Saturday, October 29, 2016

Eleven games down...

Right, everyone's played everyone once in the Premiership, so now's a good time to take stock.

Well, all right, not everyone's played everyone.  Celtic have two games in hand, courtesy of a League Cup run and a glamour friendly for their reserves against Barcelona.  Hearts are still to play Rangers.  Actually, Aberdeen, Hamilton and Motherwell all have a game in hand too...

So only half the teams in the Premiership have played everybody once.  Still, it's as good a time as any to take stock, right?  Right?

CURRENT POSITION: 2nd, 18pts (played 10 games)

HAPPY? Well, the Dons are in second place in a league where first place in unachievable.  They've made it to the League Cup final too.  And (most importantly for some of their fans) they beat Rangers.  So on paper it's been a decent enough start to the campaign.  However it would be a stretch to claim that they are stronger than a year ago, despite several summer signings.  They don't look quite as efficient as they did previously and there haven't been too many dominant performances.

POSITIVES: Jonny Hayes has been outstanding.  Anthony O'Connor looks more solid in central defence than Ash Taylor or Mark Reynolds.

NEGATIVES: Miles Storey, Jayden Stockley and Wes Burns were all signed as extra attacking options, but all three have struggled to make an impact so far.

THE FUTURE: Winning the League Cup would make this a successful season.  But the main aim is to hang onto that second spot.

CURRENT POSITION: 1st, 25pts (played 9 games)

HAPPY? Lincoln Red Imps seems a long time ago now.  Celtic are out of their depth in their Champions League group, but at least they made it that far.  Domestically, only a last minute Inverness goal has prevented them from having a 100% record.  It's hard to ask for much more.

POSITIVES: The Premiership is being won at a canter.  Moussa Dembele is proving an absolute bargain at £500,000.  Kieran Tierney is an incredible talent.  And the home game against Manchester City was the sort of night that the fans have been craving for years.

NEGATIVES: Being pumped by Barcelona and Moenchengladbach shows just how far behind Europe's elite Celtic are.  Their big weakness seems to be in goal, where both Craig Gordon and Dorus De Vries have proven erratic,

THE FUTURE: Can they win the treble?  It's certainly possible.  They will certainly win the title by a loooooonnnnnnggggg way.  The big concern might be whether Dembele, Tierney and Brendan Rodgers might be tempted away at the end of the season.

CURRENT POSITION: 12th, 6pts (played 11 games)

HAPPY? Absolutely positively not.  Failure to qualify from an easy League Cup group set off alarm bells, which were quietened by a win in Dingwall in their first league game but are positively blaring now after going ten games without a win and plummeting to the bottom of the table.  The loss of Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart is a big reason for their problems, but it doesn't completely explain the disastrous start they've had.

POSITIVES: Mark O'Hara, when fit, has impressed in an advanced midfield role.  Scott Bain continues to excel in goal.

NEGATIVES: In James McPake's absence, Paul Hartley has struggled to find a half-decent centre-back to partner Darren O'Dea; Julen Etxabeguren, Kostadin Gadzhalov and Kevin Gomis have all been poor.  None of the strikers look like scoring even a fraction of the goals Hemmings and Stewart contributed.

THE FUTURE: Hartley's jacket is surely on a shoogly peg.  Dundee are not awash with cash but they do have a bigger budget than several teams above them in the table, and this terrible form simply cannot continue.  And yet it's hard to see how they'll turn it around.  Could they be this season's Dundee United?  That would be embarrassing...

CURRENT POSITION: 8th, 11pts (played 10 games)

HAPPY? Supporters remain uneasy about Martin Canning's management, given he has a win percentage of less than 25% in nearly two years in charge.  And yet Accies have some breathing space at the bottom and have been in a winning position in nine of their ten league games.  The fact they've won just two suggests either they've been unlucky or that they've no bottle.

POSITIVES: Ali Crawford has looked back to his best.  Alex D'Acol looks like he might score a few goals.  Greek Zangief-lookalike Georgios Sarris has impressed in defence.

