Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership (and League Cup Final)

Aberdeen were utterly outclassed
Derek McInnes deployed a deeply conservative approach to the Cup Final; sit deep, allow Celtic possession and keep the play in front of them.  These tactics proved to be effective for all of 15 minutes before coming undone.  Jozo Simunovic, doing a decent impersonation of Virgil van Dijk, carried the ball forward into the Aberdeen half; his first attempted pass was intercepted by Andy Considine, however the ball broke back to him and he powered through to find Tom Rogic at the second time of asking.  Rogic cut inside and hit a terrific strike across Joe Lewis and into the bottom corner to take the lead.

It was an unfortunate day all around for Considine, one of the few Aberdeen players who could not be faulted for his efforts but for whom the ball never rolled his way.  In what turned out to be the critical turning point of the match, Considine's header from James Maddison's free kick delivery forced Craig Gordon into a save; had he managed to direct it either side of the Celtic keeper it would have levelled the match.  In fairness to him, he at least managed to get his header on target, which should instantly put him ahead of Grant Hanley in the pecking order for national team selection.

Moments later, the match as a contest was over, if it was ever a contest in the first place.  Tom Rogic languidly swept the ball to James Forrest on the edge of the centre circle; from there, Forrest ran unopposed into the Aberdeen penalty area before finding the angle to beat Lewis for Celtic's second.

Rogic again picked out Forrest during the second half, this time a give-and-go into the penalty area.  Anthony O'Connor, culpable in the build up for the second goal for backing off Forrest's run, was at fault again for bundling into Forrest as he made his run into the box.  O'Connor was by now carrying an injury, for which he was substituted immediately after Moussa Dembele sent Lewis the wrong way from the resulting penalty kick.  He would soon cut a morose figure on the Dons bench, lurking under his black hoodie like some sulking Sith Lord.

The final half an hour of the match passed without any major incident, as Celtic sailed serenely to their 100th major trophy and their 1st under manager Brendan Rodgers.  In the end, it was another faultless performance by the Hoops, but it was such a disappointment that Aberdeen couldn't knock them out of cruise control at any point of the match.  With the League Cup now secured and a yawning gap already established in the League, the thought of the champions further tooling up in the January transfer window should be a sobering thought for supporters of all other sides in Scottish fitba.

Dodoo is a much better option than Garner
Joe Dodoo ruined Saturday lunchtime for me.

 I was building up quite an air of superiority as watched Rangers struggle against a Partick Thistle team who can’t buy a win a home just now, and considered how Mark Warburton’s substitutions were making no impact whatsoever. Just as I was thinking about what remarks I would make at the press conference to unveil me as Rangers’ new manager, substitute Dodoo scored a peach of an equaliser, a classy winner, and ended my managerial career before it had started.

 It turned out the problem with this game wasn’t the substitutions, but the starting lineup. More specifically, Joe Garner.

 This could easily become a weekly rant against Garner, so hopefully I can say my piece and be done with it. He’s not very good, he doesn’t seem to have a great attitude, and with Joey Barton now gone, the spotlight will on shine brighter on him. Dodoo has surely done enough to permanently replace him in a startling frontline that desperately needs to get it’s act together. Even Caley Thistle have scored more league goals than Rangers this season.

 Despite the glaring weakness at set pieces, Rangers have a pretty decent defensive record and appear to have learned some of the lessons dished out by Celtic in September. If they can start scoring goals more regularly, second place could become very achievable. The difficulty in predicting how likely that is to happen is that I’m finding it hard to figure out how good Rangers are just now. Winning ugly is a good habit, and seven games undefeated is a decent run. But Dundee and Partick Thistle are bad teams and it shouldn’t take injury time winners to beat them. Games against Hearts and Aberdeen within three days will tell us a lot. IM

Watt next?
When Hearts won at Fir Park on 30 September, Tony Watt shone.  Constantly getting on possession and driving forward, he showcased all the qualities that made him such a starlet in his Celtic days.  All he was missing was a goal.

