Monday, August 15, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Foran has his work cut out
It doesn't happen very often, but Ross County beat their rivals Caley Thistle in the league.  It was the first time they have done so under Jim McIntyre's management and, indeed, since Alex Cooper scored the winner for them in January 2014.

A lot of football has come and gone since then, but the general themes of the Highland Derbies of the last few years were that Inverness could dominate midfield and hurt their rivals with pace behind the defence. Neither happened to an important extent in this most recent match and the 2-3 scoreline flattered Richie Foran's team.

Perhaps the key thing that is missing from this Inverness side at the moment is some genuine pace and up top, to threaten with runs into space behind opposing centre-backs.  Scott Boden received precious little service of any quality, but on the whole Paul Quinn and Andrew Davies dealt with him in relative comfort, because he would ordinarily drop short to touch the ball. County's centre-backs are at the stage of their careers where they relish having the game played in front of him and Andrew Davies battered away any loose ball that came within his vicinity.  From Billy Mckay to Marley Watkins and Miles Storey, Caley Thistle have had forwards who could play off - or cruise past - the last shoulder for years, which is one of the reasons why they have done so well in the derby in recent years.  Farid El Alagui appears to be on trial at the club, but he won't add any qualities that reserve target-man Alex Fisher already can.  They need a fast player to stretch the pitch and open space for creative players like Iain Vigurs and Billy King.

Ironically, it was a one-off long ball by Ross Draper behind the defence that Boden latched on to make the scoreline 1-2 going into the break - Andrew Davies might or might not have played him onside by being five yards behind the rest of his defence for no apparent reason, but Andrew Dallas' whistle went before the goal happened and it shouldn't have stood.  It seemed to have been a fluke incident on the stroke of half-time caused by Davies' poor position, rather than being part of an overal pattern of the match.   Before then, Liam Boyce had scored a couple of technically exquisite goals and County looked at ease going into the break, first by initially pressing high up the pitch to encourage mistakes from Caley Thistle's defence, then by sitting back with two banks of four.  

The lack of pace behind County's defence made things difficult for Caley Thistle further back in their team.  Jim McIntyre often sets his side up in derby matches to press Inverness very high in the first half.  Even if McIntyre can set up a blockade across midfield to stop passes into forwards' feet, his team have so often been caught out with a long ball over its defence.  Boden's goal was the exception to the rule, but with Boyce and his strike partner Craig Curran hounding Caley Thistle's defence, and the midfield four behind them putting pressure on as well, Caley Thistle didn't have the easy out-ball of yore.  Greg Tansey is a player who particularly likes to lift his head and find runners in space, to turn defence into attack in an instant, but there were few such options with none of Vigurs, King nor Liam Polworth looking to make a penetrating run beyond their centre-forward. Tansey had one of his poorest derby performances in some time, with loose passes and shooting causing no trouble but the team wasn't set up to his principal strength. Without the raking ball into a channel to turn County's defence, McIntyre's team was able to wear the opponent's defence down.  Among Owain Fon Williams' fumble outside the penalty area and other moments where Caley Thistle were dispossessed in their defensive third of the pitch, County could have had a higher score with just slightly more quality applied.

There are concerns in defence for Foran to think about, but they might be able to sort themselves out.  For instance, the lack of genuine cover for Josh Meekings in the centre caused a problem in this match.  Kevin McNaughton might be claimed to be able to cover anywhere across the back line, but the derby should have confirmed to Foran that McNaughton shouldn't be the first change at centre-back if it can be allowed.  McNaughton was probably the smallest centre-back in the Premiership at the weekend, but that can be compensated with positioning, anticipation and a good sense of timing.  None of those were particularly evident in Liam Boyce's first goal, where a simple play of one striker running into a channel, to cross for the other, pulled McNaughton too much to the near post. It allowed Boyce several yards of space in the most dangerous area of the pitch and was a naive piece of defending by a veteran defender. McNaughton didn't last long in the match due to injury, but it was telling that right-back David Raven made a better job of deputising alongside Gary Warren.  It should be a lesson learned for a rookie manager, but Meekings will be back soon to reprise one of the best defensive partnerships in the league and that should help improve matters.

The core quartet of Warren, Meekings, Draper and Tansey can compete with any in the league. Foran is fortunate to inherit such a competitive unit, but how he manages the shape of the team will define how he himself competes as a manager in a cut-throat division.  If he can find himself a pacy striker to lengthen the playing area of the pitch, to bring the best out of Vigurs, King and Tansey, then Caley Thistle ought to be fine and could yet have a fruitful season.  Yet with the next four fixtures billed against teams expected to finish in the top half of the league, Foran will need to find a winning formula pretty soon. JAM

Rangers still look fragile
After Saturday, I’m not sure Mark Warburton will be any clearer on how far up the table his side can finish this season. To paraphrase Dickens; it was the best of Rangers, it was the worst of Rangers.

The first half was one way traffic with a great improvement in attacking play compared to the display against Hamilton on the opening day.  Some particularly pleasing interplay between Barrie McKay and Lee Wallace led to Kenny Miller’s goal, and some better finishing from the octogenarian (or it feels like that, anyway) striker would have put the visitors out of sight by half time.

The midfield also looked more balanced with Jordan Rossiter in the holding role, while the Dundee defence struggled to cope with Harry Forrester's pace and movement.  The latter's fruitful afternoon came to a premature end; fortunately for Rangers, it was because his manager subbed him.  Forrester could - nay, should - have been shown a second yellow on two occasions as he launched himself into a series of challenges with a sense of gay abandon.

