Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Inverness impress...but still lose
A quick glance at the result of the Celtic game on Saturday and you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a walk in the park.  Celtic Park hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for ICT in recent years with John Hughes’s side on the wrong end of a 21–2 score line over the previous five fixtures.  This is now 24–2 over six matches but Inverness can count themselves extremely unfortunate not to have taken anything from the game.

Golden opportunities were passed up by Gary Warren and Jordan Roberts which, had they been taken, might have seen Inverness assume a commanding position in the game.  Unfortunately, the Highlanders only have themselves to blame as Celtic, booed off at half time by the sparse home support, showed a much more ruthless side to their game in the second half and handed out a lesson in finishing clinically.  A deflected effort from Gary Mackay-Steven got the ball rolling before a double from Leigh Griffiths (who else?) made the score line look more comfortable than it really was.

After the success of fielding a team without a ‘dedicated’ striker against Aberdeen, Hughes again went with this set up with Miles Storey and Roberts on the left and right flanks respectively with Ross Draper pushed up through the middle. Inverness actually dominated midfield, and so Celtic struggled to impose themselves; moreover, their defensive high line meant that when ICT did win the ball they could quickly feed it forward.  Whilst this didn’t always directly lead to chances, it did put Celtic on the back foot and they would often concede fouls from quick breaks. It was an interesting tweak of the system from Hughes and one that, for the first 45 minutes, looked like it could result in a win.

However, the first Celtic goal gave the home side confidence whilst Caley Thistle stumbled; the second goal killed off any hopes of even a point.  Inverness missed an opportunity here, because they missed their opportunities.  Their profligacy could well be the difference between being in the top half and the bottom.half come the split. AS

Paton goal not the only highlight at Tannadice
The highlights of Dundee United v Hearts were cracking, partly because of Neil Alexander's stunning save from Edward Ofere, partly because of Paul Paton's 'foot like a traction engine' winner, and partly because of all the stuff going on in the background.  For example...

A fantastic hissy fit from Gavin Gunning when Hearts scored - possibly aimed at his keeper.  Walker hit it with venom from fairly close in, so I'm not sure Eiji Kawashima could do much.  Perhaps the goalie might have more chance if Gunning and his fellow defenders hadn't made such an arse of defending a long ball over the top...

Kevin Clancy giving Jordan McGhee a very soft first yellow...and then building up the suspense beautifully with a pregnant pause before deciding to show him a second one later - even though the second yellow was as blatant as the day is long...

And, best of all, Henri Anier managing to get two yellows despite only being on the pitch seventeen minutes.  The first one, remarkably, was for persistent fouling, even though it was only eight minutes since he'd come on.  The second was for a stupid kick at an opponent after the ball had gone out of play for a nothing throw-in in Hearts half.  Best of all, it was in front of the away fans, who rose to wave their hands and shout some Gorgie equivalent of "J'accuse!".  What an idiot Anier is; he has no right to get another chance at United after stealing a wage for a year, and then he blows said chance like that.  But hey, it was fun...LS

Wotherspoon helps Saints stop the rot
With Aberdeen's Friday Night Fitba' match postponed due to a waterlogged pitch at Firhill (many a bemused Dons and Jags who tuned into BT Sport that night will have been treated instead to a thrilling scoreless draw between Bordeaux and Nice) Narey's Toepoker sent me instead to an alternative SPFL fixture in the manner of a BBC Executive ordering a disgruntled Sportsound pundit up the M8.

Motherwell opened the scoring in the first half through the prolific Louis Moult.  The Well top scorer, bemusingly left out of the starting line up for a couple of matches by Mark McGhee before their impressive 3-0 win at Tannadice in midweek, created a corner kick opportunity after being shepherded down the right flank by a couple of Saints defenders.  From the resultant set piece, James McFadden swung in a left footed cross and Moult shed his marker to head his side in front.  

The lead only lasted ten minutes.  At the other end of the pitch, Liam Craig laid the ball off for David Wotherspoon - despite already being inside the left corner of the penalty area, the Steelmen opted to leave him in yards of space, and Wotherspoon duly decided to curl a shot into the top corner.  For all of the (merited) hype that surrounded Michael O'Halloran during the first half of the season, this perhaps unfairly resulted in Wotherspoon's own contribution being overlooked.  A creative player who has also now scored his seventh goal of the season from midfield, I am surprised that the 26 year old has not generated some more media attention of his own, or even a token Scotland squad call up.  Gordon Strachan could do worse than pitch the fella in for a cap in one of their upcoming friendlies, if for no other reason than to stop him getting snapped up by the Azerbaijan national team.  (He apparently qualifies through this mum, who was born there.  If Milli manager Robert Prosinecki turns up to Pittodrie this weekend on a 'reckie', we have been duly warned...)

