an increasingly popular option - ao much so that every Premiership club has done so at least once this season - even Celtic have borrowed Patrick Roberts from Manchester City, while Rangers have desperately tried to spin their temporary moves for Jon Toral and Emerson Hyndman to give the impression that the duo are more than merely promising youngsters currently nowhere near the first XIs of Arsenal and Bournemouth respectfully.

Loaning players at this level tends to be cheap and offer little short-term risk; the parent club gets a small loan fee (or none at all), and if the player is a bust then he can be punted back at the end of the deal.  St. Johnstone themselves got their fingers burned with Joe Gormley, as the Peterborough striker quickly decided full-time football wasn't for him and 'retired', before moving to a club in his native Northern Ireland.

Motherwell don't have one at the moment either, having wasted their time with Luka Belic; recent comments from Mark McGhee implied that he knew nothing about the West Ham player before bringing him north, but he was returned south of the border with zero fanfare at the end of 2016, no questions asked.  I doubt McGhee is the only manager to

Of course, it's a rotten long-term strategy because if the player is any good the parent club will want them back - James Maddison did well enough at Aberdeen that Norwich have recalled him.  No transfer fee, no nothing.  Just a gap in the squad that needs filled again, and again, and again.

The loan system has benefits, of course.  Sending players to lower division sides is beneficial for all parties - just ask Robert Snodgrass, who Livingston sent to Stirling Albion at one point.  One objective of the SFA's Project Brave is to expand the use of development loans, so there are further opportunities for Premiership clubs' most promising youngsters.  But we now have a situation where Scottish kids are now denied first team action by promising youngsters that their own club has signed on loan.


Players signed on loan by Premiership clubs this season (parent club in brackets) 
Aberdeen: Ryan Christie (Celtic), James Maddison (Norwich) 
Celtic: Patrick Roberts (Man City)
Dundee: Michael Duffy (Celtic)
Hamilton: Remi Matthews (Norwich)
Hearts: Tony Watt (Charlton)
Inverness: Larnell Cole (Fulham)
Kilmarnock: Charlee Adams (Birmingham), Kristoffer Ajer (Celtic), Flo Bojaj (Huddersfield), Scott Boyd (Ross County), Will Boyle (Huddersfield), Jonathan Burn (Middlesbrough), Oliver Davies (Swansea), George Green (Burnley), Luke Hendrie (Burnley), Sean Longstaff (Newcastle), Cal Roberts (Newcastle), Mark Waddington (Stoke), Freddie Woodman (Newcastle)
Motherwell: Luka Belic (West Ham)
Partick Thistle: Niall Keown (Reading)
Rangers: Emerson Hyndman (Bournemouth), Jon Toral (Arsenal)
Ross County: Milan Lalkovic (Portsmouth), Jim O'Brien (Shrewsbury)
St. Johnstone: Joe Gormley (Peterborough)


Kilmarnock are the perfect example of how the use of loans at the top end of Scottish football is out of hand.  They have loaned no fewer than thirteen players this season, eleven from English clubs.  That's because whilst there is a limit on domestic loan moves per season, there are no such restrictions on moves between different countries.  Lee Clark has exploited this to the full; seven of those loanees have already gone, with three of them lasting less than a month before leaving.  Killie are a club with a reputation for developing youth; these temporary signings might keep them up this season (maybe not now Souleymane Coulibaly has gone), but what about next year?  And the next?  And in the meantime kids of their own who have potential, such as Iain Wilson, Dean Hawkshaw and Alan Frizzell, are left on the sidelines.

That's one way in which the system is being manipulated.  The loan of Ryan Christie to Aberdeen yesterday raises another interesting possibility.  A year ago there's no chance Celtic would have loaned the Dons a player, given their proximity in the title race, but now there's no such threat.  But Christie fills the gap left by Maddison, giving Derek McInnes' side a boost.

