Monday, September 12, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Celtic exposed every problem Rangers have
So much for #goingfor55!

Let's be clear - Celtic were huge favourites for the title even before this game.  But they might as well have presented the trophy at full time after they annihilated Rangers without really having to put their back into it.  Celtic have now played the other three teams expected to finish in the top four, and only Hearts have proven even slightly awkward.

The Gibraltar blip aside, Brendan Rodgers has quickly shown up the mediocrity of the Deila era, a task that was made much easier on Saturday by having Mousa Dembélé (kudos for manually adding in the accents - Ed).  The Frenchman almost stole the spotlight from his own hat-trick with the most sublime pass you’ll see all season to set up a goal for Scott Sinclair.

Mark Warburton said after the game that there wasn't a gulf between the sides.  However, we all know that he was only saying that for the cameras because he obviously has two eyes and at least as many brain cells.  At no point in this game did Rangers look like troubling the hosts, who dramatically exposed the Ibrox side's problems with their recruitment and coaching for all to see.

Presumably Clint Hill and Philippe Senderos were signed to add experience to a young team and to fix the chronic inability to defend set-pieces, but Hill was an unused sub here, which meant his reputation avoided the same damage as that of many of his teammates.  As for Senderos, Scottish football fans will still snigger about his ignominous debut for years to come.  As for the set-pieces, the abysmal defending at Celtic's opener, where four Gers were left marking five Celtic players, leaves one wondering what work is actually done on the training field.

Further up the pitch, so far Joey Barton and Niko Krancjar have been an unmitigated (and presumably expensive) disaster.  The former was anonymous once again on Saturday, which to be fair put his performance a few levels above that of the Croat, who remains short of fitness and work ethic and already looks like an insalvageable dud.  The performance of Josh Windass, in his first league start, shamed them both; Andy Halliday, Jordan Rossiter and Jason Holt all have cause to believe they should be picked in midfield ahead of the far-from-dyanmic duo.

And, as we point out every week (or so it seems), the lack of a proper defensive midfielder leaves Rangers vulnerable every week.  Whether that is Warburton's folly, or a sign that someone else is making recruitment decisions down Govan way, is an interesting discussion but one for another time.  The bottom line is that last April's Scottish Cup semi­-final victory gave Rangers and their fans a false sense of how close they were to Celtic.  There's not so much a gulf between them as an entire ocean. IM 

Hearts benefit from their strong bench
I find it rather curious that Celtic fans on my Twitter timeline often mock the lack of a 'title challenge' from other Premiership clubs.  Given that even Rangers have a wage bill less than half of that of their rivals, any sort of challenge from the other clubs is unrealistic.  Ultimately it's a race for second place for the rest.

And Hearts currently look best placed to win that award.  Whilst they've clicked into top gear only intermittently so far this season - they spurned lots of chances against Accies and were behind with 21 minutes left - they have more points on the board than Rangers and Aberdeen, their two most likely rivals for the runners-up spot.  Part of the reason for that is their strength in depth.  Most of their bench at the weekend would be starting every week for the majority of clubs in this league.

And when they were toiling on Saturday Robbie Neilson could bring on Sam Nicholson, Bjorn Johnsen and Robbie Muirhead; the former was outstanding when he came on, and his wide play combined with Jamie Walker moving more centrally turned the game in the home side's favour.  It's difficult to play both Nicholson and Walker from the start, but it's the sort of selection headache that managers quite like having.

A bigger quandary is up front; neither Tony Watt nor Connor Sammon have hit top form yet.  With Johnsen and Muirhead waiting in the wings Neilson could change things, but what Hearts really need to mount a 'title challenge' is a striker who scores every week. LS

The best and worst of Iain Vigurs
One of the regular complaints levelled at Sportscene is the scant highlights often offered for matches.  In this case, though, the only highlight shown from the first half of this match - namely, Liam Polworth hitting the crossbar - was an entirely accurate account of all that was noteworthy from a woeful first 45 minutes at Pittodrie that generated a grand total of nil efforts on goal for the home side. 

Thank goodness that we got an early goal in the second half to spark the game into life.  Niall McGinn nicked the ball off the toes of Iain Vigurs, then Ross Draper's challenge on Wes Burns, only managed to slide the ball back into McGinn's path; the Ulsterman cut inside and fired a low shot nto the far corner.  An incensed Gary Warren got booked for a volley of verbal abuse towards the referee for failing to award a free kick to Caley Thistle earlier in the play.  I didn't see much in it, although I'm sure the editor may wish to proffer an alternative view point...(damn right - Ed)

The Dons took control after that - a solo effort from Burns beat everyone up to and including the outside of the goal post, then Adam Rooney was denied by Owain Fon Williams, and then debutant James Maddison forced an even better save from the goalie - but once again this season, Aberdeen failed to convert their superiority into further goals.