Despite St Johnstone exerting more and more pressure on Motherwell as the second half wore on, it looked as if the match was going to end a score draw.  However, Well fans will be more than familiar now with how this story has usually ended for the Steelmen in recent times.  Following a clumsy foul on John Sutton by teenage defender Ben Hall, Simon Lappin lobbed the free kick onto the six yard box and Tam Scobbie looped his header in for an injury time winner.

Remarkably, this was the third time this month that Motherwell have managed to lose a game as a result of an injury time winner by their opponents.  It is perhaps interesting to note, in this context, that Well this season are a striking contrast of young boys and old men.  Of the 14 players that played for them in this game, winger Marvin Johnson was the only player older than 25 without being in his thirties - an age demographic that most would consider to be a footballer's prime.  Perhaps this tendency towards conceding late goals has as much to do with having a group of players who have either not yet developed the match fitness and stamina to still perform near their peak beyond the 90 minutes, or are by that time desperately in need for a nice warm bath and a post-match mug of Horlicks.  Make no mistake, Motherwell are mired in the relegation battle yet again, and McGhee will need to work out how to best alloy these elements together - at the moment, they are less galvanised steel, more pig iron.

For St Johnstone, the win was a timely one, not only because it arrested a run of nine games without a win but also given that they next have a couple of challenging away trips to Partick and Aberdeen coming up within the next seven days.  Before O'Halloran's departure in the January transfer window, the Perth Saints looked to be well set for a fifth consecutive top six finish.  Although they returned to the top six again after this result, they'll now need to kick on to ensure that they stay there. MI

Accies' lousy road trip
What a thoroughly miserable weekend for Hamilton Accies.  184 miles up the A9, albeit to the beautiful Highlands.  90 minutes of toil on a ploughed field.  45 minutes against 10 men.  Zero points.  184 miles down the A9, albeit to beautiful South Lanar… never mind.

It’s the 10 men bit that would really sting. As every football fan knows, it’s the hope that kills you,
and after equalising with 25 minutes still left to play, Hamilton must have fancied their chances of taking a valuable three points home with them in the raise to separate the wheat from the chaff in the lower half of the Premiership. (Spoiler alert: there is no wheat).

While there are enough bad teams around that Saturday’s defeat isn’t exactly catastrophic, it is a missed opportunity.  The table is so congested that it only takes a wee run to buy yourself a bit of breathing room, as Dundee and Inverness have demonstrated recently.  Hamilton are not in a position where they can so carelessly throw away points that look to be there for the taking if they want to avoid a likely playoff against a good Hibs team.

County boss Jim McIntyre was pleased that his team had not let their cup adventures take their focus away from the league,and rightly so.  It’s not easy to do well in three competitions through the winter period, with a relatively small squad.  As Celtic have shown, even having 15 attacking midfielders in your squad doesn’t guarantee you’ll win everything.

I fancy Ross County in the League Cup Final next month, and I particularly admire the lengths they’ve gone to in their preparation.  Kudos to the Victoria Park groundsman for preparing a pitch to the exact same standard as Hampden. It’s the little things that bring success. IM

Keepers impress at Killie
A one-off "impress the new manager" performance?  Or a sign that Killie are better than their league position?  The home side certainly merited their draw against Dundee, in a game that either side could have won.  Unfortunately for Lee Clark's side, hard-fought draws are not going to get them out of trouble.  Only wins will do that, but Clark must feel there is a reasonable chance he can outsmart Martin Canning and Mark McGhee sufficiently that he can preserve the club's top flight status for a twenty-fourth consecutive season.

The main folk responsible for this match remaining goalless were the two keepers, who seemed determined to try and outdo each other with spectacular saves; I'd give the prize to Scott Bain for his point-blank stop from teammate Kevin Holt.  Bain and Jamie MacDonald (who has, to be fair, had a lot of practice this season) have been outstanding this year.  Both are rather unfortunate to be around at a time when the national team are rather well off between the sticks, though surely they are the next in line after David Marshall, Allan McGregor and Craig Gordon.