Fast forward two months, and the striker was an unused substitute when the two sides met again.  And Hearts were better off without him.  For in the intervening time Watt has demonstrated all the liabilities that have seen him fail at Celtic, Standard Liege and Charlton Athletic.  He plays too much like he's the biggest kid in the primary school playground - always wanting the ball, always keeping it to himself, and shouting at everyone else when things don't work out.

The Jambos have been in need of a goalscoring striker, and it is not Watt but Bjorn Johnsen who looks most like delivering.  The Norwegian-American looked like a clumsy oaf when he arrived in Scotland in August but has got himself fit and match sharp.  His finish for the opener was anything but clumsy, as he danced around Craig Samson after being put through by Arnaud Djoum; he then displayed his selflessness by heralding his French teammates contribution.  His second goal, a controlled header, also showed technique which did not look evident a couple of months back.

A front pair of Johnsen and Robbie Muirhead, who looks like turning around his career at Tynecastle, appears to be the future for Robbie Neilson's side.  Watt's future?  It's very unclear right now. LS

Inverness struggle again
It had to happen some time. After sixteen games against Dundee without defeat Caley Thistle finally lost to the Dark Blues as goals from Craig Wighton and Kostadin Gadzhalov were enough for the three points despite Carl Tremarcos late header which gave the visitors a glimmer of hope.

ICT struggled to really get going in the game and found their route to goal all too easily snuffed out by the three centre backs of Dundee who marshalled Lousana Doumbouya with ease and forced the away side to try and attack down the flanks where there tended to be more space. However, wide men Billy King and Aaron Doran struggled to create anything of note with both men frequently drifting inside from the wing and into the congested centre of the pitch where numerous dark blue shirts were waiting to stifle them.

Foran bemoaned the result claiming it was the best performance of the season but one suspects that he is shielding the players from another poor result where they really struggled to get going. After a good run only a few weeks ago things aren’t really clicking for the Highlanders right now. A lack of creative spark combined with conceding an average of two goals a game is making things really difficult for Foran right now and it isn’t much fun to watch either.

The last time ICT really clicked, save for the midweek drubbing of Motherwell, was in the reverse fixture against Dundee at the end of September and although Dundee too went on a poor run it seems that Hartley has managed to revive their fortunes in recent weeks.

Wighton continued his impressive run in the side with another strong showing and a well taken goal, the youngster showing great composure to curl the ball beyond Fon Williams to open the scoring and he was also key to relieving any pressure on the Dundee back line willingly chasing down long balls forward and putting Inverness defenders under pressure. His dogged determination right until the end of the game led to the dismissal of Lewis Horner as the defender struggled to keep up with Wighton as he broke forward and he hauled him down which brought a deserved red card. This impressive display together with the assured performance at the back from Gadzhalov, O’Dea and Gomis meant Dundee fans were able to taste victory against ICT for the first time in seven years and now find themselves catapulted up the table into seventh place.

But both sets of fans, despite their current differing form, will still be looking nervously down the table. The top four in the league seems pretty settled and St Johnstone should have enough to secure fifth but everyone else is playing for the infamous sixth spot as well as battling to avoid relegation and the play off spot. The importance of sustaining a good run in the league for teams like Dundee and ICT is greater than ever. Whilst Dundee will be looking forward with a sense of renewed optimism ICT will be looking to upcoming matches against Saint Johnstone, Hamilton and Kilmarnock as excellent opportunities to secure three points. But then again, so will they. AS

County pay for their profligacy
The trouble for Ross County on Saturday was that good performances don't win matches; goals do.  Liam Boyce wasn't the problem; the Northern Irishman is in excellent form and nabbed his eighth goal of the season with a deft header.  But his teammates couldn't follow his lead.

Alex Schalk will shoulder a decent proportion of the blame; the Dutch substitute's movement was tremendous, but he screwed up no fewer than four one-on-one situations.  Even more galling is the fact that when he did hit the net he was denied by an offside flag despite being a good couple of yards onside.  It was one of the poorest decisions you'll see from an assistant this season.