However, they were once again undone by a set piece.  I have a horrible feeling that I’ll be able to copy and paste that sentence a lot this season; on this occasion Joey Barton fell asleep and allowed Mark O’Hara, again Dundee's outstanding player, a free header that undeservedly brought the Dees right back into it.

The second period was far more ponderous from the visitors; all the attacking verve was replaced by defensive uncertainty.  Dundee didn't have enough firepower to take advantage though, which will strengthen Paul Hartley’s case that at least some of the Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart money should be invested in more attacking options.

Had Dundee been able to make more of Rangers’ defensive frailties, the Ibrox side may well have been looking at two points from two games and some rather uncomfortable questions. IM

Two up top is the way to go for Kilmarnock
Many neutrals would have eyed up Accies v Killie as a clash between the two most likely teams to go down.  Does this result mean that Lee Clark's side are in better shape (or, more accurately, less rubbish)?  Maybe, maybe not.  They deservedly trailed at half-time, and last week's defensive shortcomings were once again on show.  Worryingly, the goal they conceded was a poor one from keeper Jamie MacDonald's point of view.  If he goes through a rough patch, that really will be a problem...though his later save from Ali Crawford is reassuring.  Crawford also hit the post late on with a lovely free kick.  Given his impressive start of the season, I wouldn't bet against someone making an offer for the schemer.

There are signs, though, that Lee Clark's summer shopping spree has rustled up at least a couple of gems.  Souleymane Coulibaly had impressed in League Cup games and, having been benched in favour of Kris Boyd, he came on and scored a beautiful winner.  Boyd (who is increasingly a walking advertisement for hair transplants) had earlier equalized after fine work from tricky winger Jordan Jones.  Jones, formerly of Middlesbrough, certainly has enough trickery to upset a lot of right-backs in this league.  The change to 4-4-2 was hugely successful and will give Clark food for thought; perhaps Coulibaly and Boyd from the start, with Jones and Rory McKenzie as old fashioned wingers, is the way to go?

It was deeply harsh on Accies, and concerning too.  If they can't win games where they're far superior, how will they fair in the likely majority where they aren't?  It probably is the case that these are the two poorest sides in the Premiership, but at the moment you'd fancy Accies for the drop. LS

Motherwell should have forked out for a competent keeper
The main highlight from Fir Park, of course, was Scott McDonald's outstanding punch into the St. Johnstone net late on.  A close second for me was seeing Richard Tait, Motherwell's right-back, take a flyer over the advertising hoardings after crossing for Chris Cadden to score.  He had plenty of time to hurdle it, yet seemed to treat it as a High Jump bar.  His subsequent rollover and return to his feet was pretty smooth, though, and since everyone else was focused on how his team had taken the lead, I reckon he got away with it.

Craig Samson could do with some of McDonald's handling skills, and some of Tait's agility.  The home goalkeeper was at fault for both St. Johnstone goals; letting Danny Swanson's effort through his legs was bad enough, but it was nothing compared to his blunder for the winner.  I've often thought it was risky for keepers to try and pat down shots aimed at their mid-riff, with the plan being to pick it up on the bounce.  Samson made a hash of Chris Kane's shot, letting it spin far enough away from him that Steven MacLean could pounce and score.

Despite the occasional Scotland callup of yesteryear, Samson has never been an especially impressive keeper; having been let go by Kilmarnock just over a year ago, he sat on Motherwell's bench for the whole of last season behind loanee Connor Ripley, but is currently preferred to Dean Brill, who was a decent enough keeper at Inverness before a bad knee injury.

Samson isn't the long-term answer.  But is Brill?  Most teams in this league can't afford two outstanding goalkeepers; a better option is usually to get one, and use a youngster, a loanee or a veteran as a backup.  Instead, Motherwell have two goalies who would be high quality backups at most clubs.  Maybe they'd have been better pooling the money and blowing it on someone who is a good starter. LS

Dull Dons do little to encourage the locals
What can I say about this match?  No, really... what can I say about this match?  Um... well, Wes Burns hit the crossbar with a header.  Niall McGinn made some good runs and also had a couple of good efforts, which was nice.  Tony Watt also had a couple of chances in the second half but was unable to take the opportunities to open his account with the Jambos.

It appears that this game was just like the last one between two teams at Pittodrie - Aberdeen having the better of the possession; Hearts (cynically?) intent on stopping Aberdeen play; barely a shot on goal by either team; Ewan Murray criticising the Pittodrie attendance - with the exception that Jordan McGhee wasn't on hand to inexplicably concede a penalty at the end of the match.

Mr Murray is entitled to opine on whether people in Aberdeen care about football.  Personally, I think the north-east folk do still care about their fitba', but they surely need to be offered something at least resembling football in order to encourage them to spend their time (and money) on a Saturday afternoon.  On this occasion, as I checked the final score around 5pm, I didn't feel much cause to regret my own decision to enjoy a selection of barbecued meats and malt whiskies in preference to the alternative fare that appeared to be served up by these two sides. MI

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.

John A Maxwell (JAM) was co-editor of Tell Him He's Pele, the acclaimed website focused on Scottish lower league football.  He is an authority on all things Ross County.  Legend has it that the 'A' stands for 'awesome'.

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.

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