Perhaps MacDonald's hopes of greater things are gone, though 29 is a relatively young age for a keeper and experience appears to be improving his presence in his own box.  He remains a quality shot-stopper in this league, regardless.  But Bain?  He is just 24; one wonders if Aberdeen ever pine after a player that they let go in 2011, now that they are not exactly blessed in that position.  Bain is under contract at Dundee for another two years, but has the qualities required to play at a higher level than this.  24 was the same age that Gordon left Hearts; it wouldn't be a surprise if the Dens keeper has impressive suitors interested in paying Paul Hartley an impressive fee to let him go...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 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.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Top six or eleventh?

Absolute certainties:
  • Death
  • Taxes
  • Celtic to finish top (I'm tempting fate by saying that...I hope so anyway!)
  • Aberdeen to finish second
  • Hearts to finish third
  • Dundee United to get relegated

As for the rest - well, your guess is as good as mine.  At the time of writing, six points separate the other eight sides, from Ross County in fourth to Kilmarnock in eleventh.  It's tighter than a hippo's thong.  Three lucky clubs will get into the top six, while one will have to play a relegation playoff that is likely to be far harder to win than Motherwell's was last season.

Given what we've seen so far in 2015-16, it seems bizarre that it's so close. Ross County haven't been out of the top six since the second game of the season and are in a cup final; Dundee have accumulated a talented (and, according to rumours I've heard, expensive) squad; St. Johnstone went on a great run before Christmas where they looked a match for anyone; Inverness have ten points out of twelve against Aberdeen and Hearts this season.  In contrast - Partick couldn't score for fun in the early months; Killie and Motherwell chucked hopeless managers; it remains relatively surprising that Hamilton Accies haven't followed suit after a rotten run and a cup thumping at League Two Annan.

And yet those top six places are up for grabs, and that dangerous eleventh place is still anyone's, at least unless somebody does a 2013-14 Hibs; several teams have threatened to do so at times, but at the time of apparent maximum crisis they always seem to pull out a result or two (see Motherwell at Tannadice on Tuesday night).

(For the record, 'doing a 2013-14 Hibs' = one win and only eight points from the last eighteen league games.  After 26 games of that season they had 32 points and were seventh)

Targets?  Well, 44 points is nearly always enough for the top six - which would fit with the current points per game accumulated by Caley Thistle in sixth spot.  Only once since the split was introduced has the team in eleventh managed more than 40 points so, like in the English Premier League, this should probably be earmarked as the target to survive.

Of course, if one club could appoint Terry Butcher as manager and start playing Ryan McGivern in defence and James Collins up front, that would make life a whole lot more relaxing for the rest of us.

So who is in good shape going into the last third of the season, and who isn't?

Ross County
Reasons for optimism: The Staggies are in the box seat, and have more points on the board than the others.  They also have a genuinely decent squad, with forwards - specifically Liam Boyce - who can score goals.

Reasons for pessimism: They could potentially be distracted by their cup final date; they also have a winnable Scottish cup quarter-final with Dundee United.  The defence is their weakness, with only one league clean sheet since mid-October.

Prediction: Fifth.  Jim McIntyre is unlikely to let his players lose focus, and they have enough depth to compete on multiple fronts.  It would be a surprise if they didn't keep their spot in the top half.

Reasons for optimism: They're in good form right now, with only one defeat in the last seven.  Their record against the teams below them is excellent, with only two defeats to the sides in the current bottom six.  If their performance against St. Johnstone is anything to go by, they are flying in midfield and attack.

Reasons for pessimism: Paul Hartley's side seem just as prone to bad runs as good ones, so logic dictates another dip is coming soon.  Beyond their first eleven, there isn't a lot in reserve so injuries could take their toll.  And they really would suffer if something befell the free-scoring Kane Hemmings.

Prediction: Fourth.  The Dark Blues look like the business just now.  Besides, this was my pre-season prediction, so I'm going to milk it.

Inverness CT
Reasons for optimism: Caley Thistle are another side who have looked pretty good recently; their win over Aberdeen might have been their best performance of the season.  Jordan Roberts' emergence makes them look far more dangerous going forward.

