Monday, November 9, 2015

Talking Points from the Premiership

Boyce has lost his mojo
A 4-1 defeat by Celtic was a bit harsh on Ross County, particularly given how they matched the Champions in the first half until a superb strike from Tom Rogic opened the scoring.  Add in a slip from Scott Boyd that let in Leigh Griffiths to double the lead after the break and that was that, really.  It would be a stretch to say that Ronny Deila's men were outstanding, but it was a professional performance given the tricky conditions and the pressure they might have been feeling after the midweek Molde mess.

Had County scored first, however, it might have been a different story.  And they should have done.  Given Jackson Irvine's superb form one would have expected the Australian to smash a loose ball home from ten yards rather than fresh-air it, but that wasn't even as glaring an opportunity as the one passed up earlier on by Liam Boyce, who somehow conspired to miss the target with a free header in the opening ten minutes.

Unfortunately for the Staggies, Boyce has gone off the boil - this was his fifth straight game without a goal after scoring eleven in nine games prior to that.  Whereas in September he looked relaxed and confident when receiving the ball in advanced areas, he now looks uncertain and nervous.  Whilst his workrate isn't in question, he's neither as effective a target man as Brian Graham (who didn't even make the bench for this match) nor as mobile as Craig Curran, who hasn't quite bounced back to his best after an extended period out with concussion-like symptoms.

Boycie needs to get back amongst the goals fast, as he will have hopes of being in Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 squad.  He's the best natural goalscorer his club have, but if he isn't scoring then there are others who can probably contribute more. LS

Aberdeen's recent woes put into perspective by United
I asked a good friend of mine, a Dundee United supporter who will be getting married next weekend, if he fancied coming up to Aberdeen for his last United game as a free man.  This was the day after they were knocked out of the League Cup at Hibs, and said friend - who lives in Edinburgh and had been to Easter Road - informed me that thank you very much, but he'd had a sufficient dose of the Arabs the night before.

For all that Aberdeen have had their own worries over the past couple of months, you sometimes need a reminder that other supporters are having a tougher time than your own.  Such is the case at United, bottom of the Premiership table and recently humped by Championship opposition.  They still have a few good players and a couple of old heads, but they also have a number of young men who have yet to prove themselves.  Mark Durnan, Scott Fraser, Simon Murray and Blair Spittal are old enough, but are they good enough? 

Regardless of potential ability, somebody at Dundee United needs to either buy Fraser an Alice band or get him to the barbershop - there could have been five minutes stoppage time just for the amount of time he spent fixing his hair (thank god Aaron Kuhl was only on the bench - Ed).  Having done the hard work of intercepting an overly casual pass from Ryan Jack in his own half, one can only imagine that he couldn't see past his overhanging fopp to either pick out the two international strikers making runs either side of him or find the target himself.  It was a massive let off for Aberdeen.  Jack had already been under pressure following a lacklustre display at Celtic Park that saw him substituted in the second half, and had his error led to United taking the lead against the run of play it could have meant a long afternoon for club and captain.  Instead, the Dons got in at half time unscathed, and came out emboldened for the second half.  

Jonny Hayes, in particular, put in a performance that kicked on from a return to form last weekend and more than merited man of the match honours this weekend.  For the first goal he screamed by Blair Spittal and Sean Dillon to cross, with Peter Pawlett Baby putting enough pressure on Michal Szromnik to force him to spike the ball in the air for Adam Rooney to nod in from in from a yard out.  For the second, a driving Pawlett found Hayes in acres of space on the edge of the box and Jonny duly delivered a thunder strike to seal the win - much to the obvious relief of players and supporters alike.  (Kenny McLean could allegedly be seen mouthing 'thank f**k for that!')

So Aberdeen's winless run comes to an end but United's struggles continue.  Mixu has already suggested since taking over that he has inherited a squad that will require strengthening in January, but how much damage will have been done by then? MI

St. Johnstone's backups keep coming up with the goods
By the way, St. Johnstone have crept up to fourth in the table, five points clear of the chasing pack.  They've won seven out of eight in all competitions.  One of these days they'll actually get some plaudits.  Maybe.

One recipe for success at this level is to have a settled starting XI, unburdened by injuries and suspensions.  So how many of their players have started every league game so far?  None.  Nada.  Only Celtic can say the same and they have, shall we say, a deeper squad.

Given the way that other teams struggle when they lose two or three men to injury, it's quite remarkable how the next man up keeps getting the job done for the Perth Saints.  The latest example came on Saturday, when busy and in-form striker Graham Cummins limped off early doors.  On came 21 year old Chris Kane, yet to start a Premiership match this season.  Kane scored the winner with a crisp finish; earlier, his sublime pass to Steven Maclean led to an equalizer for Michael O'Halloran.

Imagine how well St. Johnstone might do if they could actually put out their strongest eleven for a change?  Next up are Dundee United at Tannadice, and in addition to the injured Cummins they'll be without the suspended Liam Craig and long-term absentee Simon Lappin.  Yet one suspects they'll do just fine. LS

Hearts are unspectacular but effective
I don’t know who at BBC Scotland has decided that the viewers would rather watch interviews than actual football, but they clearly have a much higher boredom threshold than I do.