And so Ali Crawford made County pay with a lovely free kick, despite Accies being under the cosh all day.  These things apparently even themselves out over the course of a season, but the bottom of the Premiership is so tight that those two dropped points could prove very important in the long run. LS

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.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Hayes and MacLean shine in Inverness
You could forgive ICT supporters for viewing the visit of Aberdeen, especially with the Christmas advertising season now in full swing, as akin to being haunted by the ghosts of Caley Thistle past.  Jonny Hayes was on fire; the Caley Jags would have needed half a dozen defenders to stop him when he plays like this.  When Hayes was tripped in the box by Gary Warren, fellow ICT alumni Adam Rooney scored the resulting penalty.  Even former captain Graeme Shinnie rubbed salt into the wound in the second half with a tackle on Brad McKay that required the latter to be stretchered off the pitch, although the Dons did refrain from adding insult to injury with any late Miles Storey cameo.

Towards the end of the game, Josh Meekings finally managed to stop Hayes by taking him out of action with a two footed lunge; Jonny still managed to slip the ball through for the on-running McLean to finish.  Although Kenny had already scored earlier in the game (his first goal, a well struck free kick after Aaron Doran fouled James Maddison, equalising 'Big Lon' Lonsana Doumbouya's opener, a neat head-flick from Ross Draper's equally neat cross) his second goal better demonstrated what Aberdeen require out of him; not only showing the willingness to beat Draper to the loose ball deep in his own half, but following that up with the desire to provide the overlapping run for the fast breaking Hayes.  

It would be fair to say that McLean has under performed so far this season.  However, with Maddison having taken over his previous role in attacking midfield and Ryan Jack back alongside him in central midfield this has allowed him more freedom and, hopefully, he can crack on from here - a similar performance in the League Cup Final on Sunday would be a good start. MI

Three at the back works well for 'Well
Motherwell switched to three-at-the-back against Partick Thistle; time will tell if this was a one-off to match the formation of their opponents or a long-term change, but there was no question it worked extremely well.  Undoubtedly assisted by the torpor of their opponents, 'Well put in an outstanding performance which was at least the equal of the big wins they've already had at Fir Park against Hamilton and Ross County.

The new system certainly covers up the lack of wingers at the club - does Luka Belic actually exist? - and it allowed Richard Tait, already a quietly impressive presence at right-back since arriving in the summer from Grimsby, to maraud forward to great effect; twice he nearly scored.  More pertinently, it means two central strikers.  Louis Moult and Scott McDonald both scored (the former thanks to an horrendous blunder from Thistle keeper Thorsten Stuckmann), but their off-the-ball movement was key.  Both are keen to come deep to get possession into feet, but the forwards understand each other so well that their runs were always complimentary.  Thistle's own back three couldn't tell who was going to step up and who was going to get in behind.

The flip-side is that a 3-5-2 probably means no place for the fun but erratic Lionel Ainsworth, or targetman Ryan Bowman (for whom the club paid a small fee on deadline day).  But if it works as well as this then no-one at Fir Park will care. LS

Rangers still struggle to turn dominance into goals
I don’t know what was more predictable on Saturday - the third placed team in the league beating the eleventh placed team at home, or the fact Rangers struggled so badly to turn their overwhelming domination into goals. They had 70% of possession along with 14 corners, and 18 shots, yet it took an injury time goal from Harry Forrester to avoid yet another draw against a team that really should be put away without much in the way of drama.

The fact that the home side kept pushing to the end and finally took away all three points is at least something to for the fans to hold on to, but the concern over an inability to turn pressure into goals should be a big worry.  Even if the decision makers at Ibrox accept that Celtic are too far ahead this season to be able to do much about it, they would surely have thought that at least £1.8 million for a striker would have brought them an easier path through these types of games.  There’s a chance that Joe Garner could yet make us look back at this season and realise that Joey Barton wasn’t the biggest waste of money at Rangers; it’s certainly going to be a crowded field.

