Saturday, August 2, 2014

2014-15 Premiership preview - Aberdeen

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LAST SEASON: Third, 68pts

NOTABLE INS: Scott Brown (Cheltenham Town), David Goodwillie (Blackburn Rovers), Shaleum Logan (Brentford, loan made permanent), Ash Taylor (Tranmere Rovers), Jeffrey Monakana (Brighton & Hove Albion, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Josh Magennis (Kilmarnock), Scott Vernon (Shrewsbury Town), Calvin Zola (Stevenage), Alan Tate (Swansea City, end of loan), Nicky Weaver

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Langfield, Logan, Reynolds, Anderson, Considine, Flood, Jack, Hayes, Pawlett, McGinn, Rooney

Given the unbridled joy in the North-East when Aberdeen brought back the League Cup in the Spring, and the kudos from a surprise win over Groningen in the Europa League, one wonders how far away the city is from erecting a statue of Derek McInnes.

Might finishing second in the league for the first time in twenty years be enough?

McInnes isn't the only reason for the Dons' return to relevance, but he's the biggest one.  Calvin Zola aside (the less said about him the better), his signings have been smart.  His team appear to have achieved the tricky balance between being solid in defence and dangerous in attack.  Hell, he's managed to turn Peter Pawlett into one of Scottish football's best attacking midfield players; I couldn't be more impressed if he turned my Volvic into a Pinot Grigio.

And the fans are beginning to come back.  The attendances for the two home European games so far have been well above their league average for recent seasons.  Of course, a whopping 40,000 turned up at Celtic Park for the League Cup final.  Keep up the performances, the decent football, and most importantly the wins, and Aberdeen might get enough fans in to justify opening the top tier of the Richard Donald Stand again.

McInnes hasn't made any marquee signings this summer - you might disagree, but David Goodwillie hasn't deserved that tag for a while - but he hasn't needed to.  He has however procured a bit more squad depth, which may come in handy if the early start to 2014-15 results in tired legs after Christmas.  Most importantly, he's signed up Shay Logan, who is the best right-back the club have had since Kevin McNaughton.  Logan's ability to provide attacking width provides a new dimension by taking advantage of the wide player in front of him driving inside.  There still isn't a great solution to the left-back problem - has there been one since David Robertson? - but Andrew Considine was okay last season.  Intriguingly, McInnes has used flying winger Jonny Hayes there a few times.  Neither of the younger fullbacks, Clark Robertson and Joe Shaughnessy, appear to be rated by the manager though.

The defensive solidity comes mainly from having Mark Reynolds at the heart.  Reynolds is probably the best player in the league not under contract to Celtic.  He was so cool, calm and collected last season that I'm not sure that he actually broke sweat at any point.  His comfort in possession and confidence in striding forward from the back is as important as his defensive abilities.  With Russell Anderson well past his best, the Dons defence would be hugely weakened if Reynolds misses any gametime - the veteran skipper's experience doesn't entirely compensate for a turning circle equivalent to that of a minibus.  I wouldn't be surprised if he is eased out of the side during the season by new boy Ash Taylor.

The midfield should tick along nicely, with Willo Flood as metronome and Ryan Jack doing all his running.  Jack has spent a lot of time at right back in the past, but in the middle of the park he can have far more influence on the game.  He's an excellent player with a superb engine, though he really should score more goals than he does.  Barry Robson is a useful backup, but the 35 year old's reduced mobility was exposed at times last season, particularly when alongside Flood.  If anything, he's probably better being used on the flanks, if at all.

In front of them will be Pawlett, who causes havoc whenever he gets the ball into feet in that area between the opposing defence and midfield.  He and Hayes (who can line up on either flank) love dribbling and are encouraged to do so.  Their pace makes Aberdeen particularly dangerous on the break, especially as Adam Rooney is terrific at holding up the ball or running into channels to create space for them and Niall McGinn, who still offers a pretty good goal threat even when coming in from a wide position.  Rooney isn't half-bad in front of goal either; 15 goals in 23 starts since arriving in January isn't too shabby.  At Inverness, he was prone to droughts from time to time, though his build-up play would still be of high standard.  If the Irishman finds some consistency, he could rack up some impressive figures.  And if McInnes can get Goodwillie back to anywhere near his best form, he and the Red Army will be laughing very loudly.

The extra games this season may, as I alluded to earlier, lead to more action for fringe players.  I've always been impressed by young Cammy Smith, and I hope to see more of hims; however, Pawlett's emergence somewhat restricts the opportunities for a youngster who thrives in the second striker role.  Another teenage forward, Lawrence Shankland, might be ready for an opportunity, while 17 year old winger Scott Wright made his debut against Daugava Riga.  Wright and fellow wideman Jeffrey Monakana, brought in on loan from Brighton, will probably mostly see action as substitutes.

That's plenty of attacking options, isn't it?

The Dons were only one very late and very dubious Motherwell goal away from second place last season.  But now I reckon that there's a little bit of a gap between Aberdeen and the other ten teams fighting for the 'best of the rest' tag.  Not as big as the yawning chasm between those eleven sides and Celtic, obviously.  But maybe Aberdeen can get a little bit closer to the Champions than they did last season, and upset them once or twice again.  Anything more impressive than that and McInnes really will be immortal.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1993 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Scott Brown, Jamie Langfield
Defenders: Russell Anderson, Andrew Considine, Shaleum Logan, Craig Murray, Mark Reynolds, Clark Robertson, Joe Shaughnessy, Ash Taylor
Midfielders: Willo Flood, Jonny Hayes, Ryan Jack, Nicky Low, Jamie Masson, Jeffrey Monakana, Peter Pawlett, Barry Robson, Craig Storie
Forwards: David Goodwillie, Niall McGinn, Declan McManus, Adam Rooney, Lawrence ShanklandCammy SmithScott Wright


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