Cue Vigurs, who redeemed himself for his earlier sloth in allowing McGinn to dispossess him and put his team behind to score a beautiful curler into the top corner with a lefty lob wedge that Phil Mickleson would have been proud of.  While I am not exactly a fan of watching players scoring goals against my own team, it was genuinely pleasing (at least in retrospect) to watch Vigurs showing what he is capable of.  

An alumni of the 'Dortmund of the North' (Stonehaven Youth for the uninitiated) whose own youth career came via Aberdeen, a year ago Vigurs played on trial for Highland League Inverurie Loco Works before Caley Thistle agreed to bring him back to their club for a second stint.  A player who has always had the ability to succeed at this level, there have always been question marks about Vigurs' attitude, But this was his fifth goal of the season in all competitions already.  If he can carry on scoring goals like this then perhaps ICT fans truly can 'Dare to Vigurs'? MI

Is there life after Marvin Johnson?
With flying winger Marvin Johnson sold on transfer deadline day, it was always going to be interesting to see how Mark McGhee compensated for the loss of such pace and power in his attack.  With potential replacement Luka Belic unavailable, he chose instead to switch to a 4-4-2 with Scott McDonald partnering new signing Ryan Bowman up front.  Surprisingly, Chris Cadden got a lot of joy playing on the right flank despite being more comfortable in a central role, but with converted full-back Joe Chalmers on the opposite side Motherwell offered very little threat on the left.

In fact, 'Well looked less dangerous when Cadden had to move into the middle, with Lionel Ainsworth going wide after replacing the injured Keith Lasley; neither Cadden nor Craig Clay offer the same positional discipline as the veteran.  However, they did still nick a point through Louis Moult's penalty.  It's early days for Bowman, but there was little from him on his debut to suggest he can usurp McDonald or Moult as a first choice forward.

It's hard to know whether McGhee will try and get back to a 4-3-3 shape.  Unless Belic turns out to be a star, his current squad might be better suited to 4-4-2.  Regardless, they are not the same threat in attack without the outstanding Johnson. LS

Cerny injury is the last thing Partick Thistle need
Granted, the fixture computer hasn't been kind to Partick Thistle so far - after an opening day win they've had to play Aberdeen, Hearts and now St. Johnstone in succession (and would have had Celtic too but for that game being postponed).  But being bottom of the table is never good, and there was plenty to worry about after this defeat.  Going forward they were largely toothless, with Ade Azeez and Kris Doolan - both goalless in the league so far - struggling to form a partnership.  At the back, the centre-back pairing of Liam Lindsay and Danny Devine looked hesistant and uncomfortable throughout.

And because of that, now they have a goalkeeping issue.  Tomas Cerny went off with a foot injury, picked up when coming for a ball his defenders should have probably dealt with.  Worryingly, it's the same problem that ruled the Czech out of the last 6 weeks of last season, and which required an operation over the summer.  Thistle may now have Ryan Scully in goal for the foreseeable future, which is a massive drop-off; Cerny was quietly one of the Premiership's best keepers last season, while Scully is erratic at best.

Contrast that with the keeper situation in Perth; Alan Mannus wasn't fully fit after a virus, but Tommy Wright was able to start Zander Clark instead.  Clark has impressed enough previously to make an argument for a regular start, and is certainly one of the best backups around.  How Alan Archibald wishes he could call on him as a replacement for his injured Number One. LS

Gomis hack deserves longer ban
I probably should be focusing more on Souleymane Coulibaly's outrageous bicycle kick and the subsequent outrageous celebration.  The technique was just wonderful; I'm not sure I've ever seen so much power generated by such a strike, nor the ball kept so low.  Dundee keeper Scott Bain could only watch and shake his head.  Unless there's a public vote (so Rangers and Celtic fans can fix it), this will be Goal of the Season.

However, the game took a nasty turn late on, with an outrageous (in the negative sense of the word) challenge by home defender Kevin Gomis on Kilmarnock's Charlee Adams resulting in a red card for the former and a stretcher for the latter.  One hopes Adams is okay; it looked like the sort of collision that can put a player out for a long time.

Gomis will receive a two match ban for his recklessness.  Kilmarnock's Greg Taylor is serving a similar suspension for his hack on Joey Barton a fortnight ago.  That's the same sentence that Jamie Walker of Hearts got for simulation.  I know we don't like diving, but explain to me why it's as serious an offence as putting another player's health at risk? LS

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

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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