As for Dundee, they weren’t very good and Ross County’s win in Perth sent them to the bottom of the league.  The crowded picture in the bottom half of the league means they shouldn’t be panicking quite yet, as a couple of decent results will have them shooting up the league.   But given the backing that Hartley has received over the last couple of years there will surely be an expectation that things are turned around quickly, otherwise it could be a very uncomfortable Christmas. IM

 Craig Curran's sixty-third minute goal effectively clinched victory for Ross County, giving them a three goal cushion.  That it came with his head was somewhat reassuring.  The Englishman missed most of last season because of problems following concussions, first in a game against Dundee United in August and then again at Inverness in January.  His recovery was so slow that the striker actually feared he might never play again.

Thankfully he appears back to full fitness, physically and psychologically.  Curran's partnership with Liam Boyce was a huge part of County's incredible form in 2015, and whilst Boyce got most of the goals he benefitted from his colleague's endless industry and street-smarts.  The Northern Irishman was on target late on in Perth as well, and the duo's form,fitness and goals will be critical to how the Staggies' season shapes up. LS

Does Boyata have a future at Celtic?
It turns out that Dedryck Boyata does still exist after all.  The Dutch centre-back made his first competitive appearance under Brendan Rodgers at Rugby Park, a consequence of injury to Jozo Simunovic and a need to protect Kolo Toure ahead of Wednesday's game against Barcelona.  Whilst Boyata has had injury problems of his own, he had done nothing when fit to suggest he should be higher up the queue; at least this shows he is still ranked above Efe Ambrose.

So he slotted into the backline, and did a decent enough job - after all, Celtic kept a clean sheet which means they haven't conceded a league goal since 24th September, when Souleymane Coulibaly scored a screamer at Celtic Park for Killie.   It would be a stretch to laud his performance - there were a few errant passes out of defence which were reminiscent of last season's bumbling Boyata - but rustiness is forgivable.

With 35 year old Toure a one year stopgap solution in defence, Rodgers will need to find a long term plan for that position.  Does he have sufficient quality already in his squad?  Erik Sviatchenko is solid but limited (at continental level at least), Ambrose is well out of the picture and Mikael Lustig is probably still better off at right-back.  It's easy to forget that Boyata was deemed good enough to play for Manchester City at 19; this writer saw him start a league game against Arsenal six years ago (he was sent off after five minutes, but that's beside the point!).  The talent is there; can Rodgers coax it out of him? 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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Scottish Premiership wages - 2016/17

The Sporting Intelligence Global Sports Salary Survey is always worth a look - not least because they continue to include the Scottish Premiership as one of it's 'soccer' leagues, despite the fact the bottom half a dozen spots on the list (of 333 sporting teams!) are now routinely occupied by Scottish clubs.

Depressingly, they still call it the SPL...

And frustratingly, there appears to be a two year gap without data.  Previously these surveys were published around May and June, and would be a year out.  Thus the May 2015 survey used data from the 2013/14 season.  However, delaying this one to November has allowed them to use data from the current campaign - which is great because we get a snapshot of what things are like right now, but not so much because they've skipped 2014/15 and 2015/16.

Or maybe not.  Nick Harris, editor of Sporting Intelligence, explained to me, "the short answer is there is a one-year gap due to change in timing of the survey.  And the missing season is 2015-16. The latest survey, GSSS 2015, had numbers at summer 2014, deliberately so.  They were numbers, in effect, ahead of the 2014-15 season, and a good indication of 2014-15.  But they used the 2013-14 teams and were described as summer 2014 because we didn't at the time of compilation for GSSS 2015 have access to full sets of accounts for 14-15 to 'backstop' the data we'd compiled."

Coincidentally (and I'm sure it's a coincidence as the other leagues are using 2016/17 data) it means the Scottish data includes Rangers, who haven't been in a survey since liquidation.

Anyway, here's a crude table showing where things are apparently at.