Enough of a boost to finish ahead of Rangers?  That's uncertain, but imagine that other Celtic reserves were offered to Aberdeen, or to Hearts.  Efe Ambrose, Eoghan O'Connell (who has actually gone to Walsall), Liam Henderson, Nadir Ciftci, Kris Commons...all players who will play very few minutes for Celtic this season but who would improve those two sides.  And, looking at the long-term, it would be in Celtic's interests to push Rangers down to fourth place, denying them prize money and a place in European football and keeping them very much the poorer half of the Gruesome Twosome.

Unlikely?  Maybe.  But it's an interesting thought.  The current system allows such high jinks, and that's another reason why it needs tightened up.  It'll be better for Scottish football in the long run.


Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Caley Thistle's case for the defence

Edinburgh-based Caley Thistle fan Chris Lindsay analyses why Caley Thistle can't seem to defend at all this season.


When Richie Foran took over as manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle from John Hughes, there were mixed feelings from the fans but the overall mood was positive. Foran was a dedicated club man, had been a leader on the pitch and, importantly, had the benefit of a settled squad of experienced players to build his team around.

Seven months on and things look different in the Highland capital. Caley Thistle’s season started badly, rallied and has since hit a slump that has seen the club go on the worst run since joining the senior leagues in 1994 – ten matches without a victory. The club had gone from to-ing and fro-ing in the ‘pack’ of teams in the SPFL Premiership to sitting bottom below Hamilton Accies, four points from safety. Only three victories have been achieved in the league by ICT all season and the league cup campaign saw an ignominious exit at the hands of part-time Alloa. Underlying the whole season is a leaky defensive unit. In league matches up until the winter break, ICT conceded 40 goals in 21 matches, 1.9 goals per game – by far the club's worst goals conceded per game ratio ever in the top flight of Scottish football.

Season
Goals Conceded total
Goals per game
Note
2004/05
47
1.23

2005/06
38
1.00

2006/07
48
1.26

2007/08
62
1.63

2008/09
58
1.52

2010/11
44
1.15

2011/12
60
1.57

2012/13
60
1.57

2013/14
44
1.15

2014/15
42
1.10

2015/16
48
1.26

2016/17*
40
1.90
21 games played


Clearly something has gone wrong with the previously reliable ICT defensive unit. However, the defensive partnership of Gary Warren and Josh Meekings has been the basis of the ICT defence for several seasons and far fewer goals were conceded. In addition, the club has retained experienced full backs Carl Tremarco and David Raven, while the much-criticised Danny Devine departed last summer.

Several radar charts show the difference in performance between 2015/16 and 2016/17 for the ICT defenders.

Gary Warren

2015-16
2016-17

Warren showed exceptional results in 2015/16, despite it being a relatively difficult year for ICT. He registered close the top with aerial duel success and interceptions per 90 minutes along with good passing accuracy and positive forward passing scores. These remarkable scores are made all the more impressive by the fact that Warren missed the first three months of 2015/16 with a broken leg.

2016/17 shows significant drops for all of those measures, with only the passes to the final third figure showing a rise.

Josh Meekings

2015-16
2016-17
Meekings figures show a boost from 2015/16, with all areas measured in the chart improving. However, Meekings did miss significant parts of 2015/16 through injury and the impact of this on his numbers should be taken into account. Also, Meekings played as a right back for part of the 2015/16 season, covering due to injuries to dedicated full-backs.

Deputising for Meekings and Warren during their injuries in 2015/16 was Danny Devine, a fill-in player in defence since his arrival in Inverness in 2013. Devine left Inverness in the summer of 2016 to sign for Partick Thistle.

Danny Devine


Devine showed good ratings in aerial and defensive duels but poor pass ratings. Both in terms of completions and passing forward he rated less than Warren and Meekings both in 2015/16 and in 2016/17. Devine incurred criticism from supporters during the season for his mistakes, including hitting a short pass in his own box to Stuart Armstrong at Celtic Park, resulting in a goal, and inexplicably handling within his own box at Dens Park for a penalty, fortunately saved.

Carl Tremarco


2015/16
2016/17

The robust full-back was previously most noted for his red card in the 2015 Scottish cup final but came to the fore following the departure of star left-back Graeme Shinnie to Aberdeen.