NEGATIVES: Those late goals they keep conceding.  The lack of full-backs in the squad, which has left them dependent on midfielders Darren Lyon and Grant Gillespie to fill in.  The loss of loanee keeper Remi Matthews till January with a separated shoulder.

THE FUTURE: I think everyone would be surprised - nay, shocked - if Hamilton made the top six.  The squad still doesn't look especially strong and they're still likely

CURRENT POSITION: 4th, 17pts (played 10 games)

HAPPY? Not entirely.  Sure, Hearts are still in the running for second place, which would have been their target, but performances have been functional rather than impressive.  The early Europa League exit to Maltese opponents was a big disappointment too.  One feels the Jambos have a lot more to give.

POSITIVES: Callum Paterson has established himself as Scotland's first choice right back (not that that's saying much).  Jack Hamilton has done well in goal.  Tony Watt's workrate.

NEGATIVES: The strikers - none of them are playing well apart from Watt, and none of them look like going on a scoring spree.  The midfield lacks pace without the injured Sam Nicholson.

THE FUTURE: How long until another idiot forks out for a plane to fly over Tynecastle demanding Robbie Neilson's departure?  Hearts' impressive squad depth should make sure they finish in the top four, but they need a persistent source of goals and a system that gets the best out of Jamie Walker.

CURRENT POSITION: 6th, 13pts (played 11 games)

HAPPY? Just about, considering we lost our first three league games (including a shellacking at Tynecastle) and to Alloa in the League Cup.  Performances haven't always been great but the spirit is there - shown by several late goals that have earned valuable points.  Richie Foran doesn't look out of his depth in the dugout.

POSITIVES: Carl Tremarco is surely one of the most underrated players in this league; the left-back has been playing out of his mind for the whole of 2016.  The return of the Meekings-Warren central defensive partnership has made the team look far more solid.

NEGATIVES: Greg Tansey has been in a funk since he missed out on a move to Aberdeen in January.  Striker Scott Boden has been benched after a bright start, with the team simply unable to accomodate a player of his style.

THE FUTURE: There is very little between the bottom seven, but most would consider Inverness to be unlikely relegation candidates and as good a shout as anyone below them of scraping into sixth place.

CURRENT POSITION: 7th, 13pts (played 11 games)

HAPPY? A lot happier after picking up seven points from their last three games, including wins over St. Johnstone and Hearts.  That back line still looks dodgy, despite Lee Clark signing about a hundred defenders, but there are enough goals in the side to give them an excellent chance of avoiding the drop.

POSITIVES: Souleymane Coulibaly might be signing of the season - he's scored some great goals and, more importantly, plenty of goals.  Jordan Jones also looks like a find, while Jamie MacDonald has been great in goal again.

NEGATIVES: It already looks like Clark has written off several of his summer captures - Jamie Cobain, Dapo Kayode, Joshua Webb, George Green, Callum McFadzean and Flo Bojaj have barely seen any action.  And the ongoing saga regarding the chairman isn't helping anyone.

THE FUTURE: The big fear must be that someone makes a big bid for Coulibaly in January- he's been that good.  Take away his goals and Killie are not the same threat at all.  It's still very tight at the bottom; it wouldn't take a lot for them to be dragged back to the foot of the table.

CURRENT POSITION: 11th, 9pts (played 10 games)

HAPPY? No.  Mark McGhee's side have won just once since opening day, which has seen them slide to second from bottom.  They don't seem to have recovered from the sale of Marvin Johnson, and a change of tactics which has seen star striker Louis Moult shifted wide to accomodate target man Ryan Bowman hasn't worked.

POSITIVES: Ben Heneghan and Richard Tait have improved the back four, with Tait looking very solid on the right both in defence and attack.  Chris Cadden has pushed on from his impressive finish to last season.

