Monday, September 26, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Maddison's moment of glory
Although I was privileged enough to see James Maddison's late free kick , I will admit that I was also keen to relive the moment on television afterwards and couldn't help but be amused at the contrast in the immediate reactions between the hyperbole of the live commentary on Sky Sports by Ian Crocker - "A phenomenal free kick!" - and the understated delivery by Liam McLeod on the Sportscene highlights - "It's not bad!"

It was Maddison's moment; a peach of goal that earned Aberdeen a win over Rangers that, in all honesty, they scarcely deserved.  It was telling that Derek McInnes mentioned in his post-match interview that, during the first half, he was annoyed that "we didn't commit to our pressing"; it was clear that this related to a tactical plan that McInnes had devised for the game - explained succinctly by fellow Narey's Toepoker blogger Stuart Taylor, the idea was for Aberdeen's forwards to press the Rangers central defenders in an attempt to stop them splitting, while also stopping their full backs from getting forward.  

It is perhaps, slightly unfair to attribute this to a lack of commitment by the players - more accurately, it was the Rangers players who fully committed to their own passing game and made an exerted effort to run into spaces and make themselves available for outlet passes; in turn, the Aberdeen pressing game soon began to look more reactive than proactive, their players not quick enough to respond to the movement in front of them.

The home support have grown accustomed to watching a team that dominates possession in the first half without creating any clear goalscoring opportunities, just not normally by the away side.  For all of the play they had in the opposition half, the closest they came to scoring was a shot from Joe Garner that deflected wildly off Shay Logan and forced Joe Lewis to scramble across the face of his goal to divert the ball away for a corner.

For all of the good passing football that Rangers had played in the first half, Aberdeen took barely a minute of the second half to open the scoring with the 'route one' approach - Lewis humped the ball up the park and Adam Rooney managed to head-flick it forward for Jonny Hayes to flash past an almost stationery back four and coolly finish past Wes Foderingham.

Mark Warburton later replaced the largely ineffective Garner and with veteran striker Kenny Miller, and it was the substitute who finally produced a creative spark by playing Lee Wallace in behind the Dons defence; Hayes was tugging his shirt as he ran into the box, Wallace hit the deck and Rangers were duly awarded a penalty that was calmly dispatched by Andy Halliday - a player who, incidentally, exerted more influence in this one game than Joey Barton has (and probably ever will) in his entire Rangers career.

Yet, give Aberdeen credit where it's due, they once again managed to produce a winning goal in the final minutes.  Warburton was clearly aggrieved about the free kick awarded by referee John Beaton; to be honest, the Dandies in my immediate vicinity within the South Stand didn't think it was a free kick either, although it is a risk that defenders take when they attempt to tackle players from behind that if they make contact with the attacker in the process of making contact with the ball they are always taking a chance that a foul will be called against them.  Regardless of the merit of the refereeing decision, the merit of the winning goal that resulted from it was beyond doubt. MI

Dundee are in trouble
Perhaps Paul Hartley can take solace from the fact that, a month ago, Caley Thistle were in crisis.  And look where they are now.

However, the bottom line is that Dundee were very comfortably beaten by an opponent that didn't get out of third gear...and didn't need to.  And Nicky Low's late free-kick made the scoreline look a bit better; had Jake Mulraney not spurned a sitter for the home side, the scoreline would have been a crushing 4-0.  How much pressure would that have put on Hartley?

Sure, Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart are practically irreplaceable for a team at this level, but that doesn't explain the ongoing defensive woes.  The absence of the suspended Kevin Gomis didn't help, but the way that Lonsana Doumbouya - apparently called 'the big man' by his teammates, who can't pronounce his surname - bullied Darren O'Dea and Julen Etxabeguren was extremely worrying.  The latter gave away a daft penalty which effectively killed the game after less than twenty minutes.  Left-back Kevin Holt gifted Mulraney his gilt-edged chance for a goal, while on the other flank Tom Hateley looked dreadfully out of shape.

Further up the pitch, it remains unclear what Hartley is trying to do.  With Mark O'Hara missing, there was a distinct lack of energy; Paul McGowan tried his best in a more advanced role, but spent most of his time taking the ball sideways.  With Inverness' back four sitting deep there was no space in behind for Faissal El Bakhtaoui, while Michael Duffy kept trying to come in from the left flank, leaving them lacking in width.  And deploying a midfield trio of McGowan, Low and Nick Ross meant that the physical battle in the centre of the park was a canter for the Highlanders.

Even the subs were weird - Rory Loy and Jordi Teijsse were thrown on, giving Dundee three strikers all operating in the same area, and no supply line for them.

So now the Dark Blues are winless since opening day.  Go back to last season, and they have just four league wins since mid-February.  That, along with this woeful performance, go someway to explaining why Hartley is the bookies' favourite to be the first Premiership manager for the chop. LS

It doesn't matter who Celtic play in goal or up front
I could watch that Souleymane Coulibaly goal all day long.  Sadly for Kilmarnock, it just seemed to jolt the champions into action.  After last week's draw at Inverness I predicted that many a team would be on the end of a thumping from Celtic...and Kilmarnock won't be the last.  Killie didn't do themselves any favours by playing two strikers with a combined age of 37 (hence they weren't pressing the opposition much) and Coulibaly, another striker, on the wing.  But the quality of Celtic's attacking play was such that had Lee Clark parked the bus they might have shipped six goals anyway.