Tremarco’s defensive figures have improved from 2015/16 to 2016/17 but his passing figures have set back slightly. Unmeasured in this chart is his emergence as an unlikely goal source with six goals already scored in league and cup this season, making Tremarco ICT's leading goalscorer.

David Raven / Brad McKay
Raven has made the ICT right back slot his own, capping his time as a stalwart of the team with an unforgettable winner against Celtic at Hampden to put ICT into the Scottish cup final. John Hughes’ intention to release the Liverpudlian following a fall-out lead many fans to conclude that they’d prefer the manager to leave over the right back.

Brad McKay was signed following his release from St Johnstone and was surprisingly slotted into the right back straight from the start of his stint in the Highlands

Raven 2015/16
McKay 2016/17

Raven’s solid figures from the previous season are significant higher than McKay’s. McKay has a significantly lower percentage of wins in defensive duels and in the air and fewer passes to the final third. Like Tremarco though, McKay has contributed in unexpected ways, with four assists provided so far this season, behind only Celtic’s Moussa Dembele in the Scottish Premiership.

The radar charts show us that most of the defenders stats have slipped back since the previous season. Can any weaknesses be pinpointed in the defence by looking at other available information? In terms of where the methods of goals against ICT, the goal sources have not significantly altered over the two seasons

Goals from crosses balance out roughly equally at 20% for both left and right with approximately 40% of goals coming from through balls. The composition of the final 20% has changed, with dead balls almost doubling in terms of the percentages but in absolute terms only from three goals (all penalties) in 2015/16 to five this season, two penalties and three direct free kicks. 

 The number of goals conceded from long range shots or direct runs at defence by an individual has doubled but these figures again are relatively small – rising from two in 2015/16 to four in 2016/17. One positive for ICT is that no goals have been conceded so far in 2016/17 from own goals or direct passes to the opposition forwards.

Without a glaring weakness accounting for the increase in defensive frailty in Inverness, further analysis is required. The following charts show the areas of the pitch where the opposition played the ball during their goals, including scoring shots. This doesn’t represent individual touches of the ball, just the times opposition played the ball in these areas of the pitch during goalscoring moves. The pitch is divided into 24 boxes, with the ICT goal at the top.


2015/16
2016/17

In 2015/16 a higher percentage of opposition goalscoring moves against took place in the 18 yard box than in 2016/17 – 44.3% against 32.4%. Other significant differences are seen in touches in the ICT half in wide areas – in 2015/16 16.6% of opposition goalscoring moves touched on the wide areas of the ICT half, whereas in 2016/17 the figure was 25.2%.

Looking into midfield, in 2015/16 14.7% of opposition goalscoring moves touched on the midfield areas immediately in the opposition half and then in the ICT half – the ‘centre circle’ areas. In 2016/17 that figure rises to 25.3%.

These figures are a bare analysis but appear to show opposition having greater success at maintaining possession and building attacks on the ICT defence when around the centre circle and moving into the ICT half. The scope of this blog post is not to analyse the performances of ICT's midfield and forward players but the move from having pacier forwards like Miles Storey, Jordan Roberts and Andrea Mbuyi-Mutumbo in 2015/16 to having a forward line based more on aerial targets like Lonsana Doumbaya and Alex Fisher could have resulted in opposition regaining possession in better attacking positions and the forward players not stretching opposition defences and midfield players with attacking runs off the ball.

Another point for further analysis is on the ICT midfield players – how much protection are the ‘2’ in the 4-2-3-1 favoured by Richie Foran offering the defence? Ross Draper is typically the Inverness powerhouse in the middle of the park but, at least early in the season, he was utilised in more attacking roles, with his strength and power used against opposition defences rather than their attacking players. Greg Tansey’s performances are widely perceived by fans to have dipped since the transfer speculation linking him with Aberdeen. The players the in the ‘3’ have also interchanged continually through the season with Iain Vigurs, Larnell Cole, Liam Polworth, Billy King, Aaron Doran, Jake Mulraney and, briefly, Ross Draper having filled roles there. A more settled and organised line could provide further pressing and protect ICT further up the pitch.