NEGATIVES: Bowman has struggled badly, despite commanding a transfer fee from Gateshead. Moult scored four against Accies but only one other league goal.  There is a distinct lack of wide players in the squad; West Ham loanee Luka Belic appears to have vanished without trace.  And the midfield of Keith Lasley and Craig Clay looks plodding.

THE FUTURE: Motherwell have been very streaky under McGhee, so a good run of form might be round the corner.  But the lack of creative players is worrying and another top six finish looks like a stretch currently.  In contrast, a relegation battle is not impossible.

CURRENT POSITION: 9th, 10pts (played 10 games)

HAPPY? They'll be feeling better after winnig at Dens Park, their first win since the first league game.  Thistle have generally struggled at both ends, with strikers misfiring and their defenders prone to some dreadful blunders.  Maybe they've solved the problem though with a switch to three at the back.  And it's noteworthy that the board issued a quick 'hands off' response to overtures from Shrewsbury towards Alan Archibald.

POSITIVES: Chris Erskine looks like twice the player whenever he pulls on the stripes.  Adam Barton has impressed since moving into the backline.  Liam Lindsay's goalscoring.

NEGATIVES: Liam Lindsay's defending (bear in mind that he is a defender).  Danny Devine's defending.  Ziggy Gordon's slump in form since joining from Accies.  Steven Lawless' poor form (though this may be due to the need for a hernia op).

THE FUTURE: Thistle have been notorious slow starters the last few seasons, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see them push on now.  I had them as pre-season sleepers for the top six though, and at the moment that looks foolish.

CURRENT POSITION: 5th, 16pts (played 10 games)

HAPPY? The People are not happy at all - they were supposed to be #goingfor55, not looking up the table at St. Johnstone and Hearts.  A set of summer signings that didn't improve the squad much and certainly didn't fit into Mark Warburton's system has been a real crutch, and the performances in two defeats to Celtic were a stark indication of reality.

POSITIVES: Lee Wallace has been great at left-back.  Kenny Miller still hasn't lost a yard.  Andy Halliday has improved the side since winning his place back.

NEGATIVES: Aside from a certain Mr Barton, Martyn Waghorn's form has fallen off a cliff.  While Joe Garner has scored a couple of goals, his play is not remotely near that expected of a £1.5million striker.  Oh, and the less said about Philippe Senderos the better.

THE FUTURE: Anything less than second in the league would surely result in Warburton's exit.  The surely inevitable departure of Barton and the change to personnel and style more reminiscent of last season should serve them well, but it wouldn't be that surprising if they finished below Aberdeen and/or Hearts.

CURRENT POSITION: 10th, 10pts (played 11 games)

HAPPY? Not really.  Expectations are pretty realistic up in Dingwall, but County have mustered just four points from their last eight games, scoring just two goals in that period.  Since winning the League Cup in March, they've won only four of twenty league games.  An injury to Liam Boyce didn't help, but they've not come close to replacing Jackson Irvine's physicality and industry in midfield and letting Ricky Foster and Brian Graham go in August was curious.

POSITIVES: Boyce has looked great when fit.  After family problems in the summer, Andrew Davies appears to be back to his best in defence.  Scott Fox continues to excel between the sticks.

NEGATIVES: Jay McEveley has been a real disappointment when played either at left-back or centre-back.  Martin Woods and Ian McShane don't look like a great midfield partnership.

THE FUTURE: Once Ryan Dow and Chris Burke are fully up to speed, County should carry far more menace going forward.  And if there is any danger of relegation come January, Roy McGregor will get the cheque book out again.

CURRENT POSITION: 3rd, 18pts (played 11 games)

HAPPY? Early in August, John A Maxwell and I agreed that, outside the four biggest teams, St. Johnstone were the next best - a good manager, a capable and experienced squad, and more ability than they get credit for.  Had they even drawn at home to Killie the other week, they'd be second.  So I'd say they're pretty chuffed down Perth way.

POSITIVES: Danny Swanson has been awesome.  Steven MacLean continues to score goals at age 34.  Ricky Foster has slotted quickly into the back four after signing in August.

