Monday, March 14, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Hearts' young defence impresses
Hearts have conceded a total of four league goals in 2016. That stat is less impressive when it’s pointed out that they’ve conceded 100% of those goals to Kilmarnock and Dundee United; clearly complacency against rubbish teams is a problem.

It’s a bit of a football cliché, but a team with a solid defence really is more than halfway to being a good team, and this Hearts back line is better than most. The cliché they are defying however is the one that says good defences have to be anchored by an experienced veteran, someone who’s “been there, done that,” etc and so on. Just now that rugged veteran is a 23 year old Turk, and he's playing with three Scottish teenagers.

I find watching this Hearts team to be a bittersweet experience. Two things I love about football are solid defensive units, and good, young Scottish players, and this Hearts team combines those things beautifully. In the old days they would have stayed together for years, and as they matured they’d have won a couple of league titles, and maybe made a decent run in the Fairs Cup.  They'd also have a cool nickname, like “The Great Wall of Gorgie™.”

This modern football though, and the chances are that at least one or two of them will head off to Glasgow or England and Hearts will have made a very tidy profit. The most likely candidate is John Souttar, who we can only hope develops into the kind of good international centre-half that Scotland once used to take for granted.

If Robbie Neilson can keep them together over the summer though, add a few more pieces to put around Jamie “Apparently Not As Good as James Forrest” Walker, then he might have sights on the top two next season. Here’s hoping. IM

Dons do about enough
Having ground out a couple of important wins in consecutive midweek away trips to Tannadice and Firhill, Aberdeen arrived back home to face a Kilmarnock team still trying to escape the relegation playoff place.

Pre-match discussion around the home support seemed to revolve around how many thousands of fans would be at Pittodrie and how many goals the Dons would put past Killie.  In both respects, the results were satisfactory without being particularly impressive.

On the goal front, it was Aberdeen who opened the scoring in the first half following a Jonny Hayes cross-cum-shot that Jamie MacDonald had to shepherd around the far post.  Barry Robson, who has been brought back into the fold in recent weeks to great effect, produced an assist from a corner for the second consecutive game, with Ash Taylor heading in the outswinging centre in from close range.  The Dons saw that lead through to half time following a 45 minutes in which they had dominated proceedings and never looked in trouble.  
Yet, minutes into the second half, Killie were level.  Ryan Jack could have done better to stop Greg Kiltie from lobbing in a cross from the right, and both Scott Brown and Shay Logan failed to stop Rory McKenzie heading the ball back across goal for former Don, Josh 'Mad Dog' Magennis from heading past a strewn Taylor from inside the six yard box.  

Following that goal, the game went end to end, with each side looking likely to score the next goal - first Kiltie ran at the Dons defenders before forcing a save out of Brown; then Niall McGinn rattled a trademark shot off the woodwork; before Magennis ghosted past Andy Considine to send a shot across the face of goal.

Finally, it was the Dons that got the winning strike.  Hayes beat McKenzie for pace down the left flank and his cross was met by a diving header from Logan.  It was also clear from Shay's subsequent somersaulting that recent Dons loanee Simon Church hadn't witnessed a Logan goal celebration before, Churchy following too closely behind and almost getting a gobful of studs for his trouble.

Logan's contribution wasn't done, either, as those same studs were put to use clearing a Magennis cross for a corner with Tope Obadeyi lurking with intent, sealing a well deserved man of the match performance.

The announced attendance of under 14,000 was somewhat underwhelming for a team that still rightly considered a title challenger, particularly given this was the penultimate home game before the split and also the only home game that Aberdeen will have all month, and while I still don't get the obsession of Guardian golf correspondence Ewan Murray tweeting about "shamefully bad" hoe crowds at Pittodrie, it is nonetheless admittedly frustrating that these numbers do not seem to reflect the fantastic away support that the club has repeatedly brought for years now.