With Richie Foran promising to be active in the transfer market and the club facing several crucially important matches in the final ten days in January, ICT fans can only hope that the clubs uncharacteristically leaky defence is improved – in the last five years only Dunfermline in 2011/12 with 2.15 had a higher goals conceded per game ratio than the current ICT team.


NOTE
The pitch grids measure the areas of the pitch where the opposition moved the ball during a goal. If the ball is passed from one grid to another, that counts as a ‘score’ for both grids. If a player dribbles from one grid to another both grids are counted. If a ball is kicked from the halfway line into the box and then put into the net then only the boxes at the halfway line and the penalty box are counted.

The author is an enthusiastic amateur, fully open to any comments, positive or negative about the article and any of the measures used in it.


Credits
Radar chart data kindly supplied by superb Twitter analyst and resource @TheSPFLTwitter.
Goalscoring videos for 2015/16 and 2016/17 viewed on YouTube.com

Thanks to @ASutherland1983 for making the playlist for 2016/17.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Should Kouassi Eboue be allowed to join Celtic?

As if a 19 point lead wasn't enough, Celtic have trolled Rangers fans further by actually getting out their chequebook this month to sign Kouassi Eboue for £2.5million.  I'd be lying if I claimed I knew much about the 19 year old Ivorian; transfermarkt.co.uk describes him as a defensive midfielder.  If he does indeed have the potential that Brendan Rodgers has claimed - "I look at (him) with the same feeling I had as when I saw a young Coutinho and a young Sterling" - then presumably he'll be in the team soon enough...in which case another of Celtic's established midfielders is going to see less game time.  Scott Brown?  Stuart Armstrong?  We'll see.

My beef with the signing is not that; it's that its not clear at all how Eboue circumvents work permit rules.  The criteria for a non-EU player is as follows:
- must have played for their country in at least 75% of its competitive matches in the last two years when fit
- their country must be 70th or higher in the FIFA rankings

Well, the Ivory Coast are ranked 34th at the time of writing.  However, Eboue has a grand total of zero caps.  He has had two previous callups to the Elephants, but is yet to play for them.  So on we go to the next step, where according to SFA rules, "where an application does not meet the published criteria, a club may request a panel to consider the player's skills and experience".

The panel takes the following factors into account.  I quote word for word from the SFA's guidance:
- 'to consider whether the player is of the highest calibre'
- 'to consider whether the player is able to contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in Scotland'

To recap, Eboue is an uncapped 19 year old who, so far this season, has started less than half the league games of his Russian Premier League side Krasnodar.  Now, it might be rather stringent for me to assume that 'highest calibre' applies to the Messis and Ronaldos of this world, but to stretch the definition this far appears to be pushing one's luck.

As for contributing 'significantly to the development of the game at the top level in Scotland', what to make of that?  From Celtic's own selfish point of view, he might improve their squad and ultimately strengthen their starting lineup.  Moreover, their long-term aim is to sell him for megabucks, which would certainly contribute significantly to their bank balance.  However, if Eboue is a success, he will reduce the potential playing time of other Celtic players including some Scottish ones.  Maybe Armstrong and Brown are untouchable in the short-term, but what about guys like Callum McGregor and Liam Henderson?

So I strongly dispute that Eboue can be described as 'of the highest calibre'.  And I certainly dispute that he will contribute significantly to anything other than Celtic's ongoing hegemony.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't find any other non-EU signing in Scotland that is comparable.  Victor Wanyama was my first reference point, but whilst Kenya's FIFA ranking was between 65 and 100 before he joined Celtic, he had at least hit that 75% target and so his signing is much easier to justify.

But of course it isn't me who makes the decision.  This panel has sat, and apparently has recommended to the SFA that Celtic be allowed to register Eboue.  Apparently he is of 'the highest calibre', and apparently he will 'contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in Scotland'.

Clearly they know more than I do about football.  Because the alternative explanation is that the panel might not have been entirely impartial in their judgement.  But the idea of an SFA process such as this being anything other than transparent and squeaky clean is nothing short of preposterous, obviously.

On the other hand, say Aberdeen had found a 19 year old uncapped non-EU player and wanted to sign him.  I can't help feeling that wouldn't be looked upon favourably.


Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.