Monday, February 27, 2017

Talking Points from the Premiership

ICT and Rangers heading in different directions
"What is it they've sent us?"

So ends Star Wars: Rogue One; so begins - maybe - Caley Thistle's revival?  The Highlanders fairly rode their luck in the second half against Rangers, but having squandered a golden opportunity to win by missing a late penalty, they somehow conjured a second chance out of nothing.  Billy Mckay's performance had been outstanding even before his moment of magic, as he harrassed and harried Rangers' central defenders and did a remarkable job of holding up the ball against men twice his size.  His winning goal came because he was somehow able to back into Rob Kiernan whilst the ball bounced to a suitable height for his audacious bicycle kick.

ICT's other goal was also pretty special; Greg Tansey's strike was heading for the centre of the goal when it left his boot, but he applied some Sensible Soccer aftertouch which sent it into the far corner.  Tansey looked liberated by having Ross Draper beside him in a deep midfield role rather than Iain Vigurs; one hopes this wasn't just a performance for the TV cameras.

If Inverness have hope, Rangers have precious least under Graeme Murty.  The delay in appointing a permanent successor to Mark Warburton is difficult to explain; in the meantime the side are floundering.  Whilst professional pride dictated a fast start to both halves there was precious little sign of a plan beyond hoping that Barrie Mckay could produce something out of nothing.

Admittedly, there was little Murty could do other than send his XI out in a 4-3-3, as he hardly has alternative options available.  The need for a defensive midfielder and a powerful centre-back has been apparent for months, yet January saw the arrival of neither.  Kiernan and Danny Wilson, who gave away a spot-kick ,are nowhere near the standard required at the back, while the lack of protection offered by Andy Halliday, Jon Toral and Emmerson Hyndman was reckless, but also the norm - all are attack-minded midfield players.

So plenty for both clubs to ponder.  Inverness need to hope their momentum isn't derailed by Celtic next week.  Rangers need to get back on track pronto, partly to preserve a top three position and partly because they are at real risk of a shellacking at Celtic Park in a fortnight. LS

Motherwell are in a mess

Firstly, it should be pointed out that Steven Hammell, Steven McManus and Richard Tait, three of the first choice back four, were missing.  And also credit must be given to Dundee, who were bottom in September and whose storm up the table coincides with Marcus Haber's arrival; the big striker is worth his weight in gold, not just goals (he now has six after his double at Fir Park).  With the industrious Mark O'Hara and Jamie Vincent both fit for a change and scurrying over every blade of grass, and Paul McGowan pulling the strings, Dundee look like the top six team that, on paper, they should have been all along.

And yet, Motherwell.  I challenge anyone to watch the first half highlights without covering their faces and screaming "My eyes!  It burns!".

Less than a fortnight after shipping seven at Pittodrie, they let in five at Fir Park to the first half.  And had the visitors not squandered several great chances and taken their foot off the gas after the break, it would have been a number that the videprinter would have needed to state in (CAPITAL LETTERS) to prove it wasn't a mistake.

Perhaps Ben Heneghan, unable to cover for so many haddies, and young Jack McMillan, a left-back playing on the right (where none of the goals came from) can be let off with a caution.  Zak Jules and Joe Chalmers, on the other hand, should have been arrested without bail on charges of "Impersonating a defender".  Rarely has a left-back looked so unsure of how to play left-back as Chalmers, which is disturbing because he has played that position his whole life.  Jules, on loan from Reading, scored the most delightful own goal; his back header had so much power on it that it would have troubled Craig Samson even if the keeper had been properly positioned.

Samson was hardly blameless either; after two of the goals he must have checked his gloves to make sure there weren't massive football-sized holes in his hands.  'Well fans have known he was a problem for months; however, Mark McGhee refused to even give Dean Brill a chance before chucking him, and now has stuck Everton loanee Russell Griffiths on the bench whilst Samson flaps week after week after week.

Ah yes, McGhee.  Fresh from the infamous "get that tae f***" moment, one wonders if he will last long enough now to actually serve his upcoming touchline ban, or whether the sixth sacking of his managerial career is imminent? LS

Rory McKenzie makes a name for himself
It's not that uncommon a sight, a sliced clearance from the goalkeeper which goes straight to an opponent who is forty-five, fifty yards from goal and who might, if they hit it first-time, be able to lob the goalie before he gets back between the sticks.