Reasons for pessimism: The run of pre-split fixtures isn't kind - only three at home and trips to Celtic, Hearts, Ross County and Dundee - though their record against other top six teams this season is better than their record against the teams below them!  ICT have been woefully inconsistent this season, mainly because of a ridiculous injury list, but that list ain't easing any time soon and they'll struggle if one or two more names are added to it.

Prediction: Seventh.  Being a natural pessimist, I reckon the tough run of fixtures will prevent the Caley Jags from staying in the top half.  It would be a shock if they got dragged into the eleventh placed battle though.

St. Johnstone
Reasons for optimism: The Perth Saints have tended to finish recent seasons strongly.  After their recent bad run, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Tommy Wright go back to basics and grind out a few results - often what the team are best at anyway.  And maybe they'll sign Julien Faubert, who is actually only 32.

Reasons for pessimism: They've been guff recently - two draws and seven defeats from the last nine.  The loss of Michael O'Halloran hurt badly and leaves them very short of pace in attack.  The loss of Dave Mackay for the rest of the season leaves them short of an experienced head and a good defender when they really need one.  The strikers have scored one goal between them in the last three months.

Prediction: Sixth.  Every time anyone thinks of writing off St. Johnstone, they come good.  It's what comes from having a decent manager and a hard-working, disciplined squad.  So expect Wright to turn this around soon enough.

Reasons for optimism: Their veteran spine - Stephen McManus, Keith Lasley, Stephen Pearson and Scott McDonald - will be a boon if they are once more battling to avoid a playoff spot.  They're coming off a big win in a high-stakes game at Tannadice.  

Reasons for pessimism: McGhee still hasn't found his best XI or formation - unless his ugly (according to the man himself) tactics against Dundee United turn out to be the way forward.  The record since his return in October hasn't been much better than that of his predecessor.

Prediction: Tenth.  This 'Well side aren't much better than a year ago, but other sides are sufficiently worse that they'll stay up without the stress of a playoff.

Partick Thistle
Reasons for optimism: They have games in hand on everyone else.  Take away their dodgy August and September, and their subsequent points total is superior to anyone else in this article.  And they've got Kingsley to scare the life out of opponents.

Reasons for pessimism: It seems certain that midfield stalwarts Stuart Bannigan and Abdul Osman are offski - will they down tools if a big move is secured early?  The Firhill pitch starts to resemble a farmer's field at this time of year, and often hampers their passing play.

Prediction: Ninth.  In each of the last three seasons, Partick have spent only a handful of weeks in the top six - all in the opening weeks of each campaign.  I don't think they've got quite enough to smash through that ceiling this time.  More likely is that they guarantee their survival relatively early and take their foot off the gas.

Hamilton Accies

Reasons for optimism: They've tightened up in the last few games, with four clean sheets in five.  (There's only been one goal in those four games, mind, and they've been so rotten to watch that it makes your eyes bleed)  In Ali Crawford and Gramoz Kurtaj they have two excellent creative midfielders, and Dougie Imrie continues to work like a Trojan.

Reasons for pessimism: They've won just twice since the end of September, for a start.  Canning's record as manager, aside from a wee purple patch at the start of the season, is honking.  The strikers are all goalshy, and none of their centre-backs look up to Premiership standard.  

Prediction: Eleventh.  When they play defensively they can draw games, but when they attack they get thumped.  Draws won't be enough.  But I've written off Accies before, and got my fingers burned...

Reasons for optimism: A new manager is surely worth some sort of bounce, yeah? (don't say that to Dundee United fans).  Killie have plenty of attacking talent, and that artificial Rugby Park pitch doesn't do their home advantage any harm.

Reasons for pessimism: Lee Clark needs to sort out the back line, pronto.  Kilmarnock have been prone to defensive blunders all season, and the heads tend to go down when they fall behind.  Their next four games are against the top four.  And most of teams above them have games in hand.  

Prediction: Eighth.  Sounds crazy maybe, but I reckon the Clark appointment will give them the short-term boost they need to climb out of danger.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Collum lottery doesn't disguise Aberdeen's poor performance
Have I mentioned recently how much I love Willie Collum?

Ach, he's a terrible ref - and last night he screwed up massively in awarding Caley Thistle's penalty - but it's a nice feeling when your name comes up in the Collum Lottery.  Does the Compliance Officer still bother turning up for work at Hampden most weeks?  If so, I imagine Ross Draper will be getting a letter (as will Dundee's Darren O'Dea).