NEGATIVES: Still no-one has stepped up as a consistent partner for MacLean.  Loan signing Joe Gormley has been particularly ineffective.

THE FUTURE: A top four finish really would be something.  But fifth remains most likely; expect the gap between them and the other diddy teams to gradually lengthen over the coming months.  The most likely thing to derail St. Johnstone would be another club (finally) tempting Tommy Wright away.

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.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Talking Points

Rangers are only the third or fourth best team in Scotland
According to the score line this was a huge improvement from Rangers on the feeble performance at Celtic Park last month, but it was clear to everyone watching that the gap between the sides remains significant.

The biggest difference between the two games was Celtic’s finishing rather than any great improvement by Rangers.  Celtic looked threatening almost every time they attacked, and had it not been for Matt Gilks channeling his inner Andy Goram, another thrashing could well have been on the cards.  Apart from one howler that presented a chance to Rogic that even the Australian couldn’t believe, the veteran goalkeeper more than justified his inclusion ahead of regular number one Wes Foderingham.

The Rangers back four played well enough, but they received next to no protection from the midfield rendering them pretty helpless against wave after wave of Celtic attack.  James Tavernier seemed to be playing an even more attacking role that usual, but he was ineffectual going forward while leaving plenty of space for Scott Sinclair to exploit behind.

Sure, Rangers worked hard and showed a resilience that was lacking in the previous Old Firm game, but the lack of threat going forward is a huge concern given that the team looked to have been set up to take the game to their Glasgow rivals.

None of this should be a surprise to anyone.  Rangers are probably the third or fourth best team in Scotland just now, and the gap between Celtic and second is already huge.  If the rate of progress at Ibrox continues to be this glacial, it will be a long time before they’re in a position to properly challenge Celtic’s domination of Scottish football. IM

Job done for the Dons
From the first few minutes of this match it looked as if Aberdeen were going to blow away Morton.  James Maddison got numerous opportunities to practice his corner kick deliveries to the near post - Kenny McLean had a volley blocked from one such effort, an from the ensuing corner Jonny Hayes headed off the crossbar.  Yet, despite continuing to have their expected dominance of possession, their goal threat dissipated.  The best chance of the half fell to Morton, when Jai Quitongo managed to get goal side of Mark Reynolds and force a save from Joe Lewis.

If anything, Ton looked more threatening as the second have wore on, with Quitongo - an Aberdeen youth team product back in the day - himself threatening to inflict another cup embarrassment upon his former employer.  The McInnes-era Dons, though, have far greater resolve that many of their predecessors.  Jim Duffy is justified in feeling hard done by; Adam Rooney's opener came from an offside position - albeit it probably didn't seem that way at the time as by the time Andy Considine's knock back came to Rooney he was nodding his looping header over the backtracking Gavin Gunning, and no Morton players seemed to claim offside in the immediate aftermath.  Andy McNeil was then very unlucky when he managed to save a late Niall McGinn shot across the face of goal, only for Kenny McLean to kill the tie off on the rebound.

So although there would be no dancing in the streets of Morton that night, the players would return to Greenock with heads held high. For Aberdeen, it wasn't pretty but they got the job done. Most Dons fans will be happy to settle for that. MI

Outstanding Swanson shows that Saints have style
Another weekend, another great performance from Danny Swanson, who is doing his best to put paid to the longstanding belief that St. Johnstone have no style.  The wideman scored his fourth goal in the league this season, and was Dundee's chief tormentor.  Add in his League Cup goal glut and he has a remarkable nine for the campaign already.  Not quite Moussa Dembele, but still...

It's great to see Swanson doing so well; bear in mind that he played well enough for Dundee United that he earned a Scotland call-up five years ago, before a move south that didn't work out particularly well.  And while he impressed on loan at Saints in the second half of the 2014-15 season (scoring a stunning winner at Celtic Park) he made the dreadful mistake of turning down a permanent deal that summer to join Hearts...where Robbie Neilson wasted him by playing him through the middle and then not at all.