Average first team player wage (£/week)
2016/17 2015/16 2014/15 2013/14 2012/13 2011/12 2010/11
CELTIC 13805      ? 17345      ? 22103 21253 20457
RANGERS 6094      ?      ? 11501 15798
ABERDEEN 2590      ? 2706      ? 3033 2906 3002
HEARTS 1671      ? 1231      ? 3206 5305 6310
DUNDEE 1189      ?      ? 906
INVERNESS 1026      ? 1032      ? 1023 954 1122
MOTHERWELL 949      ? 1301      ? 1523 2296 2319
KILMARNOCK 941      ? 1442      ? 1897 2274 2404
ROSS COUNTY 914      ? 692      ? 748
ST JOHNSTONE 908      ? 1308      ? 1533 1920 1960
PARTICK 821      ? 875      ?
HAMILTON 819      ?      ?

And here's what we can extrapolate from it...

Celtic continue to cut costs
The average wage of a first teamer at Celtic has dropped by 38% in just over three years.  The effect of consecutive failures to make the Champions League, or a case of resting on their laurels as a result of the lack of competition?  It's not new for them to rank behind every single English Premier League club - even Burnley this time round - but actually their average wage would put them mid-table in Italy, Spain and Germany, and in the top six in France.

Still a massive imbalance
In 2012/14 and 2013/14, Celtic's wage bill was greater than all the other sides put together; that is no longer true because of Rangers' presence in the top flight.  Celtic and Rangers together pay more than twice the other ten clubs combined.  Note that Rangers' average wage is still less than half what it was in the Oldco era.

Very little between the bottom eight
The report notes that "It is a quirk of the season that Ross County had a particularly small first-team squad during the survey period (21 players) and Hamilton a large one (34). Ross County’s total bill, we reckon, will be smaller due to fewer players - but all things being equal, slightly better players earning a bit more each".  Given that Dundee, Inverness and St. Johnstone have relatively compact squads as well, there's probably little or nothing to choose between the eight diddiest clubs in terms of budget.

Dundee underachieving?
I've often claimed the Dark Blues are punching below their weight, based on an awful lot of hearsay that they are paying better wages than other sides at the wrong end of the table.  Whilst the point I made above still stands, this data supports the belief that the club's American owners aren't getting value for money.

How accurate is this?
It's hard to say.  'Average first team player wage' is obviously not the same as 'annual wage budget', which might be a better parameter to work with.  But nearly all Scottish clubs are coy about this.  In addition, we don't know who counts as a first team player at each club - if Accies have 34, it includes several youngsters who are likely to be on buttons.  I also wonder if Hearts' figures are skewed by a similar issue.  But it's better than nothing.  This was what Nick Harris had to say:

"Numbers are sourced from various places including unions, clubs, agents, leagues and administrative bodies. As you know, nobody publishes this stuff. Nobody will confirm any of it, on the record at least.

 But of course the Company House accounts will only get you total company salary bills and generally no breakdown of where that money goes. (Although Rangers, interestingly, have started declaring the total first-team bill in their accounts).  And there is the issue of account-lag, which is why until this time we've had 'historic' seasons in the report, ie completed ones for which we can backstop.

 However, after seven years and better sources all the time, we feel able to produce good reliable numbers for all the leagues we cover; so for that reason as well as a general scheduling one, we've moved to 'live' seasons for the current report for all the football leagues that up to now have been account-lagged.

 I'm pretty confident that our numbers are a better reflection of salary bills at the teams featured than you'll get anywhere else. I'd also be pretty confident that I'd be able to predict, now, the total club wage bills, based on our data, that will be appearing at Companies House for the 2016-17 season .... when they drop at some point as late as Spring 2018.

 The only other caveat to using the new method and numbers is mentioned in the introductory essay of the new report you can download today - and that is that successful clubs will in all probability be paying a good few percentage points higher than the figures we've got, because of bonuses. At some clubs these could have really dramatic effect."

So, in conclusion, you don't have to take this with a big pinch of salt.