If Aberdeen had taken seven points out of nine against Inverness (rather than the other way round) then they would be top with a bit to spare, and ICT would be eleventh.  Caley Thistle have pretty much derailed the Dons' title bid single-handedly.  The bottom line is that Derek McInnes sends his side out to attack even when away from home; while early pressing can cause mistakes, such as the one that led to Adam Rooney's goal, ultimately the midfield pushed up so far that there was acres of space between the lines.

In the September meeting between the sides, Ryan Christie caused havoc in that space.  This time round, the likes of Draper and Iain Vigurs were able to break into it.  Add in a bit of real tactical inspiration from John Hughes - playing two wide forwards and no central striker, which largely pinned back Aberdeen's full-backs - and Caley Thistle looked as dangerous as they have done all season.  This was the first time they've scored three at home this season.

For all Collum's calamities, this was a poor Aberdeen performance, particularly after they fell behind.  Worryingly, they offered very little in the second half other than diagonal punts.  The loss of Jonny Hayes to injury may or may not have contributed to that; if he is missing for a number of games then other attackers will need to step up rather more than they did last night - starting at Firhill on Friday. LS

Clark just needs to outperform McGhee to keep Killie up
The skit on Motherwell v Killie was originally going to be titled 'Will Jig get the permanent gig?'.  So the news that Lee Clark has been appointed at Rugby Park obviously put the kibosh on that.  I'm not going to pretend I know any more about Clark than Wikipedia and Soccerbase can tell me - which is that he did a good job at Huddersfield, had a hard time at Birmingham and most recently struggled at Blackpool; his last 53 games as a manager have yielded just 6 wins.

He inherits a Kilmarnock side who climbed to the dizzy heights of tenth with this victory.  So, to survive, Clark simply needs to outperform Mark McGhee, whose Motherwell side look in crisis mode all of a sudden.  A month ago, 'Well were six games unbeaten (including a win at Celtic) and eighth in the table.  Now they're in the playoff position.

McGhee still seems haunted by the six goals his side shipped at Hearts in mid-January.  For the second game running, he started with only Scott McDonald up front and found that 4-2-3-1 failed to provide more solidity, but certainly reduced the side's attacking prowess and left the Fir Park crowd wailing at the manager to bring on Louis Moult.  Ironically, as in the cup tie with Inverness last week, Motherwell were (somewhat fortunately) still on level terms when a second striker was brought on...but then contrived to lose the game anyway.

McGhee's inability to pin down his best XI remains a worry - Moult and housewives' favourite Keith Lasley were only on the bench here - and they haven't managed to replace the energy of Liam Grimshaw.  Also of concern is that Chris Cadden and sub Dom Thomas were the most impressive performers - and they're just kids.  Motherwell's veterans just didn't turn up.  The way this season is going, maybe it's just a blip and all will be well in a month.  But recent performances have been scarily reminiscent of how senior players downed tools at the end of the Ian Baraclough era.  LS

Celtic no closer to winning with style
So Celtic didn’t have to wait long to wreak their revenge on Ross County for dumping them out of the League Cup a couple of weeks ago. Saturday’s game was a picture of how I imagine the semi-final would have played out had it not been affected by the natural disaster that is Efe Ambrose.

The home side dominated most of the game, creating chances but failing to take them.  One effort
from Leigh Griffiths, where he rounded the keeper and smacked the ball off the post, reminded one
of a similar effort by elderly Aberdeen striker Duncan Shearer in a preseason friendly in Inverness circa 1997. That’s a comparison I hope Griffiths will be proud of.

After struggling against County and East Kilbride in the last couple of games, Celtic really needed a good performance as well as a result from this game. While a step up from the shambles of last Sunday, it was not a great display, and despite being 2-0 up, they were on the back foot by the end of the game as County came more and more into it.  Had the visitors got the goal that their play probably merited, it would have been interesting to see how the home side would have coped with some late pressure.

A post on these pages last week compared Celtic’s points total this season to previous seasons.  For most of the years in that table, Rangers were Celtic’s closest competitors, even if it wasn’t particularly close at times. Without their main rivals, the expectation of winning is greater than it ever has been. And if winning is taken for granted, then it’s no longer the be all and end all.  Winning with style is the new target.