Thankfully Tommy Wright didn't hold it against him and Swanson returned to Perth in January, and hasn't looked back since.  Whilst the chances of a cap have surely gone, the 30 year old is playing some of the best football of his career, and he might do well to see out the rest of it at McDiarmid Park. LS

Three at the back doesn't solve Partick's problems
Alan Archibald attempted to fix Partick Thistle's defensive frailties with a shift to a back three, with Adam Barton dropping into defence.  It certainly led to an improved performance for the first 70 minutes against Ross County; the visitors' 4-4-2 left them outnumbered and physically outmatched in the centre of midfield, and the busy but diminutive strike duo of Craig Curran and Alex Schalk - Liam Boyce is still injured - couldn't get any joy from pressing high up the pitch; nor did they have any hope of winning high balls.  Thistle deserved more for their efforts than just Sean Welsh's converted penalty.

Jim McIntyre eventually switched things around so County had three at the back as well, but it's unclear if that triggered their late revival, or whether it was down to the inevitable nerves of the home side.  With Thistle dropping deeper and becoming ragged, a tricky winger like Chris Burke is an ideal weapon - and so it proved as the veteran substitute grabbed the equalizer.

Thistle move a whole point clear of Dundee at the bottom ahead of their clash at Dens Park on Wednesday night.  I'm not convinced these tactical changes are their best long term option; confidence is the crucial factor here. LS

The least crap team will finish sixth
Caley Thistle's 1-1 draw against Kilmarnock in the Highlands extended their undefeated league run against the Ayrshire side to 10 games after a late goal from Lousana Doumbouya cancelled out a penalty from Souleymane Coulibaly which put Killie ahead in the first half.

In a game largely low on quality there were still decent chances for both sides so a draw was perhaps a fair result.  Coulibaly could have had a first half hat trick but opportunities also fell to Aaron Doran, Liam Polworth and Doumbouya at the other end, all of which went astray before the equaliser arrived.

Richie Foran claimed he wants more passion from his side and that they’ve looked jaded after games against Rangers and Celtic.  Whilst there could well be an element of truth in this it’s hard not to look at the recent win against Dundee which saw the most polished performance of the season from ICT in the league.  Yet Foran tweaked a winning team, and continues to play Liam Polwqrth out of position (this time on the left flank!)to accommodate the ineffectual Iain Vigurs...which we've discussed at length previously.

Inverness have stuttered through their next three games against Hamilton and Rangers after reverting to this line up.  Their best period of the game on Saturday came when playing with more natural widemen, although too often they cut inside into a congested middle of the pitch and couldn't find a way through the well drilled Killie defence who were able to comfortably handle the majority of the home attacks and kick start often threatening counter attacks.

There wasn’t much between the sides on Saturday and in general there seems to be little to separate any of the clubs below St. Johnstone in the league.  With no side in the bottom seven seemingly capable of putting a decent run of form together it could well be a very competitive fight for sixth spot over the next few months. Both Caley Thistle are likely to be in with a shout of securing that spot however it’s more likely to be down to other sides being equally poor rather than being any great shakes themselves. AS

Andrew Sutherland (AS) is our Caley Thistle Correspondent.  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.  He occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.

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.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Dundee are bottom
Defeat at Tynecastle, combined with other results, dropped Dundee to the foot of the table for the first time since they returned to the top flight in the summer of 2014.  It'll be interesting to see how they respond.  On the one hand, they were quite excellent for much of the second half against Hearts and created lots of chances despite being away from home against a side who are second in the table.  Remarkably they hit the woodwork three times after half-time with the score still nil-nil.  If one of those goes in, there's a decent chance that they at least get a draw, if not a win.

On the other hand, they lost.  They were also grateful to Scott Bain for a number of saves in the opening period.  They were bludgeoned in the final quarter of an hour.  They still can't defend crosses.  And they failed to score.  They haven't won since opening day.