As for Kilmarnock, the only solace they can have is that they have got a tough away fixture out of the way without losing any of their eight point advantage over bottom dwellers Dundee United.  They are, however, now five points adrift of complete safety and will need to start winning matches sooner rather than later to avoid the perils of what will be a highly competitive playoff fixture in just over a couple of months time. MI

Dundee United aren't interested in draws
Friday night's game was a cracker.  It's not often an away side plays with such abandon, but perhaps Mixu Paatelainen has reasoned that, if Dundee United are to stay up, they have to win games; a point here and there is no good to them.  After all, if they win one and lose two out of three, that's better than drawing two and losing one.

And so United took some quite remarkable risks here.  Motherwell lined up with three forwards, but Mixu stuck to his back three, even though his wing-backs were playing so high up the pitch that they may as well have been wingers.  Paul Dixon had three efforts on goal in the first half alone, taking advantage of Marvin Johnson's unwillingness to track back.  Of course, the flipside was that Johnson ran riot in the space that United left him; whilst the winger's goal came from a header at a set piece, he created numerous chances in open play, including Louis Moult's winner.

Had United not conceded right on half-time, it's reasonable to believe they could have won this game - after Henri Anier's cracking opener they were well on top.  This super-cavalier style may not save them, but at least they'll go down in flames. LS

McGregor makes his case
What dirt does James Forrest have on Gordon Strachan?  Dodgy pictures?  Recordings of phone calls?  Something like that is the only explanation for why the Celtic winger is still a sure thing for a Scotland call-up.  Forrest has started only ten league games for the club this season, despite being pretty much injury-free.  His reluctance to sign a new contract doesn't seem to have helped his cause.

Ronny Deila has so many options to pick from for his trio of attacking midfielders - too many, really.  But who would have predicted a few months ago that Gary Mackay-Steven and Callum McGregor would have got so high up the pecking order?  Both were struggling even to make the bench; now they've got the run of games they probably needed to get up to speed and prove their worth.  McGregor was outstanding at Firhill, taking his goal beautifully but also providing a really disciplined and intelligent display on the right flank.  Forrest, meanwhile, languished on the bench.

Not that Strachan is fussed, though.  Forrest clearly has something these other guys don't.  It's anyone's guess what that something is. LS

Hughes is in a panic
When John Hughes starts mixing his metaphors in post-match interviews, it's a sign that he's stressed.  Hence his "the same guys are going back to the well all the time. We need two or three back to take the weight off them" comments are worrying.

Not as worrying as Caley Thistle's result and performance against Accies, mind.  This was a terrible game between two terrible sides, the difference being that it was Inverness who blundered and gifted a goal.  Hamilton had won just two games since the end of September coming into this match; they're now level on points with their opponents.

Hughes was entitled to point to his extensive list of absentees as an excuse of sorts - Caley Thistle were down ten first team players, with Miles Storey also only fit enough for a brief cameo.  Any other side in the league (bar Celtic) would struggle in those circumstances.  But it's not as if Hughes was throwing a bunch of raw youths into the fray - quite the opposite in fact, with every starter having played more than 50 senior games.  These players have sufficient experience, but lack quality.

What was especially surprising about this match was the way Yogi lost his nerve when Hamilton scored.  The goal came against the run of play, with ICT's passing football finally creating chances and stretching Accies.  Hughes has stuck to his guns in far more trying circumstances than this, yet on this occasion he responded by bringing on Richie Foran (who, after barely any football in two years, is clearly spent) up front alongside the lumbering Liam Hughes and instructing his players to punt high balls at the duo.  When Storey was introduced, he was stuck out on the right touchline.

It was a desperate and ill-thought out move.  Lucas Tagliapetra and Michael Devlin are clumsy and slow, but they are also tall, strong and good in the air.  Inverness finished with one shot on target - the same number they managed in each of their last two games.

Whisper it, but Caley Thistle could easily finish eleventh.  Whether they do or not probably depends on Kilmarnock's competence - it's hard to see the Highlanders grinding out many more wins between now and May. 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.

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