And yet many a top class player sclaffs their effort just as badly.  Many more, probably the majority, eschew the opportunity, even at the highest level.  Kilmarnock's Rory McKenzie however casually returned Zander Clark's scuff with interest; the ball returned to ground level almost at the goal-line.  On a weekend filled with tremendous goals, this was probably the best.  But for ex-teammate Souleymane Coulibaly's bicycle kick against Dundee earlier in the campaign, it would be goal of the season.

McKenzie is just short of 150 first-team appearances for the Killie, at just 23 years old.  No fewer than five managers (if you count Lee McCulloch as one) have played him regularly, so clearly there's something about him.  And yet I've never seen it.  Not quite a midfielder and not quite a striker, he neither scores enough nor assists enough.  He looks neat and tidy but never seems to have a lot of impact.

Well, now McKenzie has scored two in two games.  He's having impact now.  Maybe it's because he's finally surrounded by some decent players after the Johnston and Locke eras?  Or maybe he's a better player then I've been giving him credit for. LS

Cathro feels the heat
Even by football’s standards, the polarisation of opinions on Ian Cathro are stark. Either he’s a visionary who has come to drag Scottish football kicking a screaming out of the dark ages, or he’s a fraud with a laptop.

 This week in Gorgie has been has been a good one for the Proper Football Men who distrust anyone who might have working knowledge of Excel. A hiding from Hibs on Wednesday night was bad enough without being followed by this defeat at Firhill. More worrying than the result was the lack of any evident desire to make up for the derby defeat. Hearts were insipid up front, only having one shot on target, and shambolic at the back, with a red card thrown in for good measure.

 The Jambos have two winnable home games coming up against Ross County and Hamilton, and they should be helped by no longer having to play on a ploughed field. If they don’t win those games, Cathro will be in the uncomfortable position of needed positive results from a trip to Pittodrie and and visit from Celtic.

 No doubt the success or otherwise of Cathro will be used by many to support their own views of what a football manager should be. I personally hope that he gets through this difficult period and makes a success of the job. Not because I have any great affection for Hearts (if he was doing a better job then my beloved Gers would be in even more trouble than they are), but because he’s different. Ann Budge has been a breath of fresh air in Scottish football since she took over at Tynecastle and appointing a young manager with fresh ideas is a risk that I’d like to see pay off. Remember, this is a club not that far removed for having Gary Locke as the manager. IM

Boyce needs to be up front
Ross County have had mixed luck with three at the back this season, but it was a tactic that worked very well against Aberdeen at Pittodrie.  One suspects their future opponents will be making notes; the Dons had lots of possession but not that many chances before Adam Rooney nicked the only goal.

Jim McIntyre's side looked quite aggressive on paper with Liam Boyce, Alex Schalk and Craig Curran all starting.  Boyce however lined up in a deeper role behind the front two, where his industry and skill could help keep the ball and create chances for his teammates.  In recent months, the Ulsterman has often been seen playing off the front; last week he was the 'number 10' in a 4-4-1-1, whilst before that he spent a number of matches drifting in off the right flank.

The trouble is that, whilst Boyce is County's best player and actually the one most likely to create chances and make space for others, he also happens to be their most consistent goalscorer.  He's gone six games without a goal, and County have managed a solitary draw in those six.  In their five league wins this season he's scored nine goals; they haven't won one without him hitting the net.

In short, no-one else is taking the opportunities that Boyce is creating.  The sooner he goes back up top the better for County. LS

It's too easy
It's just getting boring, to be honest.  Another team - this week it was Hamilton Accies - pitched up at Celtic Park looking primarily to avoid a humiliating thrashing that might wreck morale in the long term.  I don't blame them; the gulf in class between the Champions-elect and the rest of the league is so huge that anyone who tries to give them a game is going to be embarrassed.

Meanwhile, with the title already sewn up and very little to motivate the players other than Scottish Cup ties and the remaining games against Rangers, it's no surprise that Celtic are going through these matches in second gear, temporarily upping their game for long enough to make sure of a comfortable win whilst breaking no more sweat than is necessary.  I don't blame them either.

But in the long run, what does it mean?  It's not much to watch even in victory for the home support.  And the complete lack of competition - a situation which will continue for years to come - is hardly going to entice the likes of Moussa Dembele to stay for long...and the same might be said of Brendan Rodgers.  It's so easy.  In fact, it's too easy. LS

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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