It's not ideal.  Next up is a tricky trip to Perth, followed by games versus Partick and Accies.  If Dundee are still bottom at that point, it's time to panic. LS

Hayes just gets better and better
I had the privilege of watching Jonny Hayes at Inverness for three years.  When he arrived, he was a very raw winger, but his incredible pace made him a huge threat and a potential diamond.

Six years on, that diamond looks rather polished.  The Irishman, who won his first cap in the spring, has got better year on year, first under Terry Butcher at Caley Thistle and then under Derek McInnes at Aberdeen.  Hayes' best attributes have always been a willingness to learn and a complete selflessness - no flashy tricks or flashy celebrations from him, and he always passes to a teammate who is in a better position than him.

Hayes scored a great goal against Ross County by driving in from his natural left flank, but over the course of the match he also turned up at various times on the right wing, both full-back positions and central midfield - all roles he looks comfortable in and he wouldn't dream of complaining about being moved about the park.

His versatility will also hold him in good stead once the legs slow a bit - he is 29 now.  Aberdeen are very lucky to have a player with this talent and this attitude at his peak. LS

At last some luck for Scott Boyd
Scott Boyd has had a rough year or two.  A stalwart in three divisions for Ross County and their record appearance holder, he was demoted to the fringes of their squad last season and frozen out altogether by Jim McIntyre this summer, despite it being the start of his testimonial year.  He wasn't even in the team photo, with the club claiming he was 'ill'.  His wife had just had a baby too.

Still under contract for another year in Dingwall, Boyd had found something of a lifeline with a loan move to Kilmarnock on deadline day but he looked rusty to say the least.  His first four starts at centre-back led to a combined loss of 13 goals and he was dropped to the bench in Perth for the returning Miles Addison.

However an early injury to Jonathan Burn meant Boyd was called upon again and whilst his clean sheet was more down to Jamie McDonald and some profligate St. Johnstone finishing, he won the game with his close range finish.  It was his first goal since January 2014.

Whether Boyd has much to offer at this level beyond being a solid backup is unclear.  But he's a decent bloke and he deserves a bit of good fortune more than most. LS

Same old Thistle, same old Accies
Partick Thistle and Hamilton Accies; two teams with dreadful defences and atrocious attacks.  Was this going to be a goalfest or a dour affair?  In the end we got a 2-2 draw, where one forward (Eamonn Brophy) got on the scoresheet with a late equalizer that the visitors completely deserved.

It was more of the same for both sides though.  Accies took the lead for the eighth time in nine league games this season, but they've only won one of those.  Their defence was 'bolstered' for this one by new arrival Lennard Sowah, but the German defender had a dreadful debut. Hamilton fans will recall Martin Canning's previous record with players signed on short-term deals (Kemy Agustien, Oumar Diaby, Christopher Mandiangu) and wince.

Meanwhile, Thistle conceded a late equalizer for the third time in four games.  And whilst they scored twice, neither goal came from a forward.  Centre-back Liam Lindsay, who continues to struggle at the other end, is now their top league scorer with three goals.  Dropping him might improve the defence, but also weaken their goal threat further!

And all the strikes in this match were defensive catastrophes; Abdul Osman's dreadful marking of Massimo Donati; pinball between Accies defenders in their six yard box to give Ryan Edwards a tap-in; Lindsay's free header six yards out; the way Brophy got in behind so easily.

Worryingly, neither side seems to have taken advantage of the international break to get organized.  The evidence still suggests they will be both fighting to avoid the drop. LS

Craig Gordon is back in favour
All in all, it was a pretty straightforward day at the office for Celtic.  Brendan Rodgers was so confident that he rotated his side ahead of Champions League action, with Liam Henderson a particular beneficiary.  While it took until late on for Moussa Dembele to seal the victory, Motherwell - who were so short on numbers that they gave debuts to 18 year old Jack McMillan and 17 year old Jake Hastie, both of whom were still in nappies when teammate Keith Lasley made his debut - never looked remotely dangerous.