Celtic may well win the league, a scenario looking all them more likely after Aberdeen’s failure to overcome Inverness on Monday, but they are currently looking very laboured as they go about it.  Time will tell whether winning the league is enough to keep Ronny Deila in a job, or whether the Parkhead hierarchy disapprove of the way he’s gone about it.  The jury remains out. IM

Dundee's milkshake midfield impress
Leigh Griffiths and Tunnock's Teacakes?  Pah!  The BT Sport cameras caught Gary Harkins knocking back some strawberry-flavoured Yazoo in the dugout after he was subbed late on in this game.  Frankly, Dundee's new club captain was entitled to drink anything he liked after his performance.  His defence-splitting pass to send Kane Hemmings clear for his second goal was typical Harkins; the pickpocketing of Danny Swanson at the halfway line a few seconds before was not.  So often seen as a luxury player, someone who often disappeared from games, the 30 year old is in the form of his life, not least because he looks leaner and fitter, and is now doing his share of defensive work.

Harkins wasn't even the man of the match, in my eyes; I was astounded by the transformation of Nick Ross from a frail-looking attacking midfielder to a frail-looking holding midfielder who won far more tackles than his physique should allow him to.  When these two teams met in December, Ross and Paul McGowan looked uncomfortable in their deeper roles - two months later, they look very relaxed, though the lack of opposition to them in the middle of the pitch certainly helped.

Dundee had so much more pace and running in them than St. Johnstone did, and they used it to their advantage by pressing high up the pitch and forcing the visiting defenders to resort to constant long balls.  Whilst I defended the Saints against accusations earlier in the season that they played hoofball, that criticism is certainly warranted now.  Even when they didn't have Greg Stewart or Kane Hemmings in their faces, the back four seemed to be under instruction to stick the ball into the channels...but strikers Graham Cummins and Steven McLean seemed to be under instruction not to run into the channels.

That's nine games without a win for St. Johnstone now, a period where they've gone from shoo-ins for fourth place to being at risk of missing top six.  And yes, they miss Michael O'Halloran badly. LS

Accies and United serve up a stinker
Obi-Wan Kenobi once said of Mos Eisley Spaceport that "you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy".  Well, New Douglas Park ran it close this weekend.  This was a game filled with stupidity, malice and incompetence.  Accies should have nicked it, after Paul Paton's crazy trip on cul-de-sac-bound Dougie Imrie gave away a penalty...but Ali Crawford's spot-kick was so bad that it would have been more difficult for Eiji Kawashima not to save it.

We also had a late red card for Hamilton's Mikey Devlin, who got a second yellow for a deliberate handball reminiscent of Richard Gough in Switzerland (older readers will cringe at the reference)...which was also rather unnecessary given that it didn't prevent a goalscoring opportunity.  Watching Devlin casually trying to jog away from referee Steven MacLean, as if he thinks that he can't get sent off if he doesn't make eye contact with the official, was the only part of the highlights that I enjoyed.

Oh, and there was Coll Donaldson's penalty appeal.  Was it a dive, or did he just trip over his own feet?  Either way, it sure as heck wasn't a penalty.  But it did sum up the complete incompetence on show. LS

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically a Rangers fan, but these days he tends to support them ironically.  He 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.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Deila: a question of perspective?

So, as they say in Scotland, Ronny Deila's jacket is on a shoogly peg.  Back-to-back defeats, in the League Cup semi-final and then at Pittodrie in the league, have left the Norwegian more vulnerable than he has been at any point in Scotland.  With fourteen league games to go, Celtic still top the Premiership by three points and are still in the Scottish Cup (after an underwhelming win over fifth-tier East Kilbride), but given their overwhelming advantage in resources, that's not good enough for most folk.  

After all, their budget is more than five times that of Aberdeen, and greater than that of every other Premiership side put together.  The least we can expect, surely, is that they steamroller everyone else.

But how do Deila's Celtic compare to their contemporaries from recent years?  Well, the table below compares the club's league records at this point of every season since the top flight expanded to twelve teams.  If I'd included the Barnes and Venglos seasons, they'd be bottom of the list by miles.

So this season ranks towards the bottom, but in terms of points accumulated it compares pretty well with all of Gordon Strachan's seasons in charge, and all but one of Neil Lennon's.  Remember, Celtic have lost only three league games this season.