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.

(With thanks to Nick Harris for taking so much time to reply to my queries, and in so much detail!)

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Five thoughts from Wembley

It wasn't a bad performance
If we were to look at this as a one-off game, or if Scotland had come into this with six points already on the board, then I think most of us would have been fairly satisfied.  Whilst it would be a stretch to say that the Scots played well, their attitude was excellent and they gave everything, at least until the third goal.  Had this been Strachan's first game in charge, we might even have been filled with optimism.

But context is everything.  This was another disappointing result in a long run of disappointing results (Malta and Gibraltar excepted).  And the fact that a mediocre England ran out such impressive winners is hard to stomach.  This won't be remembered as a glorious failure.  It was just a failure.

Celtic trio were a huge disappointment
There was definitely an air of "to hell with it" about Strachan's team selection, particularly the decision to play Leigh Griffiths up front.  Left on the bench whilst in the form of his life last season, the wee man got the nod at a time when he is starting only sporadically for Celtic, in a game where we actually would have benefitted from having a more physical striker who could hold up the ball.  Griffiths buzzed around energetically, but got very little change out of Gary Cahill and John Stones and selfishly chose to shoot from distance when he should have played in Robert Snodgrass for a great chance.

Griffiths' Celtic teammates didn't set the heather alight either.  Craig Gordon was faultless for the goals, but James Forrest offered little on the left flank, backing up general opinion that he should never be played on the left flank.  Scott Brown snapped at some heels but that was about it.  There was nothing to suggest we couldn't have got a better shift out of James McArthur.  Brown's apparently one-off return smacked of ego, a player who wanted to tell his grandkids he'd played at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier. We would probably have been better off without him.

Lack of defensive organization is all on the coaches
All six of the goals conceded against Slovakia and England were the result of crosses - pretty damning when Scotland's centre-backs seem to be largely picked on their heading ability.  Grant Hanley has twenty-seven caps.  Just try and digest that for a moment.

Christophe Berra was no better than predecessor Russell Martin, but there's a case for absolving the central defenders of some blame.  The team simply aren't organized enough to prevent the crosses nor deal with them when they arrive.  The blame for that has to go on the coaching staff.

Strachan's early success as Scotland boss came with a very pragmatic approach; two defensive-minded midfielders sitting in front of the back four to protect them (one of which was usually Charlie Mulgrew) and the use of pacey players like Ikechi Anya to play on the break.  The metamorphosis into a side which tries to keep the ball and adopt a proactive approach has been a disaster.  Playing such an attacking side at Wembley was such a crazy idea that it might just work.  Of course, in the real world, it was never going to.

Will Strachan resign, or must he be sacked?
With several months before the next match, now is the opportune time to change coach.  Strachan must go.  The question is whether he will do the honourable thing and quit, like he did at Southampton, Celtic and Middlesbrough, or he ends up on gardening leave sucking the SFA coffers dry like his predecessor did.

Goodness knows who would replace him.  One decent candidate, Paul Lambert (I use the word 'decent' loosely) was available after the Slovakia game but has since been employed by Wolves.  Alex McLeish appears to be the bookies' favourite; do we really need to go backwards to go forwards?  David Moyes is an enticing prospect, if he was to be dismissed by Sunderland.  I'd love the SFA to think outside the box though.  Could we throw money at Ian Cathro or Marcelo Bielsa?  If only...

Scottish football needs big change more than ever
Decades of poor planning are coming home to roost for Scottish football, with the biggest issue being the lack of quality players available.  In six and a half years, Stewart Regan has overseen numerous failures at first team and under-21 level; he has also completely failed to change Scottish football for the better in any way.  He can't even keep a Performance Director for more than five minutes.  And he has now twice given an international manager a new contract even though it was clear he was a lame duck.

When it comes to youth academies and facilities - unarguably in need of an enormous revamp - Regan claims he is hamstrung by the attitudes of the clubs.  Well, if he's incapable of eliciting change, then someone else needs to have a go.

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.