About the only thing we can read into this Celtic selection is that Craig Gordon appears to be back in favour.  The Scottish international had very little to do, but appears to have won back the gloves from Dorus De Vries for the time being.  Rodgers' previous claims that Gordon needed to learn how to play the ball out better never washed with me - I saw him do an impressive set of keepy-ups and passes whilst warming up at half-time at Inverness recently.  What Gordon really needed was a week or two out of the firing line after a few errors.  In the long run, Rodgers may fancy that he can get a better goalie than either of his current options.  In the short term - starting with Moenchengladbach - Gordon is his best bet. LS

Vigurs is becoming a liability for Inverness
Rangers were pretty comfortable after Kenny Miller's opener at Inverness, although they created little despite monopolizing possession.  Caley Thistle's failure to consistently press high up the pitch or to win the ball back in the own half was their undoing; while they defended very well, with Carl Tremarco a standout, they had few chances themselves apart from sitters from Lonsana Doumbouya and Alex Fisher which bookended the match.

Richie Foran's decision to go with three ball-playing midfielders was a mistake.  Liam Polworth, again left out to dry on the right flank, at least went looking for the ball, while Greg Tansey showed plenty of willing even if he is out of form.  But Iain Vigurs' poor performance stood out.  Always a threat in an attacking sense, Vigurs is a liability defensively and playing him in front of the back four in a match where ICT wouldn't see much quality possession was an odd move.  Barrie McKay in particular took advantage, causing plenty of trouble between the lines.

Vigurs' outstanding start to the season feels like a while ago, and came when he was used in a far more advanced role.  Maybe he needs to be shunted back there.  Certainly Polworth is far more deserving, and far more suited, to playing in Vigurs' current role. LS

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.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Talking points from the Lithuania game

Lithuania show up Scotland's lack of preparation
Lithuania came to Hampden with a plan.  Sure, it was a depressing plan to park the bus, frustrate Scotland and maybe nick a goal on the break, but they executed it really well and were good value for their clean sheet right up till James McArthur's shoulder saved the home side from total humiliation.

In contrast, Scotland went with exactly the same lineup who started in Malta, with the only change a positional swap between Oliver Burke and Robert Snodgrass.  This seemed like a nod to the old adage 'don't change a winning team' rather than a tactical decision, as there was no apparent strategy prepared for the opponent.  The clearest indicator of this was Andrew Robertson's performance; the left-back was our outstanding player and wreaked havoc in the second half when given licence to bomb forward.  Yet he was far more conservative in the opening period despite having next-to-no defensive responsibility - clearly the likelihood of this hadn't been identified beforehand.  With a month between games to prepare (and plenty of time before that to scout), Gordon Strachan basically picked what he considered his best eleven and trusted in them to get the job done without much input from him.  That's at best risky, and at worst negligent from an international manager.

Picking Chris Martin was stubborn and stupid
Look up 'stubborn' in the dictionary and you'll find a picture of Strachan.  That's been the case for his whole career, but his attitude towards the press this week was particularly rude and condescending.  The subject of who to play at centre-forward has been a particularly tetchy one.  Chris Martin hasn't scored in his last twenty club matches, yet was preferred to Steven Fletcher (three goals in his last six games for Sheffield Wednesday) and Leigh Griffiths, who has scored for fun for the last 18 months...against teams who tend to pack their defence.

Strachan's post-match claim that Martin was "outstanding" left everyone open-mouthed.  The striker wasn't hopeless - he did well to come so close to scoring with the two difficult chances he had - but his link-up play was poor (as it was against Malta) and he was only slightly more mobile than a wheelie-bin.  The world and his dog knows that he had no right to start this match, and Strachan only picked him out of sheer bloody-mindedness, because starting with Fletcher or Griffiths would have been an admission that the media and fans were right.