Of course, Strachan guided Celtic to the knockout stages of the Champions League twice.  Lennon's poorest league season, 2012-13, was the campaign where he did the same.  Deila in Europe...yeah, let's not go there.

The other issue is the quality of the competition.  The amount of points on the board, I'd wager, is less important in the minds of the fans than the gap to second place...and the team that they're battling with for the title.  A Rangers side spending £12million on Tore Andre Flo is considered a worthy opponent, one that they could accept being neck-and-neck with.  An Aberdeen side who can't even pull off a £200,000 bid for Greg Tansey?  That's harder to stomach.

So if Celtic were 18 points clear (like Lennon's 2012-13 side, which actually had fewer points at this stage) would Deila be cut some slack?  Maybe.

Or perhaps it would be impossible to defend any Celtic boss in charge of those performances against Ross County, Aberdeen and East Kilbride in the space of eight days...

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Aberdeen outplay and out-think Celtic

Embedded image permalink
Never forget that John Collins said this...
McInnes got his tactics spot on
Tonight was a tactical victory for Derek McInnes over Ronny Deila.  While the starting XI was the same as for recent matches - with the obvious exception of the outgoing loanee David Goodwillie being replaced by the incoming loanee, Welsh international Simon Church from MK Dons - the starting formation was clearly devised with the visitors in mind.  Jonny Hayes, sufficiently recovered from a bemusing dog biting incident (as in 'dog bites man', not 'man bites dog') started in an advanced role behind debutant Church, with Niall McGinn on the left and Adam Rooney on the right. 

Defensively, the game plan was clearly to keep Celtic in front of the back four and not expose them to runs in behind from Leigh Griffiths and Gary Mackay-Steven.  Interestingly, when Celtic came forward during the first half, Aberdeen's full backs moved infield to disrupt any creativity from Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor, and relied upon McGinn and Rooney to provide the defensive cover down the left and right flanks, respectively. With Craig Storie constantly nipping at the heels of Nir Bitton - who seemed content to stroll through the match without any real sense of urgency - and Kenny McLean shadowing Scott Brown - who displayed plenty of urgency, but seemed more pre-occupied with bundling over anyone who happened to strolled across his path (at one point fouling first McGinn and then Hayes in an impressive burst of less than 60 seconds) - the challengers challenged the champions to break them down. 

The champions dominated possession for the first half hour; indeed, it was all Celtic - right up until Aberdeen scored through an unbelievable strike from Hayes.  (I am hoping that Narey's Toepoker will be able to source a photo of Hayes ripping his latest left foot rocket to the 'foot like a traction engine' caption...)  Suddenly, the momentum had swung the Dons way; a Hayes corner was swung McLean's way, and his unchallenged header in the box was struck home from close range by a left knee from Church.

Celtic never recovered from going behind
2-0 down at half time, Deila made his own tactical adjustment.  Armstrong, who ended the first half cutting a frustrated figure, was withdrawn for new signing Colin Kazim-Richards, and Celtic switched from their preferred 4-2-3-1 formation to a more pragmatic 4-4-2.  'The Celtic Way' it was not - from the second half beginning, the tactics effectively resorted to were punting the ball up to Kazim-Richards in the hope he would knock it down to Griffiths, with their wide game essentially abandoned.  To his credit, Kazim-Richards proved to be more than a handful for Ash Taylor; to his debit, he also appeared to stamp on the central defender's thigh after winning a free kick. Rumours of his ill-discipline appear to have not been that greatly exaggerated at all.  Steven MacLean, bizarrely, only booked the new Bhoy.

As the game wore on, Celtic actually became less threatening.  The ineffectual McGregor was replaced by James Forrest, but while his presence re-established some width down the right flank, his delivery was only dangerous to the youngsters sitting in the Merkland Road End.  The final roll of the dice was to sacrifice right back Mikael Lustig for Scott Allan; fittingly for a player only on the peripheries of the Celtic squad, he was also barely on the peripheries of the pitch for the remaining 15 minutes of the match.  It has previously been remarked that Celtic are at times a one man team, and that one man did eventually conjure a goal from a perfectly placed left footed shot from just outside the box, but coming in the last minute of injury time it served as no more than a consolation.