This was an occasion where Robbie Neilson’s monotone, cliché filled snorefest was an entirely
appropriate summation of this game. Although Hearts were by no means spectacular, there was enough of a gulf between the teams for them to be 2-0 up at halftime without leaving second gear.

Prince Buaben opened the scoring with a well struck shot that took an awkward bounce in front of the keeper, and Arnaud Djoum rounded things off after some lovely, unselfish play inside the box by Osman Sow.

After the previous meeting between these sides, we were entitled to expect a bit of niggle and drama, but the closest we got to any controversy was when Carlton Morris was booked for a dive in the box. Martin Canning certainly thought it was a foul, but to me it looked very much like Morris ensured he made contact with Blazej Augustyn and the referee probably got it right.

For a few hours this victory put Hearts within three points of Celtic, and so began the whispers of whether it would be Hearts rather than Aberdeen who could mount some kind of title challenge.  Neilson has must be delighted with their progress after coming up this season, but even he will concede that keeping up with Celtic over a sustained period of time is a tall order.

We should know more after December when they face back to back games against Aberdeen, St Johnstone, and Celtic. The way Scottish title challenges seem to go these days, I fully expect them to win all three games but lose at either end of that run to Inverness and Dundee Utd. IM

Sorry Mark McGhee, but the ref got it right
With an injury list in double figures and a four game winless run behind them, the few ICT fans that made the trip to Fir Park did not have high hopes of securing three points.  So the well deserved victory was a delightful surprise.  Greg Tansey, Miles Storey and Iain Vigurs (with an outrageous volley!) put them three goals up before Louis Moult's consolation for Motherwell and a late red card for Stephen McManus.

Despite all this action, plus plenty of other entertaining moments, Sportscene felt it worthy of just over two minutes of highlights. With the demise of the relatively good quality five minute highlight reel provided by the SPFL on YouTube, ostensibly due to some clubs wishing to focus on creating their own highlights, Sportscene is in theory the logical choice to view a largely neutral roundup of the weekend action.  Unfortunately it has degenerated so much that is now barely worth watching.  Highlights of last week's Kilmarnock-Motherwell game were shorter than the opening montage for the show itself and  this fixture was seemingly swatted away as if they couldn’t really be bothered talking about it.

That was despite the furore following referee Craig Thomson's decision to allow Tansey to retake his penalty kick due to encroachment by players from both sides; one Motherwell player was so far inside the box that he was almost level with the penalty taker. McGhee bemoaned the decision after the match and, whilst displaying little or no understanding of the rules regarding encroachment, complained that you will see other incidents like that which do not result in a retake.

McGhee is, of course, wrong.  Whilst the penalty award was harsh on 'Well, the referee was completely correct to have the kick retaken.  The argument that it happens in other games and goes unpunished doesn’t wash.  If you don’t want to get caught speeding by the police you don’t break the speed limit.  A similar theme relates to frequent comments from pundits on penalties being given for shirt pulling in the box claiming that you’d have several penalties in each game every week.  Bring it on - perhaps then it will discourage players from trying to haul each other’s shirts off during a game.  A similar robust enforcement of the laws of the game would perhaps dissuade players from charging into the box as a penalty is taken.  Just make sure you let McGhee know first. AS

Dundee are underachieving Anyone who has watched Dundee play...or their relatively unique half-time warmup routines...knows that Paul Hartley's side will not be found wanting in the fitness stakes.  It's dug them out of a few holes; they've scored six times in the last thirteen minutes of matches already this season.  Having trailed for nearly the whole match at home to Partick Thistle, they were rescued by Kane Hemmings' equalizer.

There aren't too many other positives, though.  After an impressive August, results have tailed off alarmingly with only one win in seven and the next three matches coming against St. Johnstone, Hearts and Aberdeen.  They're only out of the top six on goal difference, but given their playing budget that's not really good enough.

Why the struggles?  When I posed the question on Twitter, all I got were Dundee United fans slagging them off (glass houses and all that, chaps).  I imagine it has something to do with managing only a single clean sheet since opening day; only United and Killie have conceded more.  I also bet that the absence of James McPake and Kevin Thomson (only 1 appearance each since the end of September) isn't helping.  Without the former and another casualty, Julen Extabeguren - though I've not been very impressed by the Spaniard - the Dark Blues had Thomas Konrad and Kostadin Gadzhalov in central defence against Thistle.  Oh dear.

Meanwhile, for all Hartley's summer transfer activity the squad is woefully short of cover for Thomson in central midfield.  Gary Harkins had a few unsuccessful outings there, and now it's Nicky Low's turn to look like a fish out of water.  Whilst Thomson rarely looks impressive these days, the bottom line is that Dundee are better when he is on the park.  An unused sub on Saturday, his return to full fitness can't come quickly enough. LS

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

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically a Rangers fan, but these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog because now he can 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.

Andrew Sutherland (AS) occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.  He would never miss an ICT match unless he was offered a date with the lead singer of CHVRCHES...who he would then take to said ICT match.

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