It was curious that one of the first questions asked of Brendan Rodgers after a 6-1 win was about his goalkeeper - you'd think the focus would be on the forwards and particularly the battle between Moussa Dembele and Leigh Griffiths for a starting spot.  But instead he was grilled on whether he was happy with Dorus De Vries.  I have some sympathy with the Dutch keeper; his starting position for Coulibaly's goal was okay (Rodgers - "If anything I prefer my goalkeeper to be a little further out of goal), while last week I thought he did well to even get a hand to Billy King's strike for Inverness, but because he got a hand on it people seemed to think he should have kept it out.

Perhaps there's a wee bit of loyalty, from both fans and the media, to his Scottish rival, Craig Gordon.  And I don't believe Gordon is an inferior keeper at all, though he has certainly not had a brilliant 2016.  To an extent, the debate is moot.  Celtic's choice of keeper will not affect their domestic challenge.  Nor will it improve their chances of getting a point in the Champions League.  Ditto their choice of centre-forward.  Regardless, they'll thump everyone in Scotland, and be thumped by everyone in Europe. LS

Thistle play well again...and fail to win again
A point against Motherwell keeps Partick Thistle bottom and will have done little to relieve fears of a relegation battle.  It's been the same story at Firhill all season; a defence that can't keep a clean sheet, and an attack that can't score goals.  Whilst they largely dominated against Motherwell, they did benefit from two huge slices of good fortune - Steven Hammell's blunder that gifted Chris Erskine the opener, and the terrible decision to disallow a Scott McDonald header at the other end when he was well onside.

As Alan Archibald bemoaned after the match, "to win a game, it almost looks like we need two goals...we don't look like keeping a clean sheet".  Unfortunately his central defenders let him down for the umpteenth week in a row, allowing McDonald to drift in unmarked to score a late equalizer.   Unfortunately, whilst Danny Devine and Liam Lindsay are not a Premiership-quality pairing, Archibald has no other centre-back aged over 20 available.  Either he pitches teenager David Syme in, moves Ziggy Gordon inside (leaving him short of a decent right-back with Mustapha Dumbuya out long-term), or muddles on.  None of these options are palatable.

And at the other end, Thistle couldn't get that second goal they needed.  Ade Azeez's decent link-up play can in no way make up for squandering two very decent chances.  He, like the other centre forward in the squad, Kris Doolan, is still without a league goal this season, and neither look likely to break their duck any time soon.  Next up is Rangers away, and then it's Accies at home after the international break.  If the Jags are bottom after that, it's time for a bit of panic. LS

Ross County are difficult to beat again
The uncertainty over the future of Andrew Davies did Ross County a lot of harm at the start of the season.  When he announced his intention to leave, Jim McIntyre immediately moved for Jay McEveley as a replacement; Davies' change of heart left County with three experienced central defenders (Paul Quinn being the other) who expected to play every week.  McIntyre tried to shoehorn them all in by changing to a 3-5-2 which his squad was totally ill-equipped for (too many chiefs, not enough indians, according to writer John A Maxwell); after a shellacking by Dundee on opening day, he went back to a back four with McEveley shunted out to left-back, which was better, but not much.

McEveley's discomfort was exposed by Motherwell a fortnight ago, where he picked up two yellows.  His suspension seems to have coincided with a drastic improvement in County's defending.  Kenny Van Der Weg has come in at left-back; the Dutchman offers nothing going forward, but is a relative rarity in this league in that he is a full-back who can actually defend.  With Davies now back to his best form - he was imperious again at Tynecastle and actually came close to nicking a winner for the Staggies - County are once more difficult to beat.  Their success last season was built on these sort of foundations, and back-to-back clean sheets against Rangers and Hearts bode well going forward...for everyone except McEveley, perhaps. LS

Donati's no prima-donna
To be fair, a Hamilton v St. Johnstone match isn't going to give many folk palpitations.  Scheduling it for Sunday afternoon made it even easier to forget that it was even happening.  Much like for Partick Thistle, Accies did enough to win this but conceded a late equalizer because their defence just isn't solid enough.

With Michael Devlin and Darren Lyon added to the injury list, Martin Canning stuck with the back three that impressed in the second half at Motherwell last week, which required Massimo Donati to step back into defence.  Nine years ago, the Italian under-21 international was scoring for Celtic in the Champions League.  Now he's a makeshift centre back for Hamilton.  The 35 year old is clearly up for the challenge though; he broke his nose at Fir Park but played on.  Then, having been told it can't be reset till next week because of swelling, he decided to play another 90 minutes with it against the Perth Saints.

Not that Donati was particularly great in this match; he looks like a midfielder playing out of position, and his passing from the back was a disappointment.  But it says a lot about his attitude that he is willing to end up looking like Steve Bruce just to help Hamilton out. 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.

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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