Midfield blues exacerbated by Fletcher injury
Darren Fletcher's departure at half-time with a thigh strain was a big blow, more so than I think folk realized at the time.  The skipper still has plenty of energy even at 32, and could be seen gesticulating at his teammates - particularly the centre-backs - to up the tempo.  James McArthur is a more than adequate replacement, but there was a complete lack of leadership after Fletcher went off.

The other central midfielder, Barry Bannan, was completely ineffectual.  His performance was reminiscent of Wayne Rooney in a deep-lying role for England; always keen to get on the ball, a few Hollywood passes to either wing, and ultimately very little impact on the match.  Like Chris Martin, Bannan is another Strachan favourite who hasn't done nearly enough for club or country to justify such faith.

Burke is being set up to fail
Oliver Burke showed only some fleeting glimpses of his enormous potential, but his willingness to get on the ball and run at defenders was welcoming and he got more joy on the right flank as the first half went on...only for Strachan to then switch him to the other side just before the break and then sub him early in the second half.  Burke had barely touched the ball after half-time, but he was getting no service.  In hindsight, sticking him in the centre, where his physical presence and running could have offered a foil to Martin, would have been wiser.  It would also have allowed Robert Snodgrass into his favoured wide position where he could have had more time and space to operate.

Strachan seemed to think James Forrest was a like-for-like replacement just because of his seering pace, but Forrest is always better on the counter-attack with space to run into and isn't a great crosser of the ball; he missed one very good opportunity and offered zilch otherwise.

Are we out already?
To have a shot at second place, we always had to win this game, whatever guff the manager came out with beforehand.  The situation can be rectified with a win in Bratislava, but how confident would you be of that?  Defeat finishes us off, and it should be the end of Strachan.  But in truth the boss feels like a lame duck already.

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.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Polworth dilemma

Caley Thistle had every reason to be confident going into this weekend’s fixture against Hamilton Accies. With seven wins in eight in this fixture away from home, Inverness hoped to build on last week’s systematic demolition of Dundee but instead had to settle for a barely deserved point as Liam Polworth struck right at the death to cancel out the opener from D’Acol.

Hamilton have opened the scoring in seven of their league games so far this campaign but have struggled to hold on to those leads winning just one of the games they take the lead in coming against Ross County. It was a familiar tale for the home supporters as they failed to take advantage of an out of sorts Inverness who bagged another late goal, their fourth already this season in the last fifteen minutes, to extend their unbeaten run to five games.

Richie Foran's team selection was a puzzler.  Last week, ICT had turned in their best performance of the season, so most expected an unchanged lineup, with Polworth, who scored against Dundee, continuing in a central role where he could greatly influence the game.  The midfielder has played a number of matches in recent months wide on the right, where he looks far less comfortable.

Instead, Polworth was shunted out wide again to accommodate the returning Iain Vigurs.  It was no surprise that the former struggled to get into the game to the same effect as he had done the previous week.  It spoke volumes that when Polworth did find himself playing more through the middle in the latter stages of the match he was much more effective and grabbed a late goal.  Interestingly, the tactical switch that allowed this was the substitution of Greg Tansey, usually the man Caley Thistle turn to for finesse in the centre of the pitch.

It’s now crystal clear where Polworth is most effective - in the centre of the pitch playing either just behind the striker or in a holding midfield two.  Playing him out wide tends to result in him having less influence on a game.  Inverness do have natural wide players in Jake Mulraney and Billy King, but both are weak defensively; this may be why Polworth is used in this role.  In addition, Foran is clearly trying to shoehorn four central midfielders - Polworth, Tansey, Vigurs and Ross Draper - into the team.

Whilst this might be an approach that’s worth adopting against the likes of Celtic or Aberdeen, for more winnable games Foran should be gambling on his wingers, playing Polworth where he is at his best, and leave Vigurs (or, on recent form, Tansey!) on the bench.

Andrew Sutherland (AS) is our Caley Thistle Correspondent.  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.  He occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.