Title race?
Coming off the back of that League Cup defeat, a result that must have sapped both fitness and morale, one wonders where the Champions go from here, at least in the immediate future.  Celtic's attitude was questionable to say the least.  Given that they didn't look up to the task of ousting a dogged but determined Aberdeen side, why would one think they could succeed on a bigger stage in future?  

None of this will bother Aberdeen in the meantime; they may still dodge the questions regarding their title challenge, but the lights are definitely back on for now...

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.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Will no treble mean trouble for Deila?

Ronny Deila's achievements with Celtic aren't all that special, given what he has to work with

One of the wonderful things about football is that luck can play a huge factor, more so than in most other sports.  Sure, over the course of a whole league season all good and bad fortune is evened out, and the cream rises to the top.  But individual matches can be decided, or at least swung, by events that are impossible to predict - say, a fortuitous ricochet that causes the ball to fall perfectly for a striker to score, or a loss of footing by a defender which allows an opponent to escape his marking, or (and you'll see where I'm going with this) a handball on the goalline that the officials inexplicably miss.

Just about anything Efe Ambrose does is impossible to predict.  You've got to admit that he's good value for money as an entertainer; he had twice nearly scored for Celtic before his red card, all in just under 15 minutes of action.  But his 'moment' in the League Cup semi-final, where he failed to recognise that Alex Schalk intended to cut across him and so clumsily impeded the Ross County striker, swung this match away from the Champions.  Playing with a man less for 75 minutes was too much of a handicap, and one that County took expert advantage of.

So Ronny Deila can probably sleep at night, thinking of how but for Josh Meekings last April and Ambrose's stupidity on Sunday, Celtic would probably be on their way to back-to-back trebles.  And it's probably true.  The worry for the club's support is that those thoughts may well be distracting him from the deficiencies of his side...though they have been laid bare too often this season.

Sunday's acute attack of deja vu may not have helped.  Following on from last season's catastrophe against Caley Thistle, too many Celtic players had a "here we go again" look to them, particularly after Paul Quinn put County in front just after half-time.  With Scott Brown fit enough only for a short second half cameo, there was a distinct lack of leadership.  Craig Gordon was entitled to be aggrieved by Quinn's goal (though his post-match claim that Schalk had "rugby-tackled" him was laughable) but his crazy hissy fit at the referee seemed well out of character.  Captain-for-the-day Mikael Lustig got booked for a swipe at Michael Gardyne, a foul borne out of frustration at not having got a decision moments earlier.

Stefan Johansen was the worst culprit, crudely hacking Liam Boyce in the dying seconds with no intention of anything other than injuring the player; he should have been sent off.  Johansen had also taken a swipe at Martin Woods earlier in the game that was missed by the officials, but his lack of discipline wasn't simply limited to violently attacking opponents.  For the umpteenth time this season, the Norwegian's limitations in a deep midfield role were exposed for all to see.  His failure to match the running and strength of Woods and Jackson Irvine in the middle of the park, as well as a lack of positional sense, left his centre-backs unprotected too often.  It's a luxury Celtic can afford in games where they dominate possession, but not in situations like this (or many a European game) where the other team are seeing plenty of the ball.

Looking beyond this season
So what now?  Celtic lead the Premiership by six points.  They should go on to retain the title with plenty of room to spare, although a midweek defeat at Pittodrie might well cause some widespread panic.  But a comfortable title win is the least that can be expected of a club whose budget is more than five times that of their nearest challenger, and greater than the other eleven clubs in the league put together.  Even a domestic double doesn't seem like too much to ask.

The trouble is, of course, the lack of European success, with back-to-back Champions League failures which cost the club around £10million each season.  Without Zadok The Priest as a distraction,  or indeed a run deep into the knockout stages of the Europa League, it's reasonable to ask if Deila is really doing a far superior job than you or me can manage.  For one thing, most of us would have at least tried to sort out the problems defending set pieces by now.

Therefore, Deila's future really depends on how much the board trust him to be third time lucky this summer and finally guide them through the European qualifiers.  But every time Celtic fail to get through, they will have to sell a Fraser Forster or a Virgil Van Dijk, and it becomes harder the next time.  Even if, this time round, Carlton Cole is an option off the bench.

Could Celtic really sack a manager who has won back-to-back league titles?  We'll find out in the next few months.  Unless a loss in the North-East suddenly frightens them into not waiting long enough to find out...